Top 10 Firsts That Weren’t Actually First

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There are some things in life that everybody just knows, like where the Eiffel Tower is, or why it’s okay to catch a butterfly with your hands, but not a bee. These are examples of the kind of knowledge that is so basic, you just pick it up naturally throughout your life and couldn’t possibly remember where you first heard it. As a result of this, a lot of things we hear are often taken for granted as truth, and some mistakes become so widespread that saying otherwise would make people think you were lying, or stupid. Well here are ten examples of people who are wrongfully accredited with being the first to accomplish something.

 10. First Non-stop Transatlantic flight

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If you asked someone who the first person to cross the Atlantic was, most would say Charles Lindbergh. And they’d be right. Except that, no, they wouldn’t. While he did fly solo before anyone else, he is often accredited with being “the first person to fly across the Atlantic”. In reality, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown were, just short of 8 years ahead of Lindbergh. Leaving from Newfoundland on July 14, 1919, they two had a pretty rough flight. On 6 separate occasions, Brown had to climb out onto the wings and knock off ice, as well as Alcock having to fly dangerously low in the hopes of preventing the engines from freezing over more. Sixteen hours later, the two of them landed in Ireland. Locals tried to wave them on to a landing strip, but the two men just waved back and crashed into the bog. Not because they’re stupid, because Brown had removed the front wheel to reduce weight and they couldn’t have landed on the runway.

9. The Inventor of the Telephone

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Almost everyone still believes that Alexander Graham Bell is the inventor of the telephone. While Bell did patent the telephone in 1876, and started up the first telecommunications business, named after himself, he was nothing more than the inventor of plagiarism (or so he (probably) said). The designs that Bell patented were those of Antonio Meucci, who demonstrated his telephone a full 16 years before Bell patented it. At the time, the Italian immigrant couldn’t afford to pay the $250 fee to patent his designs, and he only grew poorer as time passed. He had showed his design to the Western Union telegraph company, but the executives didn’t want to meet him. He was told his materials were lost and couldn’t be returned, and then 2 years later, his old lab partner Bell had patented them. Meucci sued Bell, but died before a verdict was reached. In 2002, US congress officially recognized him as the inventor, but still he goes largely unknown.

8. Columbus Discovering America

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Everybody who has ever taken a history lesson knows that in 1492, Columbus set sail from Spain with his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, and “discovered” America. Only the new world wasn’t really that new to some Europeans . Around the year 1000, a group of Vikings, led by a man named Leif Ericson, landed in Newfoundland, which they called Vinland after its grapes. It is most likely that they set sail from a settlement in Iceland, and this site currently remains they only confirmed Viking settlement in North America. There is no shortage of evidence that this is a Viking settlement either: The style of the houses, iron, pottery, a Norse-style pin head and ring for cloaks and much more all confirm Viking settlement. It is estimated that they stayed no longer than a decade, but various expeditions occurred, including one of 160 men and women. Although he only led the first expedition, there is no doubt that Leif Ericson led Vikings to North America around 500 years before Columbus.

7. The Theory of Evolution

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A lot of people will probably want to call bull on this one. Darwin must have developed the theory of evolution. That’s why the leading theory is called “Darwinian Evolution”. The truth is not far off really. Charles Darwin was largely influenced by his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus could not really pinpoint how life evolved, but he did believe that all life had a common ancestor, and that we changed over time. He wrote a poem to this effect:

“Organic life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;

…These, as successive generations bloom,

New powers acquire and larger limbs assume”

So where Erasmus said change occurred over generations, Charles, in more detail, said that beneficial mutations build up over generations and eventually result in a completely different organism. While it was Charles who developed the idea of natural selection, Erasmus did believe that sexual selection caused change in species. He wrote that “…the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thus be improved”, a concept we know Charles described as “survival of the fittest”.

6. The First Printing Press

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This is another one a lot of us will know from history class. The printing press was probably the biggest driving force of the renaissance, as it allowed information to be spread at an exponential rate (at least back then. Now we have instant access to a greater amount of more accurate information on this site alone). This press was developed in 1439 by Johannes Guttenberg, and could make about 240 pages an hour, with fewer mistakes and better quality. But, as revolutionary as it was, it’s a pity the rest of the world didn’t take a printed leaf out of Korea’s book 200 years earlier, because that’s when the Goryeo dynasty started printing books. The printing press was developed for the first time in 13th Century Korea, when the Mongols were destroying their religious texts, and the Koreans were trying desperately to save them. Now, we only have one volume of one book left, called Jikji, but it is still almost 100 years older than Guttenberg’s famous 42 lined Bible. There are some who believed Guttenberg took the technology from Korea, but there’s no way to be sure.

5. The First SOS Distress Call

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The Titanic is famous for a lot of things, like sinking on the maiden voyage, not having enough lifeboats for everyone on board, and James Cameron. One thing it should not be famous for is being the first to use SOS to call for help, because it wasn’t. Yet many people believe it was, possibly because it is the most famous ship that has had to call for help, or because there is a certain tragedy in it not working the first time it was used. The truth is, the first wireless distress call was by the East Goodwin Lightship on March 17 1899, and that worked. But that call was “CQD”, not SOS, which was introduced later. But despite that, SOS was not even used first by Titanic. It was used in 1909, by the SS Slavonia, and that was also a successful distress call. Sorry, Titanic. Unlike that iceberg, you just don’t quite make the cut.

4. First Man to Circumnavigate the Globe

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Clearly it’s time to replace history books with the internet, because they really are just a big collection of lies. One of the major explorers of his time, most people who know Magellan will think of him as the first man to circumnavigate the world. While his ship did eventually come full circle around the globe, Magellan himself died in the Philippines before the journey was done. While there is really no way of knowing how much of the crew was on board for the whole journey, we can be pretty sure that Enrique De Malacca was. He was a slave of Magellan’s, who was used as an interpreter. While he interpreted Malay, and was picked up in the Malay Peninsula, many people believe he was actually Filipino, where he is viewed as a hero.

3. The First Light Bulb

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Yet another entry that seems painfully obvious. Even if you know nothing else about Thomas Edison, you know that he invented the light bulb, and that’s enough. Well, you’re about to know a bit more about him than a lot of people. Edison was nowhere near the first to come up with light bulbs. There were a lot of earlier versions of light bulbs that used platinum, but were consequently very expensive. Sir Humphry Davy (pictured) passed electricity through platinum to create light as early as 1801, 78 years before Edison’s bulb. But Warren de la Rue used platinum in a vacuum, like modern day bulbs, for the first time in 1840. They lasted longer, but were still too expensive to be practical. The first modern bulb was developed by Heinrich Göbel in 1854, and ten months before Edison, Joseph Wilson Swan patented a bulb almost exactly like Edison’s. Yeah, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say he was first.

2. The Big Bang Theory

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This one will undoubtedly make a lot of readers angry, and as former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk said “The best way to persuade people is with a long, angry comment on the internet”, so go wild. A Belgian priest, Fr. Georges Lemaitre, proposed the theory of the expanding Universe in 1927, but was unsure about how this could occur, so he met with Einstein to discuss it. Einstein was not convinced and apparently told Lemaitre “Your calculations are good, but your physics is terrible”. In 1931, Lemaitre suggested that the universe had begun from a minuscule point that contained all matter, which he called the primeval atom, which exploded at the moment of creation. That same year, he visited Einstein, who this time was convinced, and said that rejecting it the first time was the biggest mistake of his life. The name “Big Bang” was used first by skeptic physicist, Fred Hoyle, who was actually using the name as a way to make the whole theory sound ridiculous.

1. The First President of the United States

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This one is not so much a case of mistaken achievement or a result of the truth being lost to time as it is a technicality. George Washington is and most likely always will be officially recognized as the first president of the United States. But Peyton Randolph was the first president of the Continental Congress, which governed the “United Colonies of America” during the American Revolution, which would go on to become the United States (obviously). A letter to Washington from one of the so called “forgotten presidents,” John Hancock, was signed “President,” and Washington’s reply was addressed to “The President of the United States”. There were no fewer than 14 presidents before Washington. The reason he is considered the first is because the rest never served under the current constitution. But it was because of many of the other forgotten presidents that the US gained independence in the first place, and it hardly seems fair that they be forgotten just because they had to be a confederation to do this. Should every president prior to the entrance of Hawaii be dropped to, since technically they were only president of some United States?


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16 Comments

  1. Jaun Sebastion Elcano was the first mate under Magellan and should be properly credited with the first circumnavigation. He took over command after Magellan was killed.

  2. Living not too far from Pensacola, FL, I’ve visited the US Navy’s Aviation Museum a few times. Among their many impressive exhibits is the NC-4, the first aircraft to complete a trans-Atlantic flight, although it was by no means non-stop. The trip took the best part of a month with the crew of the NC-4, and two other aircraft that didn’t complete the journey, flying from one service ship to the next for fuel, maintenance, and crew rest. Alcock and Brown made their non-stop flight a month later.

    BTW, the Navy Museum in Pensacola is a great place to visit. It’s not quite as impressive as the Air Force Museum in Ohio or the new Smithsonian aviation museum, but it’s still well worth the trip.

  3. The president of the Continental Congress, and the president of the United States were two entirely different jobs. The president of the Continental Congress was just a moderator during meetings, so I think it is very inaccurate to say George Washington was not the first president just because both positions have the word ‘president’ in their title.

  4. Meucci wasn’t the first inventor of the telephone either. The telephone was something at least 7 different inventors worked on starting in the 1830’s. The first working one, though flawed, was made by Innocenzo Manzetti in 1844.
    Before Bell, Wilhelm Reis in 1861 made the most advanced model which could have been good enough for mass distribution, but he was just a teacher using it for class demonstrations. In the end, the telephone is something you can’t name a real first inventor, just as much as with the car or motorized flight (no, the Wrights probably weren’t the first ones.).

    • Reis should be mentioned since Bell had one of his telephones. Several Ries-telephones where sold to the US – not for communication, but as demonstration objects for acustics and electricity for schools. In the end, the mechanism was much different from Bell and Meucci’s, but the name “telephone” was Reis’ invention.

  5. Who exactly wasn’t the first with the Big Bang Theory?

    Sorry but it’s hard to give someone credit for being first if they develop it in secret and do nothing with it. Okay, “the first telephone” is actually shorthand for “the first commercially viable telephone that actually did sell”, which Bell did indeed invent. “The first lightbulb” is shorthand for “the first economically feasible lightbulb with a successful marketing plan”, and Edison gets that credit; i understand as part of the “invention of the lightbulb,” Edison also “invented” home wiring, fuseboxes, transformers, and distribution systems, using well-known principles of electricity.

    i recall Ripley debunking the first trans-atlantic flight by pointing out dirigibles had made the flight. And every schoolkid knows the Vikings had a colony here before vanishing. Maybe the Chinese were here too. No, i’m afraid this list seems more nitpicking than debunking.

  6. Christina gilpin on

    theirs another reason george Washington wasn’t first. it took time for him to get to the capital. so his vice President had to take over presidential duties before Washington could be sworn in.

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