Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” If history has taught us anything, it is that history books are written by the winners, while the rest become snippings on the textbook factory floor. Since humans have been recording history they have been leaving important, groundbreaking, and influential people out of it. For one reason or another, these history-makers have fallen into obscurity while others have risen to glory. But as Napoleon Bonaparte put it, “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” With that in mind, here are 10 Obscure History Makers You Probably Have Never Heard Of.
Have you ever heard of Kia Silverbrook? No, it is not Kia’s next crossover SUV. Kia Silverbrook is one of the world's most prolific inventors, responsible for the more than 4,600 patents and inventions. Since the age of 19, Kia has been patenting one groundbreaking invention after another, ranging from digital video, digital printing, and music synthesis to computer graphics, microelectromechanical systems and image processing. Those inventions don't seem that fantastic and groundbreaking until you discover that nearly every one of Kia’s inventions are being put to work in your cell phone, tablet, and laptop as we speak. Kia is almost singlehandedly responsible for the high tech revolution, making it easier to gain and distribute information faster and more efficient than ever before. It’s a bit ironic that after all his inventions, most people still have never heard of him.
It seems that history has a knack for remembering some inventors while forgetting others, or for glorifying the invention while letting its creator fall into obscurity. Philo Farnsworth is one of those inventors, and his contribution to mankind was the television. In 1927, his “Image-Dissector” became the precursor to the modern television as we know it. After turning down multiple offers from the Westinghouse Corporation to buy his patents and work for them, Farnsworth established his own company, which eventually secured over 150 patents. Unfortunately, Farnsworth never truly received recognition for his revolutionary work, nor did his company ever become successful. He died in 1971 relatively unknown, without receiving the recognition he deserved for his work. Thankfully in 1987, a bronze sculpture of Philo as the “Father of Television” was erected in the capital of Utah, his home state.
The grand idea of democracy did not form in a vacuum or develop from the American Revolution. It wasn’t born in the head of Thomas Jefferson as history likes to imply, nor was it forged out of the carnage of the French revolution. Democracy was first introduced in Athens circa 508 BC by a little-known history maker by the name of Cleisthenes. Cleisthenes was an Athenian statesman and political reformer who systematically restructured the Athenian political system into what today we call True Democracy. His most influential reform was the reorganization of an individual's political responsibility away from clan loyalties and toward a common citizenship of a state. He organized all free men into a general assembly where the matters of the country were discussed and voted upon, with every man having one vote. Cleisthenes’ reforms to the Athenian political system brought upon Democracy with its innumerable influences on the world. It is not known what happened to Cleisthenes, which is probably why you have never heard of him.
Rabban Bar Sauma
You have no doubt heard of the exploits and adventures of Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer and merchant who traveled from Europe to the far East, and brought back riches, spices, and tales of wonder.
Lesser known, but arguably just as influential, were the tales and written works of Rabban Bar Sauma, referred to by some as the Marco Polo of the East. Rabban Sauma was a Nestorian Monk known for his terrific journey across Mongol China, the Middle East, and Central Asia to Jerusalem. Rabban Bar Sauma never did reach his destination, but rather spent years in Baghdad, where he became the Mongol ambassador to Europe. Rabban traveled extensively, meeting with many European monarchs and the Pope, even attempting an extremely ambitious Franco-Mongol alliance. Raban’s written works and personal journals are truly one-of-a-kind and hold special significance in the historical community. Regarded as highly intelligent, wise, and open minded, Rabban Bar Sauma’s travel journals paint a unique picture of crusader Europe from the perspective of the East-looking-West and has proven invaluable to historians, yet he is largely left out of the history books.
Every American has heard the story of Paul Revere and his Midnight Ride. But few could tell you about Sybil Ludington and her even-greater contribution to the American Revolution. On the night the British landed in Danbury, Connecticut, Sybil Ludington mounted her horse “Star” and rode out into the night and pouring rain to warn the militia of the incoming invasion. Her ride took her more than twice the distance of Paul Revere, a total of forty miles, during which she had to defend herself against a grabby highwayman with a stick. The British were eventually pushed back to their ships, and Sybil was formally thanked for her contribution by George Washington himself. Sadly, her daring ride is largely forgotten, overshadowed by the more prominent Paul Revere.
Miltiades is responsible for the single greatest military victory in Western History, yet amazingly he is largely overlooked. In 490 BC, the Persian Army descended upon the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon.
Miltiades’ ingenious tactics are considered a pivotal factor in the Persian defeat, despite the Persian force vastly outnumbering the Greeks. Recognizing that the traditional Greek tactics would lead to a Persian victory, Miltiades adopted an unconventional approach to breaking the Persian lines to win the first part of the battle. The Persians, reeling in defeat from Miltiades’ forces, retreated to attack Miltiades from behind. However, Miltiades saw this coming and marched his troops through the night to meet the Persians head on in the morning. The Persians, upon seeing the very troops who had just defeated them, withdrew and the battle of Marathon was won. Miltiades victory is largely overshadowed by the events of the Spartan 300 at the battle Thermopylae.
Thomas Browne, one of the greatest minds of the enlightenment era, is largely an anathema, regardless of the fact that he is responsible for adding more than 750 words to the English language. Regarded as a Polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning), Thomas Browne investigated and recorded his findings on everything from medicine to religion to zoology. Browne published many of his findings and became an accomplished writer, coining words like medical, indigenous, coma, prairie, approximate, carnivorous, exhaustion, and electricity, to name a few. Largely overshadowed by Shakespeare, Thomas Browne can go down in the history books as one of the world's true wordsmiths.
Every century or so, a character emerges from the depths of history whose true past and exploits are not so readily discerned from the fabulous and mythological tales about their life. Ragnar Lothbrok was one of those characters. Dubbed the Scourge of France and England, Ragnar was a Viking lord and infamous raider who boldly lead his “Great Heathen Army” both up the Seine in 845 to sack Paris and across the English Channel in 865 to invade Britain. He is said to have fathered a number of equally influential Vikings, such as Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and to have died gruesomely at the hands of his enemy, King Aella of Northumbria, who supposedly threw him in a pit of poisonous snakes. Ragnar's exploits spanned across Northern Europe, where he distinguished himself from other Vikings of the time with the utter boldness of his raids and quests for power. Due to the difficulty in discerning fact from myth, Ragnar is generally overlooked in the history books, but was none the less one of the most significant Vikings to ever carry the name.
An investigative journalist, charity worker, traveler, and inventor, Nellie Bly is the unspoken poster child of Feminism and Women's Empowerment. Nellie Bly began her career in journalism when she was hired by the Pittsburgh Dispatch for her response to a chauvinistic article. Her career in journalism quite literally took her to the darndest places. From investigating political corruptness in Mexico to having herself intentionally committed to a mental hospital, called Blackwell Island, to expose its heinous conditions, Nellie Bly would stop at nothing to achieve her acclaim. After her expose on Blackwell Islands despicable conditions, the Pittsburgh Dispatch sent her on an expedition around the world in emulation of Jules Verne's “Around the World in 80 Days”. Nellie pulled it off in 72, setting the world record.
Cecilia Payne was an astronomer and pioneer of Astro-Physics and is all too often overlooked in history books. She was the first woman to earn a PHD in astronomy from Harvard and the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, after which she became the first woman to head an entire department at Harvard. It is due to her efforts that we now know the composition of the stars in the sky. Prior to Cecilia Payne, the astrophysics community believed that the Stars and the planets were made of the same substances. Her book “Stellar Atmospheres” completely revolutionized the field and became the standard textbook for future study. It is because of Cecilia Payne that women in astrophysics have been propelled to the forefront of scientific thought and innovation. Cecilia Payne worked against the tide in a male-dominated field, becoming a role model for future women astrophysicists and scientists everywhere.
No matter where you are in forging your own history, remember that celebrity is fleeting, history rhymes, and obscurity is its own reward.