A list of famous pioneers and trailblazers in different fields. Including philosophy, literature, art, science and political rights. These individuals were influential in bringing to the fore new ideas in the world.
Pioneers in science
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) Italian artist, scientist and polymath. Da Vinci invented a huge range of machines and drew models that proved workable 3-500 years later. Da Vinci was the embodiment of Renaissance ideas, innovation and creativity.
Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) English philosopher, statesman, orator and scientist. Bacon is considered the ‘father of empiricism’ for his advocacy of scientific methodical inquiry in investigating scientific phenomena. Bacon’s approach was instrumental in encouraging a greater reliance on an evidence based approach to science.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1726) English scientist. Newton invented the reflecting telescope. This greatly improved the capacity of telescopes and reduced optical distortion. Newton was also a great physicist and astronomer.
Charles Babbage (1791–1871) English mathematician and inventor. Babbage created the first mechanical computer, which proved to be the prototype for future computers. Considered to be the ‘Father of Computers,’ despite not finishing a working model.
Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895) French biologist. Contributed substantially towards the advancement of medical sciences developing cures for rabies, anthrax and other infectious diseases. Also enabled the process of pasteurisation to make milk safer to drink.
Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) American Physicist who invented fluorescent lighting, the Tesla coil, the induction motor, 3-phase electricity and AC electricity. Tesla was a scientific pioneer who made great strides in the understanding and development of electricity.
Marie Curie (1867–1934) Polish-born French chemist and physicist. Curie discovered Radium and helped make use of radiation and X-rays. Curie was a pioneer for female scientists – and was awarded two Nobel Prizes.
The Wright Brothers (1871–1948) American inventors who successfully designed, built and flew the first powered aircraft in 1903. The Wright Brothers early experiments ushered in a new age of flight which was to transform the 20th Century.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) German/US physicist. Einstein revolutionised modern physics with his general theory of relativity. Won Nobel Prize in Physics (1921) for his discovery of the Photoelectric effect, which formed the basis of Quantum Theory.
Alan Turing (1912–1954) English 20th century mathematician, pioneer of computer science. He developed the Turing machine, capable of automating processes. It could be adapted to simulate the logic of any computer algorithm.
Pioneers in political life
William Penn (1644 – 1718) William Penn was an early champion of democracy. In the Pennsylvania Frame of Government (1682), Penn included democratic principles such as the election of representatives. A Quaker, Penn also insisted on the principle of freedom of religion within the new state. Penn was also an early advocate for uniting the different colonies of America.
Benjamin Franklin (1705–1790) American polymath who discovered electricity and invented the Franklin stove, the lightning rod and bifocals. Franklin was also an American statesman and an influential figure in the development of modern America.
Tom Paine (1737- 1809) English-American author, philosopher and social activist. Paine wrote ‘Common Sense‘ (1776) and the Rights of Man (1791), which were important tracts supporting the principles of the American and French revolutions.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) – Indian nationalist and politician. Gandhi inspired a series of protests against British rule. He successfully pioneered the practise of ahimsa ‘non-violent’ resistance.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) Wife and political aide of American president F.D.Roosevelt. In her own right Eleanor made a significant contribution to the field of human rights, a topic she campaigned upon throughout her life. As head of UN human rights commission she helped to draft the 1948 UN declaration of human rights.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) American conservationist. Rachel Carson was a pioneering environmentalist. Her work, Silent Spring (1962) highlighted the dangers of unregulated pesticide use. It played an important role in creating the modern ecological movement.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) English author, Wollstonecraft wrote an influential and innovative book in the early feminist movement. Her pamphlet “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” laid down a moral and practical basis for extending human and political rights to women. She was a pioneer in the struggle for female suffrage.
Jeanne Baret (1740 – 1807) French women who disguised herself as man to become a pioneer in scientific discovery. She was the first women to complete a circumnavigation of the world on Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s botany expedition on the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile in 1766–1769. Baret was a noted botanist.
Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883) African-American abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner. In 1851, gave a famous extemporaneous speech “Ain’t I a woman?” which explained in plain language how women were equal to men. Truth was trailblazer for both women and black Americans in giving powerful speeches on civil rights to large audiences across America.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) English mathematician. Daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace developed an interest in maths and logic and worked with Charles Babbage writing one of the first computer algorithms – Work on the Analytical Engine. Lovelace saw the potential of computers to be more than just calculating machines.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) British nurse. By serving in the Crimean war, Florence Nightingale was instrumental in changing the role and perception of the nursing profession. Her dedicated service won widespread admiration and led to a significant improvement in the treatment of wounded soldiers. Nightingale was also a pioneer in the use of statistical data to evaluate the merits of different practises.
Ida Wells (1862 – 1931) Wells was a pioneering African-American journalist and newspaper editor. She used her position to investigate the practice of lynching in the south. A fearless civil rights activist and female suffrage campaigner, she was a founder member of the NAACP in 1909.
Emily Murphy (1868–1933) The first woman magistrate in the British Empire. In 1927 she joined forces with four other Canadian women who sought to challenge an old Canadian law that said, “women should not be counted as persons.”
Billie Jean King (1943 – ) US, tennis. Billie Jean King won a total of 38 Grand Slam titles. – 12 single titles. An early advocate of equality for women, she won the famous battle of the sexes against Bobby Riggs in 1973.
Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007) The first female prime minister of a Muslim country. She helped to move Pakistan from a dictatorship to democracy, becoming Prime Minister in 1988. She sought to implement social reforms, in particular helping women and the poor. She was assassinated in 2007.
Rosa Parks (1913–2005) American civil rights activist. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, indirectly led to some of the most significant civil rights legislation of American history. She sought to play down her role in the civil rights struggle but for her peaceful and dignified campaigning she became one of the most well respected figures in the civil rights movements.
Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2005) The first black Congresswoman. She was elected to the House of Representatives for NY in 1968. She used her time in Congress to campaign for women’s and civil rights. She served from 1968 to 1983 and was the first black women to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (1938 – ) Africa’s first elected female Head of State. She served as president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in supporting democracy and women’s rights.
Malala Yousafzai (1997– ) Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for women’s rights, especially the right to education.
Pioneers in the arts
Beethoven (1770 – 1827) German composer and pianist of the classical and romantic period. Aprodigious genius. Beethoven’s compositions invoked both tremendous power, and soulfulness; he had a lasting influence on western classical music. He was a pioneer for the Romantic Movement which swept across Europe.
Claude Monet (1840–1926) French impressionist painter. It was Monet’s painting – Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), that led to the title of the Impressionist Movement. Impressionism changed the art world and opened up art to the new movements of the Twentieth Century, including modernism, dadism and cubism.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890). Dutch post-impressionist painter, who spent many years in France. Despite turbulent mental state, Van Gogh produced some of the greatest works of all time pioneering a new artistic style of real freedom. His great works include Starry Night, Sunflowers, Bedroom in Arles, Van Gogh’s chair and The Cafe Terrace.
Pioneers in business
Henry Ford (1864-1947) Ford pioneered the use of assembly lines and mass production for motor cars. Ford helped to reduce the price and make cars affordable for the average American consumer. He was able to pay significantly higher wages to his workforce.
Muhammad Yunus (1940 – ) Bangladeshi banker and economist. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (2006) for his work in microfinance, a scheme for helping poor people to have greater access to finance at low-interest rates. He developed concepts of micro-credit and micro-finance as an effective way to promote economic development.
Steve Jobs (1955–2011) American entrepreneur and developer. Jobs helped revolutionise personal computer devices with the iPod, iPad, Macbook and iPhone. He is credited with inventing the new wave of hand-held personal computer devices.
Tim Berners-Lee (1955– ) British computer scientist. Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web, which enabled the internet to display websites viewable on internet browsers. He developed the http:// protocol for the internet and made the world wide web freely available.
Pioneers in travel and adventure
Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) An Italian born explorer, Columbus made four ground-breaking voyages to the Americas. Sailing in uncharted seas, Columbus’ voyages across the Atlantic and paved the way for others to follow.
Ferdinand Magellan (1480 – 1521) Portuguese sailor and adventurer who led the first expedition to make a successful circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan also made the first crossing from the Atlantic into the Pacific and also the first successful crossing of the Pacific Ocean. He died before the expedition reached Europe.
Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012) US Pilot and astronaut. In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to successful land and walk on the moon.
Pioneers in spirituality and religion
Buddha (c 560BC – c 460BC) Siddharta the Buddha attained nirvana after years of meditation and spent many years teaching his philosophy of enlightenment. His teachings led to the creation of Buddhism.
Socrates (469 – 399 BC) Athenian philosopher, famous for the Socratic method of questioning every preconception. He sought to draw his followers into thinking about questions of life through a series of question. His philosophy and pursuit of free critical thinking laid down important principles for Western philosophy.
Jesus Christ (around 0 AD – 32 AD) Jesus Christ was a spiritual teacher who taught a gospel of love and forgiveness. His message was spread by his disciples and it led to the birth of Christianity.
St Paul (c.5 – c. 67) – Missionary and influential early Christian. The letters of St Paul form a significant part of the New Testament. St Paul is responsible for the growth and development of Christianity as a modern religion.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) Mystic, author and composer. Hildegard of Bingen lived a withdrawn life, spending most of her time behind convent walls. However, her writings, poetry and music were revelatory for the time period. She was consulted by popes, kings and influential people of the time. Her writings and music have influenced people to this day.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) Erasmus was a Catholic priest and noted scholar. He was a significant figure of the Renaissance and preached religious tolerance. Although he remained a Catholic all his life, he wanted to see the Church reform and his ideas proved influential in the Reformation and the development of Protestantism.
William Tyndale (1494–1536) was one of the first people to print the Bible in English. He worked on translating the Bible into English even when it was deemed to be an illegal act. He was executed for blasphemy after years of avoiding capture. After his death, it soon became common for Bibles to be translated into English and local languages – enabling the Bible to be accessible to everyday people.
Raja Rammohun Roy (1772 – 1833) An influential Indian political and cultural activist who helped found the Brahmo Samaj. – A social / religious organisation dedicated to the revival of rational / modern Hinduism. Roy sought to reform traditional Hindu customs and revive a spirit of patriotism and national pride.
Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902 ) Vivekananda was a pioneer in bringing yoga and Indian spirituality to the West. At the Parliament of World Religions (1893) he spoke about the underlying unity of world religions and his pride in the universal spirit of Hinduism. Vivekananda was also the founder of the Ramakrishna/Vedanta Movement.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Famous Traiblazers and Pioneers”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 3rd December 2018. Last updated 9 August 2019.
Courageous people – People who have overcome difficult circumstances and difficult odds. Includes Joan of Arc, Galileo, Harriet Tubman, Socrates, Malala Yousafzai.
People of the Enlightenment (1650s to 1780s) The Enlightenment is a period which saw the growth in intellectual reason, individualism and a challenge to existing religious and political structures.