10 Great Heroes in the History of Communication

We all know a hero when we see one. He's the guy charging into a burning building to save a baby or punching out a mugger and holding him down until the police arrive. But it's also possible to be a hero with your life's work, giving something to the world that saves lives or changes them for the better. And while we all know the biggest names in communication, we've lined up few names of people who don't get as much credit who we think deserve a little more.

  1. Samuel Morse:

    Although he did not invent the telegraph and some naysayers have tried to deny him credit for the alphabet that bears his name, Samuel Morse forever changed the history of communication in America. Before, there was only a hit-or-miss postal system that could take weeks to deliver a single letter. But with his newly improved device and accompanying system of dots and dashes, distance was effectively banished as a communication barrier. The telegraph helped Lincoln win the war, brought rescuers to the aid of the Titanic, and delivered countless other lifesaving messages. And in true hero style, Morse made large donations to charities, artists, and colleges after he made his fortune.

  2. Tim Berners-Lee:

    The Internet had many parents, from J.C.R. Licklider and the people at ARPANET to Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute. But the World Wide Web had one father: Tim Berners-Lee. His 1990 proposal called for "a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will." In the 20+ years since, the "web of nodes" has been used to connect people all over the world, to facilitate new ideas, to topple dictators and usher in new democracies, and to effectively move humankind a step forward in evolution.

  3. Nikola Tesla:

    When you think of a hero, you think of a person fighting to make the world a better place, usually against overwhelming forces. Inventor Nikola Tesla's dream was to give the world free energy, transmitted using the earth as a conductor. In the process of chasing this dream, he invented the alternating current motor, remote control, the electric motor, laser, and a little device known as the radio. One G. Marconi employed 17 of Tesla's patents to get his own patent for the radio, which the Supreme Court overturned shortly after Tesla's death. As for wireless energy, Tesla's financier J.P. Morgan understandably saw no profit in free energy and strangled Tesla's funding stream, killing the project. But today we salute you, Mr. Tesla: genius, visionary, hero.

  4. Jimmy Wales:

    A hero to students and web researchers everywhere, Jimmy Wales is the co-founder and face of "The Free Encyclopedia," Wikipedia. Never before had the democratizing aspect of the web been combined with knowledge sharing so effectively. Though the ability to edit entries led to a few pranks in its early days, independent third parties have since verified that Wikipedia is about as accurate as the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica. Wales believes the site, together with continued increases in broadband availability, will lead to the toppling of tyrants and revolutions organized in perpetually troubled countries. Far be it for us to doubt a legend.

  5. Charles Michel de L'Epee:

    If you want to get technical, using the hands to make signs to communicate was probably done by cavemen and has been done up to this very minute by people waving goodbye and telling waiters they're ready for the check. But it was an abbot named Charles Michel de L'Epee who, after meeting two young deaf girls, pioneered sign language as we know it. In 1771, he opened Paris' first free public school for the deaf, teaching a standard sign language he developed from studying his students' motions. This became French Sign Language, which formed the basis of American Sign Language and gave a voice to millions of deaf people.

  6. John Robinson:

    Google this name and you'll find an actor, a Pilgrim pastor, and a serial killer. You'll have to hunt to find John Robinson, Scottish physicist and inventor of the siren. In 1799, Robinson created a valve that attached to an organ and interrupted flows of air at regular intervals. Surprisingly, the sound created was described as "equal in sweetness to a clear female voice." It was 20 years later that the invention was modified and dubbed a siren, but this attention-grabbing communication device has helped saved countless lives, all thanks to the one and only John Robinson.

  7. Arthur C. Clarke:

    Clarke is commonly remembered as a titan of written communication, penning many popular novels and short stories, including 2001: A Space Odyssey. At one point he even created a treaty with Isaac Asimov to declare himself the best science fiction writer and Asimov the best science writer. But it's a little-known fact that because of a 1945 article in the magazine Wireless World, Clarke is considered the father of satellite communications. He postulated the concept without which we would not have "sat" phones, satellite TV or radio, OnStar, GPS, DARPA, and more.

  8. William Tyndale:

    Phrases like "the powers that be" and "gave up the ghost" were coined by William Tyndale in his translation of the Bible into English in the 1520s. At the time, England's King Henry VIII had outlawed English translations, seeing them as a Protestant attack on the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy, who before had held a monopoly on reading the Bible as it was only available in Latin, Hebrew, or Greek. Tyndale vowed to make the good book available to the common man, and he succeeded, using the advent of the printing press to distribute 18,000 copies. For these efforts he was strangled to death and burned at the stake. Personal beliefs aside, we say he died a hero's death.

  9. President Lyndon B. Johnson:

    LBJ was no inventor or writer; in fact, his contribution to communication was one he would rather have not made at all. He was the commander in chief who signed into law the Freedom of Information Act on July 4, 1966. The Act gives the American people an important avenue for requesting some secret government information be made public. Though he signed off on the bill, President Johnson was obviously annoyed with the legislation. He held no ceremony to announce the Act's signing, and he scratched certain sentences from his signing statement like: "Government officials should not be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest." That's OK, LBJ; we'll give you the credit anyway.

  10. Garrett Morgan:

    Here's a guy who has almost certainly never been mentioned in the same list as Samuel Morse. But communication comes in all different sizes, shapes, and yes, colors. We remember Garrett Morgan as the man behind the gas mask, but also the creator of today's traffic light. As the first African American to own an automobile in Cleveland, Morgan witnessed a terrible car crash due to two-light traffic signals: stop and go. His three-light signal incorporated the warning yellow light to caution drivers that a stop light was imminent, thus saving our lives hundreds of times and probably yours, too.

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