It’s one thing to be Mario Lopez and have a single claim to the history books, but it’s quite another to distinguish your celebrity with a striking, but unrecognized achievement. OUr writer takes a look at three famous men, not necessarily known for inventing chewing gum or cornering the pencil market.

Fame comes in many forms. Presidents, kings, and generals are famous for obvious reasons; world-record holders and American Idol runners-up for reasons much less so. There are people who are unjustly famous, just as there are people who are unjustly unknown. There are people who are famous for a single achievement (Edmund Hillary, Harper Lee), and people who are famous for a varied list of achievements (Thomas Edison, Bill Bradley). But among the various classes of the famous, there’s another, often forgotten category: those who are famous for one thing but, for whatever reason, overlooked for yet another striking achievement. Here are three of them.

Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876)
Mexican General/Chewing Gum

The generations of Americans who grew up watching Davy Crockett in history class know that Santa Anna was, first and foremost, the evil Mexican general who slaughtered Crockett, Jim Bowie, and their pals at the Alamo. Of course, the folks at Disney forgot to mention that Santa Anna was also a revolutionary leader who helped overthrow the Spanish. But that’s trivia compared to Santa Anna’s other, unrequited claim to fame: his role in the invention of modern chewing gum. After ruling Mexico as dictator for several years, the general was overthrown and exiled. He bumped around the Caribbean and Central America trying to raise money for a military expedition back to his home country and, in a turn more likely to appear in a Michael Chabon novel than a U.S. history text, he eventually alighted in Staten Island. He had with him a supply of chicle, the sap produced by the Mexican chicozapote tree. Hoping to find an industrial use for the material, he gave some to his secretary, a part-time inventor named Thomas Adams. The pair never found the use they were looking for, but Adams, watching the general chew the stuff, decided to have a go at marketing chicle as a candy. The idea took off—up to that point, chewing gum had been made of wax, so Adams’s innovation was a marked improvement—and chicle soon became the dominant base for the modern gum industry (though most chewing gum these days derives from petroleum). Before Adams’s success was apparent, however, Santa Anna returned to Mexico, where he lived the rest of his life. Understandably, Adams never publicly acknowledged the general’s role in creating the all-American candy—nor, as far as the record shows, did he ever send a royalty check.

Capt. John Smith (1580-1631)
Early Colonist /Author/Knight Errant

Another American history icon-cum-Disney staple is Capt. John Smith, the strapping Jamestown colonist who, legend has it, was captured by local Indians only to be rescued by Pocahontas seconds before his execution. The story is so well known in part because Smith was also a spectacular self-promoter: Well-read and well-versed in the tropes of romantic fiction, he kept an engrossing account of his life in a series of journals—The Generall Historie, The True Travels, and An Accidence: or, The Path-Way to Experience—which were published after his return to England. Indeed, more interesting than the Pocahontas story is what Smith did before he came to the New World. Having left home at 15, he fought for the Dutch against the Spanish and, after traveling to Italy and Austria, for the Habsburgs against the Ottomans. During the siege of an Ottoman-held town in Hungary, Smith accepted a challenge to fight one on one, to the death, with a Turkish knight. He won the fight—and, according to his journals, two more—and delivered the dismembered heads of his foes to his commanding officer. But soon afterward, Smith’s army suffered a terrible defeat and, wounded, he was left for dead. He was captured by the Turks and taken to Asia Minor, where he was sold as a slave to a local noble. But after several months of servitude, he clubbed his master to death, stole his clothes and horse, and escaped. He rode through the Caucasus Mountains to Moscow, and, after making a pit stop back in Austria, returned to England. Smith self-consciously patterned his life on the chivalric legends of old England, but he was also extremely successful in doing so. So while he was a wonderful writer with Scott-like flair for the romantic tension of courtly battle, it remains a mystery why Smith’s pre-colonial wanderings are not the stuff of legend—and that his momentary dalliance with an Indian princess is.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Philosopher/Lead Pencil

Thoreau is rightly regarded as one of America’s first important philosophers, a proponent of transcendentalism whose radical individualism and social conscience have been an inspiration for everyone from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. But before Walden, Thoreau marked another achievement that, if much more quotidian, is perhaps no less significant: He invented the modern lead pencil. Soon after Thoreau’s birth, Charles Dunbar, a friend of his father’s, discovered graphite deposits in New Hampshire, and Charles and John Thoreau set up shop making pencils. Graphite pencils were already common in England, but theirs was one of the first production facilities in America. However, while the New Hampshire graphite was mixed with a binding agent, it was still significantly inferior to British imports—it smeared easily and left a greasy film on everything it touched. They experimented with different mixtures and even tried out graphite brought from Canada, but nothing worked. Henry David grew up working for his father and continued to help out even after heading to Harvard to study engineering. It was soon after he left school, in fact, that he perfected a recipe for non-smearing graphite, and the modern lead pencil was born. Thoreau even redesigned the firm’s production processes to accommodate his innovation and then worked hard—and successfully—to market it. In fact, by the time he left the business and headed to his now-famous pond, the family business was well on its way to becoming the nation’s leading pencil manufacturer.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen