CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

The Origins of All 32 NFL Team Names

Getty Images
Getty Images

Here are the stories behind the nicknames of the NFL’s 32 teams—and what they were almost called. All photos via Getty Images.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The franchise began play in Chicago in 1898 before moving to St. Louis in 1960 and Arizona in 1988. Team owner Chris O’Brien purchased used and faded maroon jerseys from the University of Chicago in 1901 and dubbed the color of his squad’s new outfits “cardinal red.” A nickname was born. The team adopted the cardinal bird as part of its logo as early as 1947 and first featured a cardinal head on its helmets in 1960.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Shortly after insurance executive Rankin Smith brought professional football to Atlanta, a local radio station sponsored a contest to name the team. Thirteen hundred people combined to suggest more than 500 names, including Peaches, Vibrants, Lancers, Confederates, Firebirds, and Thrashers. While several fans submitted the nickname Falcons, schoolteacher Julia Elliott of nearby Griffin was declared the winner of the contest for the reason she provided. “The falcon is proud and dignified, with great courage and fight,” Elliott wrote. “It never drops its prey. It is deadly and has great sporting tradition.” Elliott won four season tickets for three years and a football autographed by the entire 1966 inaugural team.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Ravens, a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, beat out Americans and Marauders in a contest conducted by the Baltimore Sun. Poe died and is buried in Baltimore.

Of the more than 33,000 voters in the Sun’s phone-in poll, more than 21,000 picked Ravens. “It gives us a strong nickname that is not common to teams at any level, and it gives us one that means something historically to this community,” said team owner Art Modell, who had attempted to buy the Colts nickname back from the franchise that left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984. The Marauders nickname referenced a B-26 built during World War II by the Glenn L. Martin Company, a predecessor to Lockheed Martin that was based in Baltimore. Other names considered included the Railers, Bulldogs, Mustangs, and Steamers.

BUFFALO BILLS

Elsa/Getty Images

The Bills nickname was suggested as part of a fan contest in 1947 to rename Buffalo’s All-America Football Conference team, which was originally known as the Bisons. The Bills nickname referenced frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody and was selected over Bullets, Nickels, and Blue Devils. It helped that the team was owned by the president of Frontier Oil, James Breuil. Buffalo was without a team from 1950 to 1959, when owner Ralph Wilson acquired a franchise in the AFL. Wilson solicited potential nicknames from fans for his new franchise and ultimately chose Bills in homage to the city’s defunct AAFC team.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Panthers team president Mark Richardson, the son of team owner Jerry Richardson, chose the Panthers nickname because "it's a name our family thought signifies what we thought a team should be—powerful, sleek and strong." Richardson also chose the 1995 expansion team’s color scheme of black, blue, and silver, a choice that initially came under scrutiny from NFL Properties representatives. According to one newspaper report, the concern was raised at the 1993 NFL meetings that a team nicknamed the Panthers that featured black in its color scheme would appeal to street gangs and reflect poorly on the league.

CHICAGO BEARS

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In 1921, the Decatur Staleys, a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, moved to Chicago and kept their nickname, a nod to the team’s sponsor, the Staley Starch Company. When star player George Halas purchased the team the following year, he decided to change the nickname. Chicago played its home games at Wrigley Field, home of baseball’s Cubs, and Halas opted to stick with the ursine theme.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Jason Miller /Getty Images

Team owner, general manager, and head coach Paul Brown nicknamed Cincinnati’s AFL expansion franchise the Bengals in 1968 in honor of the football team nicknamed the Bengals that played in the city from 1937-1942. According to Brown, the nickname “would provide a link with past professional football in Cincinnati.” Brown chose Bengals over the fans’ most popular suggestion, Buckeyes.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Naomi Baker/Getty Images

There’s some debate about whether Cleveland’s professional football franchise was named after its first coach and general manager, Paul Brown, or after boxer Joe Louis, who was nicknamed the “Brown Bomber.” Team owner Mickey McBride conducted a fan contest in 1945 and the most popular submission was Browns. According to one version of the story, Paul Brown vetoed the nickname and chose Panthers instead, but a local businessman informed the team that he owned the rights to the name Cleveland Panthers. Brown ultimately agreed to the use of his name and Browns stuck.

DALLAS COWBOYS

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Cowboys, who began play in the NFL in 1960, were originally going to be nicknamed the Steers. The team’s general manager, Texas E. Schramm, decided that having a castrated bovine as a mascot might subject the team to ridicule, so he decided to go with Rangers instead. But fearing that people would confuse the football team with the local minor league baseball team nicknamed the Rangers, Schramm finally changed the nickname to Cowboys shortly before the season began.

DENVER BRONCOS

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Denver was a charter member of the AFL in 1960 and Broncos, which was submitted along with a 25-word essay by Ward M. Vining, was the winning entry among 162 fans who responded in a name-the-team contest. A Denver team by the same name played in the Midwest Baseball League in 1921.

DETROIT LIONS

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Radio executive George A. Richards purchased and moved the Portsmouth Spartans to Detroit in 1934 and renamed the team the Lions. The nickname was likely derived from Detroit’s established baseball team, the Tigers, who won 101 games and the AL pennant that year. As the team explained it, “The lion is the monarch of the jungle, and we hope to be the monarch of the league.”

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Team founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau’s employer, the Indian Packing Company, sponsored Green Bay’s football team and provided equipment and access to the field. The Indian Packing Company became the Acme Packing Company and later folded, but the nickname stuck.

HOUSTON TEXANS

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Houston’s 2002 expansion franchise became the sixth professional football team nicknamed the Texans. The Dallas Texans were an Arena Football League team from 1990 to 1993 and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones revived the team in 2000. He was planning to keep the old nickname, but ultimately renamed the team the Desperados. Houston owner Bob McNair chose Texans over Apollos and Stallions.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Baltimore Colts, a member of the All-America Football Conference from 1947-1950, were named in honor of the region’s history of horse breeding. The name remained when a new franchise began play in 1953 and after the team relocated to Indianapolis in 1984.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Logan Bowles/Getty Images

The Jaguars nickname was selected through a fan contest in 1991, 2 years before the city was officially awarded an expansion team and 4 years before the team would begin play. Other names considered included the Sharks and Stingrays. While Jaguars aren’t native to Jacksonville, the oldest living jaguar in North America was housed in the Jacksonville Zoo.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

The Chiefs began play in the AFL in 1960 as the Dallas Texans. When the team moved to Kansas City in 1963, owner Lamar Hunt changed the team’s name to the Chiefs after also considering Mules, Royals, and Stars. Hunt said the name was locally important because Native Americans had once lived in the area. Hunt may have also been swayed by Kansas City mayor H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was The Chief. Bartle helped lure the team to Kansas City by promising Hunt that the city would meet certain attendance thresholds.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Team owner Barron Hilton sponsored a name-the-team contest and promised a trip to Mexico City to the winner in 1960. Gerald Courtney submitted “Chargers” and Hilton reportedly liked the name so much that he didn’t open another letter.

There are varying accounts as to why Hilton chose Chargers for his franchise, which spent one year in Los Angeles before relocating to San Diego. (The franchise is back in the Los Angeles area for the 2017 season.) According to one story, Hilton liked the name, in part, for its affiliation with his new Carte Blanche credit card. The owner also told reporters that he was fond of the “Charge!” bugle cry played at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Rams, who originated in Cleveland in 1936 and spent 1946 through 1994 in the Los Angeles area before moving to St. Louis, came back to LA last season. The team traces their nickname to the college ranks. Principal owner Homer Marshman and general manager Damon “Buzz” Wetzel chose the nickname because Wetzel’s favorite football team had always been the Fordham Rams. Fordham—Vince Lombardi’s alma mater—was a powerhouse at the time.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

A name-the-team contest drew nearly 20,000 entries and resulted in the nickname for the Miami franchise that entered the AFL as an expansion team in 1966. More than 600 fans suggested Dolphins, but Marjorie Swanson was declared the winner after correctly predicting a tie in the 1965 college football game between Miami and Notre Dame as part of a follow-up contest. Swanson, who won a lifetime season pass to Dolphins games, told reporters she consulted a Magic 8-Ball before predicting the score of the game. Miami owner Joe Robbie was fond of the winning nickname because, as he put it, “The dolphin is one of the fastest and smartest creatures in the sea.”

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Alex Pantling/Getty Images

According to the Vikings’ website, Bert Rose, Minnesota’s general manager when it joined the NFL in 1961, recommended the nickname to the team’s Board of Directors because “it represented both an aggressive person with the will to win and the Nordic tradition in the northern Midwest.” The expansion franchise also became the first pro sports team to feature its home state, rather than a city, in the team name.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Seventy-four fans suggested Patriots in the name-the-team contest that was conducted by the management group of Boston’s original AFL franchise in 1960. “Pat Patriot,” the cartoon of a Minuteman preparing to snap a football drawn by the Boston Globe’s Phil Bissell, was chosen as the team’s logo soon after. While the first part of the team’s name changed from Boston to New England in 1971, Patriots remained.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1966. The nickname was a popular choice in a name-the-team contest sponsored by the New Orleans States-Item, which announced the news of the new franchise with the headline, “N.O. goes pro!” The nickname, chosen by team owner John Mecom, was a nod to the city’s jazz heritage and taken from the popular song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

NEW YORK GIANTS

Rob Carr/Getty Images

New York owner Tim Mara borrowed the Giants nickname from John McGraw’s National League baseball team, a common practice by football teams during an era when baseball was the nation’s preeminent team sport.

NEW YORK JETS

Al Bello/Getty Images

Originally nicknamed the Titans, the team was renamed the Jets in 1963 after Sonny Werblin led an investment group that purchased the bankrupt franchise for $1 million.

According to a contemporary New York Times story, the franchise considered calling itself the Dodgers, but nixed the idea after Major League Baseball didn’t like it. Gothams also got some consideration, but the team didn’t like the idea of having it shortened to the Goths, because “you know they weren’t such nice people.” The last finalist to fall was the New York Borros, a pun on the city’s boroughs; the team worried that opposing fans would make the Borros-burros connection and derisively call the squad the jackasses.

Eventually the team became the Jets since it was going to play in Shea Stadium, which is close to LaGuardia Airport. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the name was supposed to reflect the “modern approach of his team.”

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Chet Soda, Oakland’s first general manager, sponsored a name-the-team contest in 1960. Helen A. Davis, an Oakland policewoman, submitted the winning entry, Señors, and was rewarded with a trip to the Bahamas. The nickname, an allusion to the old Spanish settlers of northern California, was ridiculed in the weeks that followed, and fans also claimed that the contest was fixed. Scotty Stirling, a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune who would later become the team’s general manager, provided another reason to abandon the nickname. “That’s no good,” Stirling said. “We don’t have the accent mark for the n in our headline type.” Responding to the backlash, Soda and the team’s other investors decided to change the team’s nickname to Raiders, which was a finalist in the contest along with Lakers.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Al Bello/Getty Images

In 1933, Bert Bell and Lud Wray purchased the bankrupt Frankford Yellowjackets. The new owners renamed the team the Eagles in honor of the symbol of the National Recovery Act, which was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Joe Sargent/Getty Images
Getty Images

Pittsburgh’s football team shared the same nickname as the city’s baseball team, the Pirates, from 1933 to 1940. Before the 1940 season, owner Art Rooney held a rename-the-team contest. A change couldn’t hurt, as Pittsburgh had failed to post a winning season in its first 7 years. Joe Santoni, who worked in a mill for Pittsburgh Steel, was one of several fans who suggested Steelers. Santoni received a pair of season tickets, which he would renew every year until his death in 2003.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Getty Images

The 49ers, who began play in the All-America Football Conference in 1946, were named after the settlers who ventured to the San Francisco area during the gold rush of 1849.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Getty Images

There were 1,700 unique names among the more than 20,000 submitted in a name-the-team contest in 1975, including Skippers, Pioneers, Lumberjacks, and Seagulls. About 150 people suggested Seahawks. A Seattle minor league hockey team and Miami’s franchise in the All-America Football Conference both used the nickname in the 1950s. “Our new name suggests aggressiveness, reflects our soaring Northwest heritage, and belongs to no other major league team,” Seattle general manager John Thompson said. The Seahawks’ helmet design is a stylized head of an osprey, a fish-eating hawk of the Northwest.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Getty Images

A panel of local sportswriters and representatives from the NFL expansion team, including owner Hugh F. Culverhouse, chose Buccaneers from an original list of more than 400 names in 1975. The nickname, which was a popular choice among fans in a name-the-team contest, was a nod to the pirates who raided Florida’s coasts during the 17th century.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Getty Images

After relocating from Houston to Tennessee in 1995, the team played two seasons as the Oilers before owner Bud Adams held a statewide contest to rename the team. Titans was chosen over nicknames such as Tornadoes, Copperheads, South Stars, and Wranglers. “We wanted a new nickname to reflect strength, leadership and other heroic qualities,'' Adams told reporters.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

Getty Images

One year after he acquired an NFL franchise in Boston, George Preston Marshall changed the team’s nickname from Braves to Redskins. According to most accounts, the nickname was meant to honor head coach and Native American William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, though some question whether Dietz was a Native American. The Redskins kept their controversial nickname when they relocated to Washington, DC, in 1937.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2010.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
Getty Images

To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
Getty Images

During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
Getty Images

David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
iStock
iStock

In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER