#2. Robert Galbraith Heath Invented Brain-Fixing Electrodes 60 Years Ago
We've talked about the dickishness of some of Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath's experiments in the past. However, that's not all the man did. A large chunk of his work with Tulane University went a long way to revolutionize depression treatments. For instance, in the '70s, his team successfully treated several people previously labeled untreatable.
"'Dead' -- 'not depressed'... it's a matter of perspective."
Yes, his more than slightly supervillainy solution to treating one of the most difficult mental problems around was to hook up to 125 electrodes to a patient's brain. And while the mere mention of the words "electricity" and "brain" in the same sentence conjures images of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Heath's method was actually specifically designed to ease the patient's mind by stimulating the pleasure center of the brain.
And it worked.
But the Problem Was ...
That's right; he found a way to just freaking inject electric pleasure into a human brain. It kind of sounds like the kind of discovery that should have changed civilization.
But Heath kept the experiments at a very low profile instead of going public for the "HOLY SHIT YOU CAN TOTALLY ELECTRIFY YOUR BRAIN INTO PLEASURE YOU GUYS" headlines. A quite possible reason for this was an incident in 1962: Heath was contacted by the CIA to see if his electrode trick could be used for interrogation by exploring the pain center instead.
"Oh, and is there a way to make another person shit their pants? Just out of ... um ... curiosity."
Heath sanely dismissed the idea as plain disgusting, and proceeded to play his cards close to chest.
Another problem that stood between Heath and the embracing public was the fact that his electrodes needed to stimulate the brain at regular intervals, it wasn't like a one-time thing. This basically amounted to "brain pacemakers" that would have to stay in the brain for years. So the technology remained in the shadows, and even today, we are still treating it like it's barely out of the experimental stage. Though it could still make a comeback -- Columbia University has been toying with the technology in recent years.
"You know, I think I'm OK with just being depressed."
How It Could Have Changed the World:
Let's talk figures.
Depression is one of the biggest health problems of the modern world, estimated to affect 19 million people in the U.S. alone. Its cumulative costs amount to a whopping $44 billion. And while it can be treated, it's far from an easy task -- medication is unpredictable and comes with side effects, and pretty much everyone needs a different treatment. It's hard to imagine what could have been accomplished with 50 years of evolution of Heath's electrode technology (which was proven to cure other mental illnesses, too).
Such as the ironic compulsion to randomly shock your own head.
Then again, we guess that's also imagining a world where somebody wouldn't immediately think of some horrifying use for it. It ... kind of seems like the sort of thing a person could get addicted to.
#1. Henry Cavendish Revolutionized Science, but Didn't Tell Anyone
Henry Cavendish is probably the most prolific scientist you've never heard of. He was a talented chemist whose list of accomplishments includes, but is not limited to: the discovery of hydrogen, calculating the density of Earth and establishing his own versions of Richter's Law, Ohm's Law, Coulomb's Law, Charles's Law of Gases and Dalton's Law ... and he did it in the 1700s, many years before any of those guys for whom the laws would be named.
He was also a bit of a hardass. For instance, while Georg Ohm figured out his law about electrical conduction by messing around with wires, Cavendish just flat out subjected himself to electric shocks, using his own damn nervous system as a galvanometer.
So, a fearless badass with a scientific mind that put all his peers to shame? Hell, he's just a vast fortune away from being the Georgian era equivalent to Batman. Wait, he was the richest man in England? Never mind.
But the Problem Was ...
He didn't share his earth-shattering discoveries with anyone. Because he was nuts.
Cavendish more than compensated his talents by having some serious issues. He spent the majority of his time barricaded in his study, communicating with his housekeeper via notes. Female servants were ordered to keep away from his line of sight on pain of getting instantly fired. On the rare occasion he ventured to scientific society meetings, he lurked around wearing strange, out-of-date clothing; if someone addressed or even looked at him, he would scream and run away.
He couldn't even look at the guy who did his damn portrait.
Knowing this, it's not surprising Cavendish didn't want to draw attention to himself and his little hobbies, lest he have to deal with people. In fact, we wouldn't even know about most of his discoveries had it not been for his private papers being looked through in 1879 by a James Clerk Maxwell ... nearly a century later.
How It Could Have Changed the World:
Cavendish made the majority of his discoveries decades before they were officially invented -- in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and the era of the steam engine. And when you look at said discoveries, you'll realize that many of his findings concerned pretty crucial stuff about thermodynamics and electricity.
Things like, "Warning: Do not lick."
Now, imagine if England had figured out electricity decades before they actually did. With findings like Ohm's Law moved from 1827 to 1781, a vast thermodynamic and electrical knowledge suddenly at the scientific community's disposal and the public mind set in the "industrialize everything" mode that was the spirit of the era, the progress of technology would have been rapidly put to use. Gaslights could have become electrical ones within years, and the steam engine would've gone the way of the dodo. Great Britain might've entered the Victorian era fully lit, amped up and more powerful than ever, at no bigger price than the ruined dreams of potential future steampunk enthusiasts.
Which, now that we come to think of it, might not be a bad thing. There's also another side to the Electrified England scenario: We doubt that they would've been too keen to share their newly found power with America, what with one thing and another going on at the time. So it's entirely possible that they'd used their Cavendish tech against America, who'd have been back to eating tea and crumpets before they even realized it.
"I heard him say 'robot.' What the fuck is a robot?"
So, thanks for being a grouch, Henry!
Dustin and Adam Koski have written other lists at places like here.
For more ways the world as we know it could be different, check out 7 Lost Bodies of Work (That Would Have Changed Everything) and 7 Books We Lost to History That Would Have Changed the World.
And stop by LinkSTORM to read some Edison/Tesla erotic fan-fiction.
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