This Thanksgiving, I want to reflect on the contributions of some of the unsung heroes of American democracy, industry, and science. They’re not household names, but we owe them a debt of gratitude, for others more well-known have built on their foundation.

We know of course about the contributions of Thomas Jefferson to the political, cultural, and scientific life of this nation. But are you aware of George Wythe, his mentor? Born in 1726 and living long enough to see the birth of a new nation, Wythe was probably the first great American law teacher. In his home in Williamsburg could be found not only Jefferson, but also John Marshall and Henry Clay. It was Wythe who in 1764 drew up a forceful objection to the oppressive Stamp Act. He signed the Declaration of Independence and was a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

We can imagine the influence of Wythe on Jefferson as the young man read law in his home in the 1760s. The conversations they must have had, the people to whom Wythe introduced Jefferson, the sharpening of Jefferson’s intellect all led to that day when Jefferson wrote the Declaration. They influenced him as an ambassador to France and in his presidency. We owe a great deal to Thomas Jefferson, but we must remember the one who taught that great man and know that we stand on his shoulders as well.

We stand on the shoulders of those whose accomplishments have given us the tools and technological advances and advantages we take for granted day after day. People with names like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Edison, Curie, Pasteur, Einstein, Dyson, von Braun, Watson and Crick, Kelly Johnson, Chuck Yeager, John Glenn. We don’t know their names, but we need also to reach far, far back to the primeval person who first discovered how to make a fire anywhere or the one who first fashioned a stone tool or fitted a wheel to a cart or set down thoughts in cuneiform writing.

It is true we have great minds living today, and the succession of wonders keeps coming at a breathtaking pace. At the beginning of this century, it was estimated that more information had been generated from 1970-2000 than in the past 5,000 years! One weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person encountered in his or her entire lifetime in seventeenth century England.

But to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, is there anything really new? Are we not simply privileged to add rows to the ever-higher human pyramid? Would we have space travel without the work of Copernicus or Newton or the firm stand of Galileo against superstition and dogma? Or DNA testing or genetic engineering and therapy without the discoveries of Watson and Crick in the late ‘50s? We owe a tremendous debt to those who invented the computer or the MRI or the laser. Regarding the last, in 1917 Albert Einstein recognized the existence of stimulated emission of radiation from atoms. It took until the 1950s, though, to find ways to use such an emission in devices. The American physicists Charles H. Townes and A.L. Schawlow and two Soviet physicists first showed that it was possible to construct a device using light in wavelengths we can see. The first laser was constructed in 1960 by Theodore Maiman in this country and used a rod of ruby. These guys are, again, not exactly household names, but we owe them a debt.

Think about it. Have you ever had laparoscopic surgery? I have, and I am grateful for lasers every time I think about my four little scars versus the big one my dad got when he had his gall bladder removed 30 years ago. Does your credit card have a hologram on it? Lasers again. Ever use a laser pointer in a presentation? Things we take for granted and enjoy are ours because we stand on the shoulders of those with the intellect, the resources, the imagination to conceive of them, develop them, and build them.

We’ve got so much to be thankful for this holiday. At the top of our list, let there be those on whose shoulders we stand, who have made it possible for us to be and do what we are today.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Please note: There will be no post next Friday.

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