National Histories

by Kieran Healy on January 24, 2008

Ari at Edge of the West asks,

bq. … who’s the most important … [American] historical figure about whom most people know nothing?

(I have edited the question slightly, because Ari is a historian and so writes 250-word blog posts that have five footnotes.) I don’t have many suggestions, because I am one of the “most people” in this case and ipso facto know nothing about potential contenders. But in the comments someone suggests Philo T. Farnsworth. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with an American historian and a Russian computer scientist. It went something like this:

American: … but that’s TV, I suppose. Philo Farnsworth didn’t know what he was getting us all into.
Irishman: Who?
Russian: Who?
American: Philo Farnsworth. He invented the television.
Irishman: No he didn’t. John Logie Baird invented the television!
Russian: Who are these people? Television was invented by Alexander Televishnevsky!

I forget the Russian inventor’s real name. As I recall, further discussion established that for many 20th century developments the Russians had a counterpart developer who, according to the schoolbooks, had just gotten there before. And while this may seem like a standard bit of Soviet-era oddness, the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery in science well-established, together with “Stigler’s law of eponymy.”:’s_law_of_eponymy

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Who’s the most important Chinese historical figure that most people have never heard of?
01.25.08 at 9:40 am



mq 01.24.08 at 5:51 pm

In Paris you will find a statue memorializing the originator of the theory of evolution…Jean Baptiste Lamarck.


RDF 01.24.08 at 5:55 pm

I’ll take an economic history stab at this.

For most people: Alexander Hamilton.

For people who actually know American history: John Sherman.


abb1 01.24.08 at 5:57 pm


abb1 01.24.08 at 6:08 pm

There was a popular joke in the USSR, btw; the compressed version goes: “Russia, the motherland of the elephants.” Anything and everything notable had to be originated in Russia.


Josh R. 01.24.08 at 6:09 pm

The answer to the original question is likely to be Alexander Hamilton. Unless, one’s pessimism about Americans’ historical knowledge intervenes and opens up several Presidents (James Madison and Andrew Jackson for instance) as candidates.


LizardBreath 01.24.08 at 6:12 pm

Alexander Hamilton

Ah, yes. One of the answers to the trivia question: “Which two presidents of the United States never actually served as president?” Benjamin Franklin’s the other one.


Mrs Tilton 01.24.08 at 6:22 pm

mq @1,

don’t know whether Lamarck was truly the first to propose evolution, but he certainly got there before Darwin did. He simply didn’t hit upon natural selection as the explanation for it…


yoyo 01.24.08 at 6:25 pm

I was wondering why i had heard of this “Farnsworth”, when i realized that Professor Farnsworth is the inventor character on Futurama.


SamChevre 01.24.08 at 6:26 pm

I’m proposing Charles Finney. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the current structure of American religion/politics without him.


Arnaud 01.24.08 at 6:30 pm

In France, we also know that Clement Ader was the first to fly in an aeroplane (The Avion III). None of your Orville and Wilbur Wright nonsense!


belle le triste 01.24.08 at 6:37 pm


engels 01.24.08 at 6:38 pm

he certainly got there before Darwin did. He simply didn’t hit upon natural selection as the explanation for it

I suppose you could also say that about Anaximander.


monkey.dave 01.24.08 at 6:43 pm

I had to google “Philo Farnsworth” to see if he really existed. The name sounds far too much like a character that Groucho would play in a Marx Brothers movie.


CG 01.24.08 at 6:55 pm

I think the name you are looking for is Vladimir Zworykin.


rbanville 01.24.08 at 6:57 pm

I forget the Russian inventor’s real name.

Vladimir Zworykin


chris y 01.24.08 at 7:24 pm

don’t know whether Lamarck was truly the first to propose evolution, but he certainly got there before Darwin did

Before Charles but after Erasmus. Of course his explanation was a lot more rigorous than E.Darwin’s, but then it was a lot less so than C.’s


Random African 01.24.08 at 7:25 pm

In a bunch of places, the periodic table is called the Mendeleev table. Not in the US though.


chris y 01.24.08 at 7:43 pm

9. arnaud, D^2 will be along in a minute to point out that it was actually Bill Frost.


quicksand 01.24.08 at 7:55 pm

I don’t have anything, you know, actually useful to add here, other than to say that “Alexander Televishnevsky” is a most awesome name.


Ari 01.24.08 at 8:20 pm

Kieran, I tried to send you a note of thanks (for the link) at your CT address. But it bounced back. So: thanks. Also: I’ve got about 150 pages of book manuscript that would benefit from some ruthless editing. Any interest?


blah 01.24.08 at 8:47 pm

Philo T. Farnsworth and Alexander Telivishnevsky both belong a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.


Hidari 01.24.08 at 8:57 pm

According to the Wikipedia:

‘In 1911, Boris Rosing and his student Vladimir Kosma Zworykin created a television system that used a mechanical mirror-drum scanner to transmit, in Zworykin’s words, “very crude images” over wires to the electronic Braun tube (cathode ray tube) in the receiver. Moving images were not possible because, in the scanner, “the sensitivity was not enough and the selenium cell was very laggy”.’

Who were both, indeed, Russia.

Mind you it’s the Wikipedia so it’s probably all made up, and we will eventually discover that TV was invented by an Arab in the 11th century.


Kieran Healy 01.24.08 at 8:57 pm

But it bounced back.

Whoops. I’ll have to look into that.

I’ve got about 150 pages of book manuscript that would benefit from some ruthless editing

Replace all text in footnotes with “Just trust me on this, OK?”


Hidari 01.24.08 at 9:04 pm

Oooops! And I didn’t see Abb1’s post.

In any case, in response to the original question, I’m going to be outrageously more politically correct than thou and say Tecumseh.


Matthew Kuzma 01.24.08 at 9:07 pm

Doesn’t Stigler’s Law violate itself? Or did he secretly get the idea from someone else?

I remember a really fascinating story about Bernoulli’s equation and how nobody really knows which Bernoulli invented it, father or son, because they hated eachother and stole eath others work all the time.


marcel 01.24.08 at 9:38 pm

I have edited the question slightly, because Ari is a historian and so writes 250-word blog posts that have five footnotes.

kieran at 23 beat me to the punch.

I think Dsquared may top Ari on a regular basis.


notsneaky 01.24.08 at 10:11 pm

And then there’s the Bunyakovsky inequality.

Actually it’s pretty true that a lot of Russians independently discovered many scientific facts, both during the Soviet era and tsarist times. Part of that was just due to the intellectual separation caused by the Cyrillic alphabet – Russians couldn’t read Western (mostly French) journals and vice versa.

But the person who first wrote that Wiki entry on Stigler’s Law better get his rightful credit.


Walt 01.24.08 at 10:26 pm

Matthew Kuzma: Stigler did get the idea from someone else. If you read the essay where he proposes it, he mentions he got the idea from someone else, and promptly names it after himself.


sharon 01.24.08 at 10:29 pm

Surely everyone knows that everything comes from India.


Walt 01.24.08 at 10:30 pm

Bunyakowski was a student of Cauchy and he wrote his paper in French, so I don’t think it’s a case of intellectual separation.

The best math example is that approximately this is true: the Tychonoff Product Theorem is by Cech, and the Stone-Cech compactification is due to Tychonoff.


notsneaky 01.24.08 at 10:38 pm

My Russian professor lied to me!


stostosto 01.24.08 at 11:17 pm

… who’s the most important … [American] historical figure about whom most people know nothing?

Annie Petulia Wheatcroft.

Most important, without a doubt. And if you know nothing about her, it’s because you’re one of the most people.


Watson Aname 01.24.08 at 11:18 pm

Speaking of misattributions in maths, wasn’t it Whitehead who said something like `Everything important was earlier by someone who didn’t discover it?’


Watson Aname 01.24.08 at 11:19 pm

oops, `earlier’ should have been `done earlier’


joel turnipseed 01.25.08 at 1:00 am

Hmmm… hard to say, but I’ll make a biased statement that Smedley Butler is a good candidate. Then again, I’m biased because I’m writing a book about him.

Roger Baldwin, a contemporary of Butler’s and founder of the ACLU, would be good. As would a guy of whom even a lot of historians may never have heard: Alfred Bingham (son of Hiram, about whom also a good book could be written–and maybe has?).

I think one of the hard things about this question is that there are just so many people who fit the bill, at least if we’re talking “popular biography.” Was Solnit’s Muybridge book (River of Shadows) a “popular biography?”

Also: a lot of what makes popular biography great can get pretty happenstance when you get into the archives: not every subject wrote great or voluminous diaries/letters/etcetera or had dramas that play out in nice clean narrative arcs. I know I cursed the invention of the telephone and telegraph repeatedly in the months I spent in the archives for the Butler book && would have finished the book last year if I’d found a cleaner narrative (this ain’t no Seabiscuit).


DonBoy 01.25.08 at 1:21 am

Nobody versed in the original Star Trek series would be unaware of this joke, which was given to Ensign Chekov on various occasions (our pals at Wikipedia list nine).


jsm fotherington-thomas 01.25.08 at 2:40 am

I don’t have the books to hand to check this, but didn’t the curriculum at St Custard’s reveal that Stalin invented the steam engine.

Perhaps amongst you there is a Willans & Searle expert, hem hem, wot mite be able to enlighten me.


abb1 01.25.08 at 9:59 am

Ivan Polzunov invented the steam engine.


Hidari 01.25.08 at 10:05 am

No, the steam engine was invented by
Hero of Alexandria.

As you would know if you spent a bit less of your time reading these new fangled ‘books’ and spent just a bit more time doing something constructive: like watching reruns of QI on Channel Dave.


Hidari 01.25.08 at 10:17 am

‘he certainly got there before Darwin did. He simply didn’t hit upon natural selection as the explanation for it

I suppose you could also say that about Anaximander.’

According to some people, Empedocles not only agreed with Anaximander’s evolutionary viewpoint but was the first person (so far as we know) to propose natural selection.

‘Empedocles even suggested a form of natural selection, which Aristotle summarized as, “Wherever then all the parts came about [to be] just what they would have been if they had come to be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish.’


Alexei McDonald 01.25.08 at 10:22 am

Damn me, but that Smedley Butler book would fit a gap on my bookshelf nicely.


Hidari 01.25.08 at 10:27 am

Oh and Archytas invented the rocket/airplane in 400 BC.

Right I’m going out now. I may be some time.


abb1 01.25.08 at 10:34 am

Leonardo da Vinci invented everything there is to invent.


mmm...lemonheads 01.25.08 at 3:45 pm

Ask me: Who invented sarcasm?

I did. I invented sarcasm.


SGEW 01.25.08 at 4:54 pm

… who’s the most important … [American] historical figure about whom most people know nothing?

I humbly put forth the name of Thomas Paine.
(note: wiki artickle contains recently disputed biographical details. Hope someone (who isn’t as lazy as me) updates it soon)

The catalyst for the American Revolution. Coined the phrase “The United States of America.” Originator of “constitutionalism” and many modern human rights ideals. Arguably the 18th century’s biggest best-seller (American revolutionaries usually owned only the Bible and “Common Sense”). Participated in both the American and French Revolutions (and had an abortive attempt at a British one as well). Invented the first entirely metal stanchion-less bridge and a smokeless candle. Ur-socialist (welfare, income equality, social security). Lived his entire life in poverty. Later vilified for his open Deism (Teddy Roosevelt inaccurately called him a “filthy little atheist”). Oh, and he fought pirates(!) when he was a young man.

Advocated women’s suffrage; the abolition of slavery, the death penalty, and animal cruelty; and recognizing the sovereignty of aboriginal tribal nations; . . . in 1774. Only one of the “founding fathers” who would be labeled “liberal” or “progressive” nowadays (eat it, Jefferson: you owned slaves).

Obviously, I’m rather fond of the guy.


SamChevre 01.25.08 at 10:18 pm

Everyone knows the name, but what about Florence Nightingale?


Henry (not the famous one) 01.27.08 at 12:10 am

And since others are posting both here and out West, let me repeat myself:

(1) Ella Baker–who not only was there throughout every critical stage of the civil rights movement, but played a critical role in it in more ways than one.

(2) E.D. Nixon of Montgomery, Alabama. A. Philip Randolph already has a movie and a shelf of books about him. Nixon exemplifies what being a member of the Brotherhood allowed activists to do in the depths of the Deep South during the 40’s and 50’s.

(3) Rose Schneiderman, whose life traces the arc from sweatshops and the Uprising of the 20,000 to New Deal reformism, with some detours through the class-based fissures in early feminism.


notsneaky 01.27.08 at 9:57 pm

Thomas Paine…
… Ur-socialist (welfare, income equality, social security).

Also an ardent free trader.


Adam Stephanides 01.29.08 at 5:08 pm

The claims of post-WWII Stalinist propaganda that everything was invented in Russia were well-known enough to be satirized in Pogo. In one sequence, the Communist cowbirds claim that baseball was invented in Russia.

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