1497 to 1504 - The Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci
Amerigo Vespucci has possibly the most famous name in the world. After all, he has two continents named after him, an honour he earned through his cartographic ability and, well, an odd stroke of luck. However, his life is somewhat less well-known.
Vespucci was a friend of Christopher Columbus, and he ended up exploring as well, after losing his job as a banker in Seville. He made four voyages not as a captain but as a cartographer - an expert in maps. These voyages explored the coast of South America. He died poor, with no inkling that he could ever be so famous.
Later, his letters inspired a cartographer by the name of Waldeseemuller, who wanted to create a world map. (One of those letters also inspired the term “New World”.) The hitch is that one of the letters Waldeseemuller used was fradulent - it claimed that Vespucci had reached the South American mainland first, but Columbus actually had that honour. Waldeseemuller stated that he could “see no reason anyone should justly object to calling this part Amerige, ie the land of Amerigo, or America, after Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability.” (Garfield, 119) The image of above is of the 1507 Waldeseemuller map, the first map to refer to the Americas using that name. Amerigo Vespucci is depicted in the right-centre part, beside the smaller map of the New World. The other figure is Ptolemy, depicted on the left, beside the map of Eurasia and Africa.
And that’s how America got its name - a fired banker, a faulty letter, and a very influential map.