There are many people throughout history who have invented things that may have not only improved your life but could have saved it. It’s often the relatively unknown characters though, who you never learned about in history class, who made the real difference.
From revolutionary inventions to people with rare, life-saving blood types, there are some unsung heroes who most folks never even knew existed. These people silently left their indelible mark on history and even saved the world.
Nils Bohlin was a simple man working a day job at Volvo in the late 1950s. Born and raised in Sweden, Bohil was a mechanical engineer and inventor. Having worked previously for aircraft maker Saab, he was part and parcel of designing and developing ejection seats. However, there was one more far revolutionary invention that Bohlin would come up with later that would save millions of lives.
While basic lap seat belts had been around for a while, they were not life-saving devices and often left crash victims with terrible injuries. When Bohlin invented the three-point safety belt he suspected it would be a big success. Little did he know that his invention would save millions of lives and would become the most important safety device in cars for decades ahead. Bohlin retired from Volvo in 1985 and was later inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work.
Philo Taylor Farnsworth was born in 1906 to a Mormon couple living in a small log cabin in Beaver, Utah. Later in life, Farnsworth became an inventor and would eventually invent something we all own, love and cherish. His invention would be so revolutionary that it would change lives and people in the modern age forever. Despite his humble beginnings, this man went on to become a great success.
In 1927, when Farnsworth was just 21, he became the first person to transmit an image through the air. Just two years later, and he had improved his design to the point he was able to transmit a visible image of his wife, even if it was a blurry one. At the time, Farnsworth called it an “image dissector” but that little invention would go on to become the television that we all know and love.
Henry Dunant was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1828. As the oldest son of Jean-Jacques Dunant, he was a devout Calvinist and wielded some serious power in the upper echelons of society in Geneva. Dunant grew up during a period of religious awakening and he went on at the age of 19 to found a Bible study group who also helped the poor called the “Thursday Association.”
Dunant was the great man who traveled the world promoting his plan to form the Geneva Convention. On August 22, 1864, he succeeded in his endeavors and arranged for 12 nations to sign the first Geneva Convention. That world-changing convention would “guarantee 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.” Thanks to Dunant, the lives of thousands of soldiers around the world were saved. He also founded the Red Cross and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
Maurice Hilleman was born in 1919 to a Lutheran family who lived on a farm near the high plains town of Miles City, Montana. With seven brothers and sisters before him, Hilleman had a twin sister who tragically died. Even worse, his mother passed away two days after giving birth to him due to complications from her pregnancy. Later in life, Hilleman rejected his religion and went to college. He won a fellowship to the University of Chicago and received his doctoral degree in microbiology in 1944.
Hilleman enjoys the great accolade of saving more lives than any other medical scientist in the 20th century. His special interest was in vaccines and he went on to develop the mumps vaccine after his daughter contracted the illness in 1963. But this great man didn’t stop there as he invented another 40 vaccines, including ones for measles, hepatitis A and B, chickenpox, meningitis, and pneumonia, to name a few. There’s no doubt that Hilleman is responsible for saving the lives of millions of people.
Witold Pilecki was born on 13 May, 1901, in the town of Olonets, Karelia, in the Russian Empire. He was born into a very wealthy aristocratic family. His grandfather was a dedicated Polish nationalist and a supporter of the secessionist January Uprising of 1863. Fast forward a few years and Witold would do something remarkable that would change the face of World War II. He put his life at terrible risk, but for good reason.
Pilecki knew something fishy was going on at Auschwitz but hardly anyone in the West had any idea what was really happening there. He volunteered to get himself captured by the Nazis so he could infiltrate the death camp and reveal the truth to the world about the tragedy that was befalling the Jewish people of Europe. He even used a radio transmitter while in the camp and reported directly to the Polish Resistance. They, in turn, forwarded the information to the Allies and they ultimately liberated the remaining prisoners from that camp.
Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848. As the youngest of four children, his father George had been the slave of James B. Gray from Virginia. After George escaped slavery and fled to Massachusetts, it was clear that his son Lewis was a gifted child, displaying intelligence on a level way beyond his years. This man went on to invent something that changed the world, even though he never received the credit for it.
Not only did Latimer draft Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for his invention of the telephone, but he also invented something even more famous. Latimer was the man to patent a carbon filament for the incandescent light bulb in 1881. While Thomas Edison was generally credited as the inventor of the light bulb, his only lit up for a few minutes at a time. It was Latimer’s patented carbon filament which was much more useful and became the prototype for we know today as light bulbs.
James Harrison was born on 27 December, 1936. At the age of 14, he needed to undergo major chest surgery which required 13 liters of blood. Having remained in the hospital for three months after the operation, which was a success, he made a pledge that he would start donating blood as soon as reached 18. Little did he know that his blood was extra special.
This great man went to save the lives of at least two million people, albeit inadvertently. Known as the “man with the golden arm,” Harrison’s blood produces a highly rare antibody which cures the fatal Rhesus disease in unborn children. As soon as he discovered that his blood contained the miracle plasma, he donated his blood 1,173 times, making his way in the Guinness Book of World Records. His special blood has also been used in the development of a medicine called ‘anti-D,’ which is used for suspected Rhesus cases.
Gavrilo Princip was born on July 13, 1894, to a humble family living in a remote hamlet of Obljaj, near Bosansko Grahovo. As the second of nine children, Princip saw six of his siblings tragically die in infancy. While his mother wanted to name him Spiro, after her late brother, a local Eastern Orthodox priest insisted she didn’t name him after a person who had died. As strict adherents to the Serbian Orthodox Christian faith, they went along with the suggested name.
World War I
Princip changed the course of history, although some people would claim not for the better. As the man who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that execution led to the outbreak of the first world war. On June 28, 1914, Princip fired his gun twice at the archduke’s car, killing both the archduke and his wife. As a result of the 19-year-old’s actions, Serbia was invaded by Austria-Hungary and Belgium and France by Germany. While he isn’t your conventional hero in line with this list, Princip changed the face of Europe and could have ultimately been responsible for it becoming a first-world democracy.
Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia to her proud parents, Aliza and Johnny Pleasant. Nicknamed Hennie when she was just four, her mother tragically died giving birth to her tenth child in 1924. Her father moved the family to Clover where the children were distributed among relatives and extended family. Like most of her family, Lacks worked as a tobacco farmer from an early age, but she would go on to save thousands, even millions of lives.
After the birth of her fifth child, Lacks was admitted to Johns Hopkins University Hospital complaining of “a knot in her womb.” When doctors took a sample of her tissue they were both shocked and amazed by what they found. They noticed that unlike normal cells, Lacks’ cells didn’t die after a few days but continued to grow and even double every 24 hours. Those cells, known as ‘HaLa Cells,’ have been used countless times to develop the polio vaccine, the cancer drug tamoxifen, chemotherapy, gene mapping, and many other life-saving vaccines.
Alfred Wallace was born in the Welsh village of Llanbadoc, near Usk, Monmouthshire, on January 8, 1823. He was the seventh of nine children and was related to the famous William Wallace who led Scottish forces in the Wars of Scottish Independence many centuries earlier. Having graduated in law he never pursued that career, favoring instead to make investments in property – most of which went bad. But this man came up with a theory that would change the world, even if he never received the credit for it.
While Wallace invented the theory of natural selection, it was Charles Darwin who took the credit for it. The issue was that Wallace didn’t fit the profile of a serious scientist as he wasn’t interested in natural science and was a socialist and believer in life on Mars. Having written his theories down he sent them to his friend Charles Darwin who went ahead and read his own version to members of the Linnean Society in 1858. This move cemented Darwin as the man who challenged God, while Wallace pursued other avenues of interest.