Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Great Men

Yesterday, Francis Porretto at Liberty's Torch posted one of his thought-provoking little essays, as he is wont to do.  The idea is simple, whom would you nominate as the "greatest figure" of the 20th century?  Fran responds with a short list of four:
  • Thomas Edison
  • Nikola Tesla
  • William Shockley
  • Charles Drew
It's hard to sit in 21st century America and grasp how much Edison's signature invention affected the world at the end of the 19th.  Beyond the light bulb, though, with his labs at Menlo Park, he developed a method of developing things that was enormously productive.  I doubt I need to tell you about Tesla, as there's somewhat of a Tesla Renaissance going on these days.  I wouldn't single out William Shockley without the coinventors of the transistor, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen.  As I've said before, mankind has made more transistors than any other thing we've ever fabricated, including nails.  Charles Richard Drew developed the modern blood banking system, which has improved the lives of billions. 

A very distinguished group.  But what about others?  First, it's almost inevitable that a list like this will tell you as much about the preparer than the people on it.  With three engineers to one doctor, it has a decided technical leaning.  Commenter Matthew Wennerlund nominated Norman Borlaug, the agronomist who developed what we call wheat these days (genetically very different from the wheat our ancestors ate).  He has undoubtedly saved or enabled the lives of billions of people and in terms of pure numbers it's hard to top that, no matter how wretched that "wheat-like food stuff" is and no matter how many people have problems with celiac or related syndromes from it.  That's a "first world problem".  If you starve to death in childhood, you don't get celiac later in life.  It's similar to how the gene mutations that causes sickle cell anemia survives and isn't selected against: the gene gives survival advantage against malaria, allowing children to live long enough to reproduce.  

I think there's a place for the pioneers of rocketry to be considered, such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky or Robert Goddard, suggested by another commenter.  But we should be tying to narrow this down to the single "greatest figure", not just add people. 

From my parochial perspective, I'd think of Edwin H. Armstrong.  In the earliest days of electronics, Armstrong invented the essential "superheterodyne" architecture used in every type of radio, which is still the way it's usually done today, as well as inventing the FM mode.  Everyone who has used radio, TV, cable TV, weather radar, or hundreds of other things, has benefited from Armstrong.  

What do you think?  Did you notice that not one of these people is a government official?  When you go to consider them, you end up looking at the ones who caused the most death and destruction in the world: Hitler, Stalin, Mao...   Just goes to show you, when you look for the "Greatest figure", you end up with scientists, engineers and doctors.  When you look up the ones who have done the most damage, you get politicians. 


  1. Excellent points! And you're exactly right!!!

  2. Too many to single out one man, probably due to my view of the world.

    Although I do think Armstrong is right up there!

    "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" - Newton

  3. Joseph Lister was the inventor of antiseptic surgery in the 1890s, an important find for the 20th century. Candidate?

    Marie Curie, Marconi, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, and Neils Bohr deserve honorable mention.

    Edison, in suppressing studies on AC electricity in favor of DC, did as much harm to electrical advances as good.

    Shockley was part of a team, and didn't make his findings in a vacuum.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. "Shockley was part of a team, and didn't make his findings in a vacuum."

      Divemedic, that's a terrible pun :)

      I'm trying to find a German-ium response, but it really needs to be germane instead

  4. I'll stop lurking and post for once. Love the blog.

    I would consider as a group the Founders of our nation. I'm not sure if they count as politicians though to go against the last paragraph which I heartily agree with. If they were, then they were probably the last politicians that weren't a detriment. It's hard to quantify the effect our nation has had in the development of many of these other amazing things done by those considered. Just some food for thought I guess.

    1. Thanks, 11 Charlie! I meant Greatest Figure of the 20th Century. I'd take the founders as the greatest of all time, though.

      John Moses Browning is a good addition, as anon 0853 suggested. If you consider how many millions of lives his ideas have saved, I bet a bunch of people would vote for him.

      Divemedic, though, raised a point I struggled with. I think society owes the guys who invented anesthesia such an incredible debt I just can't describe it. But, again, last century. My wife is among those who have had hip replacement surgery, and the doctors who developed that have made millions of lives better.

      It's tough to try to winnow this list down to smaller numbers.

    2. Well now I feel dopey for missing that whole 20th Century qualifier! That really does make it tough, as so many amazing things happened which fortunately I get to enjoy all the benefits of.

  5. I vote for the man that invented the vacuum flask. It keeps food hot or cold but ... how does it know? >};o)

    Phil B

  6. Stephanie Kwoleck, inventor of Kevlar and mother of polyamarid fibers.

    Nicholas C. Metropolis, lead the design team that came up with MANIAC, although I guess you could use Frederico Faggin with his work developing the Intel 4004, the worlds first integrated circuit cpu commercially available.

    So many greats to choose from.

  7. Weird Al Yankovic for Bedrock Anthem and many others.

    1. I've gotta say I hadn't thought about the contribution of entertainers, but if anyone contributes greatly to the common good, it's comedians. After watching the video you suggest, I'm not quite sure what to say.

      Compared to the song he parodies, Weird Al enhances human existence by orders of magnitude. Under Weird Al's hand, the Red Hot Chili Peppers song goes from homoerotic to Hanna Barbera, and that's a large improvement in my book. We're all better of for what he did to that song. Thankfully, the impact of the Chili Peppers is pretty limited.

      I also hadn't thought of Kevlar, but it has certainly made a big contribution to humanity.

  8. Just a side note: the only politicians that come even close to being decent human beings trying to do what is right happen to be doctors: the Rands, Paul Braun, Tom Coburn.

    1. Good point. We have one here, too. Well, we had. Dr. Dave Weldon was our guy in the US House, but he said you need to get out of DC every couple of terms or it eats your soul, so he went back to medicine. He ran in the primary for Senate last time, but got in too late and couldn't make up the gap.