Gregor Mendel: Genetics
Perhaps it’s fitting to start with the man who shed a light on why your baby has his mom’s brown eyes and his dad’s crooked nose. A friar at the St. Thomas Monastery in Moravia, Gregor Mendel performed his groundbreaking research by cross-fertilizing distinct strains of pea plants. He discovered that offspring receive one genetic allele from each parent, with the dominant one asserting its characteristics, and that traits are inherited independent of one another. Although Mendel presented his findings to Brno’s Natural Science Society in 1865, the gist of his report was largely misunderstood and soon forgotten. It wasn’t until his experiments were duplicated in 1900, 16 years after his death, that the impact of his work was recognized.
The great Greek philosopher was famous for many things, including the ability to deliver amazing insights while wearing a toga, but some of his most important contributions came in the field of natural sciences. The first scholar to approach the study of life with an empirical mindset, Aristotle attempted to classify animals according to similar behaviors and characteristics. Believed to have received valuable specimens from his powerful pupil Alexander the Great, Aristotle observed and dissected all sorts of exotic animals, eventually producing his “Scala Naturae” —Ladder of Nature — and volumes of books on the subject. Although many of his hypotheses have since proven incorrect — he believed that insects did not breathe air, for example — he was working without the aid of a microscope, and his observations served as the bedrock of biology for two millennia.
Henry Chadwick: Baseball
What screams out “dad” more than playing catch with your kids? And buying them ice cream after a ground ball hits them in the face? Nothing! To be clear, this British-born journalist did not invent baseball, which likely derived from other bat-and-ball games in Europe. He’s also not the only person who could stake an unofficial claim to being the father of the sport. However, Chadwick did write baseball’s first official rule book in 1858, and he introduced the language of statistics through the creation of the box score. Chadwick also served as chairman of baseball’s first rules committee and was the first newspaper baseball editor. President Theodore Roosevelt himself referred to Chadwick as the father of baseball, so we’ll defer to the original Rough Rider and give the journalist his due.
Jules Verne: Science-Fiction
While adults who think like children often struggle to fit into society, we can be thankful this Frenchman never lost touch with his powerful early imagination. Inspired by the boats that frequented the harbor near his childhood home in Nantes, Verne fulfilled his curiosity for the unknown by writing about adventures all over —and beyond — the globe. He rose to fame through such works as Journey to the Center of the Earth and From the Earth to the Moon, his stories of futuristic activities punctuated by remarkable detail. Verne has since earned renown for the predictive quality of his work, his visions of electric submarines, spaceships and televisions all eventually coming to life; however, historians have noted that his trick was o develop an understanding of technological capabilities by reading extensively, a valuable lesson for all parents to share.
D.W. Griffith: Film
Your kid may laugh at the paper sets and over-the-top acting of early 20th century films, but in the hands of D.W. Griffith these components became a work of art. The actor-turned-director popularized many stylistic touches we take for granted today, utilizing an array of camera angles and crosscuts to enhance the narrative. He also was one of the first auteurs to embrace the narrative’s potential for expressing powerful themes, most famously realized with the release of Birth of a Nation in 1915. While shockingly racist by contemporary standards, the film explored the physical and emotional costs of the Civil War, and is recognized as Hollywood’s first blockbuster feature. Although he was soon rendered obsolete by the industry he revolutionized, Griffith was immortalized by such celluloid legends as Charlie Chaplin, who referred to the director as “the teacher of us all.”
Ralph H. Baer: Video Games
Depending on your philosophy of child-rearing, you can either curse or thank this man for introducing the home console that attracts impressionable kids like moths to a flame. An engineer for defense contractor Sanders Associates, Baer in 1966 was seized by the impulse to develop a “game box” that enabled people to engage in various activities through a television. An intrigued boss provided funding, and after Baer and Sanders filed a patent in 1971 they licensed the creation to Magnavox. The resulting product was the Odyssey, a console that came with program cards for such games as “Haunted House” and plastic overlays to provide color, as well as dice and a deck of cards. Atari soon stole the Odyssey’s thunder with the release of the widely popular “Pong,” but Baer ensured his venture remained profitable by successfully suing Atari and virtually every other video game maker over the next 20 years.
Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer: Charcoal Briquette
Finally, we note the contributions of the patron saint of the backyard barbecue. This fatherly favorite has been a part of American culture since before the country was even founded; George Washington once wrote in his diary of attending one, no doubt after a hard day of smacking around a cadre of Red Coats. But the barbecue really took off after the invention of the charcoal briquette, and for that we can thank Zwoyer. A chemist by trade, Zwoyer figured out how to combine coal dust, wood scraps, borax and petroleum binders into a composite fuel, and patented the briquette in 1897. Sadly, he doesn’t entirely get his due for this marvelous creation, as auto magnate Henry Ford co-opted the industry with the formation of Kingsford Charcoal in the 1920s, so we think it’s a good time to raise a drumstick and cold one in salute to the man who made it possible.