An ode to forgotten heroes of history

In a poll of also-rans, every second counts


Suresh Menon | July 16, 2012

There is something sad about a poll to discover the second greatest Indian. The top job is taken, let's celebrate the also-rans. Once that joke has had its run, what next? A poll to find the 16th greatest Indian Woman Who Was Born in the First Half of a Leap Year? This can go on and on, and perhaps will.

Nobody, as Edmund Hillary might have said if someone had cared enough to ask him specifically, remembers the second best. Who was the second man on the moon, came second to Usain Bolt at the Beijing Olympics 100m, or finished behind Jimmy Carter in the US presidential elections? (This is not a trick question, merely a rhetorical one – they are all different people, let me add hastily).

And that is not all. Everybody remembers the apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head, but how many remember his grandmother who planted the apple tree in the first place? Her contribution to science has never been properly acknowledged. Imagine if she had planted a coconut tree instead (yes, yes, I know you can’t grow coconuts in the English countryside, but this is merely illustrative), and a coconut had fallen on Newton’s head. Either he would have discovered the science of spectroscopy with all those colours playing round in his head, or he would have been the man who invented the helmet.

We know so little of our real heroes. I mean – as has been pointed out before, I am merely re-telling the tale – consider Albert Einstein. Someone had already invented the chair, the table, the pen and paper. Others had worked out how to make German beer and sausages. The first barbers, the first laundrymen, the first builders had all made their mark on history. All Einstein had to do was to sit at a table on a chair in a house, take a pen, sip beer, bite into a sausage and write that E equals MC squared. In fact, he didn't even need to write 'equals' or 'squared', others had already worked out the short cut.

That is why I am fascinated by the forgotten heroes of history. Among these are:

1.    The hen that laid the egg that Columbus carried to the Queen of Spain to show her the earth was round. It probably ended up as dinner, but without that egg, Columbus (who was, it must be admitted, geographically challenged) would not have set out for India and discovered America.

2.    The mailman who delivered Albert Einstein’s letter to the president of the United States urging him to build the atom bomb before the other side did. The mailman might have been easily confused because there was more than one Roosevelt and more than one white house on his beat. Or he could have delivered the letter by mistake to the German embassy – it happens often to my letters.

3.    The Greek girl named Rekha whose name Archimedes called out as he ran through the streets of Athens having discovered his principle. No description of this girl exists, and historians have been going around for centuries asking Greek women, “You Rekha?”

4.    The farmer who cut down his trees so that the Wright brothers could take off on their first flight. Can you imagine trying to fly their contraption in the woods?

5.    The cobbler who built special shoes for Napoleon to make him appear to be an imposing five feet in height when without those shoes he was actually six feet two. The shorter Napoleon, as we all know, was far more dangerous.

6.    Picasso’s girlfriend who so loved the painter that she rearranged her face, pulling her nose to one side, and her eyes in the same profile to enable him to invent a whole new way of painting.

7.    Winston Churchill’s cigar maker who ensured that the statesman had something to take out of his mouth every time he wished to make a speech.

8.    Mrs George W Bush’s interpreter whose job it was to translate her husband’s requests so that she could tell whether he was preparing to bomb the dark side of the moon or getting ready for breakfast.

9.    Socrates's wife Xanthippe whose name entered the language as the word for 'ill-tempered' woman. Without Xanthippe's constant nagging and regular bad temper, Socrates might never have left home for long hours to wander the streets and turn into a philosopher. Behind every successful man is an ill-tempered woman.



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