6 Uneducated Amateurs Whose Genius Changed the World

In 2011 The Thiel Foundation made news when it named the first winners of its controversial “20 Under 20” fellowship program, which hands young people $100,000 to pursue entrepreneurial ideas rather than a university education. 

The following text was written by John Champion / Cracked.com

Now, we're not telling you not to get an education - everybody knows employers these days want a degree. But we'd be remiss if we didn't take a moment to celebrate some of the amazing achievements from people who had virtually no education at all.

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6. Michael Faraday

The Amateur:

A guy who worked in a London book shop, with virtually no formal education.

The Accomplishment:

Revolutionized our understanding of electricity, and a whole lot more.

If you are using anything powered by electricity, if you know anything about magnetism, if you have ever used a Bunsen burner or if you are a big fan of benzene and the clathrate hydrate of chlorine (and who isn't?), then you owe some respect to Mr. Faraday. Michael Faraday was a genuine experimental genius and is considered one of the most influential scientists of all time. Oh, and he never had any formal education.

Faraday was born into a poor family in industrial London, so he never had any money to pay for a proper school. Instead, at age 14 he took an apprenticeship at the local book-binder for seven years. While he was there, he started to read some of the books that he was binding -- sort of like working in a chocolate factory and eating all the chocolate, only you don't get fired for it.

Now, having read up on a bunch of science stuff and finding himself fascinated with it, he asked London's best scientist, Humphrey Davy, for an assistant job. Humphrey declined. To be honest, Faraday was a guy with absolutely no scientific experience or education who had just asked the best chemist in the business for a job.

While nowadays, we line mattresses with newly graduated college students.

He did get a job in the next year though, and then shit went down. In short time, Faraday invented the electric motor, the electric generator, the Bunsen burner, electrolysis and electroplating. He discovered electro-magnetic induction, he discovered benzene, he figured out the shape of magnetic fields, discovered metallic nano-particles (thought to be the birth of nano-science) and something complicated about chlorine. Basically, he was a science machine.

Today, his legacy lives on as one of the best scientists the world has ever seen, despite having never been taught science in his life. Besides, no one could really teach him much science because he discovered most of it. Davy, the world famous chemist who turned down his initial job application, was once asked, "What was your greatest discovery?" He replied, "Michael Faraday."

5. A Musician Discovered the Planet Uranus

The Amateur:

A composer who played the cello and oboe, who had no education in astronomy.

The Accomplishment:

Discovered several moons and, oh yeah -- a new planet.

German native William Herschel dreamed about outer space, but in his day-to-day life found himself about as far away from the stars as one can get; namely, England in the 18th century. He was a talented musician and by his late 20s, was taking prominent jobs in the exciting world of professional organ playing, and all the professional organ player groupies that presumably came with a gig like that.

Oh, and Herschel also happened to be a certified genius. Though being seriously interested in all things extra-terrestrial, he didn't have a telescope. Obviously, the most sensible solution was to spend 16 hours a day grinding up mirrors and lenses to make his own. To fill out the underdog shape of this story arc, we like to think this happened after the rich, popular scientists made fun of him for not having a telescope at a dance.

According to his journal, he "began to look at the planets and stars" in May 1773, as opposed to, you know, using the telescope to spy on nude sunbathing neighbors (they used to do that in 1773, right?). A few years later, after some casual, mind-numbingly intense searching of the sky, he found something interesting.

No, not the kitten.

As he searched the sky, he found something that didn't quite fit as a star or a comet. After sending off his observations to a Russian professional he realized he'd discovered a freaking planet. Uranus, to be exact.

Obviously he was rather pleased. Herschel decided to name the planet the "Georgian Star" after King George III, because although being only an amateur astronomer, he was a professional suck up. The name didn't catch on, but somehow "Uranus" did -- so he went with that. Honestly, the people naming the first planet discovered since the ancients should have been able to hire a better PR team. Still, Herschel discovered a planet, which is quite a bit more than we've accomplished to date.

4. Srinivasa Ramanujan

The Amateur:

An impoverished Indian teenager.

The Accomplishment:

Lived Good Will Hunting in real life.

If you paid really close attention in Good Will Hunting, you might recall that at one point, Robin Williams has a conversation in which Matt Damon's genius janitor is compared to someone named Srinivasa Ramanujan. It was right after a "dots not feathers" racist joke. We knew that would jog your memory. Well, that was a real guy. He taught himself math, and turned out to be one of the greatest math geniuses to come along in the last few centuries.

Ramanujan was insanely good at math, and it wasn't due to any education, either -- he was entirely self taught. His parents gave him a math textbook on advanced trigonometry around age 11. He decided to learn the hell out of that book, and then because advanced trigonometry was so piss easy, he derived his own sophisticated theorems all by himself.

At age 13.

He did go to college later, but failed out of school because it was hard to focus on classes about art history and fungus biology when he was inventing new math in his spare time.

"This isn't even a goddamn triangle."

Still living in abject poverty, he started sending his theorems off to various important math people -- some in India, some in England. Almost every time his work was dismissed as a hoax, or returned without comment, presumably unread. Other times the mathematicians on the receiving end had no idea what they were looking at, because these were equations no human had ever created.

Finally, when a professor at Cambridge University saw the theorems, he recognized the work of a genius and invited Ramanujan to England. Ramanujan refused to leave India "to go to a foreign land," despite Professor Hardy offering possibly his only chance at recognition. 

Today, his formulas have found uses in everything from string theory to crystallography. Hardy said that his mathematical genius was comparable to guys like Isaac Newton and Archimedes. Yeah, that's going back more than 2,000 years to find somebody in his class. If he hadn't died at the young age of 32, he probably would have been the sort of household name.

3. A Seashell Collector Discovered Multiple Dinosaurs

The Amateur:

A rural English woman with no advanced education, who liked to collect seashells.

The Accomplishment:

Discovered several new species of dinosaur, and helped convince the world that dinosaurs were a thing.

We've all collected seashells at the beach, right? Few would take that experience to mean that they're a world-class archaeologist, though. Those people wouldn't be Mary Anning.

Anning always liked doing a bit of fossil collecting, a hobby that her dad taught to her (he'd sell the weird rocks he dug up to beach tourists). She'd walk along the beach with her dad collecting, cleaning and then selling them at one of those things they had before eBay.

Ye Olde AuctionWeb?

As time went on, she became a little bit famous for selling old crap down at the market -- some guy named Terry Sullivan even came up with the famous tongue twister "she sells seashells from the seashore" because of her (seriously, the rhyme is about Anning). But she wasn't one to get stuck selling silly seashells for the rest of her life. Anning was about to do something much bigger.

About this big, to be exact.

Anning relentlessly continued with her fossil hunting and soon it began to pay off. One fine day in 1811, her brother noticed a skull sticking out of the cliff near her house. Rather than running and screaming like we might, he went and told Anning who then excavated the hell out of that skull to find an entire "crocodile" skeleton. But it was no crocodile -- it was a dinosaur that was later named Ichthyosaurus.

Did we mention she was just 10-years old?

Soon, Anning was discovering skeletons like there was no tomorrow. She found a Plesiosaurus, a Pterodactylus and a Squaloraja at which point the official "dinosaur namer" gave up and just wanted to see what the most ridiculous name she could get away with was.


Anning's discoveries helped to completely revolutionize the 19th century view of history at a time when most people refused to believe in the existence of dinosaurs. To many, she is the founder of modern day geology -- which is ironic because the London Geological Society didn't even admit women until more than 50 years after her death. Holy shit, what does it take to convince you guys?

2. Donald G. Harden

The Amateur:

A high school teacher.

The Accomplishment:

Cracked the Zodiac Killer's code.

God bless the school teachers, because that really does seem like shitty job. Hours and hours of teaching annoying kids, in between boredom and fear of never advancing in your career. Of course, if you're particularly creative, you could always do something more interesting in your spare time. Like learning an instrument or maybe decrypting the insane messages from lunatic serial killers or stamp collecting.

Not unlike deciphering teenage babbling.

You've probably all heard of the Zodiac Killer (if not, there are plenty of books and websites you can read, or a film for the illiterate). Basically, he was a crazy madman who went around violently killing people. He was, needless to say, a nasty piece of work.

Witnesses say he looks like the gritty reboot of Little Big Planet.

Part of the being crazy thing meant that he sent in some encrypted letters to three California newspapers. For such a nutcase, the Zodiac Killer knew how to write in code. All the top FBI cryptographers worked on it night and day to try and solve the mystery of the zodiac code, and to potentially crack his identity. Try as they might, they couldn't break it.

The zodiac had been clever: He used 14 different symbols for the letter "E" and had used a backwards "Q" 16 times to trick everyone into thinking that was an "E." Of course it never crossed his mind to save all his effort and just not write the letter, but that just comes under the whole mental illness aspect of his character.

With the country's top experts on the case, but failing dismally, it was time for the greatest hero of them all -- and the one with the most heroic name -- to step up: Donald G. Harden. A high school teacher from Salinas, California, who managed to crack the zodiac code in his spare time to reveal his intensely creepy message:


He probably just gave up at the end so he didn't embarrass them too much. The police would go on to ... not catch the zodiac killer. But you can hardly blame Harden for that. What, now he has to take up being a detective in his spare time, too? Does he have to do everything?

1. Gregor Mendel

The Amateur:

An uneducated monk.

The Accomplishment:

Discovered how genetics work.

Ah, genetics. It can be used to detect rare diseases in people, it can give us an excuse for obesity and it can be used to create a breed of super-monsters with the body of a crocodile and the head of a chimpanzee (probably). So maybe you'd expect it to have been discovered by some super-scientist with a team of a hundred super-scientist assistants. If you did, you obviously didn't read this article's title.

"Hundreds of millions of guys who weren't that remarkable and got grad students to do all the hard work."

We have previously mentioned how the modern theory of genetics was dismissed as bullshit at the time it was discovered. The reason is that the guy who did the discovering had nothing in the way of a resume. "Wait, who is out there saying he's discovered the very building blocks of life? Does he even own a white lab coat?"

Meet Gregor Mendel, monk extraordinaire. Born in 1822 in the Czech Republic, he couldn't afford to go to college. Apparently figuring that joining a monastery was at least 90 percent similar to being in a fraternity, he joined up with the Augustinian monastery at Brunn.

When he was gardening, he noticed some interesting things about his pea plants -- namely that certain traits such as color, pea size (heh) and a few other things were passed down from pea plant to baby pea plant. A couple of experiments and a "scientist hard at work" montage later and he'd accidentally walked into the discovery of modern genetics.

He would have written equations all over the windows if they weren't all made of stained glass.

And this is no exaggeration: Mendel's experiments and results are the basis for everything we know about DNA and inheritance today. And as we said, no one believed him -- he was just a monk with a penchant for gardens. His work went unnoticed for decades. It wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that Mendel's works were rediscovered.

It happened because a couple of other scientists were confused by the results of their own similar experiments and couldn't make sense of any of it. Supposedly, Hugo de Vries only finally came to grips with his findings once he'd read Mendel's work -- the work of a simple gardener and beekeeper, written nearly 50 years earlier.

So, yeah, stay in school, kids. And if you don't, you'd better be really good at teaching yourself things. And a genius.

He isn’t the one to let something like being the fourth richest man on the planet stop him from getting a good deal.

There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics, but there are equivalents...

If your parents liked making you learn more than you liked playing video games, then you played Math Blaster.