History’s Ten Greatest Polymaths
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was a renowned polymath and a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove. He facilitated many civic organizations, including Philadelphia’s fire department and The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution.
German philosopher who is regarded as one of the most important thinkers of modern Europe, and his influence on Western thought is immeasurable. He was the starting point and inspiration for the German Idealism movement in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, and more specifically for the Kantianism which grew up around him in his own lifetime. His works, especially those on Epistemology, Metaphysics and Ethics, such as his masterworks the "Critique of Pure Reason" and the "Critique of Practical Reason,“ achieved a complete paradigm shift and moved philosophy beyond the debate between the Rationalists and Empiricists which had dominated the Age of Reason and the early Age of Enlightenment.
Dutch Philosopher who laid the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and the universe. He developed highly controversial ideas regarding the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible and the nature of the Divine. His notable ideas were Pantheism, determinism, neutral monism, parallelism, intellectual and religious freedom, and the separation of church and state. He came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy. Spinoza's magnum opus, the posthumous "Ethics,“ in which he opposed Descartes' mind–body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.
German writer and statesman. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry written in a variety of metres and styles; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him exist.
French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Dubbed the father of modern western philosophy, much of subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day. Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments. Descartes’s influence in mathematics is equally apparent; the Cartesian coordinate system—allowing reference to a point in space as a set of numbers, and allowing algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two- or three-dimensional coordinate system (and conversely, shapes to be described as equations)—was named after him. He is credited as the father of analytical geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, used in the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. Descartes was also one of the key figures in the scientific revolution. In his theology, he insists on the absolute freedom of God’s act of creation. Descartes laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz.
Ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Generally considered the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time, Archimedes anticipated modern calculus and analysis by applying concepts of infinitesimals and the method of exhaustion to derive and rigorously prove a range of geometrical theorems, including the area of a circle, the surface area and volume of a sphere, and the area under a parabola. Other mathematical achievements include deriving an accurate approximation of pi, defining and investigating the spiral bearing his name, and creating a system using exponentiation for expressing very large numbers. He was also one of the first to apply mathematics to physical phenomena, founding hydrostatics and statics, including an explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, such as his screw pump, compound pulleys, and defensive war machines to protect his native Syracuse from invasion.
Greek philosopher and scientist. At seventeen or eighteen years of age, he joined Plato’s Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven (c. 347 BC). His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. Shortly after Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and, at the request of Philip of Macedon, tutored Alexander the Great beginning in 343 BC. The fact that Aristotle was a pupil of Plato contributed to his former views of Platonism, but, following Plato’s death, Aristotle immersed himself in empirical studies and shifted from Platonism to empiricism. He believed all peoples’ concepts and all of their knowledge was ultimately based on perception. Aristotle’s views on physical science profoundly shaped medieval scholarship. Their influence extended from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and were not replaced systematically until the Enlightenment and theories such as classical mechanics. Some of Aristotle’s zoological observations, such as on the hectocotyl (reproductive) arm of the octopus, were not confirmed or refuted until the 19th century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which was incorporated in the late 19th century into modern formal logic. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism profoundly influenced Judeo-Islamic philosophical and theological thought during the Middle Ages and continues to influence Christian theology, especially the Neoplatonism of the Early Church and the scholastic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Aristotle was well known among medieval Muslim intellectuals and revered as “The First Teacher.” His ethics, though always influential, gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics. All aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today.
Italian polymath whose areas of interest included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. He has been variously called the father of palaeontology, iconology, and architecture, and is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time. Sometimes credited with the inventions of the parachute, helicopter and tank, he epitomised the Renaissance humanist ideal. Today, Leonardo is widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived.
2. Isaac Newton
English physicist and mathematician (described in his own day as a “natural philosopher”) who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton made seminal contributions to optics, and he shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for the development of calculus. Newton's Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. Newton’s work removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the Solar System. Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of colour based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalised the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death.
1. Nikola Tesla
Serbian-American inventor, discoverer, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, theoretical and experimental physicist, mathematician, futurist and humanitarian. Tesla was a hyperpolyglot who could speak eight languages fluently including: Serbo-Croatian, English, Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin. Tesla has more original inventions to his credit than any other man in history. He has been accounted for 278 patents in 26 different countries. He was the true father of radio and a man far ahead of his time. He is best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system that we still use today. He was the first to invent and patent a commutatorless alternating current induction motor that led to an AC/DC war with Thomas Edison. All electrical machinery using or generating alternating current is due to Tesla, without which our long distance trolley cars, our electrified power lines, and our subways would be impossible. The Tesla Induction Motor, the Tesla Rotary Converter, the Tesla Phase System of Power Transmission, the Tesla Steam and Gas Turbine, the Tesla Coil, and the Oscillation Transformer are perhaps his better known inventions. In his labs he conducted a range of experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and early X-ray imaging. He is also the father of remote control, building a wireless controlled boat exhibited in 1898. Although not recognized for, he was the first to discovery the electron, radioactivity, cosmic rays, terrestrial resonance, stationary waves (standing waves), and the first to invent fluorescent light bulbs. He first demonstrated wireless energy/power by lighting his phosphorescent light bulbs wirelessly in a demonstration given before the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia,1893. He also theorized a particle beam to be used for defense in war, and also to produce an artificial Aurora Borealis to light the night skies. In his later life he wanted to bring humanity so much more with his inventions and discoveries, but lacked the investments and funds to finish his work on a large scale. He would eventually die penniless and alone in his New York apartment, but like all the greats above, he lives on through all his inventions and contributions to this world that last until the end of man.