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Second-place glory

Why Second Place Doesn’t Make History

Why you should care

History’s made up of winners, but often those in second place made huge unsung contributions.

Victors may write the history, but inspiring success stories can all too often overshadow less spectacular tales of brave people who pushed society forward without honors or recognition. Even the ones who paved the way for the eventual victor.

In the bigger scheme of things, what’s a month?

We all know Neil Armstrong, but fewer remember the second man to set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. The third moon-walker, Charles Conrad, may have known that nobody was watching, which is probably why, instead of solemn words, he let rip with a simple “Whoopee!”

Norwegian Roald Amundsen also received much more credit than British Robert F. Scott after beating him to the North Pole by just a month. Scott died on his way back, which of course didn’t help, soon after realizing how close he’d come to glory. But really, in the bigger scheme of things, what’s a month?

And have you ever heard the name of Bert Hinkler? Probably not. He flew across the Atlantic second, soon after Charles Lindbergh launched headlines worldwide.

Still, being first is often difficult to prove and even then, not always a guarantee of fame. Take Thorfinn Karlsefni. He was one of the Vikings who settled in Newfoundland, Canada, about 500 years before Columbus set sail for the New World. Yet the sailor from Genoa is still widely credited as being the European who discovered America.

BW illustration of viking and ship going down river

Karlsefni’s expedition ascending the Charles River

Countless pioneers have gone unrecognized.

The Wright brothers might not have been the first to fly an airplane either. Richard Pearse, a farmer from New Zealand, is said to have flown 350 yards with a plane of his own invention, nine months before the Wright brothers took off. Another contender for the title is Gustave Whitehead, a German engineer living Connecticut who claimed to have flown in 1901, two years before the Wrights did.

Countless pioneers have gone unrecognized in the field of engineering, where a patent often means the difference between glory and oblivion. The microprocessor, for example, was first invented by Geoffrey Dummer, a British electronics engineer. But he abandoned the idea after his presentation of the device failed to impress the attendees of a conference in 1952. Six years later, Jack St. Claire Kilby, an American scientist, filed a patent for an almost identical device. The invention made billions for Texas Instruments.

The most emblematic case of legal woes is probably that of Antonio Meucci, who invented the first phone-like device in 1854. He filed a caveat at the U.S. Patent Office, essentially putting a temporary hold on the idea before filing for a full patent. But soon he went bankrupt and could not afford the $10 fee to renew it. It expired in 1874 and, two years later, Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent.

In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives declared, “If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell,” but school books still list Bell as the telephone’s inventor.

Many women’s contributions have also fallen through the cracks. In 1962, James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for discovering the DNA’s double helix structure, an achievement that was only possible because of Rosalind Franklin, the biophysicist who took the first pictures of life’s building blocks and received no credit for the discovery.

BW portrait of Antonio Meucci

Antonio Meucci

Sometimes even those who completely fail to reach their objectives pave the road for others to succeed. It’s the case of countless 19th-century explorers who, driven by curiosity and national rivalry, joined a race to the farthest corners of the Earth.

When John Hanning Speke discovered the source of the Nile in 1858 he did so, in part, based on the unsuccessful previous attempts of little-known explorers like Robert James Gordon, Henry Pike Welford and John Ledyard, all of whom lost their lives trying to solve the century’s most gripping mystery.

Also forgotten have been many who helped their life partners to the finish line, like Florence Barbara von Sass, the wife of famous African adventurer Sam Baker. She accompanied him in all his expeditions.

Still, history’s most neglected heroes might be the local men and women who worked tirelessly to get others into the history books and received barely a footnote in return.

…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…

It’s the case of most African porters whose role in exploring their own continent has been widely understated. Their first names — Bombay, Chuma, Susi, Uledi — are sometimes mentioned in explorers’ journals and some received honors from the Royal Geographic Society, but their exploits have gone largely unsung.

Likewise, Sherpa guides risk their lives helping Westerners up the Himalayas but their names are often left out when recounting mountaineering feats. A notable exception was Nepalese Tenzing Norgay, who received wide recognition and a medal from the Queen of England for reaching the summit of Mount Everest with his friend Edmund Hillary.

History’s limelight is capricious. Why should those who fall slightly short of the mark not be recognized for persistence and courage?

Theodore Roosevelt put it best in a 1910 speech: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena (…) who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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