10 Famous People Who Did Less Than You Think


Sometimes history has a way of twisting a story to make villains into heroes or heroes into villains. Someone in the right place at the right time can be credited with an amazing invention, or maybe they just stole it and said it was theirs. In any event, there are plenty of people who have gotten by doing far less than most people think. 

10. Thomas Edison

No inventor in history is more well known than Thomas Edison and it’s arguable no inventor in history invented fewer things he’s credited with inventing than Thomas Edison. The man had over 1,000 patents to his name and nearly every major invention he’s been credited with was stolen from someone else. The man was a ruthless hustler and thief and probably would have sold his own mother if he could have found a way to get his name on a patent for doing so.

Edison famously railroaded the eccentric genius Nikola Tesla, but he also scammed the widow of the actual inventor of the light bulb to get that patent for himself and so many othersX-rays, voice recordings, and movies have all been attributed to Edison when there is solid evidence that others not only invented them but Edison knew others had invented them already.

Did Edison have real inventions? Sure, no doubt he had a lot of them. But he was not above taking good ones from other people as well to boost his own image.

9. Pythagoras

You can’t make it through school without learning the Pythagorean theorem. Arguably it’s the one “named” mathematical theorem, equation, or formula that everyone knows. It comes to us thanks to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras. But the thing about that is there is evidence that Babylonians had cracked that particular theorem one thousand years earlier. And moreover, there’s not a lot of evidence that Pythagoras himself even “rediscovered” the idea. He never left any writings of his own, everything we know of him was written by his followers

If you want to get super weird, there is also some debate about whether Pythagoras was even a real person at all. Some of the stories his followers wrote about him mention he was the son of the god Apollo and that he had golden thighs. It’s hard to give credit for any mathematical theorems if the person who supposedly created them wasn’t real. 

8. Mark Zuckerberg

The man who runs the single most influential website on the internet, it’s kind of surprising that Mark Zuckerberg did so little to get there. He had the wherewithal to take a good idea and run with it, but the idea wasn’t his and essentially all he did was take it and make a different version of it.

Zuckerberg adapted the idea that others at Harvard had come up with and expanded it beyond the walls of their school. That worked out well for him since he has more money than most people will ever even see in their lifetime. The originators of the idea, the Winklevoss brothers and Divya Narendra, sued Zuckerberg for stealing their idea and they settled the case for 1.2 million shares in Facebook back in 2008. 

These days there are nearly three billion users on Facebook and the site is valued at over $250 billion. So, it turns out sometimes stealing an idea can really work out. 

7. Paul Revere

One of the great patriots of history, the story of Paul Revere is widely known. Or at least people think they know it. As the story goes, Revere rode all night to warn the colonists of an impending invasion from British forces. Thanks to the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, most people remember him as the man solely responsible for blowing the lid off of the would-be attack. In truth, it didn’t happen quite the way Longfellow said. 

In reality, Revere was one of three riders who set out to spread the word of the impending attack. By the end of the night they had gathered a posse of dozens more, upwards of 40 men, who rode far and wide to tell of the invasion. Revere himself didn’t make the destination that Longfellow recounted in his poem, instead he was actually captured for a time by the British forces. 

None of this is to say Revere wasn’t an important part of that whole warning system, but he was just one of many who ended up getting more credit than he was due thanks to a poem that was written more for dramatic effect than historical accuracy. 

6. Henry Ford


Henry Ford scores a one-two punch in misunderstandings about his contributions to the automobile world. There are some who attribute him with inventing the automobile, but of course that’s not true at all. The idea of an automobile came from several sources, but if anyone could be said to be the inventor, it was Karl Benz.

There are those who will admit Ford didn’t invent the automobile but instead made it accessible to the masses because what he actually did was invent the assembly line. Except that’s not true, either. In fact, the assembly line has ancient origins. China’s famous terracotta army was the result of assembly line production.

So yes, Henry Ford did a lot to bring the automobile to the masses by applying the techniques of others to production, but he didn’t actually innovate either of the things he’s often credited for. 

5. 300 Spartans

Thanks to Zack Snyder, everyone knows the story of the 300 Spartans who held off the vast army of Persians at Thermopylae.The true story is a little more complicated than the legend and while it was no small feat that the Spartans pulled off, they had more help than most people know.

At the time, Greece was by no means a unified nation. There were dozens and dozens of city states of which Sparta was just one. When word came that the Persian god-king Xerxes was storming across the land intent on making Greece bow before him, the Greeks took action.

Thermopylae was just one strategic point that the Greeks chose to defend against the Persians because it was a choke point. The Spartan king Leonidas led the Greek forces, but he was not alone. The 300 Spartans were joined by Arcadians, Corinthians, Thespians, Malians, and a handful of others. All told there were over 7,000 Greeks in the force.

Even after the Persians discovered the pass that allowed them to circle around the Greek force, over 1,000 Thespians and Thebans stayed with Leonidas to fight until the bitter end.

The battle was certainly remarkable, and pitted against a force that was likely 100,000 to 150,000 strong, they did an incredible job. It just wasn’t as dramatic as the movie made it seem.

4. Ray Kroc

The man behind the success of McDonald’s seems like he must have been one hell of a shrewd businessman. He created the world’s biggest fast food empire and arguably created the very idea of modern fast food. But there’s a hint as to the nature of things not being quite as they seem in the very name of the restaurant. If it’s Ray Kroc’s restaurant, why is it called McDonald’s?

The truth is, McDonald’s was started by the McDonald brothers. Dick and Mac McDonald opened their burger restaurant back in 1940. It proved to be so successful that Ray Kroc approached them with the idea of making it a franchise. So he didn’t actually come up with the idea, he just wanted to make money off of it.

Obviously Kroc’s idea worked, and he managed to squeeze the brothers out from their own idea as well.

3. George Lucas

The father of the Star Wars universe has long been a controversial figure in the fandom. On the one hand, he made one of the biggest entertainment franchises in history and has provided decades of entertainment to millions. On the other hand, the best parts of Star Wars have little to do with Lucas, who was more of a “big idea” guy who really faltered when it came to smaller details like storytelling and characters.

Most people consider The Empire Strikes Back to be the best of the original trilogy. Lucas didn’t direct that one. In fact, George Lucas doesn’t like directing movies and never even wanted to be a director. He was happy to hand over most of the creative responsibility to others. At one point he even wanted David Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi. Try to imagine how that would have looked. Irvin Kershner directed Empire and then Richard Marquand did Return of the Jedi.

The prequel trilogy was directed by Lucas and they were pretty soundly dragged through the mud by fans and critics alike. Yes, they were hugely successful, but people still tore them to pieces. Lucas’ distaste for directing seemed to shine through and, as with Jedi, his interest in marketing rather than crafting a story seemed evident. 

Both the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks were created to sell toys, something producer and partner Gary Kurtz accused Lucas of focusing on after Empire.

2. Homer

As the writer of two of the greatest epic poems in history, Homer has earned his place at the upper echelon of storytelling. Both the Odyssey and the Iliad set the foundation for literal centuries of writing to follow and to this day they are still used as inspiration for film and books alike. But there is a problem with crediting Homer himself for these works because no one is even sure if Homer was a real man at all.

It’s possible that Homer’s works were written by several people. There’s also speculation that the works were written by a woman and not a man. The fact that there are very few written accounts of the actual Homer himself make it seem more than plausible that there was no “he” at all behind both of his epic works. Most of the references to him are ones made in the past tense, suggesting Homer, if he created the stories at all, did so in the distant past and the stories were handed down and retold by others.

1. Stan Lee

The world of Marvel comics has become a juggernaut, a veritable colossus in the entertainment industry. But the storm of entertainment wasn’t born in a vacuum, the roots of Marvel can be traced back to the 1960s when the comics first began publishing under the leadership of Stan “the Man” Lee. 

Lee has long been credited with making nearly all of Marvel’s original characters from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men to Spider-Man, Iron Man, and countless others. But the truth of the matter is that Stan was not working alone, and he definitely took liberties with giving himself credit for the work that was done.

Many people know that artist Jack Kirby was responsible for bringing many of the early Marvel titles to life, but Kirby was not the only one. Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck all put in just as much work as artists and a lot of the creative process was on them. The early “Marvel Method” involved Stan discussing an idea with an artist and then the artist creating the comic with Stan adding dialogue later. He went on record once explaining that Kirby came up with the plots and all he did for his books was a little editing. 

In public, however, Lee took credit for everything because he was the face of Marvel. He did interviews and press for years and always claimed to be the driving force at Marvel. And because no one cared about comics for years, remember that these were long considered goofy books for kids and nothing more, no one ever dug deeper. And if you’re on record being the creative titan behind a business for decades, eventually everyone believes it. 

The biggest evidence available to support the idea that Lee was no creative dynamo was his own track record. He had been working in comics since the ’40s. The legendary creations he came up with were all in the ’60s when he was working with Ditko and Kirby. After they quit on him, he went on to create not a single other major character ever again. 

There’s no doubt Lee had vision and was an amazing hype man, as well as a charismatic fellow, but it seems clear he was not the creative dynamo he claimed to be.

Other Articles you Might Like
Liked it? Take a second to support Toptenz.net on Patreon!

1 Comment

  1. You left out one name: Bill Gates.

    He’s admittedly a great marketer, but MSDOS, his original OS offering, was a knock-off of a previous primitive OS called CP/M, created by a company called Digital Research. What ultimately became Microsoft Windows started life as an IBM project, led and architected by an IBMer.

    And, of course, under Gates, Microsoft became infamous as one of the nastiest corporate predators ever, doing things like buying smaller rival companies for the sole purpose of crushing them. They used a tactic called “embrace, extend, extinguish” where they’d do things like support standard HTML in their browser and then add their own proprietary, undocumented, capabilities to the standard, making it impossible for rivals to render the perverted HTML. They did similar things, like refuse to document parts of the Microsoft Word file format, in order to keep rivals from offering compatible applications. Nasty stuff.

Leave A Reply

7 + 19 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.