When learning about history you often assume you are learning about the most important people in any given situation. But often, you learn either of those who took the credit, or even more commonly, those that history happened to credit more because their role, or just their personality, was more glamorous. Those easily identifiable figures need no special mention from us, but there are many in the shadows who have hardly been given their proper due, and gave us so much more than you can even imagine. In today’s article, we will give you 10 examples of just that…
10. Clarence Dally
In 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the x-ray, and many wanted to explore it further. While Thomas Edison explored the new x-ray’s with a fluoroscope a little bit, his assistant Clarence Dally wanted to use the strongest rays possible, and did constant tests on his own arm. After a few years, he started showing serious signs of cancer, but kept going, thinking it would heal over time. As he started to lose the use of his arm, he decided to use the other one instead, with predictable results. After a few years he had lost the use of both his arms, and in eight years he had died from his exposure to radiation poisoning.
Dally was not pushed to do this by Edison; he made his own choices. But Edison kept him on the payroll long after he could no longer work. Edison felt truly terrible about what had happened, and would no longer experiment or allow his scientists to experiment with x-rays. He felt that while they had good medical applications, they were dangerous outside the hands of a careful medical doctor, using them in specific settings. For his part, Dally his little known by most, but his sacrifice greatly advanced the early research in x-rays for medical use, and thus his contribution cannot be overstated.
9. Scipio Africanus
Scipio Africanus was a general for Rome during the Second Punic War, and was starting to get tired of constantly playing defense against Hannibal and his forces. The Second Punish War had been playing out for over a decade and he felt that a more aggressive option was needed, but the senate disagreed. In order to fulfill his plans, he put together a volunteer force to go attack Carthage, as the senate simply saw removing any of their own protection as too risky.
Scipio could not have been more successful. At one point, despite it being a bit shamefully against the rules of war, he surrounded and set fire to an enemy encampment during the night and managed to have his men kill almost everyone as they tried to escape from the blaze. His strategic decisions allowed his relatively smaller force to scare Carthage so much that they ordered Hannibal back from Rome to defend them — something that was a huge hidden victory in itself.
Then, despite a numerical disadvantage, Scipio used remarkable combat strategies (which could fit in their own article) to defeat Hannibal and his elephants. Unfortunately, despite being elected as first senator multiple times, he and his brother were eventually attacked on trumped up political charges in order to weaken their reputations, and Scipio went into exile for the rest of his life instead of dignifying the charges.
8. Squanto (And His People)
A lot of people know very well the popular story of Thanksgiving. The pilgrims that came over from Europe were having a really bad time getting crops to take in the soil, and generally doing pretty badly at wilderness survival on the new continent. With worries that they would have an awful harvest and be unable to survive the winter, things were looking pretty grim until Squanto came along. Squanto taught them how to properly prepare their crops, and in general to get ready for the harsh winter, and when fall came, the local indians were all invited to a feast to thank them for their help and celebrate the successful harvest.
However, the truth is that the popular story sugarcoats a lot of things to make European settlers look good. Squanto had already been captured as a slave and sold off to go live in Europe for a while, then gained his freedom and returned shortly before the pilgrims arrived. Unfortunately for Squanto, he came back to find that almost everyone he knew was wiped out from disease, which was why the pilgrims found it as easy as they did to settle in the New World to begin with. To make matters worse, not only was Squanto crucial in helping them, but while there may have been some natives at the feast, there is no evidence the settlers sent them any kind of magnanimous invitation.
7. Edith Wilson
Edith Wilson grew up in a small town in Virginia, and always wanted something more. Her first marriage ended in tragedy, losing both her husband and her baby, but she soon found love in Woodrow Wilson, who was 15 years her senior. They were married in 1915. However, in 1919, after spending months in Europe working on the Treaty of Versailles and then campaigning around the country in order to promote his new League of Nations proposal, he was quite exhausted by life, and had a stroke in early October of that year.
Despite losing much of the use of the left side of his body, Wilson remained president through the rest of his term, and the media was kept almost entirely in the dark as to how bad the president’s condition really was — in fact, the extent of his stroke was never reported while he was president. Edith Wilson stayed by his side, and decided what information would and would not come before him, and what decisions he would and would not be asked to make. For this reason, some have dubbed her as the “first woman president.” However, Edith always maintained that while she did decide what went before him, the decisions were always his own.
6. Tenzing Norgay
Today, climbing Mount Everest is almost seen as kind of a cliche, overrated endeavor. If you have enough money and you want to check something off a bucket list or do something to sound cool, you can spend a bunch of money to go up Everest. There are professional base camps, oxygen tanks and all sorts of other supplies and people around to help, and today it could not be any easier. In fact, at this point the mountain has had such overcrowding problems that experts worry poop buried underneath the snow could eventually be quite a big problem when the snow melts.
However, back in the beginning of the 1950s, no one had yet been recorded reaching the summit, and many were game to try. A Swiss expedition in 1951 came closer than anyone yet with the help of a sherpa named Tenzing Norgay, but they had to turn back before reaching the summit. Then, in 1952, Sir Edmund Hillary and a huge British expedition went to Everest to try to reach the top, and hired Norgay to help them. In the end Hillary, from New Zealand but representing Great Britain, managed to make it to the top with Norgay’s help. Today, most people haven’t heard Tenzing, but if not for his help, it is quite unlikely that Hillary would have ever reached the summit at all.
5. Ernest Lawrence
Today, when asked about the creation of the atomic bomb, most people will name drop J. Robert Oppenheimer, mainly because of his famous quote “I am now become death, destroyer of worlds.” It’s a really good quote, the kind that jumps off the pages of the history books and becomes embedded in the national consciousness. However, while Oppenheimer may have been incredibly quotable, he was not the only key scientist working on the project, and not even the only key physicist from the University of California at Berkeley. Ernest Lawrence, also a physicist and also hailing from Berkeley, was crucial to the success of the project.
Initially, it was his invention of the cyclotron (an early particle accelerator) that got him recognition, and as his research continued, he was asked to join the Manhattan Project. Essentially, he was a leading scientist when it came to our early work on isolating uranium isotopes and was so high up the chain that he was advised when we were planning our attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had at first suggested a more military target, but was convinced otherwise. Despite the atrocious effects on the two annihilated Japanese cities, Lawrence never claimed to have any misgivings, and seemed entirely sure that further loss of life would have occurred if the bombs had not been dropped.
4. Upton Sinclair
Those of you who have heard of Upton Sinclair probably know him as that guy who wrote The Jungle, the classic story about people who have a horrible life working in meat packing factories in Chicago, and then pretty much all meet a grisly end. This story, set in the beginning of the 1900s, was fiction, but based on real life after Sinclair had actually gone to work at meat packing plants in Chicago and witnessed the brutal conditions the workers had to live with. While he was hoping people would be outraged at how their fellow man was treated, people were mostly just bothered because what he talked about was often rather gross. While he hoped to improve worker conditions, what he did do was influence the creation of early food inspection agencies.
However, he was also a politician who tried multiple times to run for governor of California on a Socialist platform. On his third run in 1934, he actually succeeded in winning the Democratic nomination for governor, but actually ended up losing his bid because some moderate Democrats voted for the other side, as they thought him too radical. His run was not without effect though, as several of his acolytes managed to win, and one ended up governor of California the next term.
3. Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy was born in 1843 in Ontario, Canada to black parents who had escaped from slavery through the underground railroad. After the Civil War ended and America started being very slightly less backwards than it was, his family moved to Detroit, although he was sent to Edinburgh, Scotland to finish his formal college education. When he returned, despite being trained as an engineer, he was only allowed to work in the boiler rooms of the trains at first, instead of working on fixing them and designing things as he was trained to do.
However, all this did was give him more time to think about how he could improve trains, and he made his first patent for an oil drip cup for trains that helped lubricate them more automatically, and it soon became a standard. Many people tried to knock off his invention because it was made of fairly simple parts, but apparently he did such a good job making them that many people would only use ones made by him — they had to be “the real McCoy.” Now, there are multiple people who have been claimed as the origin of the real McCoy phrase, but he is almost certainly at least one of the real McCoys. On top of that, he came up with another 56 inventions over his career as a creator, almost all having to do with railroads.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
We all know Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein, but many have only watched an adaptation, and know little about the story’s creation or of the rest of her accomplishments as a writer. She was always in a position where she felt she had to perform to a level of excellence, as she was surrounded by talented writers, some of whom had already achieved far more than her. Her father was William Godwin, a man who was famous at the time for writing about politics and philosophy, and her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman famous for her radical writings about women’s rights. Her husband, Percy Shelley, was also doing quite well as a literary figure, and soon she found herself in the company of Lord Byron himself.
During the summer of 1816, the Shelleys spent their days hanging out with Lord Byron and several other literary luminaries, talking about literature and swapping ideas. At one point, the story goes that he challenged everyone to write a ghost story after discussing old German horror stories. She took up the challenge, and originally wrote up Frankenstein as a short story in just a few weeks, and then refined it later into the famous novel we all know today.
However, she would probably like it today if more people were aware that she was more than just a fiction writer. While she did have other successful fiction novels, she was actually best known at the time for her contributions on travel writing, and for her full length biographies of famous people from multiple countries. That isn’t the type of writing, of course, that is usually remembered decades or centuries later, but it shows that she was capable of far more than just writing a fiction novel. In fact, the depth and breadth of her work went even as far as writing poetry, something that she usually left to her husband, the famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
1. Lewis Latimer
Lewis Latimer is hardly known by most people in America, but his contributions were extremely important. He was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848 to parents who had escaped from slavery in Virginia, and were helped by abolitionists to pay off the master who came to take them back. Lewis joined the Navy as a young man to fight in the Civil War for the Union, and received an honorable discharge in 1865. He tried to get a job at a patent firm and was first only allowed to be an office boy because of his race, but he impressed them with his drafting ability, and was soon made head draftsman. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell hired him to draft his patent for the telephone application, due to his burgeoning reputation, and he did it so fast and so well that Graham beat his rival to the punch by minutes. After that, he was picked up by the US Electric Lighting Company, a rival firm to Edison’s owned by Hiram Maxim. It was with this company that in 1881 he perfected the lightbulb created by Edison, finding a way to protect the filament better so it would last for days instead of hours.
These accomplishments got him a lot of recognition among scientists, despite how some people downplayed the achievements of black people at the time, and by 1884, he had been hired by Edison to come and work for him as a draftsman, and to be an expert witness when they needed him for patent cases in court. His expertise at the time was so respected that he oversaw the installation of electric lights in big cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Montreal, and he literally wrote the book on Incandescent Electric Lighting in 1890. After that, he continued to have a long and successful career working in various respects as a patent consultant, inventor, and even civil rights activist, before dying of old age in 1928. Few people may know of him today, but his inventions helped change the world, making it a truly brighter place to live in.