Famous Pioneers

There are numerous examples of people--men and women--who led the way for others. These make great studies with an endless variety of themes and possibilities. Some are described here, by way of example. For teachers, have your students choose a pioneer for individual study.

  • Pioneer in Social Reform--Jane Addams (1860-1935) -- To many, Jane Addams personified the progressive movement. The daughter of a small town, middle-class businessman whose family prided itself on its adherence to strict Christian morality, this "petticoat politician," as her opponents called her, was a founder and member of many organized campaigns for social reform. In Chicago in 1889, Addams put into motion an idea she had discovered in England--the settlement house. She used a run-down Nineteenth Ward mansion as a place of refuge and hope for the inhabitants of the poorest and most overcrowded immigrant slums in the city. Addams set up a program of (1) nurseries and kindergartens to help working mothers, (2) boys' clubs to combat street gangs and (3) study groups and work-training classes for the entire neighborhood. Although political activism by a woman at that time was practically unheard of, she became a strong advocate of laws against child labor and factory safety, as well as of pacifism in World War I. Some considered her dangerous, but she did not waver from her belief in social justice and in 1931 received the Nobel Peace Prize, the second American to be so honored.

  • Pioneer in Science--Albert Einstein (1879-1955) -- In 1905 a German-born patent office clerk published the first of a series of articles on the interrelationship between time, space and matter. Einstein's Theory of Relativity shook the scientific world by demonstrating the theoretical possibility of atomic energy. Explaining the concept of relativity, Einstein said, "When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity." A known pacifist, democrat, activist for peace, and a Jew, he was forced to flee the growing Nazi movement in Germany in November 1933. Although he and his family were offered asylum in many countries, he accepted an invitation to join the staff of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, New Jersey and so became an United States citizen. In 1939, after learning that Nazi Germany was conducting experiments in nuclear fission, his letter campaign to President Franklin Roosevelt helped lay the groundwork for government backing of the atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project. It was perhaps one of the great ironies that the genius of this peace-seeking man led directly to the manufacture of the atomic bomb. When asked how he felt about seeing his ideas used in the atomic bomb he said, "If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

  • Pioneer for Human Rights--Martin Luther King, Jr. -- On December 1, 1955, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks felt too tired to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white passenger. For her refusal to do so, she was arrested. That incident shook the nation and thrust a young black minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., into international fame. King headed an organization formed to fight the bus company and within weeks found himself in the middle of one of the largest American crusades. For a year the boycott of the bus lines continued, until a Supreme Court Decision forced the integration of the Montgomery buses. In 1957, as head of the new Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King sent out the call for cooperative action against segregation. Ignoring the hatred and scorn heaped on him by extreme segregationists, black nationalists and J. Edgar Hoover, King had a dream. He described it to an immense audience of marchers gathered in Washington, D. C. in 1963. It was the American Dream of a free people, of a unified nation of equal citizens. King and his nonviolent movement gained international recognition and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Assassinated in 1968, his epitaph begins, "Free at last . . ."

  • Pioneer in Printing--Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468) -- One of the most important landmarks in the development of Western civilization was created by a simple German printer, Johann Gutenberg, who is credited with the invention of printing with movable type. From early training as a goldsmith, Gutenberg developed the printing process in the late 1430's. With backing from Johann Fust, a rich lawyer of Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg printed the "42 line" Bible (42 lines per column) which is regarded as the first use of the printing press. Gutenberg went on to open his own press and print other books, changing the way the world read and printed books. There are 47 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, 12 of which found homes in the United States.

  • Pioneer in Sports--Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) -- A famous American baseball player and the first African-American to play major-league baseball in modern times. He was a pioneer who broke a major racial barrier in professional sports. Until he was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, African-American athletes had been excluded from the American and National League teams. Brooklyn is in New York City, where the home teams--the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants--ruled baseball during that era (after Robinson's time, the Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast). Robinson played for Brooklyn for 10 years, batted a career .311, and helped the Dodgers win 6 National League pennants. In 1955, his team defeated the Yankees in the World Series. In 1962, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

  • Pioneer in Electricity--Ben Franklin (1706-1790) -- American printer, author, philosopher, diplomat, scientist and inventor. A man with many accomplishments and talents perhaps influenced our world the most with his "electric" experiments. Franklin, who spent most of his life working as a diplomat to both France and England, was a prominent figure at the Constitutional Convention and actually persuaded many of our founding fathers to sign the Constitution. Franklin had worked all his life persuading men to a higher enlightenment­understanding themselves and the world they live in. In the 1740s Franklin organized all the chaotic notions about electricity into a unified theory and invented the lightning rod, paving the way for the light bulb, the telephone, the television and the computer. In 1750, he proposed a way to test his theory with his famous kite experiment and opened the world to many different options with his "trapped" lightning.

  • Pioneer in Recreation--James A. Naismith (1861-1931) -- This Canadian-American physical education director is responsible for one of the world's most popular sports-- basketball. A graduate of McGill University in 1887, Naismith received his degree in medicine from Gross Medical College in Denver, Colorado. He then accepted a professorship at the University of Kansas, where he worked until his retirement in 1937. It was while he was a student enrolled at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, that Naismith concocted the sport. A professor there asked the class to devise a game that could be played indoors during the winter. Using a soccer ball and two peach baskets nailed to opposite gym walls, Naismith created a scoring game involving shooting the ball into the baskets and basketball was born.

  • Pioneer in Technology--Willy Higinbotham -- In 1958, a scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, never realized that his boredom would breed Sega, Nintendo and a slew of video games that would flood the world. In the post-Sputnik era, America was in the grip of an intense nuclear-bomb mania. The Laboratory, in an attempt to calm this nuclear hysteria, began to hold open houses. Willy Higinbotham, a well-respected scientist for the lab who had once been a physicist on the Manhattan Project, watched the tourists wander in and out of the "nice, safe, boring" exhibits. Finally, Higinbotham had enough ­ he was going to "un-bore" the tourists with an exhibit like nothing they had ever seen. Using an old cathode-ray tube (the ancestor to the television set), he wired the first crude video game out of spare parts from around the lab. This simple tennis game called Pong premiered at the 1958 Brookhaven Lab open house and paved the way for the video monsters of today.

  • Pioneer in goofy toys--James Wright -- During World War II, America's supply of natural rubber was cut off, and the War Production Board persuaded American companies to develop a synthetic rubber. In 1943, a Scottish engineer, James Wright, was working in a General Electric lab searching for the evasive synthetic rubber, when he added boric acid to a silicone base and produced a gooey substance that bounced. In 1949, Wright sold the idea to a toy store, who dropped the product from its catalog one year later despite blockbuster sales. In 1950, a reporter from The New Yorker featured the bouncing putty in the "Around Town" section and "Silly Putty" was born. Perhaps the most significant description of the value of Silly Putty was put forth by Wright in an interview in 1950, "Well, you can use it to roll, drop on the floor and say, 'Golly, look at it bounce!'"