Unseen Heroes of Science

Gideon Mantell (1790–1852)

Mantell was a full-time medical doctor, but made some incredible contributions to palaeontology in his spare time. He was the first to correctly identify dinosaur fossils as giant reptiles and to describe Iguanodon, but was constantly fielding criticism from his rival, the founder of the Natural History Museum, Richard Owen. Eminent French anatomist, Georges Cuvier dismissed Mantell’s fossils as that of a modern species. Mantell suffered horrific damage to his spine in a carriage accident and after his death a decade later, an anonymous obituary in the local paper dismissed him as an inadequate scientist. Owen reacted to accusations of his involvement in Mantell’s defamation by sticking Mantell’s deformed spine in a jar and displaying it at the Royal College of Surgeons.

John Harrison (1693–1776)

A Yorkshire-born carpenter, John Harrison solved what was probably the greatest maritime problem in history: finding longitude at sea. In the 1600s, sailors could calculate latitude (N-S) from the angle of the Sun, but longitude (E-W) required accurately tracking local time relative to a meridian (Greenwich Mean Time). Regular pendulum clocks were affected by a ship’s motion and humidity, so Harrison designed and built four timepieces (H1-H4), the last of which could keep time so accurately on long voyages that Captain Cook referred to it as “our faithful guide through all the vicissitudes of climates”. Harrison didn’t receive his deserved payment and recognition from the British government until he was eighty years old.

Mary Anning (1799–1847)

One of the most prolific fossil collectors in the history of British palaeontology, Mary Anning taught herself geology and anatomy as a young girl. She was well known for collecting fossils along the Dorset coastline and selling them to tourists, inspiring the tongue-twister, ‘she sells sea shells on the sea shore’. Scouring the cliffs for fossils was a dangerous pursuit and Mary’s father fell to his death when she was only eleven. Mary herself survived countless falls and slips in bad weather, and was even unscathed when, aged one, she was hit by a lightning strike that killed three others. Mary found the first ichthyosaur fossil with her younger brother Joseph, as well as plesiosaurs, pterodactyls, belemnites and ammonites. She died from breast cancer aged 47.

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913)

Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection independently of Charles Darwin. Wallace was a self-educated biologist, gaining eminence in the field after major expeditions to South America and South East Asia. In 1858 he and Darwin jointly published a paper detailing the theory of evolution by natural selection, but it had negligible impact compared with Darwin’s Origin of the Species one year later. Wallace was well-known for his contributions to evolutionary science in the 1800s, but after his death, it was Charles Darwin who would become a household name.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958)

The mid-1900s was a diffcult time to be a woman, a Jew, or a scientist, never mind all three. Rosalind Franklin was mistaken for an assistant by her chauvinist colleague at Kings College, London and had to struggle with blatant sexism throughout her career. She was a brilliant biophysicist, taking incredible X-ray photographs of DNA and coming extremely close to solving the helical DNA structure. Franklin was beaten to publication by Watson and Crick in 1953 after Watson viewed some of her photographs. Some accounts suggest Watson simply turned up at the lab insisting to view the images, while others suggest that he had been regularly snooping around her place of work, hoping for a glimpse of the images that would change science forever.

Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)

Nikola Tesla was born in Smiljan, then part of the Austrian Empire, in 1856. At the age of 28, he sailed to New York City with four cents in his pocket and a letter from Charles Batchelor addressed to Thomas Edison, in which he apparently wrote “I know of two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.” Edison had Tesla initially working on some simple problems but soon had him working on improving the company’s direct current generators. After not receiving the $50,000 he had been promised by Edison to carry out this work, Tesla quit in 1885 and thus began a life-long animosity between the two men.

One of the fundamental sources of the rivalry between Edison and Tesla was their difference in opinion about the merits of the two possible electrical currents. Tesla believed that the concept of ‘direct’ current, or DC, that Edison was pushing was ineffcient and that ‘alternating’ current, AC, was the future in both power and eficiency. As we can clearly see today, it is Tesla’s AC that has prevailed and stood the test of time. But this is just one of the many great things which Tesla achieved during his life-time. He discovered ways to light bulbs wirelessly, and how X rays could be used safely for the first time.

In 1891 Tesla patented the ‘Tesla Coil’, a mechanism that allows for wireless transmission. Two years later, he demonstrated a wireless transmitter and receiver over which information could be sent, gaining a patent for his radio in 1897.

Tesla was devastated when Marconi patented the wireless radio in 1904, and thus began another bitter feud. The battle took the two men to a long-running court case into which Tesla ploughed all of his personal savings. In 1944, after an excruciating 40 years, the US Supreme Court came to a decision; the patent was awarded to Tesla after they discovered that Marconi had used a number of Tesla’s inventions in making his radio. Tesla died a year before the final decision was made, penniless and alone in a New York hotel.

By the time of his death, Tesla had roughly 300 patents around the world. His inventions allowed us to use electricity safely, and to transport it great distances without losing any of its power. This is why, to me at least, he is the real father of modern electricity. Thus, it is all the more tragic that Tesla languishes among the world’s many forgotten scientists.

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