Joanna is an online writer who enjoys researching historical and scientific topics.
They Didn't Get the Credit They Deserved
Over the centuries humans have made many astonishing discoveries — from the discovery of the heliocentric universe in 1543 (officially published by Nicolaus Copernicus) all the way down to scientists’ 2021 recognition of a 4,000-year-old engraved slab as the oldest map in Europe.
Unfortunately, these important—and sometimes world-shaking—discoveries are not always credited to the appropriate people. For instance, while Copernicus and his Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs were the driving force in bringing heliocentrism into the mainstream of Renaissance thought, this was really a re-establishment of the theory rather than a completely new proposition.
A century before Copernicus published his famous book, Nicholas of Cusa was arguing for the rotation of the Earth around the Sun. And way before Cusa, in the 2nd century BCE, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos proposed that the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun. And even Aristarchus wasn't alone—the Greek philosophers Philolaus and Hicetas speculated that the Earth was revolving around a mystical fire all the way back in the 5th century BCE.
So, sometimes “discoveries” are built on many layers of previous contributions. However, there are worse scenarios where human greed takes over and scientists actively try to steal from others and cover up their actions. In this article, we'll be learning about a range of discoveries that were credited to the wrong person for various reasons. Here are the discoveries in brief:
- Halley's Comet
- Theory of Evolution
- San Salvador
1. Halley's Comet
Halley’s Comet is a “periodic” comet that appears every seventy-five years. Halley’s Comet appeared in 1986 and will only return to earth’s vicinity in 2061. Every time this comet returns to the inner solar system, its nucleus blasts ice and rock into space. This debris system produces two minor meteor showers each year: the Eta Aquarids in May and the Orionids in October.
Mark Twain’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine tells one exciting tale about Halley’s Comet. Paine claimed that Twain said, “In 1835, I arrived with Halley’s Comet. It will return next year, and I intend to accompany it.” On April 21, 1910, Twain died one day after the comet’s perihelion when it exited from the sun’s far side.
Halley’s Comet was named after the English astronomer Edmond Halley in 1758. He did not, however, find the comet that bears his name. He only learned that the comet he saw in 1682 was the same one that others had seen in 1456, 1531, and 1607. In 1758-1759, some sixteen years after his death, Halley accurately anticipated the comet’s return. The first known “periodic” comet was named after him.
However, the first known observation of Halley’s Comet was in 239 B.C., by Chinese astronomers. The Chinese astronomers recorded their observation of Halley’s Comet in the Shih Chi and Wen Hsien Thung Khao chronicles. The surviving record was written more than a century later, around 100 B.C. in the Shih Chi (or Shiji). These astronomers described Halley’s Comet as a “broom star” because of its bristly tail, which first emerged in the east than in the north.
2. Theory of Evolution
Circa 500 B.C.E., a Greek philosopher, Anaximander of Miletus, speculated that humans must have descended from another species whose offspring could survive without assistance. He reasoned that those ancestors must be fish because fish hatch from eggs and begin living on their own without the aid of their parents. Thus, he proposed that all life started in the sea. Even though we can now trace human evolutionary lineage back to fish, Anaximander’s speculation was only partially true because it was not a theory in the scientific sense of the word, meaning it could not be tested to support or refute it.
A theory is an idea about how something in nature works that has been rigorously tested through observations and experiments to determine whether the idea is correct or incorrect. Throughout history, various philosophers and scientists have proposed aspects of what would later become an evolutionary theory of life on Earth.
In writing Zoonomia, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, formulated one of the first formal theories of evolution. While he did not propose natural selection, he did discuss ideas that his grandson expanded on sixty years later, such as how life evolved from a single common ancestor, resulting in “one living filament.” He was perplexed as to how one species could evolve into another.
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Charles Darwin simply brought something new to the old philosophy—a plausible mechanism called “natural selection.” According to natural selection, organisms produce more offspring than can survive in their environment. Those who are physically better equipped to survive, mature, and reproduce do so successfully. Those who lack such fitness, on the other hand, either do not reach reproductive age or produce fewer offspring than their counterparts.
Natural selection is sometimes summed up as “survival of the fittest” because the “fittest” organisms—those best adapted to their environment—are the ones who reproduce the most successfully and are most likely to pass on their traits to the next generation.
It began one fine day in Woodbury Creek in 1787 when a man—barely mentioned today—found a gigantic-size thigh bone. Dinosaurs were far from common human knowledge at that time. When the bone was presented before Dr. Caspar Wistar, he failed to recognize the significance of the bone, thus missing the chance to seal the deal on discovering dinosaurs.
Unfortunately for Wistar, this bone became one of the most extraordinary lost-and-found items of all time.
It was not until eight years later, in 1795, that rising star of paleontology Georges Cuvier amazed others with his genius by arranging heaps of disarticulated bones into shapely creatures. This aroused interest in others, such as Gideon Algernon Mantell, a country doctor in Sussex, England. To be fair, Mantell’s wife actually found a fossilized tooth, and it took Mantell three years to find evidence to support these findings.
He prepared a paper to be delivered to the Royal Society only to be crushed by his friend, Reverend William Buckland, who told him to slow down. Buckland, a geologist, presented a written work on megalosaurus to the Geological Society of London and earned the first published description of a dinosaur.
Not only did Mantell fail to claim his honor on that particular matter, but he also wasn’t credited for his discovery.
Mantell's creature became the iguanodon. Twenty-one prominent scientists met on New Year’s Eve 1853 to discuss the unfinished iguanodon over dinner. However, the man who found and identified the iguanodon wasn’t among them. The person at the head of the table was the brightest star in the fledgling field of paleontology, Richard Owen.
From that point onward, Owen seems to emerge on the scene just to make Mantell’s life hell. Taking advantage of Mantell’s frailty, Owen began erasing his contributions from the record, renaming species that Mantell had identified years earlier and claiming credit for their discovery. Mantell persisted in conducting new research, but Owen’s power at the Royal Society ensured that the majority of his publications were rejected.
Mantell committed suicide in 1852, unable to take any more suffering or persecution. Soon after Mantell’s death, a very uncharitable obituary appeared in the Literary Gazette. Mantell was depicted as a mediocre anatomist whose small contributions to paleontology were hampered by a “lack of precise understanding.” Cuvier and Owen, among others, were credited with discovering the iguanodon.
4. San Salvador
Global trade has significantly changed the course of human research and discovery. Unequal distribution of plants, minerals, and animals worldwide, creating flows of sugar, tobacco, spices, and money, has driven global trade. This sprawling system of exchange eventually gave rise to capitalism and the industrial revolution.
Although Arab sailors traveled to certain parts of the world, such as India and the Mediterranean, the actual global trading system began only when Western European sailors sailed ships from continent to continent.
Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer and navigator, was one of the greatest sailors of his time. Backed by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabelle, he began his expedition — the monarchs claimed various contradictory explanations for their motivations.
The motivation behind the Spanish monarchs’ help was a mix of greed, pride, and fear. They were greedy for gold. They were proud of their Christian triumph, believing Christ would soon return and it was their duty to convert as many people as possible to Christianity. Mostly, they feared the idea of being beaten to discoveries.
Thus, they offered ten thousand silver pieces a year for life as a reward to the first sailor to sight land.
After five weeks at sea, Columbus summoned the captains of the other two ships, the Pinta and the Niña, who reluctantly agreed to continue, but only for another four days. Two days later, on October 12, 1492, one of the sailors, Rodrigo de Triana, saw land ahead—part of what is now known as the Bahamas.
If Rodrigo had a pleasant vision of a life of ease ahead of him, he had misunderstood his captain. Columbus claimed he had already made landfall and took the reward for himself. When Columbus arrived, he claimed the island for the Spanish Crown, naming it San Salvador—its original native name was Guanahani.
Columbus was lucky he was not thrown overboard by his disappointed crew on their return voyage. Unfortunately for the locals, on Columbus’ second visit, ninety-nine percent of the locals were dead—mainly due to disease.
Sources and Further Reading
- March 30, 240 B.C.: Comet Cometh to Cathay | WIRED
240 B.C. Chinese astronomers observe a new broom-shaped “star” in the sky. It’s the first confirmed sighting of Halley’s Comet.
- Theory of Evolution | National Geographic Society
The theory of evolution is a shortened form of the term “theory of evolution by natural selection” which was proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the nineteenth century.
- Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) | UC Museum of Paleontolgy
Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was one of the leading intellectuals of eighteenth century England, a man with a remarkable array of interests and pursuits. Erasmus Darwin was a respected physician, a well known poet, and botanist.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything – Chapter 6: Science Red in Tooth and Claw | Erenow
Chapter 6 of Bill Bryson's best-selling work A Short History of Nearly Everything. This chapter focuses on the fiasco over the discovery of the first dinosaur.
- A History of the World (1959) by Andrew Marr | Internet Archive
© 2022 Joanna Maxine Jack