There’s a canon of very important people that everyone knows. This is not that canon. It’s the one we think you should know: an exhaustively researched collection of undersung leaders, thinkers, entertainers, inventors, pirates, and popes — all of them people (or animals or ... inanimate objects) who’ve made our world a little more interesting.
The complete list appears in the December 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine.
No. 500: Annie Londonderry (1870-1947), USA
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky had only touched a bicycle twice in her life when, one day in early June 1894, the Boston mother of three mounted one and headed west. Armed with a revolver and a change of underwear, she’d accepted a challenge posed by two local men over an argument: that the modern woman couldn’t do everything a man could—like, say, fund her own trip around the world. Kopchovsky stood to win $10,000 if she could bicycle around the world in 15 months, earning herself $5,000 along the way.
So she did the natural thing: She turned herself into a bicycling billboard, selling ads to sponsors to fund her adventure. For $100 she agreed to go by “Annie Londonderry” as a promo for the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. She first pedaled to Chicago and back, then sailed to France, rode around Egypt, and hit Asia, collecting more cash all the way. When she returned to the United States 15 months later, she regaled the press with tales of time spent in a Japanese prison and on tiger hunts in India with German royalty.
Whether these tales were true wasn’t the point. In fact, there’s doubt the wager that inspired the trip ever happened at all. More likely, the entire adventure was an ambitious marketing ploy: a clever plot Kopchovsky hatched to fund an incredible journey just for the fun of it—and to make the case that, indeed, a modern woman could do everything a man could.
No. 498: Vesta Stoudt (1891-1966), USA
The mother of two Navy sailors complained to President Franklin Roosevelt that ammo boxes took too long to open, and suggested a rippable, cloth-based tape take its place on the battlefield. Voilà! Duct tape.
No. 496: Febb Burn (20th c.), USA
When legislators debated the 19th Amendment for women’s suffrage, Burn’s son, Harry, became the deciding vote. He opposed it until his mother mailed him a letter saying, ‘’Don’t forget to be a good boy.” He changed his mind.
No. 495: William Jones (1675-1749), Wales
Until 1706, pi was known as “the quantity which, when the diameter is multiplied by it, yields the circumference.” Jones started using the π symbol, making math homework simpler for generations to come.
No. 475: Karl Kruszelnicki (1948- ), Australia
Without his pioneering study on the belly button lint of nearly 5,000 people, we’d never know who’s likeliest to get the stuff (older, hairy men, for the record).
No. 473: Khosrovidukht (8TH C.), Armenia
It’s probably been a while since you last updated your extensive playlist of Armenian hymns, but we recommend Khosrovidukht’s “Zarmanali e Ints.” She’s the world’s first known female musician.
No. 471: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), England
She has a reputation as a serious novelist, but Woolf once fooled all of London by donning a fake beard and dressing as an Abyssinian prince. She even snuck onto a Navy boat and got the royal treatment.
No. 469: Annette Kowalski (1944- ), USA
In 1982, Kowalski joined a five-day painting seminar. The teacher? Bob Ross. She was so impressed with his skill that she eventually pitched his show to PBS. The rest is happy little history.
No. 466: Aziz Ansari (1983- ), USA
In 2013, the comedian tested new material by asking his audiences to submit basic personal information: gender, age, and relationship status. Then he tweaked his act based on the demographic. Who knew big data could lead to big laughs?
No. 463: Saint Nicholas (270-343), Turkey
You know Saint Nick for inspiring Santa Claus, but the patron saint of repentant thieves and reformed prostitutes was also known for challenging heretics to fistfights. And winning.
No. 460: Robert Matthews (1959- ), England
A scientist at Aston University, Matthews conducted a study that dropped 21,000 pieces of buttered toast, finding that the toast landed buttered side down 62 percent of the time.
No. 443: Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE), Alexandria
The Greek mathematician once accurately measured the earth’s circumference—with a stick.
No. 438: Lilian Bland (1878-1971), England
The original MacGyver, this aviator built her own plane from spruce, bamboo, canvas, an old whiskey bottle, and an ear trumpet.
No. 422: Ching Shih (1775-1844), China
Sorry, Blackbeard. The greatest pirate of all time was a woman who managed 40,000 other pirates, fought off the Chinese, British, and Portuguese navies—and was never captured.
No. 401: Thomas Edison (1847-1931), USA
In 1894, he recorded the world’s first cat video.
No. 399: Jack Black (19th c.), England
(No relation to Jack Black.) The eccentric exterminator who promoted himself as “rat and mole destroyer to Her Majesty,” Black explored London’s sewers with a legion of pet ferrets, which helped him catch vermin.
No. 398: Tom Wiggins (1849-1908), USA
Born into slavery in 1848, Tom Wiggins seemed like a strange kid. When he’d hear a rooster crow, he’d crow back. He’d drag furniture across the floor just to hear it make a sound. And when he’d hear his slave-master’s daughter play piano, he’d hop onto the bench and re-create the piece perfectly, despite not being able to read music, since he was blind. In fact, Wiggins could play any tune after hearing it just once, and once he’d played it, he had it memorized. Soon the 6-year-old prodigy was a sensation, selling out Georgia concert houses and touring nationally. He became the first African American to perform at the White House and packed concert halls around the globe, making him one of the first internationally known popular musicians. Historians later determined he was an autistic savant who had a vocabulary of just 100 words. That didn’t stop him from pulling in as much as $100,000 annually. Mark Twain was so mesmerized by his music, he swore that Wiggins was an angel.
No. 397: Larry the Cat (2007- ), England
Since Henry VIII, the British government has employed a Chief Mouser. Larry reports to the prime minister and holds an indefinite term.
No. 385: Ahmad al-Buni (13th c.), Algeria
An Arab mathematician, al-Buni has helped millions burn time. His “magic squares” are basically ancient Sudoku puzzles.
No. 383: Bun Lai (1971- ), USA
The environment is full of non-native animals and plants that can hurt an ecosystem. Bun Lai, a sushi chef, is tackling the problem with his palate. His Connecticut restaurant, Miya’s Sushi, serves invasive species as delicacies.
No. 323: Gene Simmons (1949- ), USA
The Kiss frontman taught sixth-graders in Harlem and was fired for replacing Shakespeare with Spider-Man comics.
No. 318: Roxelana (1504-1558), Ottoman Empire
A captured slave, Roxy eventually married a sultan and ran the entire empire, ushering in what historians call the “reign of women.”
No. 310: Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), Spain
In 852, Abbas Ibn Firnas donned a winged cloak made of silk and wood supports and jumped from a minaret at the Grand Mosque in Cordoba. He believed he could hang-glide to safety, but his wings weren’t strong enough. As he fell, his cloak inflated enough to slow his descent—ensuring Ibn Firnas’s legacy as the accidental inventor of the world’s first parachute.
Decades later, proving his spirit was unflappable, the polymath tried to fly again. In 875, he built a flapping glider and covered his body in bird feathers. “By guiding these wings up and down,” he said, “I should ascend like the birds.” A small crowd gathered at a cliff and nervously watched the 65-year-old jump. He plummeted at first, but suddenly caught a breeze and began to glide. “He flew a considerable distance as if he had been a bird,” witnesses said. It was the first recorded flight in history.
No. 304: Pope Francis (1936- ), Argentina
An honorary Harlem Globetrotter, Francis knows how to play tough. As a cash-strapped student in Buenos Aires, he worked as a nightclub bouncer.
No. 268: Potoooooooo (1773-1800), England
Also known as Pot-8-Os, the thoroughbred was one of the greatest racehorses of all time. He acquired the unique name because his stable lad didn’t know how to spell potato.
No. 258: Preston McAfee (1956- ), USA
This economist wrote a paper imagining what would happen to America’s GDP if the world was flat and Christopher Columbus had fallen off of it.
No. 243: Susette La Flesche (1854-1903), Omaha nation
After the Ponca people were forcibly removed from their land in 1877, La Flesche testified before Congress. Her work led to the Dawes Act in 1887, which outlined land rights and made Native Americans citizens.
No. 240: Moms Mabley (1894-1975), USA
One of the first woman comics and a pioneer of black entertainment, Mabley was also once the country’s top-earning actress, selling 1 million copies of her debut comedy album.
No. 238: Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), USA
In 1846, the paleontologist became the first person to solve a murder using a microscope. He examined blood on the shirt of the accused and determined it was human, not chicken blood, as the suspect claimed.
No. 234: King Tamar of Georgia (1160-1213), Georgia
The Georgians didn’t have a word for queen by the time this boss-lady rose to power, so they dubbed her king instead.
No. 229: Kate Schellenbach (1966- ), USA
One of the original Beastie Boys wasn’t a boy at all. She drummed with the Young Aborigines, a band that adopted the Beastie Boy alter ego as a way to blow off steam. When the joke band took off, they switched to hip-hop. Schellenbach left and kept playing rock.
No. 228: Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), USA
Hillary Clinton is hardly the first woman to run for president. Woodhull ran in 1872—48 years before women could vote. She was a clairvoyant, a fortune-teller, and a magnetic healer—and she founded the first lady-owned brokerage on Wall Street.
No. 217: Jon Batiste (1986- ), USA
Bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the jazz pianist released his first CD at 17 and is artistic director-at-large at the National Jazz Museum. Oh, and he’s not even 30.
No. 213: Paul Younger (1962- ), England
In 2001, he found a way to clean polluted water leaking from Bolivia’s mines: llama droppings. Bacteria absorb dangerous acid that could leak into the local drinking water supply.
No. 204: Khutulun (1260-1306), Mongolia
In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch’s curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad could marry the khan’s daughter, Khutulun, regardless of status or wealth. There was one caveat, which she herself decreed—you couldn’t take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give the princess a prize horse.
Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we’re talking about! Over the years, Khutulun accumulated more than 10,000 prize horses from failed suitors. Though she did ultimately marry a man whom she didn’t wrestle, she remained undefeated—for life.
No. 194: Margrethe II (1940- ), Denmark
The Queen of Denmark also illustrated J.R.R. Tolkien’s Danish edition of The Lord of the Rings.
No. 187: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684), Italy
The first woman in history to receive a PhD—she got it in 1678!
No. 175: Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), England
Raise a crayon to the illustrator of the first coloring book! It was such a novelty that it included instructions.
No. 161: Sybil Ludington (1761-1839), USA
Some people call Sybil Ludington the female Paul Revere, but she rode twice as far and, unlike Revere, actually finished her ride. The 16-year-old’s father was a colonel serving the Revolutionary cause when, in April 1777, British soldiers marched on Danbury, Connecticut, sacking and burning storehouses and homes. A messenger begged Ludington’s father for reinforcements, but his militiamen were home at their farms. So, at 9 p.m., the teenager rode off into the rainy night, bolting through dark woods to alert fellow revolutionaries. She yelled warnings, banging on doors and windows with a stick. Dodging British loyalists and outlaws, she covered 40 miles over the course of the night. The militia she assembled arrived too late to save Danbury, but thanks to Ludington, it did chase the British back to their ships. Later, the teenager received a commendation from General George Washington. (Oh, and America won the war!)
No. 154: Diamond the Dog (c. 1690), England
Isaac Newton’s pup changed the world for all the wrong reasons. As one story goes, the dog knocked over a candle, causing a fire that destroyed 20 years’ worth of calculations. Newton was despondent. “O Diamond!” he shouted. “Thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done!”
No. 133: Patricia Bath (1942- ), USA
The Harlem native developed laser devices that dissolve cataracts, allowing people who’d been blind for decades to see again.
No. 112: Marie Dacke (21st c.), Sweden
Until 2013, scientists believed that only humans, birds, and seals used stars to navigate. But in 2013, Dacke’s team learned that, when the moon isn’t visible, dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate back home.
No. 111: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse (21st c. ), England
One of the best ways to learn about an animal’s health is to look at the bacteria in its snot. As you can imagine, it’s dangerous to obtain such samples from whales. The scientist perfected a method of collecting whale mucus by using a remote-controlled helicopter. The drone hovers over blowholes and waits for the whale to sneeze, capturing the result in petri dishes.
No. 105: Princess Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), Sumeria
The world’s first known author and poet, the Sumerian writer used both the third- and first-person perspectives—a literary breakthrough not reproduced for almost 2,000 years.
No. 104: Jack the Baboon (c. 1870-1890), South Africa
One day in the 1880s, a peg-legged railway signalman named James Edwin Wide was visiting a buzzing South African market when he witnessed something surreal: a Chacma baboon driving an oxcart. Impressed by the primate’s skills, Wide bought him, named him Jack, and made him his personal assistant. Years earlier, Wide had lost his legs after falling under a train, which made his half-mile commute to the train station difficult. So he trained the primate to push him to and from work in a small trolley, as well as to help with household chores, like sweeping the floor and taking out the trash.
But the signal box is where Jack truly shined. As trains approached the station where Wide worked, they’d toot their whistle, which alerts the signalman to change the tracks. By watching his owner work, Jack picked up the pattern and started changing the tracks himself. One day, a posh passenger saw the baboon manning the gears, panicked, and complained to authorities. The railway managers promptly tested his abilities—and were astounded. “Jack knows the signal whistle as well as I do, also every one of the levers,” said railway superintendent George B. Howe. Jack was given an official employment number, and was paid 20 cents a day and half a bottle of beer weekly. He worked the rails for nine years without once making a mistake, reminding us that perfectionism is not just a human condition.
No. 102: Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), Italy
She wrote the first feminist listicle, The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she compiled the great women who came before her, from Dido to the Queen of Sheba. We figured it was time to return the favor.
No. 101: Robert Shields (1918-2007), USA
The greatest diarist of all-time, Shields makes Samuel Pepys look like a hack. His 37.5-million-word diary, the world’s longest, chronicles every five minutes of his life from 1972 to 1997.
No. 100: Ben Wilson (21st c.), Canada
Around 2003, the Swedish Navy was worried about strange sounds it heard in the water. Afraid of Russian submarines, it called upon Wilson’s team to investigate. Turns out the sounds were coming from herrings. The scientists discovered that the fish communicate by farting.
No. 94: Lal Bihari (1955-1975, 1994- ), India
In 1975, Bihari tried to apply for a bank loan, but it was denied because, according to the government, he was legally dead. And once the government decides you’re dead, proving you’re alive is pretty tough. It took Bihari 19 years fighting Indian bureaucracy to prove that he was, in fact, still breathing. He’s since created the Association of Dead People to help others with the same problem.
No. 82: Tim Pppppppppprice (c. 1963- ), England
That’s not a typo. Pppppppppprice changed the spelling of his name to deter telemarketers.
No. 73: Chewbacca (A long time ago), a galaxy far, far away
While shooting Star Wars in the Pacific Northwest, Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca, was accompanied by bodyguards to protect him from Bigfoot hunters.
No. 51: Paul Winchell (1922-2005), USA
As a kid, Paul Winchell had a noticeable stutter. He took up ventriloquism as a treatment, and not only did the craft fix the impediment, it turned out to be a crafty career move. Winchell became a renowned ventriloquist, and went on to voice beloved cartoon characters, including Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger. That success allowed him to pursue passions beyond the mic—and he had many. Over the years he built careers as an acupuncturist, hypnotist, and inventor. Ultimately, he held 30 patents, including those for a disposable razor, a flameless cigarette lighter, an invisible garter belt, battery-heated gloves, and, most significantly, an artificial heart. His design was critical to the first implants in the early 1980s (which, incidentally, Winchell developed with Henry Heimlich, of the maneuver). One of the patients who received it even broke the survival record at the time. By learning to throw his voice, Winchell not only creatively threw off adversity, he saved lives. All it took was a little heart.
No. 10: Susannah Mushatt Jones (1899- ), USA
At 116, the Brooklyn resident is the human race’s oldest living member, and she swears by eating four strips of bacon every morning. The phrase “Bacon makes everything better” still hangs in her kitchen today—a reminder that it’s never too late to celebrate the power of little things.
No. 8: Shajar al-Durr (c. 13th c.), Egypt
When France invaded Egypt in the mid-13th century, al-Durr, a widowed sultana, outwitted the superpower at every turn. She captured Louis IX, demanded nearly half of France’s GDP for ransom, got it, and effectively ended the Seventh Crusade—truly, an original boss lady of foreign policy.
No. 7: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1947- ), USA
The all-time NBA legend is also a legendary literature fiend. He’s written 10 books. He avidly reads everything from John LeCarre to Miranda July. And: He’s in Airplane! The bookish accomplishments of one of the coolest people in the world make Abdul-Jabbar an MVP in our book.
No. 6: Judy Blume (1938- ), USA
She’s the patron saint of young adult literature. Her characters dealt with racism, bullying, virginity, menstruation, and God—all in service of helping young readers roll with the punches of puberty. When the world made the least sense to us, Blume was there to shine some light.
No. 3: Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1826-1901), USA
An entire century before Rosa Parks, Graham, an African American, stepped onto a horse-drawn streetcar in New York City. The conductor demanded she leave; Graham refused and was arrested. After she sued (and won!), NYC’s public transportation was desegregated.
No. 2: Sonia Manzano (1950- ), USA
Jim Henson might’ve been Sesame Street’s architect, but Maria—played by Manzano for 44 years—was its den mother, embodying its sunny, patient spirit. Fifteen-time Emmy winner Manzano retired this year, but her impact on the Street—and countless children’s lives—won’t be forgotten.
No. 1: Edward Cave (1691-1764), England
In 1731, Cave published the first general-interest magazine: The Gentleman’s Magazine. In an age of lousy yellow journalism, the punchy periodical featured stories about fire-eating as well as essays by a young upstart named Samuel Johnson. Where would magazines be without him?