The Most Important People You Never Heard Of

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

Aldus Manutius (1449-1515)

Although Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, the person who did more than anyone else to transform printing from a handy device for printing official documents to an information revolution was the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Gutenberg’s first large book was his celebrated Bible. Aldus Manutius realized that the real potential of printing lay in inexpensive mass market books, but to sell them, he had to provide something worth reading. It had only been a few decades since Constantinople had fallen to the Turks, and large numbers of Greek refugees were arriving in Western Europe, bringing with them copies of the Greek classics.


Aldus Manutius bought their manuscripts and hired the Greeks to write and print Greek grammars and dictionaries – so that his customers would be able to read the Greek classics he was planning to sell them. This is more than just astute marketing – it is one of the first cases of an innovator developing an entire infrastructure to make the innovation succeed. When he died in 1515, every known major Greek work from antiquity was in print. Aldus Manutius guaranteed that despite whatever catastrophes might come, Europe would never again lose its classical knowledge. At his death, Venetians saluted him by decking his funeral gondola, not with the traditional flowers, but with books.

Franz Timmerman and Karsten Brandt

People who recall the Soviet Union might be surprised, on reading Russian history, to discover that Soviet style paranoia has been around for centuries. In the late 1600's foreign traders in Moscow were restricted to a small district called the German Quarter. Not far away lay a country estate, home of young prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov and his mother. They had lived there in voluntary exile ever since they were nearly killed in a bloody coup in which eleven year old Pyotr saw many of his supporters thrown off a balcony and impaled in the pikes of the palace guard.

Pyotr was fascinated by the foreigners and engaged Franz Timmerman as a tutor. One day, while exploring, they happened upon the hulk of an old boat. Timmerman introduced Pyotr to Karsten Brandt, who helped Pyotr repair the boat and taught him to sail it. Pyotr, who lived hundreds of miles inland, developed a lifelong fascination with ships and the sea.

William Moorcroft (1765-1825)

William Moorcroft was a veterinarian for the British East India Company who set out to solve a serious problem. To offset their great inferiority in numbers, the Company needed a powerful cavalry force that could win campaigns quickly and decisively through what we now call "shock and awe." Their horses had to be fast and capable of carrying heavy loads long distances in rough terrain and harsh climate. Moorcroft had the idea of looking to Central Asia, where there was a vast market in horses and where the native cultures were based on horsemanship. To get there, Moorcroft would have to travel in Asian disguise. Between 1811 and his death in 1825 (by disease or poison), Moorcroft made a series of daring journeys, returning not just with horses but troubling intelligence.

Moorcroft was not just a good veterinarian but strongly humanitarian as well and he put his medical skills to use treating people, sometimes hundreds a day. Given the remoteness of the regions he travelled, he was able to undertake risks that doctors in more "civilized" places would have avoided, such as removing tumors and treating eye diseases like trachoma using methods that worked on horses. Moorcroft's enlightened attitudes toward the people he met paid off many times over on his dangerous journeys.

Moorcroft was deeply angered by the moral and social evils he saw. People who wax eloquent against colonialism are frequently unaware that there were non-European empires as well, and some European colonialist moves were aimed at the suppression of rival local empires. For example, Burma is a harsh dictatorship now because it was one in the early 19th century, and the British occupied Burma largely to suppress its depredations on its neighbors. Moorcroft was troubled by the misrule of the decaying Gurkha Empire in the lowlands of Nepal and convinced the Governor General of India to move against the Gurkhas in 1814. Within a couple of years the British had taken most of the Gurkha Empire and, more importantly, began recruiting Gurkha soldiers to do what they like to do best - fight. So the former soldiers of a moribund empire joined the services of a far more enlightened one and to this day make up some of the world's elite military units.

But Moorcroft's concerns about the Gurkhas paled in comparison to what he saw in Central Asia. He learned just how pervasive and extensive Russian attempts to dominate the region were and feared that the Moslem peoples would rally to the Russians as a counterpoise to Chinese influence. He urged the British in India to adopt a policy of the best defense being a good offense by establishing protectorates over Afghanistan, Ladakh and Kashmir. Author Paul Johnson sums up Moorcroft's achievements in these words.

His warnings were taken seriously, his sinister death being an added reason for heeding them, and much of what he proposed was eventually done or tried. More importantly, he set in motion that delicate form of paranoia, known as the Great-Game mentality, which was to be part of the British Raj until the very instant of Britain's withdrawal in 1947, and which, in the form it took on the other side of the hill, was to obsess Russian policymakers as late as 1979, incite them to invade Afghanistan, and so bring the mighty Soviet empire crashing down in the next decade.

In a final, masterful understatement, Johnson concludes:

It was quite an accomplishment for a veterinarian who set out to buy horses.

Elizabeth Loring

The famous low point of the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge in 1777 was about as low as military morale can get. Anyone who visits Valley Forge today, an easy half hour drive from Philadelphia, might well wonder why the British didn't simply march out from nearby Philadelphia and put an end to the whole business. Partly, armies in those days just didn't fight in the winter, for good reasons. Take away the modern highways, and the terrain between Philadelphia and Valley Forge isn't an easy hike. It would have been a slow slog in snow and mud, difficult if not impossible for wagons and artillery to traverse. The columns would have been vulnerable to snipers, Washington would certainly not have been taken by surprise, and he might well have been able to attack and defeat a British force. On the other hand, why not just stay in winter quarters in Philadelphia, warm and well fed, and let the cold and poor American logistics do their work?

General William Howe, the British commander in Philadelphia, had other reasons to stay put. With him in Philadelphia was his mistress Elizabeth Loring. In typical upper class British fashion, her Loyalist husband took it like a gentleman, and that lucrative appointment he got in return didn't hurt in the least. Howe wasn't a bad general, or a bad person, by any means, but has been rather roughly handled by historians for his weak strategic sense. Ms. Loring has never been officially recognized for her role in American military history. Get all cold, muddy and wet chasing rebels in the snow, or stay warm and snuggly in Philadelphia? Doesn't take a Clausewitz or a Sun Tsu to figure this one out.

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (1913-2000)

As a teenager, this Austrian-born actress was renowned for her beauty and soon rose to prominence in the German film industry. At 19, she became the trophy bride of an arms manufacturer. Life soon imitated art; one of her films had dealt with a love-starved young wife in an unsatisfying marriage, and Kiesler's real life husband prudishly tried to buy up all copies of the film because of its then frank sexual content. In addition, he forced her to give up her acting career and instead took her on the rounds of his business engagements, where she learned a good deal about military technology. If the fascists knew what was going on inside that pretty head, they might have watched her more carefully. After four years she ran away to Paris, in 1937.

From Paris, she moved to London, where she met director Louis B. Mayer, who urged her to come to Hollywood. This particular pick-up line was on the level (Mayer was familiar with her career), and she quickly gained prominence in American film.

Yet Kiesler's intellect sought other outlets as well. She made the acquaintance of avant-garde musician and inventor George Antheil, and together they devised a means of transmitting radio signals while jumping frequencies, to prevent jamming or interception. They were awarded a patent on the device, which they hoped to contribute to the war effort. But it was too advanced for the technology of the time and was never used. Years later, after the patent expired, the idea was incorporated into a wide variety of communications including military radios and wireless telephones. Kiesler hoped to join a council of inventors tasked with developing new technology for the war effort, but was convinced she could contribute more as an actress and publicist.

Kiesler is now honored in technology circles, but movie buffs remember her for her successful film career under her stage name: Hedy Lamarr.

Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov

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Created 13 December 2007, Last Update 31 May 2020