5 Renowned Pioneers Who Didn’t Discover Shit
The problem with history is that someone’s gotta write it. At least before recording technology and a way to preserve those recordings, getting data down required going through the natural bias of at least one human brain. This has resulted in some obviously conflicting accounts of what exactly went down at any point in human history, hence the saying, “History is written by the victors.”
Following that logic, it also means that if you’re one of the victors, it’s pretty sweet. You’re going to get the benefit of the doubt for eternity, and without someone willing to plumb dustier, secondary tomes, credit for a whole lot of stuff. Stuff that, in pure honesty, might not have been as singular an achievement as described. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re “the first” as much as “the first one that people remember.”
Here are five pioneers who get credit for things they didn’t really discover…
The premier poster child of false pioneers, and one that got the capital city of a world superpower named after him in the process: Christopher Columbus. Despite the best efforts of Florida, even schoolchildren are now probably aware that Columbus’ so-called discovery of America isn’t that straightforward. Immediately and obviously, it’s difficult to be the first person to discover a country that’s already fully occupied by a culture and civilization.
Even if you do want to give credit for crashing into the right rock, you’d still have to hand it to Leif Erikson, who landed in North America all the way back around the year 1000 A.D. He even named it, calling it “Vinland” or the “land of wine,” a name that seemingly, nobody bothered to put down on any maps, at least the ones that Columbus would later use. Erikson might not deserve the secondary credit eitiher, though, as there’s theories that other cultures, including Africa, had previously made contact from the other side.
Captain James Cook
Speaking of white sailors that hog credit, let’s take a look at the man given popular recognition for the “discovery” of Australia, Captain James Cook. Again, here, discovery has to exist next to a big honking asterisk, given that Australia was already well populated by a native population when he beached his big European ass on their coast. Beyond that, though, there’s evidence he wasn’t the first to end up there.
Unlike Columbus, this is much wider than a 1v1, two-explorer debate. By the time of Cook’s trip in 1770, fully double digit European landings on Australia were already recorded. Beyond that, there may well have been visits by Portuguese sailors and Chinese fleets in the preceding centuries. Maybe they too, could have gotten the credit, if they’d been smart enough to cruelly dominate the existing population!
Let’s flip to a different textbook: mathematics. If you’re not particularly mathematically inclined, don’t worry, neither are me and my Bachelor’s in Fine Arts. I’ll tread lightly here, to save us both from headaches. There is a law, known as Benford’s law, which states that the first digit in any real-world number, regardless of size, is disproportionately likely to be a low number like 1 or 2. In fact, the first digit of a number has a 30 percent chance of being 1, instead of the one-ninth you might expect, given equal distribution.
Why is this true? I have no earthly idea. To be fair, neither did Frank Benford, the man whose name graces this law. So if he didn’t explain it, he must have received the honor for discovering it, right? Weirdly, also no. It was discovered, and written about, by an astronomer named Simon Newcomb in 1881. Benford’s role was rediscovering Newcomb’s notes, testing them thoroughly, and publishing them. You’ll occasionally see a modern compromise of it being referred to as the Newcomb-Benford law, but I bet Newcomb’s ghost would still find the 50/50 split grumble-worthy.
Elvis Presley, famous singer of sequin and sandwich fame, is often called the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The “king” there probably wasn't chosen for its connections to colonialism, but they turned out to be pretty fitting. Him and Buddy Holly are often plopped onto Rock’s Mount Rushmore, and sure, they’re significant artists in the genre, but pretending they came up with it themselves is a whitewashing job Tom Sawyer would be proud of. Elvis himself clearly understood where his inspiration came from, and he was known for his vocal admiration for Fats Domino.
In fact, he wouldn’t acknowledge the nickname if Fats was in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the general populace preferred to ignore the obvious and clear Black influence on his music. I could explain why, but let’s not do ourselves the disservice of that song-and-dance. Hell, even Back to the Future couldn’t imagine a world in which Chuck Berry came up with rock and roll himself. The plain truth is, rock wouldn’t exist without the blues or without the efforts of African-American musical pioneers like Little Richard, Domino and Berry.
You might not know the man, but you know his comet. Now, Edmund Halley, unlike some others on this list, did actually make a groundbreaking discovery that earned him naming rights, but that’s still misunderstood. Ask pretty much anyone why Halley’s Comet is named that and you’ll get a patchwork, general guess that it was discovered by a guy named Halley. The fact is, the comet we know as Halley’s was observed and recorded long before he was around. His great discovery was that the comet orbited the sun, making its return consistent and predictable. People had seen Halley’s comet before, they just didn’t realize it was the same one over and over.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.