It’s easy to look at history and judge the ignorance of past generations. We know that the earth is not flat (well, most of us do). We know that flying machines are possible. We know many things people didn’t know back in the day. But what do we not know today? Who are our eccentric geniuses? And perhaps, most importantly, are we treating them any better?
Before we mock past generations for killing the geese that laid golden eggs, we need to take an honest look at history and see what they did, and be honest with ourselves about whether we are doing the same.
Pythagoras is probably best known for the Pythagorean Theorem. Assuming you’re indoors, and the building you are in isn’t collapsing in on you, or doesn’t look terribly crooked, you have Pythagoras to thank for this. We take it for granted today, but being able to calculate missing sides of triangles, determine whether a square is, in fact, square, and many other things depend on it.
He (or his followers and associates) were also credited with important contributions to music, solid geometry, the theory of proportions, knowing that the earth is a sphere, and knowing that the “morning star” and “evening star” are both Venus. Pythagoras and his followers are still helping us to this day to live better lives.
Pythagoras wasn’t well liked in his time, and many today would probably think he was insane or dangerous. We’d probably think he was insane for thinking that the movements of celestial bodies created an inaudible symphony of music as their movements “resonated” in space. We’d probably find him dangerous for rejecting democracy. In fact, people in his day were so angry at him for rejecting democracy that he and his followers were persecuted and likely burned to death.
Leonardo da Vinci
Da Vinci’s contributions to art, science, and technology are fairly well known. While many of his technological inventions weren’t published or built, they did later become viable once materials science improved, centuries after his death.
He is known to have been well liked and appreciated, both in life and in death, but that doesn’t mean he was always treated well. Fairly early in his career, he was arrested for homosexuality in Florence. The charges were eventually dropped, but he disappeared from public life for at least two years. He later got letters of recommendation and left for Milan. For much of the rest of his life, he avoided Florence. In other cities and countries, he accomplished a lot, and even died in the arms of a king.
While there’s no way to know, we can speculate about what he might have done if it weren’t for the persecution and the two years of nothing accomplished. Might he have actually built some of his inventions? Would Florence have been a more important city to this day?
As you’ll see later, society didn’t get better in the Western world until well into the 20th century.
One could spend hours writing about the scientific contributions of Galileo. He’s known as the “father” of modern physics, the scientific method, modern science, and observational astronomy. As many know, it’s the last one that got him into the most trouble with the scientific and religious establishments of his day.
While he didn’t invent the telescope, he made significant improvements to its function. For income, he sold the improved telescopes to people looking at using them for earth observations in shipping and other industries. For science, he turned his telescopes toward the stars. He discovered the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the rings of Saturn, Neptune (almost), and many other things both inside and outside of the solar system.
From these observations and others, he became convinced that geocentric models of the solar system were impossible. Heliocentrism, or the idea that the planets orbit the sun, was deemed heretical by the Catholic church and deemed incorrect by other astronomers who believed in geocentrism. Rather than give up when confronted and trialed, he persisted until he found himself under lifetime house arrest.
Do we treat scientific truths and those who share them any better today? Do we let pseudoscience and “alternative facts” rule?
Baron von Steuben
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was an accomplished military officer in Europe. After much success in the Prussian Army, he was dismissed during a troop drawdown at the end of a war. He said later that he was dismissed, despite a good record, due to “an inconsiderate step and an implacable personal enemy.” With his experience and training, but no army to fight for, he was unemployed and not sure what to do next. He drifted from job to job for a few years, but couldn’t get back into the Prussian military after it came out that he was gay. Facing prosecution for his relationships in Prussia, he went to France.
He had previously met Benjamin Franklin in France, but at the time could not be given a position in the Continental Army due to problems placing other foreign officers. Later in the war, he got a letter of recommendation from French authorities which somewhat exaggerated his credentials and prior rank. With this, and the increased desperation of the Continental Army for good leaders, he found a position helping to train and lead the army.
He went on to make major contributions to the war effort, to the point of being considered a major reason the British were eventually defeated. While homosexuality was illegal in the colonies as it was in Europe, U.S. officials never investigated the rumors of his private homosexuality, despite it being somewhat obvious at several points before his death.
Great talent was basically thrown away by European leaders, but American leaders were able to tolerate his different ways to great success.
Given the audience, I probably don’t need to go over the many accomplishments of Nikola Tesla, especially when it comes to electricity. AC power, which he was most well known for, pervades nearly every facet of modern life in all but the poorest of places where people live. The great things Tesla did for mankind cannot be overstated.
However, he might have been able to do much more if he had been treated better. Edison is well known to have cheated and wronged him on several occasions. Others stole his inventions. One of the worst examples of his mistreatment came during World War I. Tesla proposed sending radio waves into the atmosphere to bounce off of airplanes and return for detection purposes — known today as radar. Edison had been placed in charge of military research and development, and told his superiors that the idea would never be useful.
During his later years, Tesla developed severe mental illness. He lived in hotels until the unpaid bills ran up too high, and then he’d go to another hotel. He wrote that he had basically fallen in love with a pigeon, and spent much of his time feeding and caring for pigeons. Companies that had previously benefited from his work eventually came to help support him, but after years of not seeing any doctors (even after being hit by a car), he died in a hotel room.
Nobody knows what other inventions the world would have seen if Tesla hadn’t been treated so poorly. He struggled during his final years to invent anything, but had radical ideas on wireless power transmission, death rays, and many other things.
Personally, I think humanity might be traveling to the stars had he not been basically destroyed by society and the establishment.
Alan Turing is widely regarded as the “father of theoretical computer science” and “father of artificial intelligence.” Much of what we do today with computers relies on things he pioneered. During World War II, he invented a computer that helped crack the German Enigma code. Not only did he help win the war, but it is estimated that he shortened the war by two years and saved over 14 million lives.
He continued to advance the science of computing until 1952, when he was convicted of homosexuality and sentenced to castration. Two years later, he died of what was likely suicide by poisoning.
In England and the United States today, homosexuality is legal and we look at this past barbarism for the evil it truly is. But does the whole LGBT community get respect today? What modern-day Turing are we killing today with transgender bathroom scares, biphobia, and thinly veiled “religious freedom” laws? We might never know what the contributions might be of a modern-day von Steuben we missed out on.
Philo Farnsworth was another inventor who made great contributions to much of what we do today. He invented modern electronic television, including both recording and playback of signals. He invented submarine detection, infrared telescopes, and made air traffic control from the ground possible. By the time he died, he held over 300 patents, and his inventions led to radar, infrared night vision, the electron microscope, the baby incubator, and further advances to telescopes.
Despite early successes in television, Farnsworth didn’t benefit much financially. After lawsuits, companies that benefited greatly for decades from his invention of television never had to give him much for it. Further research wasn’t immediately commercially successful, and he was eventually dismissed from his own company after it was sold. Further attempts at continuing research failed when the IRS and creditors came after him hard for debts. Facing financial ruin, Farnsworth began drinking heavily and died a few years later.
What About Today?
It doesn’t take much thought to spot today’s eccentric geniuses. I don’t think we really need to name them. You know who they are, and you also know that people often treat them like shit.
Government regulators come after them. Politicians sometimes advocate taxing them to death or “breaking up” their companies. Financial journalists and others try to convince the general public that their companies are going to fail, repeatedly, and often. Unscrupulous investors “short” their stocks, and then go around talking trash about the companies to attempt to illegally profit, and nobody ever goes after them for it.
Their personal lives are analyzed to death and criticized baselessly. The stress of staying successful and continuing to innovate has bad effects on their personal lives, families, marriages, and mental health.
We all want short-term profits for investors. We want them to act “normal” in every part of their lives except the behavior from which we all benefit, and then we return the favor with suspicion and criticism. We expect them to act like saints, treat corrupt officials with respect, and put up with every other ridiculous demand we put on them without complaint. If they do anything else, we label them as “crazy,” “immature,” or some other thing that enables us to ignore the good they do.
I’m not saying they should get a total pass to break all of society’s rules, but we would be fools to not realize what we could miss out on if we keep acting this way. Rules can be adjusted. Exceptions can be made. Change can happen in our society to better us all, and it should. The sociopaths and narcissists who lead the charge against our eccentric geniuses break the rules all the time, but know better how to manipulate us into giving them the same exceptional treatment the eccentric geniuses supposedly don’t deserve.
At the end of the day, we don’t deserve electricity, television, a clean environment, a free country, art, or science if we can’t learn to treat our eccentric geniuses better than we do. If we don’t know how to act like behaviorally modern humans, we basically deserve the Stone Age.
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