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Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Interview: The Knick Creators Amiel and Begler

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Jack Amiel and Michael Begler co-created The Knick, a medical drama starring Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Set in 1900, the show follows life and death in a New York hospital. Oh yeah, and the main character is a surgeon who happens to be addicted to cocaine.

First up, here's a brief preview to give you a taste of what the show is like (note, some surgical gore and mild early-episode spoilers are here):

Where to watch The Knick: Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax. You can catch up on clips on The Knick's website.

If you're into medical history, check out our interview with Dr. Stanley Burns, medical advisor to The Knick.

A Gut Feeling

Chris Higgins: Where did the idea for The Knick come from?

Michael Begler: The idea stems from health issues I was going through at the time. I was having some issues with my gut, and I was going down the roads of traditional medicine and alternative treatments. There were points where I was really amazed at what medical science had figured out, and other points I was really frustrated about what they still didn't know. Jack was privy to all of my health issues, and I wasn't shy—

Jack Amiel: We were like two old Jewish men, "Let me tell you, I tried this, I tried that! You know the doctor said I have to bring a stool sample in?!" Literally we're like two old Jews in Palm Beach.

Jack Amiel (left) and Michael Begler (right) on set. in the operating theater / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Begler: Yeah. But that also got us asking questions like, "Why do you know anything at any given point? What is the trajectory of knowledge in general?" And so purely out of curiosity we went onto eBay, we found a couple of medical textbooks from 1900, because I was also asking the question, "Well, what would I have done a hundred years ago?" What would my options have been? Because everything is at my fingertips now. [...]

So we bought these books and the minute we opened them, it was a treasure chest. It was so endlessly fascinating to us, and we were emailing and texting each other like, "I can't believe this fact I found." And so we knew that there was something special here in an era that hadn't been explored in television.

[... That] was the jumping-off point, and then we [started] to look at, "Well what was the world like in 1900?" And from that we learned so much more, and saw, again, an endless wealth of fascinating stories in a time of enormous change, and not only in medicine but in the country.

Amiel: I think for us the era is also fascinating because you're coming out of the Victorian era, you're coming to modern America. America is emerging as the world power. You know, it is in this era that we first project our military power across the world, we are suddenly at the forefront of invention, whether it's the phonograph, or the wax recorder, perfecting the light bulb, electrifying the telephone, we're working on the automobile.

So it is a time of amazing technological advancements, and you also have a country that is looking towards medicine for the same advancements. Suddenly you have X-rays. Suddenly you have electricity that can be used within medicine. Suddenly you have ether that can safely put someone under, and safely wake them up. You understand germ theory now, so you can at least try to mitigate infections. All of these modern advances were allowing doctors to try new things and experiment—new understanding of drugs, of chemistry, and pharmacology were allowing you to have new treatments as well. So we thought, "Wow, what an amazing confluence of events that were all coming together at this exact time."

On Medical History

Higgins: So I'm wondering how the research process works, and to what extent the Burns Archive fits into that? Do you start with an invention? Do you start with a story? Both?

Amiel: We went through a lot of procedures. You know, there are some wonderful medical archives online that we were able to go through surgical procedures and to go, "Oh, okay. This is kind of interesting." And [...] they give you the history of the patient—the prognosis, the outcome, how they performed it. So that was really helpful for us because we wanted to be truthful about what the procedure was.

We were very careful to make sure that it was within a year of 1900 on either side. So if it was a procedure that was from 1899 or 1901 we could place it 1900, but other than that we really wouldn't mess around with too much, because we wanted to make sure we were truthful to the era.

So in the pilot episode you saw there was a spinal procedure where someone did a spinal block. [Ed. note: this is a spinal injection of cocaine to numb the lower body, first published in 1899.] [...] Michael found that, and he was like, "You're not going to believe what they did!" We loved the confluence of cocaine being used for its intended purpose as a numbing agent as opposed to Thackery's purpose, which is to embolden him and allow him the stamina to continue on in a life like his. [...]

The Burns Archive was helpful to us because there are some things [later in the season] that we saw and that are directly from things that [Dr. Burns] talked about. And what Dr. Burns does sometimes is he'll be telling one story and then he'll throw out a piece of information that's tangential to that first story, and you'll go, "No, no, no, go back to the tangent! Go back to the tangent. Wait a second. What?" And then you go, "Okay. We need that. We're going to use that. I don't know where, I don't know when, but we're going to use that." And then you say, "Oh, do you have a picture of this?" And he goes, "Do I have a picture of it?" He'll go to a file and there will be 150 different pictures of that particular malady, or problem, or surgery.

Viewing a stereoscopic photograph / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

He also showed us these—you'll see them in the later episodes—the doctors used stereoscopic cameras, and they basically used them in conjunction with a surgery-by-numbers triptych kind of notebook. We use that as well, and Dr. Burns has an amazing collection that a surgeon made who wanted to chronicle every one of his surgeries, or at least every type of procedure. [...]

Begler: [...] We loved the idea of marrying what was going on technologically with the procedure. So for example, at the end of the pilot they get electricity in the hospital, and we said, "It would be great to use this new technology in a surgical procedure." So we would then research and try and find, well, how did [doctors] use electricity? And that's how we came across the aortic aneurysm using the galvanic procedure, and you know sometimes it works really well, as you see in the episode, and sometimes it doesn't work at all and it's quite tragic, as you also see.

The first time we went to see Dr. Burns...his brownstone is covered from the basement to the roof with photographs. He has something like a million photographs from this era. I mean, he's the world's most specific hoarder. He showed us a photograph from the turn of the century of a black surgeon in Paris, who was the lead surgeon in a surgical theater, and he's surrounded by an entire white staff of doctors and nurses. This is basically the only photograph in existence of this, but it affirmed what we had created. Now granted, Jack and I had done our research, and we knew that African Americans would go over to Europe, and they could study, and they could work alongside these [white] doctors, but here was the proof, and so that really felt like we were on to something.

Cross-Boarding

Higgins: I'm wondering what it's like to run a show with a single director for the whole season, and I gather that you have a second season coming. But I'm wondering, when you start shooting, how many scripts are complete? And what's it like having a single director, a single shooter, a single editor, and that person being Steven Soderbergh?

Amiel: Let me try to answer those in pieces. [...] The easy answer is, we had all ten [scripts] done early. We basically got the green light in mid-June [2013] that we were going to do this, and Steven said, "Okay, We're shooting in late August, early September." [...] At that point we only had really one or two scripts, but we knew where we wanted to take it. So we sat down with Steven in New York and we plotted out what we wanted to do in terms of the ten episodes, in a very sketchy way, but we understood what the arc was, and we broke it down in a way that each story flowed like a movie. So everyone gets an arc, everyone gets to start in one place and end in another.

So it really did break out like a ten-hour movie broken into hour-long segments. Then we had to go off and write an outline, as quickly as we could, to get to the network because we wanted their [go-ahead] as quickly as possible. So within four or five days we had about a 65-70 page outline. Every scene, every character, every location all figured out. [We] got that to the network, and then we started writing, and Michael and I blasted through.

Steven Soderbergh on set / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

We have a supervising producer, Steven Katz, who was a friend of Steven Soderbergh and Greg Jacobs, our executive producer, who had a really good knowledge of this era, because we didn't have time to catch anybody up. You know, we didn't have time to take somebody from 2013 and say, "Here. Catch up. Learn everything that we've learned over the last six months, now." We just didn't have time. Luckily Steven Katz knew all of that, really knew a tremendous amount about the era because he had written other things in this era, so we blasted through. We wrote ten episodes and they were written and rewritten. We never had a table read. We had to trust that 20-something years of us doing this, and Steven's ear, and Greg Jacobs's ear, and the actors—[we had to trust] that we were getting it right on the page. [...]

We cross-boarded it, which means instead of shooting episode one, then episode two, then episode three—which isn't terribly efficient—you could shoot scenes from four different episodes in a day if they all happen to be in one location. [It's] much harder on the actors, but it's a very efficient way of shooting, and so that was how we shot.

[...]

In terms of having Steven Soderbergh, it's like winning the Powerball ten times. I mean the fact that he would do the pilot would have made us jump for joy. The fact that he did all ten, and that you're getting this extraordinary signature filmmaker's vision was absolutely extraordinary. I don't think we could have been more thrilled in our lives, and to feel that lucky, and to feel like all we had to worry about was the words, and the stories, and the characters, and Steven was going to put his spin on it, his take on it, put his brilliance on it, and elevate it. Everything he does elevates the piece. [...]

Steven's thing is that he trusts everyone to do their job. He does four jobs—at least four jobs—on the set, so if you only have one job, you are trying your level best to make sure you do it really well. So everybody brings their A game. [...] So it frees us up to only worry about the things that we want to focus on: the writing, and the story, and the characters, and the words, and the settings, and everyone else comes in and makes us look really, really good.

A Medical Drama on Cable TV

Higgins: When I think about putting a medical drama on cable TV, that opens some doors. You have the latitude on cable to show gore, but you also have the latitude to show sex, and at least in the seven episodes I've seen there's a lot of gore, in the context of operations, and it seems realistic. There is a little bit of violence, and there's very little sexuality, I mean relative to any typical cable TV drama, and I'm curious if you want to talk a little bit about that choice? Like, was that a hard sale to say, "This is a medical drama where we're going to show the medical stuff, and that's going to be gritty, and no, we're not going to have a lot of sexposition."

Begler: We just wanted to tell the stories that we wanted to tell. [...] Yes, you're given freedom on cable, but we interpreted that freedom for the stories we wanted to tell. We didn't feel like we needed to add anything just because we were allowed to. If the stories involved any sort of sexuality, or sex, then we'll throw it in there. But we felt that this is about a hospital, first and foremost, and this is about medicine, and it's about the progression of medicine, and it's about racism, and it's about sexism, and those social issues were more important to us than just having a bunch of naked bodies. And again if it lends itself to the story, we put it in. But I don't think that we felt like, okay, we need to check this off our list, and make sure in each episode we're showing breasts, or genitalia. You know? Now granted, with the opening shot, two seconds in, here comes a naked woman, but I think that it was just the way we broke out the story. We figured, this stuff is so entirely interesting on its own that we don't need to spice it up.

Clive Owen, in surgery / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Amiel: [...] If you want to separate it out to something like cursing, some characters will curse. The ambulance driver, Cleary, curses every third word. Even our rough-and-tumble nun, when she's alone with Cleary, might curse, but she's not going to curse around children. She's not going to curse in her capacity as a nun. [Dr.] Algernon [Edwards] is not going to curse around white people because he wants to be seen a certain way, and he's not going to act in any way that compromises the idea of his propriety, and his...I suppose elegance would be the word because when I think of Andre [Holland], I think of elegance. And perhaps if that character, Dr. Edwards, was sitting around with black people, when he was comfortable, and he wasn't feeling judged, he might curse.

So you have to decide when and where you're going to use the things you can use, and does it fit the character. Does it fit what's going on? We didn't want to be gratuitous about it because, just because you can do it, sometimes you lose what the scene's is about if there's a boob hanging out there. You know? You do. Now you're just going, "Hey, look. I'm looking at a boob." [...] So for us...it would have been easy just to throw in sex but that's just not the story we wanted to tell.

Andre Holland, reviewing surgery / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

An Era of Power Differences

Higgins: To me, all good period pieces deal with the racial, the sexual, and the economic situation of the leads situated in their time. And that situation is often very grim, right? So in this series you've got leads who are black, you've got various women, you've got people who are in challenging positions. Now knowing that it's set in or around 1900, I don't know a lot of watershed moments that are about to come up that are going to make the lives of these people substantially easier. Is there anything I should be watching for, as we head into a second season, or the last three of this season, to see major moments when any of these issues get a lot better?

Amiel: First of all, this is an era about power differences, and about entitlement, and if these people's lives are difficult—if you're an African American who's done everything you can to educate yourself as a surgeon, and you are mightily deserving of a chance to practice your trade in the highest echelons of society, and you're being denied that chance because of race? Well, that's the truth of this era. We are 47 years from somebody allowing Jackie Robinson to throw a baseball with white people. So the idea of a black man with a scalpel coming towards someone and saying, "I'm going to heal you," we're not going to pretend that that wasn't an extraordinarily new and difficult situation. You have all of these poor immigrants pouring into America. There's a massive gap between rich and poor.

The rich are the old, moneyed, entitled white protestant males, and they're watching their country slip away from them because suddenly you've got Catholics, and Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics, coming into the country and changing the demographics of the nation. You've got Jews coming in, and you've got people from all over the world saying, "Oh there's that beacon on the hill." So into this mix pours all of these people who just want a shot at this American dream that they've heard so much about. You've got blacks coming from the south saying, "We're not going to be treated poorly anymore." The Irish coming from Ireland saying, "We're not going to be treated poorly by the British anymore." You've got Jews saying, "We're not going to be treated poorly in Eastern Europe anymore." You've got rural whites saying, "I want a shot at economic prosperity in the big city."

Cara Seymour (Sister Harriet) and Chris Sullivan (Cleary) / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

So I don't think you should be looking for it to get better. I think you should be looking for how this pot gets stirred. Because you've got these women [...]—we're talking about women who don't have a lot of options. They can work as a seamstress at a sweatshop. They can work as a nurse, if they're lucky, or a nanny, if they're lucky, but for the most part there are very few options available to women, which is why prostitution was a giant business in New York City. It was estimated that there were between 30 and 40 thousand prostitutes in New York. There were brothels all over the Tenderloin and all over the city because that was one of the only ways for women to make a living. So we're not going to solve the ills of society. I think what we're going to do is we're going to see people trying to survive in spite of them and try to get an incremental step forward in their own situation.

[Pauses] That was long, wasn't it?

Clive Owen displays an X-ray / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: No, it's good. This is a quickie, but my family, for a few generations, is from West Virginia. I notice you have Nurse Elkins who's also from West Virginia. Any chance you're going to explore West Virginia stuff in the future?

Michael Belger: I don't think we're going to go there. I'm sure we will look more into Lucy, Lucy's life, in particular. Well start to learn more about who she is and where she's from, and that's all I can really say about that.

Amiel: And I think she's representative of rural whites coming to the big city for the adventure and the excitement. They may have one idea of what the city is, and they might have one idea of who they are when they get there, but there is such adventure in Manhattan at this point in time. As much as they don't want to admit it, they're there to ride that rollercoaster. Sometimes it's "be careful what you wish for," because the ride gets pretty exciting.

No One Forgot Hammerstein

Higgins: How do you guys decide whose name goes first when you're credited as, you know, Amiel and Begler?

Amiel: It's done by weight. I'm much heavier than Michael.

Amiel: It's just alphabetical.

Begler: It's just alphabetical.

Higgins: Well, yeah, obviously it's alphabetical, but I mean did you have to fight this out amongst you, or you just decided that's how it was going to be?

Begler: No. It's never been an issue. I've never felt like my name has to come before his, never.

Amiel: He should have gone for someone whose last name was Charles, or Dandy, or something. Unfortunately he partnered with someone whose last name just happened to begin with an A. But it's not like anyone forgot Hammerstein because Rodgers came first.

Higgins: Is there anything you can or want to say about the remainder of this season, or the next season?

Amiel: Well, a nuclear bomb hits, and it's really weird because we're about 40 years before they were invented. So that's about it. Did I give away too much?

Begler: I think the ride just continues to get crazier, and you've seen through [episode] seven, I think the speed picks up in eight, nine, and ten. I really like the way it arcs. And then we kind of take off to a whole new place in season two, but we want to keep all of the details to ourselves.

Higgins: All right.

Amiel: I think there has been a lot of focus in the first episode about the gore and I think that going forward there's less gore. I think it's less about the visual craziness in the procedure, there are moments, but—

Begler: I don't know. There's stuff coming up—

Amiel: There is stuff, but I think initially it's shocking, but I think it will normalize for people and that they'll go, "Oh, it's just part of the show." You know? I think people become much more used to the blood and the guts.

Operating equipment / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: Yeah. It normalized for me, for what it's worth. Initially I thought, "Wow," and then within 45 minutes I thought, "Okay. I get what's going on here." And it really doesn't seem gory or violent, especially in the context of cable television.

Begler: No. Because, again, we don't feel as gratuitous, we just feel it's authentic, and I think maybe that's the difference, you know we're not slashing people open, we're just showing the reality. Sometimes the reality is actually harder to take than somebody taking an axe and chopping somebody in half.

Amiel: Yeah. There's nothing cartoony about our blood or our guts, so perhaps you can watch Freddy Krueger do something and go, "Oh yeah, whatever. That's phony." But ours feels very, very real, and maybe that's why it's so visceral.

Where to watch The Knick: Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax. You can catch up on clips on The Knick's website. If you're into The Knick or medical history, check out our interview with Dr. Stanley Burns, medical advisor to the show.

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History
25 Unheralded African-American Pioneers and Trailblazers You Should Know

As we celebrate Black History Month, it's important to look back at the brave men and women who faced off against prejudice and bigotry in order to share their unique talents with the world. Whether they were involved in Civil Rights, politics, science, technology, sports, or music, African-American history is full of innovators, though they don't always get their due. Here are 25 unheralded African-American pioneers and trailblazers you should know.

1. JESSE L. BROWN

When Jesse LeRoy Brown was a teenager, he wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to express his disappointment that African Americans weren't flying in the military. While that changed in the Air Force in the early '40s with the Tuskegee Airmen, it would be Brown himself that would break that barrier for the Navy in 1947. By 1949 he was an officer, and in 1950, the United States was at war in Korea and he was in the action. Brown and his unit were soon airborne, completing dangerous missions to take out targets and protect troops on the ground.

On December 4, 1950, while on a mission to provide cover for a Marine regiment, Brown's plane was struck—leaking fuel, he crash-landed on a slope but was still alive. His wingman, Thomas Hudner, crash landed his own plane to reach Brown in order to help. Though Brown died shortly after due to his wounds from the crash, both men were honored by the United States—Brown received a posthumous Flying Cross medal for bravery, while Hudner, who survived the ordeal, was presented with the Medal of Honor. A Naval frigate, the USS Jesse L. Brown, was also built and operated in the '60s and '70s.

At a gathering to commemorate Brown and Hudner's rescue attempt, NAS Jacksonville Commanding Officer Capt. Jeffrey Maclay remarked: "When Brown risked his life to help a Marine regiment that day, he didn't consider their race. And when his fellow pilots saw him in danger, they did not think about the color of their skin. They only knew he was an American in trouble."

2. JO ANN ROBINSON

Picture of a Rosa Parks replica bus
A replica of the type of bus Rosa Parks rode on and that Jo Ann Robinson organized a boycott against.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Jo Ann Robinson is an often-overlooked part of the Civil Rights Movement, but her contributions were crucial. Born in Georgia in 1912, Robinson focused her early life on education. She began by graduating college in 1934, and later became a public school teacher in Macon, Georgia. After receiving her master’s degree, she took a job as a college professor in Alabama and began becoming more socially active, eventually being named president of the Women's Political Council (WPC) in 1950.

Seeing how African Americans were being treated in the Montgomery, Alabama area, Robinson used her position at the WPC to try to pressure the city's mayor, William A. Gale, to desegregate public buses, to no avail. After Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, Robinson and a group of activists distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets urging a one-day boycott of the bus system. It was a success, and the now-famous boycott of the Montgomery bus system soon ballooned, lasting for months with the help of Robinson.

Though the boycotts were eventually successful, Robinson faced severe harassment and intimidation from local police throughout—including having rocks thrown through her windows and acid poured on her car. Eventually, state police were ordered to protect her. Once the boycotts ended and buses desegregated, Robinson moved from Alabama to teach in California.

3. MARK E. DEAN

An old IMB personal computer.
Steve Petrucelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For many in the '80s, IBM computers were likely their first experience with the technology that would define the future. And a big part of what made the company so successful is thanks to Mark Dean, an engineer whose work helped create the company's ISA bus. This hardware add-on allowed peripheral accessories like printers, disk drives, and keyboards to be plugged directly into the computer. Amazingly, he holds three of IBM's original nine PC patents.

His later breakthroughs included work that led to the creation of the color PC monitor and the first gigahertz chip, which allows a machine to compute a billion calculations per second and is instrumental in everything from computer systems to gaming consoles today.

He's still in the industry today, telling Engadget that he's currently "looking to develop an alternative computing architecture leveraging what we know about neuroscience and brain structures."

4. MADAM C.J. WALKER

Photo of Madam C.J. Walker products
Craig Barritt, Getty Images for Essence

Known as "the first black woman millionaire in America," Madam C.J. Walker—born Sarah Breedlove—broke the bank with her own line of hair products that she developed while trying to find a cure for her own hair loss. After experimenting with products by an African-American businesswoman named Annie Malone, Breedlove decided to strike out on her own with a method called the "Walker System." This basically boiled down to scalp prep, lotions, and an iron comb specifically designed for black hair care.

To drum up publicity and mystique, the name Madam C.J. Walker was crafted, and she soon began selling her products around the country to an African-American clientele that was often ignored by mainstream marketing. Perhaps her most long-standing accomplishment is the fact that her beauty empire helped employ others looking to make a living by selling the Walker System. Estimates put the number of employees somewhere around 40,000 at a time when holding a job as a black woman wasn't necessarily common.

With her success came a responsibility to her community, and Walker was also involved in regular donations to black charities like the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute. For a woman who was both a poor orphan and widow at 20, the Madam C.J. Walker empire is a true success story.

5. THOMAS L. JENNINGS

A laundry operation circa 1925.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Thomas L. Jennings is known as the first African American to receive a patent in the United States for his invention of an early form of dry cleaning called "dry scouring." The patent was given in 1821 but was first met with resistance on the grounds that, at the time, all slaveowners legally own the "fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual." Jennings was a free man, though, and set a precedent for all other free African Americans after him. He could now make money from his own innovations.

The money earned from his invention went toward freeing other members of his family from slavery, as well as going into various abolitionist causes.

6. DEATH

The road from the pop rock acts of the '50s and '60s to the punk rock of the late '70s and '80s was bridged by what's now known as the proto-punk movement. This loose fraternity of raw, underproduced garage rock bands was prepping listeners for what was to come in the music industry. This was a genre that replaced the slick, polished tunes of the previous decades with the abrasive rhythms of anger, alienation, and attitude. But even music aficionados with a deep back catalog of the proto-punk scene might not know of a little band called Death.

Death is made up of the Hackney brothers—David, Bobby, and Dannis—and had a sound that would fit right at home next to bands like The Stooges, The Modern Lovers, and MC5. They were denied success in the '70s when Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records, pulled financial support after the band refused to change its name. This stopped the band in its tracks, and they soon fizzled after their self-financed record, Politicians in my Eyes, failed to sell.

Only a few songs from Death were ever recorded, but they had amassed a cult following over the years, leading to subsequent re-releases of their material and a documentary about the band, produced in 2013. They're just now being recognized as one of the early shots fired in the punk movement.

7. BESSIE COLEMAN

Bessie Coleman's stamp
John Flannery, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When Bessie Coleman was denied the right to learn to fly in the United States, she decided to go to school, learn French, and travel overseas to France to get her pilot's license. In seven months, she got her license and returned to the States in 1921, where she created a media stir as the nation's first black female pilot.

Coleman soon began performing at air shows and doing stunts for waves of spectators, all while making sure to use her celebrity to raise awareness of racial inequality and encourage women of any skin color to fly. Unfortunately, just a few years later in 1926, while prepping for a stunt in Jacksonville, Florida, a wrench became stuck in the gears of her plane, which went into an unexpected nosedive and spin. Coleman wasn't wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the plane. She died on impact.

8. JERRY LAWSON

A picture of the Fairchild Channel F
A picture of the Fairchild Channel F, complete with the system's innovative cartridges.
Michael Dunn, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Remember those video game cartridges you had growing up? The ones you'd swap in and out of your console and occasionally have to blow into to make them work? That technology was made possible with the help of Jerry Lawson, the chief hardware engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor’s game division. Lawson began his life cobbling electronics together as a child and making his own radio station in his housing complex. That interest in electronics led him to Fairchild and its burgeoning video games branch.

Lawson’s most high-profile assignment was designing the electronics behind the Fairchild Channel F video game console in 1976. This system was interesting for a lot of reasons—the first of which was that players could now play against the computer, rather than needing another participant to work the game.

More important, though, is the fact that he and his team had devised the first video game cartridge that would allow players to switch out to different games instead of needing them to be hardwired into the system. The technology already existed in a rough state and was licensed to Fairchild, but Lawson and his team perfected it, making video game cartridges an omnipresent part of the industry from the '70s all the way through to today's micro-cartridges seen on the Nintendo Switch.

Need more proof that Lawson was an early Silicon Valley pioneer? He was in the same homebrew computer club as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in the '70s and '80s (though he apparently wasn't too impressed with either of them).

9. CHRISTOPHER PRIEST

Stack of comic books
iStock

Longtime comic book fans may know the name Christopher Priest from writing Black Panther in the late '90s and early 2000s, and even older ones may know the name he went by earlier in his career, Jim Owsley. What most don’t know is just how groundbreaking his career has been, despite not always getting his due.

Priest came on to the Marvel scene as an intern in the late '70s and became a writer in the early '80s, working on characters like Spider-Man, Iron Fist, and Falcon. He then moved on to become the first African-American editor for a mainstream publication when he was given the job handling the company’s Spider-Man line while still in his early twenties.

During his career, he’s dipped in and out of high-profile gigs, writing stories for characters like Deadpool, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, and so many others. And while personal reasons forced him out early, he was also one of the original architects behind Milestone Comics, a company founded by black creators looking to give a diverse voice to the industry. When work slowed down or he needed to take a break from the politics of the comic book industry, he retreated from the business, at one point becoming a bus driver in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Fans curious about Priest are in luck, though. After falling out of the mainstream comics spotlight for years, he recently spearheaded DC Comics' relaunched Deathstroke title and had a stint on the main Justice League comic as well as Marvel's Inhumans: Once and Future Kings.

10. MARIE VAN BRITTAN BROWN

Picture of a security camera
iStock

All Marie Van Brittan Brown wanted to do was feel safe at night, and along the way she reshaped how people all over the world secure their homes. Brown lived in Jamaica, Queens at a time when the crime rate in New York City was on a steady ascent, and police were often unable to respond to every emergency. To help ensure the family's safety, Brown, a nurse, and her husband, Albert, an electronics technician, created a security system made up of peepholes, monitors, microphones, remote door locks, and an emergency alarm button that could contact police.

This is credited as the first modern home security system, and the invention was patented in 1966. Many of these features would become standard in the home security systems of the next decade into today.

11. FRITZ POLLARD

Steven Towns, Fritz Pollard's grandson, standing next to Pollard's Pro Football Hall of Fame bust in 2005.
Steven Towns, Fritz Pollard's grandson, standing next to Pollard's Pro Football Hall of Fame bust in 2005.
Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

Standing at only 5 feet 9 inches, Fritz Pollard didn't have the type of size that was typical for gridiron success, but he still managed to break down football's color barrier multiple times. Before making it to the pros, Pollard was a standout in college, becoming the first black player to play in the Rose Bowl while attending Brown.

After school, he served a stint in the army before joining the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League (later the NFL) in 1920. In 1921, he was named coach of the team, while also still playing. The APFA became the NFL in 1922 while Pollard was still a coach at Akron, which makes him the NFL's first African-American coach. He continued until 1926, when the NFL segregated and got rid of all black coaches and athletes.

Before retiring from the sport, Pollard would attempt to create all-black teams to play against NFL squads but was never successful. Despite his unfortunate departure from the game, Pollard was posthumously inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

12. OSCAR MICHEAUX

Picture of an old film projector.
iStock

Oscar Micheaux is credited with being the first African American to make a feature film and is one of the more successful black filmmakers of the early years of the movie industry. Micheaux worked as a porter for years before homesteading a farm in South Dakota and getting to work as a writer. One of his books, The Homesteader, was of interest to the country's first black film production company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.

However, instead of taking the film company's offer, Micheaux decided to produce it himself independently to have more control over the project. In his career, he produced more than 40 movies, with many of them garnering controversy from black audiences, white audiences, and oftentimes both. And though he never won much praise from contemporaries or film historians, Micheaux's story is an outlier during a time when black filmmakers were basically unheard of.

13. MOLLY WILLIAMS

Picture of the front of an FDNY firetruck
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Before the FDNY was even established, the city of New York had its first female firefighter in Molly Williams, who also happened to be a slave at the time. She belonged to Benjamin Aymar at 42 Greenwich St. in the early 19th century, and she soon found herself a part of Oceanus Engine Co. 11 where Aymar served as a volunteer.

Williams was well known around the fire house, with records indicating that she was either a cook or a personal helper to Aymar during this time. In March 1818, though, the city was struck by two calamities: a historic blizzard crippled the streets and a wave of flu incapacitated many of the volunteer firefighters. So, of course, this is exactly when a fire call would come in.

According to legend, Molly was the only one physically capable of answering the call, and the image of the lone woman hauling the water pumper out in the snowy streets has since become a sort of folklore. She was reportedly adopted as an unofficial volunteer of the fire house afterwards, given the distinction Volunteer No. 11.

14. LUTHER LINDSAY

Picture of a wrestling ring
iStock

Luther Lindsay predated the days of superstar African-American pro-wrestlers like Ernie Ladd, Bobo Brazil, and the Junkyard Dog, but his trailblazing career helped open the doors for all of them. Noted as a superb athlete, Lindsay pulled off the rare feat of making the renowned Stu Hart tap out in the Hart Dungeon (his wrestling school)—an accomplishment which earned Hart's respect enough that he apparently kept a photo of Lindsay in his wallet until his death.

Inside the ring, Lindsay was a technician, but culturally he is best known for two barrier-breaking moments. He was the first black wrestler to go against a white wrestler in the South, when he was pitted against Ron White in Texas. And while the National Guard was brought in to fend off any riots, the crowd was overwhelmingly in favor for Lindsay that night. White even stated, "We had riots down there, but instead of killing Luther Lindsay they was trying to kill me."

His next cultural achievement came when he was given the honor of being the first black wrestler to challenge for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship when he went up against the legendary Lou Thesz in 1953. Lindsay battled the champ to a time-limit draw.

Lindsay died of a heart attack during a match in 1972, but his pioneering career helped countless black wrestlers achieve stardom over the years.

15. EARL LLOYD

Picture of Earl Lloyd
Staff Sgt. Marc Ayalin, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1950, the first three black players in NBA history were drafted by the league, but through a quirk in the schedule (not every team began the season on the same night), Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols earned the distinction as the first African-American to play in an NBA game. The other two players were Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton with the New York Knicks.

The stint didn't last long, as Lloyd was drafted to fight in Korea after just seven games. He would play for the Syracuse Nationals and the Detroit Pistons upon his return, and he later served as a scout and assistant coach for the Pistons (a first for the NBA). He would later be named the team’s head coach—the fourth black head coach in league history but the first that was not also a player simultaneously.

16. DR. SHIRLEY JACKSON

Photo of Dr. Shirley Jackson and President Barack Obama
NICHOLAS KAMM, AFP/Getty Images

Much of the technology behind how we communicate today was made easier by advancements that Dr. Shirley Jackson helped create. While working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, she worked on—and helped invent—the technologies that would go into everything from fiber optics cables to fax machines, and even Caller ID. It's no surprise that Jackson was able to accomplish all of this in her career—as a student, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D in physics and the first to earn her doctorate in any subject from MIT.

17. MAURICE ASHLEY

Picture of chess champion Maurice Ashley
Tomo Saito, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Maurice Ashley was born in Jamaica and moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn when he was 12. It would be another two years before he would discover the game that would earn him a unique place in history: chess. Though his first game wasn't anything close to a success, Ashley would learn from his mistakes and study the ins and outs of his new craft, eventually becoming the first African American to be named a chess Grandmaster and the first black player ever in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

Despite chess being a spirited, respectful game, Ashley has heard his share of slurs over the years, though he would always keep forging ahead. He told the Chicago Tribune that's exactly why he likes the game, because with chess, "Your moves do the talking."

18. ALLISON DAVIS

Open research book
iStock

During the 1940s, anthropologist Dr. William Allison Davis was coming out with brilliant, pointed, and perceptive studies on race that helped illuminate the African-American struggle in the United States. In his studies, Davis would state that race and class worked as "interlocking systems of oppression" and helped point out the ineffectiveness of tools such as standardized intelligence tests when it came to assessing children of lower class.

Davis wrote numerous books on these subjects along with his wife and fellow anthropologist, Elizabeth Stubbs Davis. In the case of the I.Q. tests, Davis led groups that helped cities discard their standard formats, which he proved to be biased.

19. FRAN ROSS

A half-eaten Oreo
iStock

Though writer Fran Ross doesn't have a prolific body of work, what does exist of her all-too-short career is a glimpse into someone far ahead of her time. Her lone novel, Oreo, published in 1974, takes a hard-edged, satirical look at race as it centers on the titular Oreo, a young African-American girl who goes on a quest to New York City to find her white, Jewish father.

Ross combined timely themes, absurd humor, and shades of the mythological Greek story of Theseus to craft a story that stood out from the other, more conventional socially conscious novels of the time. Oreo didn't necessarily find success in the '70s, but it has gained something of a cult following since.

Ross's writing career didn't end there; she also contributed to magazines like Essence and Playboy, and even briefly wrote comedy for Richard Pryor. Her voice was different from the authors writing about race at the time, but that doesn't mean what Fran Ross had to say was any less profound.

20. WILBUR C. SWEATMAN

Musician playing the saxophone
iStock

There are a lot of "firsts" to check off on the resume of Wilbur C. Sweatman. He is reportedly the first musician to record a take on Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and among the first to join the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Most notably, though, he was also the first African American to receive a long-term record contract and possibly to record jazz in general.

21. LEWIS LATIMER

An incandescent light bulb
iStock

Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 to parents who had fled to Massachusetts after escaping slavery. After serving in the Civil War, Latimer taught himself technical drawing, which led to him designing a number of inventions, including a take on an air conditioner unit and a new style of bathroom for rail cars. He soon began working with Alexander Graham Bell, helping him with the drawings that would eventually be part of Bell's patent for the telephone.

Most notably, though, was Latimer's own patent for a carbon filament. Before this, Thomas Edison's light bulbs were powered with a filament made of paper, which would burn out quickly. This carbon filament would last far longer and helped popularize the bulb for average users. The patent was sold, and Latimer then patented the process to efficiently produce the filament on a large scale. His electrical and engineering know-how led to him supervising the installation of public lights throughout major cities like New York, Philadelphia, and London.

22. MARY ANN SHADD CARY

Sign of remembrance for Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Sean_Marshall, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Mary Ann Shadd Cary can sometimes get lost among the names of African-American social activists of the 19th century, but her impact is as important as anyone's. She was born in Wilmington, Delaware to a free African-American family. Her father worked for a newspaper called The Liberator, which was run by William Lloyd Garrison, a noted abolitionist who also supported the later women's suffrage movement.

In the years before the Civil War, Cary was an ardent abolitionist and eventually moved with her brother to Canada after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. She founded a newspaper there called The Provincial Freeman, making her the first black newspaper editor in North America.

She moved back to the United States during the war and became a recruiting officer for the Union in Indiana. And Cary eventually attended Harvard where she got her law degree, making her the second black woman in the country ever to do so.

23. LONNIE G. JOHNSON

You might not know the name Lonnie Johnson, but if you've ever been around a group of kids on a hot summer day, you've definitely (and probably unwillingly) felt his influence. Johnson, a former engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the man behind the infamous Super Soaker squirt gun.

The idea came to him in 1982 when he shot some pressurized streams of water across a room when he was working on a new heat pump for refrigerators. Realizing this could make for a fun squirt gun, and a new feather in his cap as a prospective inventor, Johnson said he "put the hard science stuff behind and start[ed] working on some really fun stuff."

After winning a lawsuit in 2013, Johnson was awarded underpaid royalties for his invention, netting him more than $72 million from Hasbro. Johnson's work also includes contributions to NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini probe, which studied Saturn.

24. ALEXANDER MILES

Portrait of Alexander Miles
Duluth Public Library archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before Alexander Miles invented a system for elevator doors to open and close automatically, it was up to people—either the riders themselves or an operator—to make sure the car and shaft doors were secure. And guess what? People would forget, and accidents ensued.

Miles saw the potential for danger when riding in an elevator with his young daughter, so he devised a system wherein an elevator's doors could open and close on their own, eliminating the hazard of human error. His design made it so the cage of the elevator car would trigger a mechanism that would close the door to the shaft on its own.

And, after moving to Chicago in 1899, he founded The United Brotherhood, a life insurance company that catered to an African-American population that wasn't always guaranteed coverage by other companies in the market.

25. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM

Picture of Shirley Chisholm
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm never faced a barrier she wasn't willing to break. An educator from Brooklyn, Chisholm became the first African-American woman to serve on the United States Congress, remaining in office from 1969 to 1983. While representing New York's 12th Congressional District, she founded the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women's Political Caucus, and served on the Education and Labor Committee, all while exclusively staffing her office with women.

And while that's enough of a career for any successful politician, Chisholm's most high-profile work came when she decided to be the first woman to run for president as a Democrat in 1972.

On January 25, 1972, she made a speech outside of the U.S. Capitol, proclaiming:

"I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I'm not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests.

"I stand here now without endorsements from many big-name politicians or celebrities or any kind of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib cliches which have for too long been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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