Your parents, teachers, inspirational ABC family movies, etc., have all probably explained to you that you are a special and significant unique snowflake, and that if you believe in yourself you can achieve anything and become president and an astronaut and the world’s handsomest genius. Small comfort to those of us who grew up to eat Bugles in our underwear while watching reruns of "The Office."
But a few people really did end up changing the world in massive ways just by working hard, thinking quickly or simply doing their jobs properly. Many of these people are lost to history for a number of reasons — cultural differences, minority status, military secrecy and, in a few cases, just plain modesty — but here we aim to blow the dust off some records and present at least ten people you’ve never heard of who changed history forever.
THE GHOST ARMY
Officially known as the Army’s 23rd Headquarters Special Troops during World War II, the Ghost Army played a major role in putting a stop to Hitler’s advances through Europe. The group of 1,100 soldiers -- made up of artists, illustrators, sound technicians and other creative types – had to use their brains instead of firepower to win battles. The plan: pull off the equivalent of extravagant high school plays to trick the enemy into believing there was a huge military presence when there really wasn’t.
This came in incredibly handy when the American Ninth Army needed to cross the Rhine river deep into Germany territory at a pivotal moment in World War II. Employing fake inflatable tanks, trucks and weapons in conjunction with war noises through huge military speakers, the Ghost Army played a major role in the Ninth’s ability to complete their journey. The unit, which included the famous fashion designer Bill Blass and famous painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly, went on to help pull off more than 20 such missions during its time together. These missions remained classified until 1985, when illustrator Arthur Shilstone went public with the amazing stories of the Ghost Army.
On the night of June 17th, 1972, Washington, D.C., security guard Frank Wills was making his rounds when he noticed a bit of duct tape on a door of an office complex. Since it wasn’t holding the door together or doing any of the useful things duct tape is known for doing, Wills removed it, only to find it had been replaced when he came by on the next round of his patrol.
Wills immediately called the cops, who arrived at the Watergate hotel/office/apartment complex minutes later to find five middle-aged men ransacking the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee — the beginning of the scandal that would finally sink the Nixon presidency. Wills would later play himself in the film “All The President’s Men,” but sadly that was the last time his newfound fame worked to his advantage — after quitting Watergate when he was turned down for a raise (and really if you’re not going to give him a raise, who are you ever going to give a raise to?), Wills found that many public institutions were too afraid of vengeful Republican politicians to hire him as a guard.
Wills drifted from job to job (including a gig working for legendary black stand-up Dick Gregory) before the pressures of caring for his ailing mother landed him in prison and then the poorhouse. He died of a brain tumor in September of 2000.
BARTON W. MITCHELL
In September of 1862, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the move somewhere in Maryland and, much to the annoyance of Union general George B. McClellan, it was proving to be a lot harder than expected to figure out exactly where 60,000 armed men and horses were hiding in the New England countryside.
Lee was dividing and subdividing his units to flow more easily through the backwoods, setting up to capture a number of small but strategically valuable targets in order to support the next stage of his offensive, and his complicated maneuvers required a steady flow of communication between himself and his subordinates.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, with so many letters flying back and forth, one of them was bound to get mislaid, and when Corporal Barton W. Mitchell was poking around a recently vacated Confederate camp, he came across three fancy cigars wrapped in a sealed document — Special Order 191 for the dispensation and movement of Lee’s forces. Mitchell immediately realized he had an unbelievable intelligence find on his hand and hustled it up the chain of command to McClellan, who confidently declared, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”
While McClellan’s subsequent actions at the Battle of Antietam didn’t constitute that much of a whipping (he didn’t take enough advantage of the intelligence, possibly because he thought it might be literally too good to be true) the debatable victory provided Lincoln with the morale boost to proclaim emancipation and keep France and Britain out of the war.
Mitchell, for his troubles, was wounded in the leg at Antietam, honorably discharged in 1864 due to chronic infection, and died four years later, his wife receiving his pension in 1890. Hopefully, he at least got to keep the cigars…
Thirty-eight towns and fourteen counties are named after Joseph Warren, but he’s generally unknown to all but the most dedicated Revolutionary War buffs. A Boston doctor and Freemason (back before being a Mason meant being a pro-democracy, pro-rationalist philosopher and activist instead of being a holographic lizard person controlling the world’s banks), Joseph Warren performed the autopsy on Christopher Seider, the first American killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre, and when Seider’s funeral sparked the Boston Massacre, Warren was again part of the local committee that reported on the atrocity.
When the fundamental rights of free citizens really hit the fan, Warren put together militia units and led troops from the cannon’s mouth. Appointed a Major General by the Continental Congress, he volunteered to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill as a common soldier, as he felt the two generals already there had more combat experience than he.
Famously declaring “These fellows say we won’t fight! By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!” he held off three charges on Breed Hill until a British officer put a musket ball through his brain. The Redcoats stripped and bayoneted the corpse before shoving it into a hole, but they could do nothing to stop the legend of his brave stand from spreading throughout the Colonies.
RUDOLF "LUCY" ROESSLER
Allied espionage during World War II is often seen as revolving around "Ultra" the top-secret decryption of top-level Nazi Enigma codes by some of the world's earliest computers (designed by the brilliant Alan Turing, a man who is just barely well-known enough to not fit into this list).
This idea fails to take into account how suspicious the Soviet Union was of Britain's claim that they miraculously obtained a working Enigma machine, solved it using technologies and theories invented specifically for that purpose, and found that it was talking all about how Germany (at the time, at war with Britain and on good if edgy terms with Russia) was going to start some serious shit with this "Operation Barbarossa" thing.
For Russia, the key to the German battle plans was a man named "Lucy" — Rudolf Roessler, an anti-Fascist German publisher living in Lucerne who was in close contact with rebellious high-ranking members of the German General Staff since the beginning of the war. Working around the clock with his own Enigma machine and elements of the covert "Red Orchestra" Soviet radio espionage group, Roessler was able to pass along decoded communications to the Kremlin within six hours of interception -- four times as fast as Turing's computers, and almost as soon as front-line Wehrmacht units received their orders.
"Lucy's" greatest victory was the discovery of Operation Zitadelle, a summer offensive against the Kursk Salient which resulted in an overwhelming Russian victory and changed the tide and momentum of the war in the East.
We all know a few basic things about DNA — it can be extracted from fossilized mosquitoes to bring dinosaurs back to life, it can be altered by radioactive ooze in order to create ninja turtles, and it looks like a sort of twisty laddery thing called a "double helix."
Before 1953, we knew none of these indisputable scientific facts, and we owe it to dedicated physical chemist and pioneering x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. Born in London to a family of bankers and scholars, Franklin was an excellent student and active in the women's suffrage movement, and earned a PhD from Cambridge from her work on the porosity of coal, which may not have been the most interesting subject around but prepared her ably for the new technique of using x-ray crystallography on things that weren't actually crystals.
Her skill at this technique earned her a position as research assistant at King's College London, where she was tasked with accurately recording the structure of DNA and being a meek, pleasant, helpful woman. Franklin delivered excellent results with the DNA — her famous "Photo 51" was the (mostly uncredited) linchpin of James Watson & Francis Crick's articles establishing the double helix theory — but refused to be cowed by her chauvinist colleagues, once becoming so angry at Watson's condescending suggestion that she had misinterpreted his own data that he practically tripped over fellow researcher Maurice Wilkins. Wilkins, Watson, and Crick would receive the Nobel Prize in 1962 for "their" discovery, but Franklin was barred — the rules forbade posthumous nominations, and she had passed in 1958 at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer.
Even at the disease’s peak, Rosalind Franklin was still an active researcher, lending her considerable skills to the study of the polio virus.
A highly intelligent, empirically minded fossil collector and paleontologist at the beginning of a century marked by enormous advances in the practice and philosophy of science, Mary Anning was screwed from the get-go. Poor, a religious minority, and (worst of all) a woman, she was officially shut out by the British scientific establishment despite discovering the world’s first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton at the age of twelve.
Regardless of official approval, she doggedly continued digging up weird things around her hometown of Lyme Regis, becoming known for her meticulous attention to detail and rigorously scientific mindset. Soon, geologists and paleontologists across the Western world knew her by reputation, either by purchasing the fossils she sold (rarely, if ever, crediting her discoveries) or by visiting her to talk shop, unanimously finding her to be remarkably up-to-date on the scientific literature of the time despite receiving almost no formal education and barely having enough money for journal subscriptions.
Anning was only published in the scientific press once, when she wrote a letter to the Magazine of Natural History disputing the “discovery” of a new genus of prehistoric shark based on her own findings. Her unofficial correspondence, on the other hand, numbered readers such as pioneering geologist Charles Lyell and Darwin mentor Adam Sedgwick.
She died in 1847 of breast cancer, meriting a eulogy from the Geographical Society of London (which didn’t even admit women until 1904), a glowing article in 1865 by Charles Dickens, a mention in 2010 by the Royal Society as one of the ten British women having the greatest impact on history, and a tongue-twister concerning her day-to-day business of selling marine fossils: “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
ABU L-HASAN ‘ALI IBN NAFI’ (“ZIRYAB”)
The Islamic world around the turn of the first millennium (and really for most of its existence up until maybe the 19th century) was an extremely advanced, civilized, and chillaxed place, particularly compared to pre-Renaissance Europe, which was basically a centuries-long redneck backyard wrestling match.
One of the most significant people in Islamic culture remains nearly anonymous in European history despite almost single-handedly laying the groundwork for traditional Spanish music: a highly educated North African slave popularly known as “Ziryab,” or “black bird” for the color of his skin and the quality of his singing.
While music was his strong point, Ziryab’s innovations cover a staggering variety of disciplines — he invented numerous dyes and chemicals for clothing, makeup, and hygiene, he introduced the idea of seasonal fashions and brought new styles and fabrics to the Andalusian peninsula, he came up with the structure of the traditional “three-course meal” of soup, entrée and dessert, and he’s credited as having popularized shaving and short haircuts as a way of beating the fierce Mediterranean heat.
It’s said Ziryab even developed the world’s first underarm deodorant and a type of early toothpaste said to be not only effective but pleasant to taste, making him very likely the very first human being in history to smell good all the time. Had Old Spice existed in the year 800, Ziryab wouldn’t have just been the spokesman, he would’ve been the PR director, research department and CEO.
LA MALINCHE / DONA MARINA
Life in Mexico in the 16th century was generally no fun at all; while you might have access to chocolate, cocaine and gold, there was always a good chance that today was the day an Aztec would decide your heart needed ripping out and your head kicked down a flight of pyramid steps to stay on their god’s good side.
It was bad enough that when a bunch of weird dudes with rifles came over openly declaring their intent to steal all the gold, enslave all the people and destroy all vestiges of local culture, a fair amount of non-Aztec natives figured that on the whole they were getting a decent deal. La Malinche was among twenty slave women given to the Spanish as spoils of battle, but her skill with languages made her far more valuable than just Hernan Cortes’ mistress (although she ended up being that, as well).
Dona Marina (as she came to be known among the Spaniards) was instrumental to the tiny Spanish army’s eventual victory, interpreting intelligence and cultivating allies among the many tribes sick of being kicked around by the Aztecs.
Today, la Malinche is a controversial figure — while some argue that she was working in the best interests of her native people by aiding the Europeans and persuading Cortes to be more humane than he might have been, others think of her as such a profound traitor that her name is practically a curse. Regardless, without her it’s very likely Cortes’ expedition would’ve foundered, changing history forever.