After the first name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (Florence 1454-1512).

Amerigo Vespucci was born in 1454 to an influential Florentine family. At an early age he entered the service of the De Medici family, helping them manage their extensive trading companies.

Like his patron Lorenzo il Magnifico, he read a great deal, collected books and maps, developed a special interest in cosmography and astronomy.

In 1492 Lorenzo sent him to Spain to look after his interests. In Seville he also became a ship's outfitter on his own account and he got a sense of adventure. On May 18, 1499, at the head of two ships, Vespucci joined an expedition sailing under the Spanish flag.

Columbus had already made three voyages. Vespucci simply wanted to succeed where Columbus had failed: to reach Asia through the west.

On May 13, 1501, nearly a decade after Columbus' first crossing, Amerigo tried again at the head of three caravels, this time serving
of King Emmanuel I of Portugal. It was an impressive 16-month journey, traversing the South American coastline to within 400 miles of the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. In September 1502 he was back in Europe.

After the two expeditions he reported extensively in splendid letters to his Florentine friend and protector Lorenzo il Magnifico.

An expert: "With the boundless thirst for knowledge and the refined taste of a Florentine gentleman of renaissance status, Vespucci described the faces and figures of the natives, their marriage habits, birth ways, religion, food and housing."

In 1508 the Spanish queen appointed him piloto mayor of Spain.

He was to establish a steersage school and was given sole authority over the examination and certification of all steersmen "of our kingdoms and domains who shall journey to the aforesaid discovered or yet to be discovered lands of our Indies."

However, he still suffered from the malaria he contracted on his last journey, for which there was no known cure. He died in 1512.

The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) later explained the bizarre way in which America was named after Vespucci. The name comes from Martin Waldseemüller (1470-1518), a priest who was appointed canon in the town of Saint-Dié in the Vosges.

The Duke of Lorraine had founded a provincial society of scholars there, a kind of salon called Gymnase Vosgien.

This company took the initiative to publish a booklet entitled Cosmographiae Introductio, which summarized the traditional principles of cosmography.

It also offered a piece of contemporary news, a view of the fourth part of the world as described in the travels of Amerigo Vespucci.

The scholars had obtained a French translation of Vespucci's 1502 travelogue and were greatly impressed.

In his introduction, Waldseemüller wrote: "Inasmuch as both Europe and Asia have taken their names from women, I see no reason why anyone should rightly object to calling this part Amerige, that is, the land of Amerigo, or America, to Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability.'

On the maps contained in the 103-page booklet, he immediately referred to present-day South America as 'America'. It came off the press in April 1507 and became wildly popular. Waldseemüller discovered his mistake afterwards and omitted the designation in later editions.

But by then it was already too late. Incidentally, the new name appealed to Gerardus Mercator so much that he used it in 1538 for his large map of the world, not only for the south of America but also for the north.

The whole misunderstanding stemmed from the fact that Columbus's 1493 travelogue did not become as well known as the sensational account of Vespucci's adventures, the Mundus Novus of 1502.

In the quarter century after the first edition of Vespucci's voyages, three times as many publications appeared on Vespucci's voyages of discovery as on those of Columbus. Vespucci had simply made more of an impression as a reporter, he had been the better journalist.