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December 9, 2010 9:58 AM   Subscribe

Examples of one-person incredible or heroic efforts (in any field)

What are some examples of incredible things that were created or accomplished by just one person?

I realize that practically everything has dependencies on other people. For example, a novel usually has editors and/or proof-readers. And, someone has to make the raw materials for those paintings and sculptures. And, science and research involve past works. But, what are the amazing accomplishments by solo achievers?
posted by TheOtherSide to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might like reading Boorstin's "The Discoverers"; lots of stories of breakthrough discoveries.
posted by The otter lady at 10:01 AM on December 9, 2010

The mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan did a good portion of his work with no formal training or assistance.
posted by griphus at 10:02 AM on December 9, 2010

Charles Lindbergh had help building the plane, but he flew it alone.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:05 AM on December 9, 2010

I think I read The Discoverers a long time ago. That's a good suggestion, but to clarify, the sorts of things I'm looking for are things people accomplished almost in a void. Like, "Hey, I have this wild, unprecedented idea, and I'm going to do it, even though it's never been done before, and they think I'm crazy." Things of that sort that were finally accomplished after massive work. Ideally eventually adopted (but not required).
posted by TheOtherSide at 10:05 AM on December 9, 2010

Read the citation of every Medal of Honor recipient.
posted by doh ray mii at 10:10 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jeff Bezos.
posted by Melismata at 10:13 AM on December 9, 2010

I'm not sure this is what you're looking for but you can find a lot of examples of this in the mountaineering world. While a lot of "solo" climbs, such as most of those on Everest were often just a solo push to the summit supported by a team lower down the mountain, there are some examples of one lone climber doing it all himself.

Johnny Waterman's climb of Mt. Hunter comes to mind:

"Johnny continued to live and climb in Alaska. In 1978, he stunned the climbing world with a solo ascent of the previously unclimbed southeast spur of 14,573-foot Mount Hunter, a feat that has since passed into Alaskan folklore. It took him 145 days of fixing lines, ferrying loads, and waiting out storms to get up and down the mountain."

It pretty much drove him insane and he disappeared a few years later while attempting a solo winter climb of Denali.

Charlie Porter is another name that comes to mind as someone who spent a lot of time getting himself up things.

There are many more, though I suppose whether or not what they did can be considered "incredible" is up for debate.
posted by bondcliff at 10:24 AM on December 9, 2010

Heinrich Schliemann discovered the remains of Troy without any formal archeological background.
posted by mmmbacon at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2010

Andrew Wiles proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. For mathematics, I understand that was pretty much single-handed.

Frank Whittle and the jet engine?

Alan Turing's work on the cracking of the German Enigma code machines.

(Sorry about the British bias.)
posted by plonkee at 10:28 AM on December 9, 2010

Norman Borlaug. Inventor of the green revolution. Probably saved billions of lives.
posted by adamrice at 10:33 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm only about a quarter of the way through the book, The Emperor of All Maladies, but Sidney Farber sounds like someone you might be interested in looking at. He was a pathologist who invented the idea of chemotherapy, in the face of skepticism from his pediatrician colleagues.

I believe the guys who discovered that H. pylori is the primary cause of gastric ulcers would also fit that mold, perhaps better, as it came out of left field. With Farber and chemotherapy, there were probably a number of other people at that time who were researching chemicals to cure cancer, as penicillin was recently invented, which is the start of the modern pharmaceutical industry.
posted by chengjih at 10:34 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do sporting achievements count? Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Byron Nelson's 11 consecutive PGA tournament wins are two of many solo athletic achievements unlikely to ever be surpassed.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:43 AM on December 9, 2010

I don't know if heroic is quite the right word, but I'd nominate Don Knuth's single-handed design and implementation of TeX and Metafont.
posted by dfan at 10:51 AM on December 9, 2010

Ms. Amelia Earhart also had help at different points, but she accomplished some pretty amazing things on her own. I'd say she qualifies.

(Not to mention, she's the first woman to appear in this thread so far!)
posted by bookgirl18 at 11:01 AM on December 9, 2010

Henry Darger. I suppose that most artists would fall into this category (they tend to work alone), but Darger seems exceptional.

Georg Cantor invented Set Theory pretty much by himself.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:01 AM on December 9, 2010

Anne Mustoe toured the world by bike several times. You could look up any long distance cyclist.
posted by fire&wings at 11:13 AM on December 9, 2010

R Adams Cowley revolutionized the way injured patients were brought to hospitals in the 60s/70s. He told people that it was better to bring someone to a specialized trauma unit, instead of the nearest hospital, even though the former might be farther away. Going up against the medical establishment, he was constantly battling what he knew was right, and eventually the data showed that patients had a better chance of surviving if they went to the new units. Much of what he fought for is standard practice today.
posted by Melismata at 11:22 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

R Adams Cowley link.
posted by Melismata at 11:42 AM on December 9, 2010

The Dewey Decimal System. It's now a big thing maintained by many but it was originally basically one dude.
posted by jessamyn at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2010

Jim Kent's efforts to write GigAssembler, and then use it to assemble the first draft of the human genome sequence. Publishing the sequence before Celera kept it unambiguously in the public domain -- which had an enormous impact in the last ten years of biomedical research. It's a real turning point in the history of medicine and biology, and one that doesn't get anywhere the amount of recognition it deserves.
posted by penguinicity at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Coral Castle
posted by newmoistness at 12:42 PM on December 9, 2010

Philo Farnsworth. From everything I've read he basically worked solo.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:49 PM on December 9, 2010

What about the first, solo, non stop sailing voyage around the world? By definition that is as alone as you can get... lonely enough that it can kill a man. good book too
posted by DetonatedManiac at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2010

by the way, Robin Knox-Johnston built the boat he sailed around the world on by himself... double solo endeavor
posted by DetonatedManiac at 1:31 PM on December 9, 2010

I've always been in awe of Claude Shannon. He wrote a paper titled "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" which, it is not hyperbole to say, changed the world.

Before his paper was published, Information Theory didn't exist. His paper not only made it a complete science, but he also provided a rich set of techniques for applying it to engineering.

There are very few cases in history of a field of science being created in their entirety by a single man. Shannon is one of the rare few who have done it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:42 PM on December 9, 2010

Along the lines of Coral Castle are the Watts Towers. They are incredible to see, and the story of Simon Rodia is really interesting.
posted by acridrabbit at 5:19 PM on December 9, 2010

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