Remember history class? Okay, neither do I. But those nerds who actually stayed awake through most of it can probably recall being taught about some guys named “The Wright Brothers” being the first to fly a plane or some other guy named “Columbus” discovering The New World.
History gets heavily edited and while most of those who wind up on the cutting room floor do so for good reason (like they weren’t such a big deal after all) there are others who get denied their day in the sun for not-so-good reasons. Here are their names, their claim to greatness and the reason you won’t see a movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis made about them.
10. Larry Doby
Larry Doby was a black man who bravely entered the not-so-friendly world of major league baseball in the late forties, enduring racial taunts, death threats and blatant injustice. So why is this trailblazer remembered only by die hard baseball historians? Because he did all this eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson did them.
It doesn’t take a historian to know that not much had changed between Robinson’s April 15th debut in the big leagues and Doby’s July 5th opening day — it was still 1947. But a year later Doby and new teammate Satchel Paige would become the first black players to win a World Series championship. He was also voted an American League all-star for seven consecutive seasons and later became the first African-American to play baseball in Japan. Despite these achievements, Hollywood has yet to produce a bloated three hour biopic based on his extraordinary life, with an embarrassingly miscast star in the lead. Tragic.
9. Dave Kopay
If being second isn’t always great, former NFL journeyman Dave Kopay’s story proves that sometimes it’s not always a good idea to be first. Kopay is believed to be the first professional athlete to come out of the closet.
His 1977 biography was a lightning rod of controversy, but wasn’t nearly the success it might have been in more recent years. By comparison NFL punter Chris Kluwe has become something of a pop culture sensation simply by being a militantly pro-gay straight dude.
8. Valentina Tershkova
Fresh faced American astronaut Sally Ride is universally celebrated as the first woman in space — at least by people that don’t actually know stuff. For the rest of us, the honor goes to Valentina Tershkova, who went skyward on June 16, 1963.
As you would guess, by her nearly unpronouncable surname, she was Russian and thus a member of The Evil Empire. Not surprisingly, American history books have devoted little energy to acknowledging her achievements, which among other things, include blasting into space with the most badass liftoff line ever.
Also problematic for Tereshkova’s legacy, is her longevity: while Ride passed away from pancreatic cancer at 61 and Judith Resnik (second American female astronaut) died heroically aboard the space shuttle Challenger, Tereshkova stubbornly lives on well into her seventies and, at last, report awaits a possible trip to Mars.
7. Philo Farnsworth
Philo Farnsworth was an inventor who created the first fully functional all- electronic image pickup device. To those not fluent in early 20th century techno-speak, this means, for all practical purposes, he invented television.
His reason for having been largely forgotten as a pioneer for the medium is, in one sense, kind of weird, but in another sense, quite common: simply put: he hated TV.
How much? Let’s put it this way: you’d think the inventor of television would be all over the joint, appearing on talk shows, variety shows and whatever else kind of crap hit the airwaves in those days, reminding anyone who would listen that none of it would exist without his genius. But no. His sole appearance on the small screen consisted of a guest shot on on the quiz show I’ve Got a Secret in 1957.
None of the panelists guessed his secret: that he invented the medium. Keeping a low profile on his own creation was hardly an effective way to keep his memory alive in the public and to this day even those who spend their sad lives glued to his greatest invention don’t know his name. And why should they? It’s not like he was a TV star or anything.
6. Claudette Colvin
Remember the young black woman who played a major role in kick-starting Montgomery bus boycott, and by extension, the civil rights movement by refusing to surrender her seat on a bus? Rosa Parks, you say? Sure, but that was December 1st of 1955 — nine months after Claudette Colvin did exactly the same thing.
So why is Colvin not remembered as a pioneer in the realm of race relations? She made the mistake of being a less-than-perfect role model; she was a pregnant unmarried teenager back when such a thing was kind of a big deal. Thus she was deemed unworthy of support by the NAACP, key organizers of the boycott.
In Rosa Parks they found a kindly, clean-living married lady who would be an ideal face for the struggle. It didn’t hurt that Parks was also a secretary for Montgomery branch of the NAACP.
5. Elisha Gray
Elisha Gray’s story is simple and so is the reason you haven’t heard it. After years of secretly toiling away on a new invention, he was beaten to the patent office by a man you may have heard of called Alexander Graham Bell.
While much of the Bell vs Gray story remains in dispute (there is still question as to who beat whom to the patent office) one thing is certain. Gray’s name has faded from everyone’s memory like the rotary phone.
4. Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans
They developed and incandescent light bulb five years prior to Edison’s patent. So why don’t you know their names? Because, being broke, they thought it would be a good idea to sell their patent to Edison for some quick cash. When the light bulb grew into The Edison General Electric Company and later evolved into General Electric, there’s a pretty good chance they regretted their decision.
3. Ely S. Parker
Chances are the name Lieutenant Colonel Ely S. Parker doesn’t roll immediately off the tongue when you think of Civil War heroes. He served as adjunct to General Ulysses S. Grant and wrote the final draft of the Confederate surrender terms. But as a Seneca Indian, he didn’t give historians or Hollywood screenwriters much to work with.
He died in poverty in 1895, but the upside his that prior to his death, he was appointed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, which, amazingly was the first time the post had been held by a Native American.
2. Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis was a Nevada tailor who came up with a nifty idea that changed the world of clothes: why not place metal rivets on the jeans to increase their durability. Not having enough money to file for a patent he sought financial help from his boss. Turns out his boss, Levi Strauss, was a pretty keen on the innovation. The patent was granted in 1873, but being unable to prove the invention was his has shoved Davis to the margins of history.
1. Reverend Burrell Cannon
A full year before The Wright Brothers took flight, history was actually made when an airship created by Reverend Burrell Cannon went airborne over the skies over Pittsburg, Texas.
Only one thing prevented the good Reverend from fulfilling his role as a history-making aviator: an incredible streak of bad luck.
His first attempt at flight — an eighty horsepower engine that rose to twelve feet — was witnessed by only four people. With no photographs to prove it, he could only persuade the doubters with a repeat performance. And what better way to persuade folks than to dazzle them at the World’s Fair? But en route to St. Louis the aircraft was blown off a flat boxcar and was completely wrecked.
Years later, Cannon, still determined to find his place in history, tried yet again. Surprise, disaster struck. This time the craft lifted off and was ripped apart by a utility pole before the crowed could be appropriately dazzled. As a man of the cloth, he did the honorable thing and credited The Almighty, “God never willed that this airship should fly.”
From David Copper.