Geniuses like Edison and Einstein are well known, and their contributions to the world cannot be denied, but for every famous inventor, creator and world changing person there are many more whose work is never quite as recognized. Some never achieved the acclaim they rightly deserved. Others had it taken from them. And a few just shunned the spotlight – caring not for the attention and only wishing to see humanity served. There’s controversy of course, in innovation, and over the years their ideas have been mocked and ridiculed. They’ve changed the world, and it’s time we know their names. Here are the ten most influential people you don’t know, yet.
10 Jerry Lawson
Ask any teenager who Jerry Lawson is and they would likely roll their eyes at you and turn their attention back to whatever they’re doing at the time. But his influence on their lives is undeniable. And it’s not just kids. Adults across the world have benefitted from Jerry’s designs. So why is he important? Simple – Jerry Lawson created the first console video game system with a microprocessor and interchangeable cables. He was one of only two African-American innovators of Silicon Valley’s famous Homebrew Computer Club. His creation, Fairfield Channel F, was the precursor to console gaming and was eventually replaced in popularity by the Atari. He also created a video game company and produced one of the first stand-up arcade video games ever made.
9 Sir John Harrington
Sir John Harrington was a writer – but his contribution to society is a plumbing system he designed which we all use (and love) today. He was quite controversial and continually in and out of favor with Queen Elizabeth during his time in court. He wrote many controversial works and was nearly executed for his beliefs. Sometime around 1596 when Harrington was publishing an inflammatory book under a pseudonym, he invented the flushing toilet. He called it the Ajax and it featured a tank of water, a flush valve and a wash-down design which is rather reminiscent of how modern toilets work today.
Aristarchus was a Greek astronomer and mathematician. Those who’ve studied astrology might have heard of him because he was the first person to throw out the idea that the earth might revolve around the sun. His heliocentric model of the universe, with the sun at the center, and his radical ideas that stars might actually be much further away than we think was not taken seriously at the time. In fact, it would be over 1,700 years before his ideas were given the credence they were due. Copernicus had read Aristarchus’s work and he followed up on his ideas and would become famous in his own right, but the original ideas were penned long before.
7 Heather McKay
Heather McKay was once really good at squash. The Australian lost only two matches during the first two years of her professional career. We can only assume she was devastated by the success many of us would have thoroughly enjoyed, because after those two years she went on a bit of a run. From 1962 until 1981 Heather didn’t lose a single match. She won 16 consecutive British Open titles and the inaugural World Open Title in 1979. In 1981 she decided to give the rest of the world a sporting chance and just retired. She holds the record for longest lasting winning streak in a sport. For 19 years she just couldn’t be beat. McKay isn’t just considered the greatest female squash player of all time. Many also consider her the greatest Australian athlete ever. Oh, did we also mention she was a top-level racquetball and field hockey player during this time? I guess everyone needs a hobby.
6 Robert Goddard
In 1909 Goddard wrote down his first thoughts on how to improve on powder rocket fuels by mixing liquids together to improve efficiency. From a young age he was fascinated by space and rockets and he worked hard on rocket science and eventually became a professor of science, but his thoughts and experiments with rocket fuel and vacuums continued. In 1914 he published his thoughts on a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen liquid rocket fuel with the help of a grant and several years of study. His work is considered the foundation for all liquid rocket fuel technology and it has enabled humans to reach heights previously unattainable – including outer space. His final theories published in his book on propulsion and overcoming gravity are particularly influential. Unfortunately, at the time of his publication Goddard was openly mocked in newspapers and by fellow scientists. Goddard was eventually vindicated.
5 Simon Bolivar
The name Simon Bolivar is well known in South America, but in the northern hemisphere most people have never heard of him. Bolivar was a general, freedom fighter and patriot who liberated Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia from Spanish rule while laying the foundation for democracy. He was president of three countries at the same time, and later a dictator. He was the central revolutionary figure during the early 1800s and largely the reason South America broke the yoke of their European oppressors. They even named a country after him (Boliva).
4 Dennis Ritchie
It’s difficult to keep track of all the technology pioneers who have influenced our daily lives. One man we shouldn’t forget though is Dennis Ritchie. Ritchie, along with Ken Thompson, developed and pioneered the UNIX operating system and the C-programming language. That might seem a small thing to you and me, but this is the foundation for so much modern technology it’s staggering to think of what Ritchie and Thompson have influenced. C-programming is used in most modern coding language and program development.
3 Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace became interested in mathematics when she was young and suffering from an illness. Her love of science led to an introduction and later a friendship with Charles Babbage – another computer pioneer. Like Babbage, Lovelace became extremely interested in analytical engines. She read and translated Luigi Manabrea’s memoir on his engine and contributed her own thoughts to it. In these notes Lovelace included a detailed analysis of calculating Bernoulli numbers with Manabrea’s engine. Not only where her ideas correct, but had the engine been constructed Lovelace would have designed the first correct analytic computer program. Amazingly this all happened in 1843. Of course, many consider Lovelace’s work only a small contribution to Babbage’s ideas, and there’s some controversy as to how her work influenced his, and vice-versa.
2 Sir Joseph Lister
Lister was a medical pioneer responsible for antiseptic surgery. He took Luis Pasteur’s studies on microbiology and developed the concept of sterilized surgery – for which we all are eternally thankful. He developed the idea and used carbonic acid to clean surgical tools and then wounds. His work led to major progress in post-surgical infection and generally a safer operating environment. Because of his work he nearly eliminated gangrene in his patients and his instructions for his surgeons on washing hands before and after surgery and wearing gloves were simplistic – but remarkable. And while you’ve never heard of Lister, it’s very likely that you have heard of the mouthwash Listerine – which was named in honor of him.
Sometime between 276 and 194 BC Eratosthenes did some rather amazing things. First, he invented the discipline of geography. But he wasn’t done there. He also calculated the tilt of the Earth to within one degree, determined the year was 365-1/2 days long, invented the leap year two centuries before we used it, and calculated the circumference of the Earth within 385 km by measuring shadows he found in a well in two separate towns. He designed the first world map using meridians and parallels. He also developed an algorithm to identify prime numbers, and correctly calculated the sun’s diameter. Amazingly, he did all this without the use of modern tools, calculators, or telescopes.