The First Shall Be Last

Why we don’t actually know who was first, why being “first” isn’t so
clear-cut, and why it’s best not to be first anyway.

First! (public domain)

There was an annoying internet trend a few years back, where people would race to post comments like “First to post!” or “Yes! First” under every article, without any useful contribution to the conversation at all. Fortunately, that trend seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird by now – though the vast majority of internet comments are still strangely content-free* – but it does show humanity’s preoccupation with being first. At anything, however meaningless. Being first gives you bragging rights, something to be put down in the history books for, a reason to claim to be an expert on something. Actually, that’s garbage. The trick is to convince everyone, especially the historians, that you were first. Whether you actually were or not is beside the point.

Who was the first to figure out calculus – was it Newton or Leibniz? Who came up with the idea of evolution – Darwin or Alfred Russell Wallace? Which of these guys made it into the history books, and whose names do you know?

Newton’s and Leibniz’s supporters fought tooth and nail, but it’s not actually resolved who unquestionably “invented” calculus, or what exactly one would have to do the would prove they came up with calculus first. Then, of course, there are those that argue we should go farther back, and that Archimedes did enough to be called the inventor of calculus (there’s different types of calculus involved here, but not being into math, I’m not going to go into that). Well, if we pick Archimedes, there was no one around the time that would know of to compete with him, so that could solve a problem.

Then take the Darwin example. Does the title of “being first” go to the guy who thought of it first, or the guy who published first? Because Alfred Russell Wallace clearly published a paper on his theory first. But maybe Darwin thought it of it first, because he’d taken years to publish his ideas, and thus we still can recognize him? Well, if we go in that direction – how on earth are you going to know what people are thinking? That’s just asking for a floor of crackpots claiming they thought of relativity before Einstein.

Or, you know, if you want to make things easier you can always go back to the Greeks again. There was a guy running around and telling people that humans evolved from fish, so that may be close enough to count. After all, whatever theory of evolution scientists are working with now is not exactly the same as what Darwin came up with anyway.

But it’s that way with so many theories. Copernicus put the sun in the centre of the universe, but he thought the universe was finite and the planets were carried around their orbit by gigantic solid spheres of something-or-other. In fact, he put the sun in the centre so the spheres carrying the planets wouldn’t physically bump into each other. Being completely wrong on that helped him be completely right on something else, and for that we regard him as the guy who re-invented astronomy. Because of this, Copernicus’s system had to be improved by Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and so on, so the kudos for re-inventing astronomy don’t belong to him alone. So who should get the credit for the theory we ended up with – Copernicus, who put the sun in the centre, Kepler, who added elliptical orbits, or Galileo, who observed a bunch of stuff through a telescope that backed Copernicus’s theory up? It begins to look like credit is a difficult thing to parcel out. But we can at least give Copernicus the credit for putting the sun in the centre – except several Ancient Greeks argued that hundreds of years before. Maybe we just have to concede the Greeks were first at everything.

Okay, maybe it’s just science that’s weird. But the first person to climb Mount Everest – that pretty concrete, right? Or who discovered America, or who reached the North Pole, or who invented the airplane? No dice. Sir Edmund Hillary is well-known for being the first to climb Mount Everest, but tell me the name of the sherpa would helped him get there, and stood with him near the top. (That’s right, it’s Tenzing Norgay – though he did graciously allow that Hillary set his boot on whatever counts as the summit first.) To make things more complicated, Hillary may’ve been beaten by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924, but they died on their way down so no one can proof they got to the top. You know, if there’s no proof you were first, then you weren’t first, even if you were. Same with the North Pole – several people claimed to have reached it, but Robert Peary convinced enough people that he had, though nowadays they think there’s not enough proof. (And there’s certainly no proof anyone tried to get there before the twentieth century, but who’s to say no one did?) Maybe Roald Amundsen was first after all – yes, he’s the guy who reached the South Pole first too.

And the whole “discovering America” thing? That’s a quagmire to wade into. Shoot, Columbus met *people* living on that continent, and yet the place still didn’t count as “discovered” until he set foot on it. Not to mention the fact the Vikings beat Columbus to it, and yet they don’t count because they abandoned the place and forgot about it. Here in Canada, we claim the first European “discoverer” of Canada was John Cabot, but there’s a distinct possibility Basque fishermen were here before him, and just didn’t bother telling anyone important they’d discovered land.

To drive the point home, look at Apple (yes, Apple Computer, I’m leaping to the twenty-first century here). They were the first at nothing. They didn’t invent the MP3 player, the cellphone, or the tablet computer. They just made those things better. They’ve built their whole company around, not coming up with new stuff, but making clunky gadgets that already exist into something irresistible. In fact, there’s a huge disadvantage to being first at anything – it means whoever goes after you gets to watch your mistake and do what you do better. (The Wright Brothers’ “first” airplane was unstable and difficult to steer, something which subsequent inventors immediately improved on, and the Wright Brothers made zero advancements in airplanes beyond that. However, they did convince American museums to acknowledge them as the first to fly, so they pretty much had figured out what would make them famous.)

MP3s, cellphones, tablets – we don’t even know who invented each of these. They probably were developed by a team of people. Does this mean our society is moving away from its obsession over firsts? Not as long as history books and textbooks continue to claim they know who was first at what, and only these people’s names deserve our effort to memorize. Fortunately, many people now realize it isn’t so clear-cut. (After all, the CD, the atom bomb and the internet were invented by a team of people, so who’s to say who was first?)

Obviously being first has prestige attached, and people are still going to want to do it. But being first is a complicated process of being acknowledged first by others, possessing some proof of being first, and getting people after you to remember you were first. What, you mean you have to do more than just show up somewhere before anyone else?

Oh, buddy, since when was anything that simple?

* Excepting the lovely commenters who comment on my blog, of
course.

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1 Comment

Filed under History

One response to “The First Shall Be Last

  1. Pingback: 2 Myths About History (Refuted) | Stories and Stuff

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