But don't assume the USSR got a raw deal in the space race, because ...
There's a reason why nothing gets your name written larger in history books than being first at something. Humanity is all about breaking new ground and reaching new frontiers, so of course we idolize those who were the first up Mount Everest, or to find out what happens when you cram a bunch of Mentos up your ass and sit down in a bathtub full of Diet Coke. But a whole lot of these famous firsts are credited to the wrong people, due to politics, bad luck, or outright lies.
For instance ...
When it comes to space travel, most of us have room in our brains to remember the first few explorers and maybe one horrific explosion, but all the other astronauts and missions get jumbled together in a hazy mess. We know, for instance, that the first man to orbit the Earth was John Glenn, the first moon walk was Neil Armstrong, and, of course, the first woman in space -- thus striking a mighty blow for gender equality by disproving the myths that menstruating ladies attract space bears -- was Sally Ride.
Yeah, like that space shuttle in the background isn't the least bit suggestive.
Except That ...
Sally Ride wasn't the first woman in space at all, or even the second. Before we get to who it was, take a minute to think back through all the names you know of famous space explorers ... they're all awfully American-sounding, aren't they? Well, your history books didn't do that by accident.
During the space race, every time the USSR accomplished something noteworthy, the United States made a bunch of sitcom-ish gestures in front of the world news coverage while hoping John Q. Public would never notice. Then, once America accomplished the same feat, we'd shower ourselves in accolades and insist that everyone call us pioneers. That's why you probably didn't know that the first woman in space was actually Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova.
In June of 1963, when Ride was just 12 years old, Tereshkova was already taking laps around the Earth aboard the Vostok 6. Her first mission made 48 full orbits during 70.8 hours, which works out to one orbit every one and a half hours. Oh, and she was also the first civilian in space. Before becoming a cosmonaut, her only experience with aircraft was abandoning them in midflight as a professional parachutist.
Yet by the time she finally hung up her spacesuit, Tereshkova had racked up more time in space than all United States astronauts combined. Of course she was silly with awards by then for her extraordinary contributions to space exploration, but the U.S. quietly forced an ether-soaked flag over the mouths of history book writers and jotted down Sally Ride's name instead, despite the fact that she was two decades late.
RIA Novosti / V. Malyshev
On the plus side, Tereshkova got hit on by Khrushchev. So there's that.
But don't assume the USSR got a raw deal in the space race, because ...
Because it all happened behind the Iron Curtain, there's still quite a bit we don't know about Russia's space program in the second half of the 20th century. What little we do know is shocking in its complete disregard for life, safety, or anything that might stand between the outer limits of the atmosphere and a dog wrapped in a metal chamber. Russia was like the Rudy of the space race: not very talented or well-suited to the task, but desperately eager and wistful.
"C'mon, coach ... just play us once."
But who can argue with the results? They launched Sputnik into space while the U.S. was still fretting over petty problems like "What happens when it comes crashing back to Earth?" America's whole motivation for going to the moon was that the Russians had beaten it by being the first into space.
Except That ...
They absolutely weren't. While it may be gratifying to know that the reckless, arrogant giant that was the Soviet Union during the middle of the 20th century got beaten at its favorite game, slow your victory lap, because it wasn't the U.S. that beat them. So who was the plucky underdog country who swooped in and stole the win in the space race? Surely it's some country deserving of more renown and celebration for their ... monumental achievement ... oh goddamn it, it was the Nazis.
As early as the 1930s, Nazi scientists were working on developing a long-range ballistic missile for the military. When war broke out, development accelerated, and eventually they formed the V-2 rocket. When Hitler initially saw the slapped-together hunk of explosives, he concluded that it wasn't fit for use -- until late in the war, when he hurriedly approved it as his last-ditch miracle weapon. Fortunately for the rest of the world, the V-2 was absurdly ineffective. The entire program cost more than the Manhattan Project, killed more people in production than it did in actual combat, and was generally so crappy that the Allies decided it was less dangerous to let the rockets hit their targets than to try to blow them out of the sky.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-1875A / CC-BY-SA
"Also, we felt kinda sorry for 'em."
But what the V-2 lacked in killability it made up for with revolutionary spaceflight. On October 3, 1942, almost exactly 15 years before the launch of Sputnik, Nazi Germany became the first people on Earth to fire anything into space. They launched a V-2 that went right through the stratosphere, reaching a height of 150,000 feet before it presumably plummeted back to Earth on top of some terrified bystanders.
After the war, the Allies initiated Operation Paperclip, in which the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union traded German scientists like baseball cards and the V-2 became the granddaddy of every modern rocket design around the world. The Soviets would copy the rocket, calling their ripoff the R-1, and several tweaks later, they had the R-7 -- a rocket that could fling an object into orbit. Thanks, Hitler!
National socialism really did us a solid on this one.
The invention of the telephone is one of those storybook legends everyone learns as a schoolkid. You know how it goes -- Alexander Graham Bell is tinkering with his newfangled magic talking machine and says the legendary first words ever spoken into a phone: "Mr. Watson, come here." Then Watson probably picked up his phone and burned it for witchcraft.
Bell did look a lot like a wizard.
Except That ...
If you read Cracked frequently, you already know that Alexander Graham Bell was an idea thief on Inception-type levels. In fact, even if we were able to give all the credit back to the people from whom he stole his greatest innovations, we would probably still celebrate Bell for all the crazy inventive ways he went about stealing inventions. For instance, he stole the idea for the first telephone from an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci.
Alias: Santa Claus.
But then you have another victim, named Elisha Gray, and some impressive levels of legal fuckery that Bell used to screw him out of a patent. Gray developed one of the very first methods for a voice-transmission system using a revolutionary liquid transmitter that allowed voice to be clearly and intelligibly heard over the phone, a vast improvement over the tinny gibberish that other inventors (like Bell) were able to produce. And unlike Meucci, Gray had the money and wherewithal to keep his patent from expiring.
And, apparently, to afford a barber.
However, unbeknownst to Gray, Bell and his attorney had been bribing a patent examiner named Zenas Wilber to alert them any time someone was patenting any idea even remotely related to a phone, because they wanted to ensure that no one would end up beating them to the punch with a finished product. When Gray let the patent office know of his impending filing, Wilber quickly alerted Bell. Bell's lawyer then intercepted Gray's papers and saw that the guy had actually figured out how to make a working telephone ahead of Bell. Hurriedly, the lawyer scribbled a few lines on Bell's patent application, stealing Gray's liquid-transmitter design, and submitted them later that same day.
That's not just speculation, either -- Wilber confessed to his crime in detail when Gray launched a patent suit. In a sworn affidavit that was published in The Washington Post, Wilber said that he was a drinker and needed the money Bell was offering to support his habit, which meant that Alexander Graham Bell was basically caught in the act of thievery. So, how come no one has ever heard of Elisha Gray? Well, despite the fact that Gray's application arrived faster than Bell's, and despite the fact that a man confessed to being a drunken bribe taker, Bell still managed to win the battle and Gray slipped into obscurity.
On the left is Gray's original patent application, and on the right is Bell's doodled ripoff.
One of the first things kids learn about U.S. history, aside from the fact that George Washington was the first president and that it was illegal to be a general in the Civil War without some sort of creative facial hair, is that Betsy Ross created the first American flag. The story goes that one day a congressional flag committee, of which George Washington was a member, kicked through the wall of Ross' shop to commission the creation of a new flag (Washington hated doors and refused to use them).
Ross, ever the brutally honest patriot, wasted no time in telling Washington that his flag design was a piece of shit, and instead sketched a new flag with 13 red and white stripes, a blue field, and 13 five-pointed white stars. Washington, humbled by Ross' graphic design prowess, entrusted her with the creation of the new flag.
"Are you sewing a condom? Because that won't be nearly large enough for Mr. Washington."
Except That ...
The Betsy Ross story didn't become public folklore until about 100 years after it supposedly occurred. Oh, and the source of the story was Ross' grandson, William Canby. Canby presented the tale to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, along with ironclad proof in the form of signed affidavits from family members who swore that they had, indeed, heard that story before. The Ross family was so adamant about spreading the story that they went so far as to have a painting made of the alleged meeting, thus satisfying the adage "Pics or it didn't happen."
"There goes my design career. Guess there's nothing to be but president now."
The truth is that there isn't really any historical evidence that Ross had anything to do with the design or manufacture of the first American flag at all. There are no congressional records of a flag committee ever being formed, and since George Washington was the commander-in-chief of disemboweling redcoats at the time, he likely had better things to do than listen to a Philadelphian widow tell him how bad his flag sucks.
Instead, the most likely candidate for the first flag design was a man by the name of Francis Hopkinson. In addition to being a representative of New Jersey and a Declaration signatory, Hopkinson designed a number of seals and logos for the government. As far as actual evidence, there isn't much ... well, except for congressional journals that explicitly name Francis Hopkinson as the true creator of the first flag. But it's understandably more fun to picture an old lady in the back of a shop shaking her head at the childlike drawing made by America's first forefather before crumpling it up and promptly outdoing him.
This guy doesn't look like anyone's grandma.
For such a simple machine, the cotton gin was one of the most important inventions in American history. Not only did it revolutionize cotton production in America, it also ushered mechanization into the Southern states and made the entire economy that much more dependent on slavery. You know what happened after that.
Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant had brunch.
But Eli Whitney probably had no idea that he would be at least partially responsible for one of the worst atrocities in American history, or the subsequent war that would ravage the South and leave it embittered to this day. All he was thinking at the time was "This job of separating seeds is awful, I bet I could build a robot to do it!"
"Finally, all those slaves will have some free time."
Except That ...
Once Eli Whitney unveiled his cotton gin -- a machine that would change the face of agriculture forever -- cotton farmers the world over collectively raised their hands to the sky and offered a resounding "So what?" See, Eli Whitney didn't just pull the idea of the gin from the ether -- it had already existed for thousands of years. India had been using the cotton gin since the fifth century. Granted, those gins didn't have moving double rollers to separate the seeds, like Whitney's. No, that revolutionary advancement belonged to China. Chinese cotton producers had been using an almost identical cotton gin to Eli Whitney's since the 12th century, and for some cruel reason, American plantation owners just insisted on making slaves pull the seeds out with their fingers.
"We feared a machine uprising."
So why do we remember Eli Whitney as the inventor? He was the only one smart enough to patent it and introduce it to the United States. Whitney patented the idea in 1793, changing it just slightly so that his could be considered original, and suddenly he became the genius that kids write papers about for their history classes. That's it.
In a lot of ways, his "invention" says more about American ingenuity than if he had built it from scratch: Who we remember as the groundbreakers are usually just the first people to get to the patent office.
"Suck it, Tesla!"
For more incorrect credits, check out 5 Important People Who Were Screwed Out of History Books. Or discover The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Insulting Things Named After Famous People.