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11 Historical Figures With Little Education Who Managed to Change the World

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.


Education or Not

Education gives us an opportunity to learn. It puts us in front of experts of various fields who can transfer their knowledge for us to use at a later time. For most of us, if we look at our position in life, we most likely can thank a teacher who inspired us. This teacher can be a parent, an employer, or a primary, secondary or higher education professional who taught us either basic or advanced knowledge. But they are someone who in all cases moved us to achieve that which we have been able to accomplish.

Oftentimes, an education is not about lessons, textbooks or examinations. It is more about showing that the student can accomplish a goal and finish a task. More importantly, it is about improving our capability of interpreting the world around us and using critical thinking skills to solve problems.Ultimately, it is about teaching us the skills of 'learning how to learn.'

However, is that which we call education or school learning the only path to achievement in life?

While education is important, there are people who have excelled in life through a process of self-education or learning on their own. In some cases, there are those who are fortunate to possess natural intelligence and motivation to be able to accomplish greatness without formal education.

For some gifted and dedicated people, lack of education does not seem to be an impediment. Keeping this in mind, the following list offers eleven people who have achieved greatness, perhaps even changed the world, without formal education.


1. and 2. The Wright Brothers: Aviation Pioneers

Orville (August 19, 1871 — January 30, 1948); Wilbur (April 16, 1867 — May 30, 1912).

Many newspaper stories of the day might have read:


At 10:35 AM, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers originally from Dayton, Ohio, made headlines worldwide by flying a heavier than air, manned motor propelled machine for the first time in history. They flew at 120 feet above the ground for a total of 12 seconds and timed at the amazing speed of 6.8 miles per hour.

They were the owners and operators of the Wright Cycle Company located in South William Street, Dayton, where they had been repairing and building their own brand of safety bicycles since 1892. In addition to their proficiencies in bicycle work, this remarkable pair gained their mechanical skills necessary to build their flying machine by working with printing presses, repairing and building motors and other machinery.


The brothers became interested in flight a few years prior to this momentous event, when they thought that similarly to riding a bicycle, an unstable vehicle such as a flying machine could be controlled with practice. Hence, they conducted extensive glider tests in order to acquire skills necessary to pilot their machine.

Both brothers attended high school in Richmond, Indiana, but never graduated. They claim their interest in flying started in 1878 when the family lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and their father gifted them a toy helicopter capable of vertical flight. The little contraption was based on an invention by French aeronautical pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. It was made of paper, bamboo and cork, with a rubber band to move the top propeller. They claim that once the toy broke they built their own.


3. Michael Faraday: One of the Most Influential Scientists in History

(September 22, 1791 — August 25, 1867)

Born in Newington Butts, England, Michael Faraday was a scientist who contributed to the study and knowledge of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. He discovered the principles underlying electromagnetic induction, electrolysis and diamagnetism. He invented various electromagnetic rotary devices forming the foundation of electric motor technology and opening the door for electricity to become practical for use in technology.

Although he was one of the most influential scientists in history, he received little formal education and instead had to educate himself. At the age of 14 he became an apprentice at a local bookbinder and bookseller shop in London. During the seven years that followed Faraday read many books, including Isaac Watt’s The Improvement of the Mind, and enthusiastically implemented its principles and suggestions. He also developed an interest in science, especially electricity.

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Today, Faraday is considered one of the most influential scientists in history.


4. John D. Rockefeller: Considered the Wealthiest American of All Time

(July 8, 1839 — May 23, 1937)

Taught by his mother, Eliza, that “willful waste makes woeful want”, Rockefeller said that his two great ambitions were to make $100,000 (close to $3 million today) and to live to 100 years. One ambition he greatly surpassed as his net worth in 1913 was estimated to be US$418 billion in today’s money; the second he nearly accomplished as he died at the age of 97.

At the age of fourteen, Rockefeller quit high school in order to enroll in a 10 week course in bookkeeping. At age sixteen he got his first job as an assistant bookkeeper at Hewitt & Tuttle, a small produce commission firm in Cleveland, Ohio. Later as a bookkeeper his duties included negotiating transportation rates with barge canal owners, ship captains and freight agents, for which he excelled. He claimed his negotiation skills were taught to him by his father who always advised him to “trade dishes for platters.”

At age 20, Rockefeller went into several business partnerships some of which were in oil refining. By the time he was 31 he had founded the Standard Oil Company, which he ran until 1897. His wealth soared as kerosene and gasoline grew in importance on a global scale. This catapulted him to becoming the richest person in the United States, controlling 90% of all the oil in the country. He also gained enormous influence over the railroad which he used to transport his oil around the country.

Rockefeller the great American business magnate and philanthropist reached a personal wealth of $900 million in 1913, which represented more than 2% of the U.S. GDP of $39.1 billion during that year. By 1937 the Rockefeller fortune was $1.4 billion or 1.5% of GDP of 92 billion.


5. Mary Anning: Fossil Collector, Dealer, and Paleontologist

(21 May 21, 1799 — March 9, 1847)

Along the cliffs of the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England, Mary Anning could be found scouring the ground in search for Jurassic marine fossils. She was a fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist who became famous worldwide for the significant finds she made which ultimately greatly contributed to important changes in the way science viewed prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

She searched for fossils during the winter months when landslides exposed the paleontological finds she knew had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. In fact, during one such landslide her dog Tray was killed, and she was severely injured; almost losing her life.

Among her finds were the skeletons of an ichthyosaur; two nearly complete plesiosaurs; a pterosaur; and other important fish fossils. Her observations led to the discovery of coprolites, fossilized feces, and ink sacs in belemnite similar to those in cephalopods.

On August 19, 1800, at the age of 15 months, she was struck by lightning while being held by a neighbor while under a tree. The neighbor, Elizabeth Haskings and two other women that were all huddled together, died. Anning, who was unconscious was rushed home and put in a hot bath, after which she was revived. For years after the incident, community members attributed her curiosity, lively personality and intelligence to the lightning that almost took her life.

Her education was extremely limited. She learned to read and write at the Congregationalist church she and her family attended. Her prized possession was a bound copy of Dissenters’ Theological Magazine and Review, in which Reverend James Wheaton, had published two essays. One in which he claimed that God had created the world in six days and the other urging non-believers to study the new science of geology.


6. Benjamin Franklin: Polymath and Founding Father

(January 6, 1706 — April 17, 1790)

Known for his wit and wisdom and depicted in the 100 dollar bill and many stamps, Benjamin Franklin was a Founding Father of the United States of America and to this day a beloved icon of the country. His knowledge spanned through a substantial number of subjects and interests allowing him to become an inventor, scientist, printer, politician, successful business owner and diplomat.

He helped to draft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as well as negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War. Besides these historic events in which he participated, some of his other accomplishments are:

  • Created the first published political cartoon in U.S.
  • Authored the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac.
  • Invented the lightning rod.
  • Invented bifocal lenses.
  • He aided the repeal of the Stamp Act of 1765.
  • Invented the armonica — a new musical instrument.
  • Invented the famous Franklin stove.
  • He was the first Post Master General of the U.S.
  • Instrumental in the establishment of the University of Pennsylvania.
  • He contributed in the development of the science of demography (the study of population and population growth).

But yet, despite all these accomplishment, Benjamin Franklin stopped his formal schooling at age 10 to work full-time in his father’s cash-strapped candle and soap shop.


7. Anton Van Leeuwenhoek: Creator of Microbiology

(October 24, 1632 — August 26,1723)

Anton Van Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch businessman and scientist during the Golden Age of what we now know as the Netherlands. This period, roughly spanning from 1581 to 1672 was a time in which Dutch trade, science, military and the arts were among the most acclaimed in the world.

Although self-taught, he became known as the Father of Microbiology. Van Leeuwenhoek was known for his pioneering work in microscopy and his contributions in establishing microbiology as a scientific discipline.

Van Leeuwenhoek worked in his youth as a draper (seller of cloth for clothing) and founded his own store in 1654. After getting involved in municipal politics, he developed an interest in lens making in the 1670s. This led to his exploration in microbial life with the microscopes he developed.

Using various single-lensed microscopes he had designed, van Leeuwenhoek was the first to experiment with microbes, which he originally called dierkens or “small animals.” These experiments led him to being able to determine their relative size. He was also the first scientist to document microscopic observations of muscle fibers, bacteria, spermatozoa, red blood cells, crystals in gouty tophi and blood flow in capillaries.


8. Frederick Douglass: American Social Reformer, Abolitionist and Orator

(c. February 1817 — February 20, 1895)

After escaping slavery, Frederick Douglass became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York. He accomplished this by his eloquent oratory abilities, insightful and razor-sharp writings. Through his palpable intellect he became a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that blacks lacked the intellectual capacity to function independently. Many in the states north of the Mason-Dixon line were astounded how someone of such high intellect could have once been a slave.

Douglass wrote a total of 28 books. Four were autobiographies in which he described his experience as a slave. His two first autobiographies, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and My Bondage and My Freedom were influential in promoting the cause of abolition. Among his political views of the time was his support for women’s suffrage for which he extensively wrote and spoke about. He was also the first African American to be nominated Vice President of the United States. Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president on the Equal Rights Party ticket placed him on the ballot without his approval. He rejected the nomination shortly after.

As a child, he was taught to read by his mistress Sophia Auld, who was later instructed by the slave master to stop teaching him. Later Douglass learned to write by visiting Durgin and Bailey’s ship-yard, where he saw ship carpenters write on pieces of timber as they labeled them. He later would get the kids in town, through some trickery, to further teach him writing. He spent countless hours writing on whatever he could, brick walls, fences and pavement. Later he would write in the empty spaces of the slave master’s discarded books.


9. Henry Ford: Industrialist and Business Magnate

(July 30, 1863 — April 7, 1947)

He was an American industrialist, business magnate and the founder of the Ford Motor Company. When most people think of Henry Ford, the hugely successful Model T Ford comes to mind. However, while this little automotive workhorse allowed Ford to earn millions of dollars his development and installation of the first moving assembly line for the mass production of automobiles is what sets him apart from other American industrialists.

This brilliant innovation reduced the time it took to a build a car from more than 12 hours per unit to an impressive two hours and 30 minutes. This allowed Ford to create the first automobile the middle-class could afford. This amazing stroke of genius converted the automobile from an expensive toy into an accessible form of transportation that profoundly changed the 20th century.

Ford accomplished this by developing four principles of production that allowed him to reach his goal of mass production and improved quality. These principles were: interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor and the reduction of wasted effort.

Previously, the workers who built the Model N (the Model T’s predecessor) arranged the parts in a row on the floor, put the under-construction car on skids and dragged it down the line as they worked. His new method, however, depended on breaking up the production into 84 steps, with workers specializing in one procedure and repeating it throughout the work day. He also built machinery that could stamp out parts automatically which sped up the production and assembly process.

Henry Ford’s education was limited to attending the local one-room school for eight years. Later when he was 22 he took courses in bookkeeping at Goldsmith, Bryant & Stratton Business College in Detroit.


10. Sequoyah: Created the Cherokee Syllabary

(c.1770 — August 1843)

Known by his English name of George Gist, Sequoyah was a Native American of the Cherokee Nation who completed his independent creation of the Cherokee syllabary, making reading and writing possible in that language. This was one of only two times in history that someone from a pre-literate society created an effective writing system from scratch. The only other example being Shong Lue Yang who invented the Pahawh script, now used for writing dialects of the Hmong and Khmu languages in Vietnam.

Once the syllabary was presented to the Cherokee Nation, it was rapidly adopted by its members. Consequently, their literacy rate surpassed that of the European-American settlers of the area.

Sequoyah was widely considered a polymath who was born in the Cherokee town of Tuskegee. He became lame in early life, although it is not known exactly how. Some claim a hunting accident, while other point to an injury from a possible battle. Despite his lack of schooling, Sequoyah had outstanding natural intelligence and became impressed by the writing of the white men with whom he came into contact. He immediately realized that the writing represented a way to transmit information to other people in distant places.


11. Ed Ricketts: Pioneering Work in Intertidal Ecology

(May 14, 1897 — May 11, 1948)

Ed Ricketts, originally named Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts was an American marine biologist, ecologist and philosopher. He is best known for a pioneering study of intertidal ecology, for his book Between Pacific Tides (now in its fifth edition) and for his influence on writer John Steinbeck. Ricketts and Steinbeck collaborated in the writing of the book The Log from the Sea of Cortez published in 1951.

Ricketts briefly studied zoology at the University of Chicago but dropped out. Afterwards he spent several months walking through the American south from Indiana to Florida. The material he compiled during his trip allowed him to publish an article in Travel magazine titled “Vagabonding Through Dixie.”

His major scientific work in Between Pacific Tides is now regarded as a classic in marine ecology


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