The 8 Most Overrated People In History

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is known as the world’s greatest inventor, the mind behind everything from the light bulb to the electric car. His record output – 1,093 patents – still amazes us, over a century later. How could one man invent so much? Short answer: he didn’t. Apart from his pet project, the phonograph, most Edison inventions were the work of unsung technicians, who toiled in the unsafe conditions of his laboratories and factories, so that Edison could take credit and get the patent. He was your classic Dickensian employer, paying as little as he could get away with paying. His move in 1876 to his famous laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, was partly prompted by a strike of his workers, which made him desperate to escape the trade unions of New York City.

OK, Edison was a visionary -– like Leonardo Da Vinci, whose sketches of airplanes and armored tanks could not take form until the technology existed, centuries after his death. Of course, Leonardo didn’t have a team behind him. Without his engineers, Edison would have been no more an “inventor” than H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, or any other great visionary science-fiction writer.

Still, Edison’s name is still synonymous with invention -– proof that, generally, his publicity worked. It wasn’t what he knew; it was whom he knew. As Jack Stanley, curator of the Thomas Edison Museum in Menlo Park, once told me: “He was brilliant enough to realize that he wasn’t brilliant.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi was the saint who, through his principles of ahimsa (non-violence), brought independence to India in 1947. At least, that’s what you’ve probably heard. But the Indian independence movement was a strong force well before Gandhi entered the scene. The nation’s freedom would have happened within a few years of 1947 even if Gandhi had spent his life meditating in a cave. He was a figurehead for the cause, while various other leaders were doing most of the work (and if you say “I’ve never heard of anyone else,” I won’t be remotely surprised). In true Thomas Edison fashion, he was happy to take the credit.

Ahimsa was a nice idea (and yes, it inspired Martin Luther King), but Gandhi didn’t exactly invent it. He admitted that it was based on Hindu scriptures, the New Testament and Thoreau, though Buddha was walking the talk some 2,500 years earlier. But while Gandhi had his spiritual side, “saint” is too strong a word. He talked peace, but played politics as ruthlessly and slimily as any politician. His ideological differences with Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the Indian National Congress (the chief independence group) led him to try some truly underhanded tactics, gathering a faction to rid throw out Bose. (All’s fair in politics, perhaps, but Gandhi was supposed to be above that.) Bose had too much respect for Gandhi (he was the one who called him “father of our nation”) and, after dealing with Gandhi’s backstabbing, despondently stood down. For the record, Gandhi was meant to be the meditative guy, and Bose was meant to be the militant one. It’s all PR.

Lady Godiva

I hate sexist slideshows, so –- although men have been grandstanding considerably more than women over the millennia –- I had to include at least one woman on this list. In the 11th century, not long before the Norman Conquest of England, Lady Godiva pleaded with her despotic husband, Leofric, to be nice to his subjects and reduce their taxes. That much is probably true. But then there was her famous publicity stunt, in which she protested by riding naked through the streets of Coventry on a white horse.

Sounds good. Sadly, the first known record of that event wasn’t published until 200 years after her death. From the little we know, it seems that she really was a sweet, charitable woman. But as she didn’t do the only thing that she is actually famous for doing, I’m afraid that we’ll have to describe her as “overrated”. Sorry about that.

Christopher Columbus

Columbus overrated? OK, I might as well never again set foot in the US after this one. That’s fine, because Columbus never went there either! You know all the stories about this great explorer, who proved that he was right and everyone else was wrong by discovering America? Well, none of that’s really true. The bit about how he proved that the world was round? No, Plato and Aristotle knew that the world was round 1800 years earlier. The bit about Columbus being the first European in the Americas? No, the Vikings were there 500 years earlier. Columbus didn’t even know where he was, thinking that he’d found a route to the Orient. As many learned people told him, he was wrong. They were right. During his four expeditions to the New World, he visited islands in the Caribbean or South America. His discovery of the Americas in 1492 was a small island near San Salvador. To his dying day, he refused to believe that he had discovered a new continent, insisting that he had reached India as planned. Wrong again. What a doofus.

Guglielmo Marconi

The world of invention has had a few scoundrels –- and Marconi, the alleged inventor of radio, makes Edison look good. Nikola Tesla, one of Edison’s most brilliant engineers, discovered (and published) a way to transmit and receive radio signals in 1895. For all his genius, Tesla is the forgotten man of invention. He had been royally screwed by his boss, and would be conned even more disgracefully by Marconi. Marconi, a wealthy tinkerer with family ties to the English aristocracy, took credit for Tesla’s discovery, patenting it in England before Tesla got around to it. The Yugoslav-American Tesla then decided to make do with a US patent, so Marconi rushed it through to the US Patent Office, playing dumb when the office suggested that he must surely have seen Tesla’s papers. He eventually used his friends in high places to take out the patent, while Tesla’s patent was voided. Marconi became even wealthier, won a Nobel Prize, and is still known as the inventor of radio. Face it, the guy was a scum! In 1943, however, the Patent Office gave the patent back to Tesla, which was pretty useless as Tesla and Marconi were both dead.

Machine Gun Kelly

Perhaps “overrated” is the wrong word here, but I’ll include him anyway. George R Kelly, a large, tough-looking guy, was one of the more celebrated gangsters of the 1930s, feared so much that he was named after his weapon of choice. Yet for all his boasting and his headlines, he was really a bit of a wimp – physically unfit, clumsy, and even henpecked. In fact, his wife Kathryn was the real brain behind the operation, acting as both criminal mastermind and PR lady. As for that machine gun… Kelly never killed anyone in his life, or even fired his weapon in anger. He and his gang only had one major crime: the kidnap of an oil tycoon. Once they collected the ransom, Kathryn suggested that they kill him anyway, but “Machine Gun” refused, leaving their would-be victim to provide so many clues that they were all arrested. As far as villains go, he was a bit of a disappointment. (Still, seems like a nice guy, huh?) He was never even remotely as bad as Al Capone or Lucky Luciano, but won a reputation thanks to his big-talking wife, the sensationalist press, and J Edger Hoover, trying desperately to talk up the FBI’s achievements as they brought in the bad guys.

King Arthur

King Arthur’s status should be demoted from “dashing, heroic king” to “guy who didn’t even exist”. A bit of a come-down.

Yet people still think that he was real. These are presumably the people who visit South Cadbury Castle in south-west England, allegedly King Arthur’s home (when presumably means that this was where the fabled kingdom of Camelot was located); or Glastonbury, where Arthur is said (by tour guides) to be buried. All very exciting, but probably not true. Arthur, King of the Britons, is known as the great hero who led his people against the invading hordes in the fifth century. (Well, someone must have done it.) Still, he was no more real than his wife Guinevere, or his myriad Knights of the Round Table. Surely the stories of Excalibur (pulled out of a stone!), the Lady in the Lake, or the way Arthur single-handedly dealt with an army of 960 Saxon soldiers, must have been slightly… suss? Even Robin Hood shows more evidence of actually existing than Arthur and his friends. Unlike Uncle Sam, Johnny Appleseed, or even Santa Claus (sort of), there is no reason to believe that King Arthur was ever real. Like William Tell, or the Brontosaurus, he was make-believe – which, to my mind, makes him slightly overrated.

Ronald Reagan

Firstly, let’s keep politics out of this. Whatever your affiliation, Reagan just doesn’t deserve all that hype! He was always a popular President, but he has since been recast (mainly by conservative historians) as a great one as well. Yes, you can easily place him on that pedestal. You would merely need to ignore the Iran-Contra scandal, the huge budget deficits, his environment ignorance, his do-nothing reaction to the looming AIDS epidemic, his courting of Saddam Hussein, and numerous other blunders. “Reagan was truly a great president whose achievement rivals that of Franklin Roosevelt,” wrote conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, in his 1997 reappraisal where he credited Reagan for everything from the strong Clinton economy (go figure) to world peace (while somehow forgetting to mention Iran-Contra anywhere in the book).

But Reagan belongs in this slideshow for one thing in particular: his reputation as the man who ended the Cold War. D’Souza and others have suggested that Reagan’s arms build-up was a cunning ploy to bankrupt the USSR, which is a relief, because I always thought it was a cunning ploy to risk everyone’s life. Reagan showed little sign of burying the hatchet with the “evil empire” (as he called them) until the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985. Even then, he was very uncooperative in peace talks with Gorby until, facing scandal and low approval ratings, he was willing to do anything – even something crazy like helping to save the world. As for Russia’s bankruptcy… The war in Afghanistan started in 1979. Reagan was still in California.

Oh, and if you don’t think I can talk about US Presidents because I’m not American… then you’re a dope. Even Australians can do their research.

Source The Huffington Post


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. dan griffin
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 05:53:07

    i would have to agree with most of what you say, but did your country have to give the world rupert murdoch and mel gibson?


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