Forgotten Heroes: 15 Important Figures in History You Might Not Have Heard Of

Our society is where it is today because of the achievements of those who came before us. Without their inventions and advancements, we wouldn’t have a lot of the modern conveniences we cherish.

We recognize many of the greatest contributors with holidays, statues, and plaques. Yet, some of the most influential inventors, scientists, and researchers fall through the cracks. 

We don’t mean to forget about people who have served society, but it happens all the same. As this list shows, some of the greatest among us have been unfairly forgotten. 

1: Garret Morgan

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Inventor Garret Morgan is responsible for improving a variety of things, including hair-straightening products, sewing machines, and traffic lights. Before Morgan came around, traffic lights were either red or green with no in-between. Morgan came up with the ingenious idea to install a yellow light, telling people to slow down. 

Morgan only had an elementary education but managed to become a sewing machine mechanic. With a seemingly inherent talent for machines, Morgan went on to open his own repair shop before patenting the three-signal traffic light.  

2: Hedy Lamarr

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Admittedly, you may have heard of Hedy Lamarr. She’s often remembered for her stunning on-screen looks that inspired characters ranging from Snow White to Catwoman. Yet, few people remember her biggest contribution to society. 

Lamarr wasn’t just a Hollywood beauty; she was also an inventor. Without her work, we likely wouldn’t have Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or GPS. 

At the beginning of WWII, Lamarr invented a device that could stop enemy ships from interfering with torpedo guidance signals. The method she used was known as “frequency hopping,” and it’s what modern wireless communication systems still rely on today.  

3: Nils Bohlin

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Nils Bohlin saved a million lives, though you probably haven’t heard of him. He was working for Volvo in 1958 when he invented the modern seatbelt. 

Lap belts had been around for a long time, but they weren’t very effective in the event of an accident. Bohlin created and patented the three-point belt that we use today. Though the design was initially met with resistance from drivers, it’s since become a standard fixture in automobiles. 

4: Philo Farnsworth

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If you enjoy watching TV, you should thank Philo Farnsworth. Though you may not recognize his name, Farnsworth technically invented television. 

In 1927, Farnsworth transmitted an image of a straight line by air. A bit later, he managed to transmit a picture of his wife. He called his invention an “image dissector,” but it was essentially television. 

Farnsworth didn’t get credit for his invention, though. Louis Baird is usually cited as the creator of TV. While Baird was arguably the better businessman and the first to build a color television, there’s no doubt that Farnsworth created the mechanics before him. 

5: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin didn’t fit the mold of a typical 1920s woman. In 1925, she was pursuing her PhD and managed to figure out what stars are made of. 

In her thesis, Stella Atmospheres, she correctly hypothesized that stars are composed of helium and hydrogen. She also showed that you could classify stars by their temperature. 

6: Henry Dunant

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The first Geneva Convention guarantees “neutrality to sanitary personnel, to expedite supplies for their use, and to adopt a special identifying emblem—in virtually all instances a red cross on a field of white.” It wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Henry Dunant. 

Dunant witnessed the efforts of medical teams attempting to care for wounded soldiers in Italy’s Second War of Independence and was horrified by what he saw. He published a memoir on the subject and proposed a plan which he pitched to European leaders. 

His efforts paid off. Not only was he responsible for the first Geneva Convention, but he also started the Red Cross and won the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. 

7: Preston Tucker

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Preston Tucker started as a mail messenger for GM but quickly climbed the ladder to become an innovative developer. He created automobile features that were far ahead of his time. 

From disc brakes to rear-mounted engines made from modified helicopter engines, Tucker invented many things that seemed unthinkable in the 1950s. Many of his developments were used in cars decades later. 

8: Maurice Hilleman

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In 1963, Maurice Hilleman’s daughter contracted mumps. Using his scientific abilities, Hilleman took a sample from the back of his daughter’s throat and created a vaccine. 

Hilleman didn’t stop with mumps. He went on to create 40 different vaccines for childhood diseases, saving millions of children from their immediate and long-term effects. 

9: Mary Anning

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Mary Anning was only 12 years old when she found her first fossilized dinosaur skeleton. After her brother showed her a fossilized skull he found on the beach, she went to work uncovering the entire skeleton of an Ichthyosaur. 

Later, in 1823, Anning was the first to discover a Plesiosaurus skeleton, and she didn’t stop there. Anning uncovered many of the earth’s historical creatures, though few people believed her at the time. Dinosaurs were a new concept in the 1800s, and many accused her of lying. 

10: Witold Pilecki

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Witold Pilecki was a Polish soldier in WWII who sensed something was off about Auschwitz. He got himself purposely captured to uncover what was happening inside the infamous concentration camp. 

Once inside, Pilecki pieced together a radio from smuggled parts, allowing him to transmit messages to the Polish Resistance. He told them what was happening, and they informed the Allies. 

Miraculously, Pilecki escaped Auschwitz without being found out. He continued to fight with the Polish Resistance until the end of the war.   

11: John Landis Mason

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You might be able to guess what John Landis Mason invented. As the creator of the mason jar, he enabled people to store prepared food for long periods of time. 

Canning was possible before mason jars, but it was more difficult. You had to use a wax seal, which was messy and time-consuming. 

Mason created glass jars with screw top lids and a revolutionary rubber ring. The ring created an air-tight seal that preserved the food inside. 

12: Lewis Latimer

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If it weren’t for Lewis Latimer, Thomas Edison’s light bulb wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive as it was. Latimer developed the carbon filament that allowed Edison’s light bulb to burn for long periods. Before Edison had Latimer’s filament in hand, his lights only burned bright for a couple of minutes. 

Latimer was the son of escaped slaves and had an impressive resume. Aside from his contribution to the lightbulb, he also assisted Alexandar Graham Bell with his telephone patent. 

13: Alice Guy-Blache

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Alice Guy-Blache was the first female filmmaker, but she did more than that. She was also the first to bring narrative storytelling to the screen. 

Guy-Blache directed over 1,000 films, most of them around two minutes long. Unlike other films at the time, hers had real storylines, making her a true industry innovator. 

14: Marvin Miller

Baseball on the field.
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Marvin Miller changed American baseball by leading the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82. Before Miller came into the picture, management effectively ran the game, and players didn’t realize their value. 

After Miller took control of the players’ union, he managed to increase their salary by 25%, up to $10,000. He also was, at least in part, responsible for free agency. Before Miller’s influence, players were bound to their team for life, but Miller helped change that. 

15: Henrietta Lacks 

Scientist with microscope.
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Much of the revolutionary medical research we rely on today is only possible because of Henrietta Lacks. She wasn’t a scientist or a doctor. Lacks was an ordinary person, but her cells became a crucial part of modern medicine. 

At 30 years old, doctors diagnosed Lacks with cervical cancer. During her treatment, doctors took some of her tumor’s cells without her consent. Though no one’s sure why, those cells never died. 

Scientists used Lack’s “immortal cells” to learn more about how cells and tissues work. They helped create the polio vaccine, among many other medical advances. 

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