Riley Allen

Odyssey of the Children

In 1919, Riley Allen and his fellow Red Cross volunteers rescued 800 young summer campers from Petrograd, Russia, after they were cut off from home by the Bolshevik Revolution. Allen saw the children reunited with their families following a two-year around-the-world odyssey. The little-known mission was one of the most selfless acts of humanitarianism ever. “Those lost children were someone else’s,” a relative of one of the children said years later. “The Americans didn’t have to do anything, but they did.” (Photo: Library of Congress)

Roger Babson

Takin’ It to the Street

In 1904, Massachusetts financial guru Roger Babson basically invented the profession of stock market analyst when he published the first of his investor newsletters. He also founded three colleges, ran for president in 1940, and wrote scores of books and articles on everything from business to religion to hygiene. Babson weathered the stock market crash of 1929 and amassed a fortune by following his own investment advice, which boiled down to buying when things are bad and selling in boom times. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Leo Baekeland

The Age of Plastics

The Age of Plastics was launched by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland, an admirer of Ben Franklin who came to America on his honeymoon in the late 1880s and stayed for the rest of his life. In 1907, he invented the first synthetic plastic, which he called Bakelite. Heat-resistant and nonconductive, Bakelite could be shaped into hundreds of products, from radio and telephone housings to jewelry and kitchenware. Manufacturers quickly made use of the new plastic, led by the electrical and auto industries. (Photo: Library of Congress)

William Beaumont

Window Into the Body

From the wild Michigan Territory, physician William Beaumont advanced our knowledge about the human body. When fur trader Alexis St. Martin was shot in the side on Mackinac Island in 1822, Beaumont nursed the French Canadian back to health. Although the fist-size hole in St. Martin’s side grew smaller over time, he was left with a permanent opening into his stomach, giving Beaumont a portal through which he made revolutionary discoveries about how our digestive system works. (Illustration: Washington University School of Medicine)

Alexander Cartwright

The Other Father of Baseball

On September 23, 1845, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York City became one of the first organized baseball teams. Founding member Alexander Cartwright has been credited with originating many of the key rules of the modern game, but while his actual role in developing those rules is disputed, Cartwright did play in some of the first contests under those regulations. Later, he led an adventurous life as a participant in the California gold rush and as a successful businessman in the Hawaiian Islands. (Photo: Hawaii State Archives)

Octavius Catto

The Forgotten Hero

When gifted scholar Octavius Catto was gunned down in Philadelphia in 1871 at the age of thirty-two, he became one of the first martyrs of the civil rights movement. His death was a tragic loss for the black community. A graduate of present-day Cheyney University, Catto raised one of the first volunteer companies of black soldiers during the Civil War. He later campaigned successfully to desegregate Philadelphia’s streetcars, and in 1870, he was inducted into the Franklin Institute, the prestigious scientific organization. (Illustration: Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

After printer Benjamin Henry Day launched the New York Sun on September 3, 1833, he became one of the most influential newspaper publishers of any era. The country’s first successful example of the nascent Penny Press phenomenon, the Sun was sold on the street by newsboys—a first in America. A model for papers that followed, the Sun attracted a wider audience by covering crime, scandals, and other gritty aspects of city life. It also introduced human interest stories and didn’t shy away from sensationalism. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Mary Dyer

Martyr to Her Faith

One of the early leaders in the fight for religious freedom, Quaker convert Mary Dyer was hanged by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in June 1660. Instead of eliminating a heretic with her execution, the Puritans created a martyr. A century later, freedom of religion would be among the founding principles of a new nation. A statue of Dyer that sits in front of the Boston State House bears this declaration, which Dyer made shortly before her death: “My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the Truth.” (Illustration: Library of Congress)

Dan Emmett

A Strange Sort of Merriment

The Virginia Minstrels, a spirited four-piece band led by fiddle-playing Daniel Decatur Emmett, became America’s original minstrel troupe in 1843. Their brainchild represented the first distinctly American form of theater, a spectacle whose crude racism now makes people cringe, but one that’s had enormous and lasting impact on our culture. The minstrel show combined song, dance, and comedy in a full-length theater presentation, one that eventually opened the door to show business for African American performers. (Photo: Harvard University)


Masters of the Machine

In 1942, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania proposed a machine (left) that could calculate wartime ballistics trajectories in seconds rather than hours, as it then took human workers. Completed in November 1945, their creation was called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC. Run by six female math experts—the first computer programmers—ENIAC was the first programmable all-electronic digital computer. Although it came too late to be of use in the war, it launched the electronic computer age. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Philo Farnsworth

Pictures Through the Air

In 1921, fourteen-year-old Idaho farm boy Philo Farnsworth conceived of the first electronic television camera while plowing his father’s fields. Gazing at the straight, even furrows, he envisioned a vacuum tube camera that would focus images on a light-sensitive plate and scan the resulting patterns of electrons in successive horizontal lines, which could be transmitted and converted back into images. In 1927, he was first to demonstrate an electronic television system, but wealth eluded him as giant RCA pushed him to the sidelines. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Edwin Forrest

America’s First Heartthrob

The first homegrown star of the American theater, Edwin Forrest had it all. Rich, handsome, and talented, he inspired unwavering devotion among his fans in the early 1800s. The clout that his enormous popularity provided enabled him to demand a larger share of the proceeds from his performances, eroding the power of managers and theater owners, a boon to all actors. Forrest also contributed to the welfare of actors by providing for the financial support of older thespians in his will. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Alexander Gettler

Chemical Detective

In 1918, chemist Alexander Gettler became New York City’s chief toxicologist, whose duties included investigating suspicious deaths. Relentless and exacting, Gettler was a poisoner’s nemesis. During his four-decade-long tenure, he pioneered forensic toxicology in America. Besides unearthing murderers, he identified victims of toxic industrial chemicals, leading to new safety standards in the workplace. His efforts also helped pave the way for the Food and Drug Administration and the creation of healthier consumer products. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Ruth Handler

Queen of Toyland

When Ruth Handler, the marketing genius behind the Mattel toy company, introduced the Barbie doll in 1959, she set the toy world on its ear. With the addition of clothes and related merchandise, the Barbie line made Mattel the number one toymaker. Handler was the Queen of Toyland for three tumultuous decades, one of those rare inventors who change popular culture. A brassy, self-assured entrepreneur, she was a woman operating in a man’s world. As such, she inspired hostility and fear, along with grudging admiration. (Photo: UCLA Library)

Harriet Irwin

From the Ground Up

After the Civil War, Harriet Irwin envisioned a new approach to domestic living. With no formal training, she drew up a plan for a hexagonal house—the first architectural design patented by a woman in the United States. Dated August 24, 1869, her patent represented the opening shot in the battle for women to find their place in the emerging profession of architecture. That struggle saw women go from being excluded from the field entirely to being confined to domestic design to participation in every aspect of the profession. (Photo: Fidelia T. Umberger)

Belva Lockwood

The Courtroom and the Badge

For young schoolteacher Belva Lockwood, the bitter taste of female pay discrimination would set off a lifelong battle against practices that held women back, a struggle that took her from rural New York to Washington, D.C., where she was in the first wave of women to graduate from law school. In 1879, she became the first female permitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1884 and 1888, she ran for president on the Equal Rights Party ticket, making her the most talked about woman in America. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Elmer Lovejoy

The Wizard of Laramie

Laramie bicycle repairman Elmer Lovejoy was enthralled by horseless carriages. In 1898, he fired up his own hand-built vehicle, signalling the dawn of the automobile age in the western half of the United States. In 1905, he invented a key component of the modern automobile steering assembly, the steering knuckle. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the money to patent his idea. Another inventor patented the same device and ended up receiving the credit and the profits for this advancement in automotive design. (Photo: University of Wyoming)

James Lovell

Revolutionary Spook

For the five years that he served in the Continental Congress (left), Boston teacher James Lovell was the government’s only codebreaker. A self-trained cryptologist, Lovell deciphered essentially all of the captured British dispatches, and he created new ciphers for our own leaders to use. His work was so critical to the war that he’s been dubbed the “American Revolution’s one-man National Security Agency.” In the technical world of clandestine communication, Lovell was a century and a half ahead of his time. (Illustration: Library of Congress)

John Landis Mason

Keeping It Fresh

In 1858, New York tinsmith John Landis Mason changed the dining habits of millions with his invention of a reliable home canning jar, making the preservation of fresh foods simple. Before then, winter had been a time for dull meals of dried, smoked, or salted meats, along with whatever fruit and vegetables could be conserved in the cool confines of root cellars. Mason failed to cash in on his invention, but the five Ball brothers of Ohio would become the largest producers of Mason jars in the country, earning them a fortune. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Maria Mitchell

Beholder of the Heavens

In October 1847, Nantucket librarian Maria Mitchell’s discovery of Comet 1847-VI introduced her to the scientific community, leading to a career as America’s first professional female astronomer. In 1848, she became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1850, she became the first female member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. When she was hired by newly built Vassar College in 1865, she also became America’s first female professor of astronomy. (Illustration: Library of Congress)

William T. G. Morton

Banishing Our Pain

In October 1846, Massachusetts General Hospital surgeon John Warren removed a tumor from the neck of a man who’d been put to sleep with sulfuric ether. This first public demonstration of ether’s use as an inhalation anesthetic ushered in a new pain-free era for surgery patients. The man who orchestrated the display was William Morton, a Boston dentist who’s been hailed as a benefactor to humankind and also vilified as a glory hound who attempted to cash in on this medical breakthrough. (Illustration: National Institutes of Health)

Mary Ann Patten

Captain Courageous

In 1856, pregnant nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Patten assumed command of the clipper ship Neptune’s Car after her husband, Capt. Joshua Patten, became incapacitated. At the time, the ship was making the perilous passage around Cape Horn off the tip of South America. The first woman in the history of the United States to skipper a large merchant vessel, Mary Ann fought raging seas, treacherous currents, and blinding storms to bring the ship safely to port in San Francisco, a feat worthy of the most experienced mariner. (Photo: National Portrait Gallery)

Annie Smith Peck

Reaching the Heights

Annie Smith Peck notched one unexpected accomplishment after another, from joining the vanguard of female university professors when she was hired to teach Latin at Purdue in 1881 to being the first person of either sex to scale Peru’s 21,812-foot Mount Huascarán, one of the highest mountains in the Western Hemisphere. Peck became the “most famous of all women mountain climbers” according to the New York Times, an adventurer who gallivanted around the world and generated headlines for her many daring exploits. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Lucy Terry Prince

Balladeer of the Colonies

Colonial-era slave Lucy Terry Prince lived a life worthy of a Hollywood heroine. In 1746, she composed the first known poem by an African American. She later gained her freedom, married, and raised six fine children, two of whom served in the American Revolution. Standing up for her family’s rights in more than one lawsuit, Lucy distinguished herself as one of the first persons of African heritage to argue their own case in court, winning respect for her eloquence. (Illustration: Artist Louise Minks and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association)

Harriet Quimby

The Angel That Fell from the Sky

In 1911, Harriet Quimby earned the first pilot’s license issued to a female in the United States. On April 16, 1912, she became the first woman to fly an aircraft across the English Channel, which should have made her world famous. However, the day before her flight, the British ocean liner Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, a tragedy that relegated news of Quimby’s historic deed to the back pages of newspapers. Just two and a half months later, Quimby died in a horrific accident while flying over Boston Harbor in an air show. (Photo: Library of Congress)

B. F. Skinner

The Pugnacious Pigeons

Psychologist B. F. Skinner is known for creating new ways of shaping human behavior, but not many people remember his most bizarre proposition. Early in World War II, he intended to train pigeons to sit inside the nose cones of missiles and steer them to their targets. He did invent a pigeon-guided missile system, but when he demonstrated it to government scientists in 1944, they laughed. However, Skinner’s success in training pigeons led him to perfect methods of behavioral engineering for humans. (Photo: Harvard University)

Maggie Lena Walker

Madam President

The daughter of a former slave, Maggie Walker grew up to be one of the early twentieth century’s preeminent businesswomen and advocates of racial equality. In 1903, she became the first African American female to charter and serve as the president of a bank, funding multiple homes and businesses in the black community. She also launched a widely read newspaper, opened a department store, built up a thriving insurance business, and turned a sleepy fraternal organization into a national powerhouse. (Photo: National Park Service)

Mary Edwards Walker

A Singular Samaritan

In 1855, Mary Edwards Walker earned a doctor of medicine degree, one of the earliest American women to achieve that distinction. Her most noteworthy accomplishment came a few years later when she was named an acting assistant surgeon in the Union Army, making her the only legitimate female army surgeon in the Civil War. Walker’s service resulted in her becoming the first and only female ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor. She was also a vocal lifelong advocate of women’s rights. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Henry Wellcome

Thank You, Mr. Wellcome

Born on the American frontier, Henry Wellcome won public renown after cofounding a pharmaceutical company in London in September 1880. He also became fabulously rich and was knighted by the King of England. His labs took the lead in developing new drugs, which scientists were initially leery of, since medical research was typically done in universities. Convinced that doing good and making a profit aren’t mutually exclusive, Wellcome felt the goal of his work was to “lessen pain and postpone death.” (Illustration: Wellcome Library)

Rosebud Yellow Robe

Bridge Between Two Cultures

The great-grandniece of legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull, South Dakota-born Rosebud Yellow Robe became a pioneering folklorist in New York City in the 1930s. For more than sixty years, she touched the lives of untold thousands, especially children, with her live talks, radio presentations, television appearances, and books about Native American culture. Rosebud dedicated herself to dispelling the ugly stereotypes about Indians created by Wild West shows and dime novels and perpetuated by radio, television, and movies. (Photo: Denver Public Library)

Victoria Woodhull

The Contrary Chameleon

Victoria Woodhull was so progressive for her day that she seemed like a sorceress to her contemporaries, yet she accomplished a remarkable list of firsts. In 1870, she and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, became the first female stockbrokers. That same year, the sisters became the first female weekly newspaper publishers, and in 1872, Woodhull became the first woman to run for president. Her achievements should have won her an honored place in history, had she not offset them with a string of controversies. (Photo: Harvard University)

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

The Ultimate Babe

The first female sports superstar, Babe Didrikson Zaharias excelled at every sport and game she took up. An Olympic champion in track and field in 1932, she was also a standout in baseball, basketball, tennis, volleyball, bowling, skating, swimming, diving, and golf. Fiercely competitive, she even pushed herself to shine at typing, dashing off a blazing eighty-six words per minute. And when critics thought she wasn’t sufficiently ladylike, she took up ballroom dancing and mastered it to perfection. (Photo: Library of Congress)