Login or Register

Sign in with Facebook

We tend to have a slightly romanticized idea of how scientists work. In our mind's eye, we have a picture of an individual, perhaps stroking his beard thoughtfully as apples rain down on him, suddenly leaping to his feet and shouting "Eureka!" Then, after a bit of quick work with some graph paper, BAM, the world has indoor plumbing.

Wikimedia Commons
Cracked, as always, salutes you, Sir Thomas Crapper.

But that's not necessarily how invention works. Aside from the fact that these scientists and inventors often work in teams, even those teams don't exist in a vacuum. They read the scientific literature, and attend conferences, and exchange correspondence with their peers, and in general absorb the thoughts and ideas of their day, thoughts and ideas that are accessible to everyone else. Indeed, it turns out that many of the biggest inventions and discoveries of all time haven't been made by a single person, but by many people, working more or less independently, in some cases barely finishing their research before they make comical sprints to the patent office, trousers hanging around their ankles.

Wikimedia Commons
Cracked also salutes this probably apocryphal story of Sir Thomas Crapper's pratfall-laden sprint to the patent office.

Here then are some of the most famous discoveries of all time and their equally famous discoverers, and also the sad people in the shadows who discovered the same things seconds too late.


Depending on your level of education, you'll recognize calculus either as the study of limits, infinitesimals, and rates of change or as a spooky, possibly magical practice performed by people with thicker glasses and thinner arms than you.

"Hey Poindexter. Calculate the area under your mom when she's crab walking at me."

Making the probably safe assumption that most of you fall into the latter category, I'll just summarize it here: Calculus is important, and it forms the bedrock for the study of physics, engineering, economics, and essentially every other damned thing we use each day.

Including your mom.

The invention of calculus is now widely credited to both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton almost certainly came upon the idea first around 1666, but he didn't tell anyone about it, because he was kind of a wierdo. Leibniz, starting in about 1673, came by the discovery himself from a slightly different angle, also developing a much better method of notation that we still use today. Leibniz then formally published his results in advance of Newton, although Newton's papers had been circulating informally for some time. Whether Leibniz saw these papers or not would cause no small amount of hair-pulling among the wider world of math groupies.

Seriously, this was really important to a lot of overly thin dudes.

You see, having the inventor of calculus hang out in the same social clubs as you was really important to these guys, and for years afterward these math groupies nearly came to blows over whose champion invented calculus first. It wasn't until decades later that everyone calmed down enough to acknowledge that they both basically invented it independently.

There's a larger point in all this, though, which will reappear in the examples to come. Although both men were certainly geniuses, this was a problem that was probably going to get solved soon anyways. Their work was based on the work of others, widely circulated among the thinkers of the day. If for some reason Newton and Leibniz had ignored math and devoted all their time and energies to wig maintenance ...

Wikimedia Commons
Well. More time.

... someone else would have probably put together calculus within a few years.

Theory of Evolution

Evolution, the process by which species change over multiple generations, is one of the cornerstones of our understanding of biology and the natural world. (Unless you don't think that, in which case it's magic.) And as every schoolchild knows, evolution was discovered by Charles Darwin after he traveled the world and found that one island full of monkeys capable of wearing human clothes.

Darwin: "Thank you, Chuckles. When they remember me, I shall be remembering you."

Darwin wasn't quite the first to speculate that species could change over time; that idea had already been floating around among scientists for awhile. But even then it was considered a little radical, and no one could quite figure out how it worked. Even Darwin would take a couple decades after his great voyage to finally formulate the key mechanism that we now call natural selection. But finally he figured it out, and he was about to step into history when some asshole sent him an essay explaining the whole thing.

Wikimedia Commons
Alfred Russel Wallace, pictured here snaking his place in history.

That asshole was Alfred Russel Wallace, and I use the term in jest, because in reality he appears to be one of the nicest guys in the history of science. He only sent his theory to Darwin because he loved the guy so much and would allow his theory to be presented jointly with some of Darwin's notes. A few months later, when Darwin's landmark The Origin of Species was published, Wallace didn't seek any of the limelight.

Patche99z via Wikimedia Commons
Statue limelight.

Continue Reading Below


If you're not familiar with the concept, a brief refresher: A telephone is that strange-looking box at your grandparents' place that can't do very much.

"Breaker Breaker Operator? Klondike-724 please. The British are coming!"

Even though we've long since replaced these with sexting rectangles, telephones were a pretty big deal for a long time, making instantaneous, long distance communication available to the layperson. Telegraphs had been around for awhile, but their unintuitive method of operation meant that any communication had to go through people wearing green visors.

Which made sexting awkward, to say the least.

The key step, turning sound waves into waves of electrical current, took some doing to figure out, the breakthrough now being widely credited to Alexander Graham Bell. This made a lot of sense; Bell was by all accounts kind of an obsessive maniac, prone to walking around with severed human ears to study them. Who else would crack this problem?

Well, how about the guy who walked into the patent office on the exact same day Bell did, with basically the same invention?

Wikimedia Commons
"And I'm not going to be the same gutless pushover Wallace was."

This was Elisha Gray, himself a prolific inventor, and the owner of a telegraph supplies company. He too had come up with a device capable of turning sound waves into fluctuating electrical current.

What happened next is complicated. It involved lawyers, and shadowy visits to the patent office, and bribed patent clerks, and probably some great 19th century insults. The end result of it all being a huge controversy about whether Bell read Gray's preliminary patent paperwork and copied parts of his invention. Understand that this was all before either of the men got their damned inventions to work. Indeed, Bell's famous first words on the telephone occurred while he was testing a device that looked an awful lot like Gray's patent application.

Wikimedia Commons
"Mr. Watson, come here and check out this great thing I stole."

That's being a little glib; there's ample evidence that Bell came up with all the important parts of the telephone on his own, and even had a greater understanding of the problem than Gray. But that Bell got the trillion-dollar patent and Gray got superjacked seems a little unfair.


OK, hang on. This was Einstein. Everyone knows it was Einstein. Not many people know what this equation represents (mass-energy equivalency) or what it does (confuses undergrad physics students), but everyone knows that it was Einstein who first figured it out. How could it not be? Einstein is the personification of genius.

Wikimedia Commons
And daring fashion sense.

And all that's true. But only just, as there were more than a few other people sniffing around the same problem. Henri Poincare was working on a related problem a few years earlier and discovered the relationship between mass and energy, although he didn't come up with the famous equation.

Wikimedia Commons
"Wait. E=mc ... pared? Bared? Scared?"

And an Italian physicist called Olinto De Pretto, while working on a theory centered around the slightly daffy idea of aether, managed to come across the equation E=mc2 a couple years before Einstein.

Wikimedia Commons
Based on the standard genius metric of follicular entropy, his mustache is smarter than the rest of him.

Now obviously, none of these people framed their work in the same way Einstein did in the context of special relativity, a truly legitimate breakthrough. So Einstein's discovery and reputation remain intact. But if one of those others had just a slightly messier haircut ...

Continue Reading Below

Polio Vaccine

Polio is one of the biggest assholes of the virus kingdom, causing paralysis and occasionally death, almost exclusively in young children. One of the cruelest diseases in the world, its near eradication in the last half-century was a big smack in the face of nature, and as sure a sign as any that humanity ain't nothin' ta fuck with.

Here, two members of the Wu-Tang's research auxiliary, Virus Killa and Ol' Hygenic Epidemiologist, celebrate their victory over nature.

The story of polio's eradication is pretty widely known, especially among people who were alive in the 1950s and who probably don't read Cracked, so maybe I'll just explain it here anyways. Back in the 1950s, polio outbreaks were a common occurrence in the United States. Stepping up to this challenge was Jonas Salk, Man of Science, who created the polio vaccine in 1952, probably using test tubes of some sort, before sprinting around the countryside, distributing his vaccine to all the grateful schoolchildren.

Wikimedia Commons
Later, his work stabbing children would earn him the cover of the 1950s predecessor of Cracked.

Only, as you might have guessed by now if you've read all the way through this article, Salk wasn't the only one to create a vaccine, nor even the first. Salk's vaccine was a "dead virus" version, containing dead samples of the polio virus, jabbed into kids to allow their immune systems the opportunity to have some target practice on dead versions of polio. "Live virus" versions of the vaccine were being developed at the same time, with the first, an oral version developed by Hilary Koprowski, apparently in a working state as early as 1950. A few years later, Albert Sabin's version of this oral vaccine would eventually replace Salk's vaccine in most parts of the world (but not the U.S.). Indeed, in many parts of the world Sabin is more famous than Salk for his work eradicating polio.

This isn't to discredit Salk, whose work made it to large-scale trials first, which does count for something. (All those lives saved, I guess.) No, he fully earned all the virologist tail that Wisdom cover surely would have gotten him.

Wikimedia Commons
"First round's on me, ladies."

Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and has never, not once, gotten any virologist tail. Join him on Facebook or Twitter and listen to him lament that.

To turn on reply notifications, click here


Load Comments