Famous Firsts

A list of famous firsts throughout human history. Including famous firsts in exploration, science, transport, politics, sport, culture and the arts.

First in Exploration

1492Christopher Colombus becomes the first European from a major power to land in the Americas (now the Bahamas). Columbus was probably preceded by others, such as the Viking Leif Erikson in the 10th Century.

1773 – Captain James Cook – becomes the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle.

1911 – 14th December – Roald Amundsen (Norway) first person to reach the South Pole.


Amundsen at the South Pole

1926 – Roald Amundsen (Norway) recognised as being the first person to reach the North Pole.

1932 – Amelia Earhart – 1st transatlantic solo flight by a woman. Flying from Newfoundland to Ireland in 15 hours.

1947 – Chuck Yeager becomes the 1st person to fly faster than the speed of sound. (670 mph in the Bell X-1 rocket.)


Mount Everest

1953 – Sir Edmund Hillary, with Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, become the first men to climb Mt. Everest.


1783 – Nov. 21. – Marquis d’Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier become the first humans to fly in a hot-air balloon for 20 minutes, in Paris.


1903 – 17 Dec. Wright Brothers make the first powered flight in North Caroline in a flight lasting 12 seconds.

Firsts in Politics

508 BC – First attempts to introduce concepts of democracy on a significant scale in ancient Greece, e.g.  democratic reforms of Cleisthenes. (see: People who shaped democracy)


Magna Carta

1215 – 15 June. Magna Carta. The 1st charter which sought to limit the power of kings by law. Magna Carta established principle of habeas corpus (see: Key events in history of democracy)

1542 – Spain enacted the first European law Leyes Nuevas‘ abolishing colonial slavery.

1777 – Thomas Jefferson drafted Virginia’s  Act of Establishing Religious Freedom. First bill to explicitly allowing religious freedom in

1789 1st Amendment to US constitution allowing freedom of thought and religious belief was adopted.

1789 – John Jay becomes 1st US Supreme Court chief justice.

1870  – Jefferson Long becomes the 1st African American elected to U.S. House of Representatives (for Georgia)

1946 – Trygve Lie (Norway) becomes the 1st Secretary General of United Nations.

1967 – Thurgood Marshall the 1st African American to become a Supreme Court justice.

1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor – 1st female US Supreme Court justice.

Invention / Science

1668 – First reflecting telescope invented by Sir Isaac Newton.

1790 – Samuel Hopkins became the holder of US Patent #1. He patented a process for making potash and pearl ashes.

Mariecurie 1911  – Marie Curie becomes the 1st person ever to win two Nobel Prizes. Curie received Nobel Prizes in Physics (1903) and the second in Chemistry (1911) She was also the first women to receive Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry.

Firsts in Sport

490 BC – 1st Marathon. Greek legend says that Pheidippides, a Greek messenger ran from the battle of Marathon to Athens to declare Greece had won. (and collapsed and died after delivering the message.)

1896 – Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (French) – Organises the 1st Modern Olympic games.

1896 – 10 April 1st Olympic marathon was won by Spyridon Louis, in 2:58:50

1872 – 16 March 1872 Wanderers beat Royal Engineers in the first F.A. Cup final, at the Kennington Oval. The first major football competition to be played.

1875 – Matthew Webb  (GB) becomes the first person to swim across the English Channel.

1903 – Maurice Garin (France) 1st Tour de France winner.

1930  – 30 July. Uruguay becomes the first country to win the first World Cup, held in Uruguay.

1954 – 6 May – Roger Bannister (GB) becomes the 1st person to run a mile race in under four minutes (3 minutes 59.4 seconds). He broke the four-minute barrier at Iffley Road, Oxford on the. His time was

1968 – Jim Hines (US) – First person to run 100m under 10 seconds (9.95)

1969 – 19 November  Pelé scored his 1000th goal in all competitions. Becoming the first and only player to reach that milestone.

1984 – Joan Benoit (US) wins first women’s Olympic Marathon in a time of 2 hours 24 minutes and 52 seconds.

usain-bolt 2012 – Usain Bolt (Jamaica) becomes the first athlete in history to retain the Olympic 100m and 200m titles after winning previous 2008 games. He went on to win another three gold medals at the 2016 Olympics

Firsts in Culture

105 – Cai Lun (China) credited with the first papermaking process

1440 – Johannes Gutenberg (Germany) invents the world’s first printing press which enables the mass production of books.


1455 – The Gutenberg Bible was the first major book printed in Europe with movable metal type by Johannes Gutenberg.

1597 – Jacopo Peri (Italy) writes the world’s first opera in Florence in Italy. It was called Dafne.

1623 – William Shakespeare’s First Folio publishes 36 of Shakespeare’s plays.

1917 – Original Dixieland Jazz band make first ‘jazz’ recording “Livery Stable Blues”

1920 – Babe Ruth becomes the first player to hit 50 home runs in a season – changing the game of baseball into a big hitting game

1927 – Al Jolson is the main star of the first talking movie – “The Jazz Singer.”

1939 – Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1st US president to speak on television.

1955  – Nat King Cole – 1st African American US Television host on  “The Nat King Cole Show”

2000 – Amazon and Microsoft collaborate to make available one of the first ebook readers. Also, free software Glassbook ebook reader for PC is launched.

First in Transport

1817 – Karl von Drais (Germany) builds the first ‘wooden horse’ a prototype for the modern bicycle (though there were no pedals on this wooden horse)

1830 – George Stephenson builds the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The world’s first major inter-city railway.

1837  –  Isambard Kingdom Brunel launches the ‘Great Western’, – the first steamship to engage in transatlantic service

1885 – John Kemp Starley, produced the first successful “safety bicycle” – which is close to the standard used by bicycles today.

1885/86 – Karl Benz built and tested the world’s first purpose-built car powered by an internal petrol combustion engine

1887 – John Dunlop invents the first practical pneumatic tyre, first used on bicycles and later on motor cars

1892 – Rudolf Diesel (German) patents his first diesel engine for the motor car

1961 – Yuri  Gagarin (Russian) becomes the first man to travel to outer space – completing an orbit of the earth on 12 April 1961.

1969 – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become first men to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo moon landing programme

1963 – Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova – Russian cosmonaut becomes the 1st woman in space.


1553 – Queen Mary I –  1st reigning queen of England.

1608 – Juliana Morell  (Spanish nun) First woman to earn a doctorate degree – Doctor of Laws degree

1865 – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917) – Britain’s first qualified female doctor. She passed the medical exam and obtained a licence (LSA) from the Society of Apothecaries. She set up her own medical practice. In 1873 was the first women to be admitted to the British Medical Association (BMA)

1875 – Stefania Wolicka, first women to receive honours degree in the modern era – from the University of Zurich in 1875.

1762 – Ann Franklin – 1st woman to hold the title of a newspaper editor, “The Newport Mercury” in Newport, RI.

1849 – Elizabeth Blackwell – 1st woman to receive a medical degree in US. (from the Medical Institution of Geneva, N.Y.)

1869 – Arabella Mansfield (US) 1st American woman lawyer. A year later, Ada H. Kepley, of Illinois, graduates from the Union College of Law in Chicago. She is the first woman lawyer to graduate from a law school.

1893 –  Elizabeth Yates (NZ) elected Mayor of Onehunga,  the first female mayor in the British Empire. In that year, Women given the vote in New Zealand, a first for modern democracies.

1894 – Ida Wells becomes the first African-American women in US to write for a white, mainstream newspaper (Daily Inter-Ocean), where she denounced practise of lynching

1972 – Billy Jean King – named Sports Illustrated ‘sportsperson of the year’ – becoming the first women to be given honour.

1975 – Junko Tabei (Japan)  — 1st woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

1979 – Margaret Thatcher  – 1st Female Prime Minister of UK (1979-90)

1988 – Benazir Bhutto – 1st Female Prime Minister of Pakistan, and first female Prime Minister of Muslim country.

Environmentalism firsts

1306, the English king Edward I passed laws limiting coal burning in London due to smog and pollution.

1780 Jeremy Benthu, wrote An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation which was first major philosophic argument in defense of argued for animal rights.

1970, 22nd April – The first World Earth Day – raising awareness of environmental issues.

2015 – Nov. Around the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, an independent group of students advocated an international school strike.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Famous Firsts”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net Published 3 Feb. 2015. Last updated 23 September 2019.


Related pages

ramses Famous historical figures (throughout history) A list of the most famous figures throughout history.

Sir_Winston_S_Churchill People who changed the world. Famous people who changed the course of history.

Mariecurie Women who changed the world –  Famous women who changed the world, including Sappho, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Catherine the Great.



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