When it comes to history, we often remember the big names— Napoleon and Genghis Khan, Jesus and Mohammed, Galileo and Newton. But there’s a whole subset of lesser known historical figures who slide under the radar of common history. These fascinating (and sometimes bizarre) men made an impact in shaping history, even if it was sometimes accidental. Want to learn some facts and little known history about some pretty rad dudes? You’ve come to the right place.
1. Phineas Gage - The Original Iron Man
Phineas Gage was just a regular guy, working as railroad construction foreman in the 1800’s. Gage was rocketed to fame and prominence in the most unfortunate way — an iron rod was launched straight through his head. Miraculously, he survived, and went on to have a nearly full recovery. But the post-accident Gage was drastically different than the man he had been before.
Once mild-mannered, responsible, and admired by his employees, he became an impatient, stubborn, and brutish man. He was so changed that people actually began to refer to him as ‘Not Gage.’ He continued on in this way until his death twelve years later.
Over the course of his life and the many years after, Gage became a focal point for many studies, theories and discoveries in psychology around personality, neurology, and the effects of brain damage. Because of his accident on the job, Phineas Gage was permanently changed. And thanks to his existence, so is our understanding of human psychology.
2. Sam Wilson - "Uncle Sam"
We’ve all seen the posters. The man in the big hat, with the white beard, dressed in red, white and blue who wants YOU to join the U.S. army. Uncle Sam is a national icon—but Sam Wilson, the meat packer, never expected such fame.
During the War of 1812, Wilson delivered large barrels of salt and beef to soldiers. To identify the barrels, he had them marked U.S.— for United States, of course. But back then, that wasn’t a common abbreviation, and it was mistakenly assumed that the “U.S.” stood for for Uncle Sam—Wilson’s nickname amongst his employees.
Basically, the joke tumbled out of control and it wasn’t long before people all over the country started referring to all government property as belonging to Uncle Sam. This spawned a few political cartoons and posters. By then, there was no turning back. A friendly meatpacker from New York accidentally became one of America’s most beloved and time-tested icons.
3. Louis Braille or Charles Barbier - Who Really Invented Braille?
In the 1800’s, a French soldier named Charles Barbier created night-writing, a code made up of dot combinations that stand for different sounds. This code was originally invented as a way for soldiers in the military a way to read messages at night, without having to light a lamp and give themselves away to the enemy.
Barbier eventually went on to introduce night-writing at the Royal Institute for the Blind, which is where he met Louis Braille.
Louis Braille, who became blind at age five, was a thirteen-year-old student at the time of Barbier’s visit. He quickly learned the night-writing system and was thrilled by the concept, but had many suggestions for improvement. These suggestions didn’t go over well with Barbier, who refused to make changes to his code based on suggestions from a little boy.
But Braille was determined, and over the next two years, he used the concepts of night-writing to develop a system of reading and writing where patterns of raised dots stand for certain letters – known commonly today as Braille.
Today, Braille’s system is available in hundreds languages, and has brightened the worlds of millions. And even though Barbier refused his suggestions, Louis Braille was quick to give him credit for his part in helping to inventing the system.
4. Dr. Richard Gatling - The Man Who Changed War Forever
We’ve all seen movies about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars —where soldiers line up on both sides in straight lines with muskets and fire at each other. At the time, this was the honorable way to fight. It also caused a staggering number of casualties on both sides, since all soldiers were directly in the line of fire (literally).
During the Civil War, Richard Gatling, a doctor and inventor from Ohio, wanted to decrease the number of soldier deaths in battle. So he invented a crank operated weapon which fired 350 bullets per minute, known then as the Gatling Gun. Today, it’s known as the first machine gun. Dr. Gatling’s invention changed war forever.
In the Civil War specifically, Dr. Gatling was successful in lowering the amount of casualties among soldiers, as two of these guns could replace a whole regiment of soldiers. But in following wars, this invention became commonplace and began being used by soldiers on both sides of war, making it a deadly and efficient way to take lives, not save them.
5. Jack Phillips - The Real Jack on the Titanic
When we hear the word Titanic, most of us think of a young Leonardo DeCaprio galavanting around the ship as Jack Dawson.
But there actually was a notable Jack aboard the Titanic— Jack Phillips, a wireless-operator who worked to communicate Morse Code messages between ships.
On that fateful night, Phillips was dealing with a backlog of messages because of a tech issue the day before. So, when a message came through about an iceberg field up ahead, he didn’t see it right away. The message never made it to the captain. Some view this as a pivotal point in the tragic sinking, but the story of Jack Philips doesn’t end here.
Reports claim that when orders came to evacuate, Philips stayed at his post and refused to abandon ship. He was one of two men working to send SOS signals to any and all ships in range for help. Thanks to him, the RMS Carpathia came as a rescue ship and was able to save 705 people from the lifeboats.
Phillips is one of those strange men in history, who, because of the events that same evening in 1912, can be seen as both a hero and villain.
About the Author: Jonathan Littauer
Jonathan is a freelance writer and rock climbing routesetter based in Boston, MA. He was the managing editor of Philly Current Magazine for two and a half years.
When he’s not wielding words or making people fall off walls, he’s probably outside somewhere, hiking or climbing or surfing poorly. He’s been known, on occasion, to peace out and travel the world for months at a time.
- Beyer, Rick. The Greatest Stories Never Told: 230 Tales from History to Astonish, Bewilder, and Stupefy. HarperCollins, 2008.