The Most Famous Firsts in World History

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Unless you’re a track and field aficionado, you’ve probably never heard of John Landy. In 1954, the Australian runner set the world record for running the mile, with a time of 3:57. He was the second person to run a sub-four-minute mile, though, so few remember him – while millions know the name of England’s Roger Bannister, who ran the mile six weeks earlier at the slightly slower time of 3:59.4, because Bannister broke the record first.

All through human history, people have endeavored at being the first at something. While some monetary compensation might be an incentive, immortality is just as big a motivator.

To determine some of the most famous firsts in history, 24/7 Tempo drew on resources such as Biography Online, History, Oldest.Org, Science Struck, Science History Institute, sciencehistory.org, the Natural History Museum, Changing the Face of Medicine, and Readers Digest. The resulting list is hardly a complete roster of celebrated firsts, but rather a sampling of highlights over the course of the human experience.

Besides breaking the four-minute mile, some of these famous firsts involve humans pushing themselves to the limits of physical endurance by doing things like climbing Mount Everest, circling the globe on foot, or exceeding the speed of sound.

Among the famous firsts on our list are milestones in discovery such as circumnavigating the world, the publication of the first atlas, and the first observation of the lunar surface (which proved not to look like what the conventional wisdom thought it would).

Included on the list, too, are achievements in the field of medicine such as the first vaccine, penicillin, and the discovery of DNA. (These are accidental discoveries that changed the world.)

And no list of firsts would be complete without a mention of notable inventions that changed the trajectory of humankind’s journey. They include the telephone, the lightbulb, the radio, the cellphone, and the computer. (Here are some ancient inventions you thought were modern.)

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