Yesterday was Columbus Day. I've written about Christopher Columbus before, pointing out what a great sailor he was, and what a lousy geographer.
But, of course, if he hadn't been a lousy geographer, he wouldn't have had much chance to show off his superb seamanship with an Atlantic crossing. Perhaps he could have taken service with the Portugese and gotten to sail around Africa to India the proper way, but even that epic voyage would have been mostly coastal sailing.
And if he hadn't been a lousy geographer it would have been decades -- or centuries -- before Europeans blundered into the New World. Maybe the Spanish fishermen who (possibly) knew about the Grand Banks fisheries would have eventually ventured a bit more westward and cruised down the coast of North America, setting up fishing bases at Cape Cod and Chesapeake Bay. Maybe a Portugese ship bound for India could have been blown off course and touched at Brazil, leading to voyages along the coastline to Panama.
A later and more incremental discovery of the Americas would dramatically alter history. Portugal would set the pattern of European contact with other civilizations, rather than Spain: traders, not conquerors.
The Aztec and Inca cultures might have endured better, especially if they could weather the epidemics resulting from contact with Europeans without also having to face them militarily. Their trajectory might resemble Asian cultures -- lots of Westernization, possibly even Christian conversion, but their languages, sciences, and literature would survive. (Of course, the prospect of an Aztec empire surviving into the modern day with all their charming religious customs intact does give one pause . . . )
But all this didn't happen, because Columbus was wrong. Being wrong sometimes is the way to make big discoveries. I'd be happy to be as wrong as Columbus.