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Men You've Never Heard of Who Changed the World

History tends to focus on the bright lights, the emperors, and the explorers whose names echo through time. But what about the incredible men who made significant contributions, yet remain on the periphery? From the mountaineer who helped conquer Everest to the physician who championed hygiene decades before germ theory, these unsung heroes deserve more recognition. History books might not mention them, but today we will learn about eight such men who pushed boundaries, challenged norms, and left their mark on the world.

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1. Tenzing Norgay

Tenzing Norgay, born Namgyal Wangdi, was a Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer who rose to prominence in 1953 after completing the seemingly impossible feat of climbing Mount Everest, the world's highest peak. Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first two persons confirmed to stand atop Everest, an accomplishment that stunned the world.

Born into a Sherpa household near Everest, Norgay perfected his mountaineering talents at an early age. He took part in a number of Everest missions before his epic 1953 summit. Tenzing's extensive mountain knowledge and climbing experience were key to the Hillary-Tenzing expedition's success.

Norgay's incredible feat not only earned him recognition worldwide, but also helped solidify the Sherpas' image as adept and fearless high-altitude climbers. After reaching the peak of Everest, he remained active in climbing, campaigning for mountain safety, and promoting his Sherpa heritage.

2. Ibn Battuta

Nicknamed "The Wandering Shadow," Ibn Battuta wasn't your typical explorer. This 14th-century Moroccan scholar set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca at the age of 21, but it turned into an incredible 30-year odyssey. He traveled across the Islamic world, including far into Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and even China and Southeast Asia.

Ibn Battuta didn't only go sightseeing; he worked as a judge, scholar, and diplomat in many courts, immersing himself in different cultures and languages. His comprehensive observations, documented in the book The Rihla (The Travels), constituted the foundation of medieval geographic knowledge. From busy marketplaces to political intrigue, Ibn Battuta's reports paint a vivid picture of life across continents, cementing his place as one of history's greatest explorers.

3. Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th-century Hungarian doctor, transformed hygiene practices with a simple yet life-saving discovery. Working in a Vienna maternity unit plagued by childbirth fatalities, Semmelweis noticed a startling difference: women delivered by doctors who had just had autopsies had a substantially higher mortality rate.

His thorough observations contradicted the prevailing theory that "childbed fever" was caused by an "airborne miasma." Semmelweis was concerned that something was being transferred through doctors' hands. He enforced handwashing with a chlorinated lime solution, which seemed extreme at the time. However, the death rate fell dramatically, validating his theory.

Despite the significant outcomes, Semmelweis' theories encountered opposition from the medical establishment. Disheartened, he died young, and his finding was only recognized decades later. Today, Ignaz Semmelweis is recognized as a hygiene pioneer and an icon of the efficacy of evidence-based medicine.

4. Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang, also known as the First Emperor of China, was a ruthless but transformational emperor. He unified warring kingdoms, establishing a centralized empire and laying the foundations for China's political and cultural institutions. He standardized weights and measures, built a great network of roads and canals, and famously supervised the creation of the Terracotta Army, a vast mausoleum complex.

However, his administration was defined by severe legalism, ruthless repression of opposition, and large-scale forced labor initiatives. Regardless of the disagreement, Shi Huangdi's legacy is unquestionable. He ushered in a new age of unification and stability in China, forever altering its political landscape.

5. Zhang Heng

Long before the present-day seismograph was invented, Zhang Heng, a 2nd-century Chinese genius, made an impressive earthquake detection device. His innovation, known as the "Duling Earthquake Detector," was a wonderfully balanced bronze vase with eight dragon-headed protrusions, each of which held a ball in its mouth. An earthquake would trigger the release of a ball, which would fall onto a chime below, inidicating the direction of the earthquake.

Zhang Heng's achievements expanded much beyond seismology. He was an accomplished astronomer, designing an armillary sphere to survey the night sky and precisely computing pi. He also excelled at mathematics, engineering, and literature. Even with Zhang Heng's many talents, his earthquake detector remains a testament to his ingenuity and lasting influence on science.

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6. Vasili Arkhipov

During the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the world was on the verge of nuclear war. Little-known hero Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet Navy captain, saved the day by preventing a disastrous escalation. Arkhipov, the flotilla commander stationed on a submarine carrying nuclear-armed torpedoes, refused to launch an attack on a US destroyer despite pressure from his captain. He saved the day by insisting on his authority and requiring unanimous approval.

Though details are confidential, Arkhipov's efforts are thought to have stopped a chain reaction that may have resulted in nuclear war. While he was not publicly acknowledged during his lifetime, Vasili Arkhipov's bravery and devotion to protocol in a high-pressure situation attest to his part in preventing world tragedy.

7. Garrett Morgan

Born to formerly enslaved parents, Garrett Morgan defied limitations. Witnessing a tunnel accident fueled his passion for safety inventions. His "Safety Hood," a precursor to the gas mask, offered firefighters protection in smoke-filled environments. But Morgan's impact goes beyond that. He also patented a traffic signal he called the "Automatic Traffic Signal," a clear forerunner to the modern traffic light. This invention revolutionized road safety, preventing countless accidents. Despite facing racial barriers, Garrett Morgan's ingenuity and dedication to safety left a lasting impact on the world.

Related: These Remarkable Inventors Shaped the Way We Live

8. Juan de la Cosa

While Christopher Columbus' voyage gets most of the credit, the success wouldn't have been possible without skilled navigators like Juan de la Cosa. This Spanish explorer and cartographer played a crucial role by meticulously documenting Columbus' discoveries and creating some of the earliest European maps of the Americas. De la Cosa's detailed charts, which included coastlines, landmarks, and potential trade routes, were instrumental in guiding future exploration and colonization efforts. Despite being overshadowed by Columbus, Juan de la Cosa's mapmaking skills were essential for opening up the "New World" to European exploration and forever altering the course of history.

Thumbnail image source: Wikimedia Commons

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