50 famous firsts from science history
In 17th-century London, studying science had little to do with lab experiments. Instead, it meant using the methods of the ancient Greeks, like Plato and Aristotle and coming to scientific truth through discussions and arguments. Francis Bacon, an English politician and philosopher, didn’t buy this. Instead, he believed that to learn about the real world, scientific thinkers needed evidence.
In 1620, he published “Novum Organum,” detailing what’s now called the scientific method. The scientific method—which involves forming predictions and hypotheses, testing them, watching what happens, and drawing conclusions—has led to modern scientific discoveries.
But Bacon wasn’t the first to realize that science requires evidence, and like all supposed firsts in science, work from earlier thinkers helped Bacon reach his conclusions. Even if the ancients did not always adhere to a strict scientific method, throughout history, people have made observations, tested predictions, and drawn conclusions about their surroundings. Historians have found evidence from as early as 1600 B.C. showing that the Egyptians practiced some elements of science, refining surgical techniques and learning about the mechanics of the human body.
These discoveries and scientific milestones, like Bacon’s, were not discrete or purely original “firsts.” Typically, years, if not decades or centuries, of work leads to a discovery or specific “first,” like the 30 years of experiments and more years of theorizing that led to the discovery of a fundamental particle in physics, the Higgs boson.
With this in mind, Stacker compiled a list of 50 famous science firsts from throughout recorded history using scientific reports, historical records, and news articles. These discoveries and breakthroughs, listed in order of their occurrence, shaped the work of future scientists and the lives of generations to come.
While these 50 firsts all represent influential milestones, it should be noted that science history has paid much more attention to Western achievements, leaving others—especially the accomplishments of non-Western science figures, women, and minorities—unrecognized.
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1600 B.C.: First description of surgical techniques
The Edwin Smith Papyrus, named for the antiquities dealer who bought it, is a medical text from ancient Egypt written around 1600 B.C. It contains the oldest description of surgical techniques and scientific writings. Translations show that the writers had a detailed understanding of anatomy and physiology.
1500 B.C.: First mention of a heliocentric model of the solar system
The first recorded mention of the idea that Earth orbits the sun comes from ancient India. Written around 1500 B.C., Vedic hymns reference a heliocentric model of the solar system. About a thousand years later, Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos introduced this idea to the West, though it failed to take hold. And about a thousand years after that, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory concerning the heliocentric model in the 16th century, and he is often credited with this discovery.
610 B.C. to 546 B.C.: First person to propose the idea of evolution
Anaximander, a Greek scholar who lived between 610 B.C. 546 B.C., was the first to propose the idea of evolution. He reasoned that human infants need too much nursing and support from mothers, and would never have survived on their own on early Earth. Instead, he proposed that other, self-supporting animals came to be first, and humans must have come from those ancestors.
129 A.D. to 200 A.D.: First person to acknowledge the brain’s role in thinking
The Greek physician, Galen, was one of the first to suggest that the brain is the seat of human thought. Before that, people believed the heart controlled thought.
1021: First correct model of vision
Ibn al-Haytham lived in what is now southern Iraq, and was one of the earliest scientists, learning about the world through observations and experiments. He published the "Book of Optics," in which he outlined laws of refraction and the correct model of vision, showing that the eyes see because objects reflect light rays. Previously, in the second century, the Egyptian astronomer and mathematician, Ptolemy, suggested that the eyes radiate light rays.
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1088: Discovery of true north
In 1088, Shen Kuo, Chinese astronomer and government official, published a series of essays documenting his discovery of true north. The magnetized needle of a compass doesn't point directly north. Instead, because of the magnetic field generated by the Earth's swirling, metal core, it points either slightly east or west of north, depending on the field’s position at the time. Kuo was the first to determine this declination, or the difference between magnetic north and true north, which laid the foundation for the study of geomagnetism.
1268: First recorded mention of optical lenses
The first recorded mention of optical lenses came from English philosopher Roger Bacon. While this is the first recorded mention, historians know that people in both Europe and China were already using reading glasses by then. These first lenses eventually led to the development of the telescope and further advances in optics.
1609: First person to see the moon’s surface
In 1609, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei became the first to see the moon for what it is: an imperfect, unevenly pitted rock. Most people believed that the moon was a perfect sphere, and Galileo's observation challenged the idea that God created the heavens to be perfect. This was just one of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries that angered the Catholic Church.
1628: First person to describe the circulatory system
Before the discovery of circulation, people believed a 1,400-year-old theory proposed by Galen: the liver constantly produced blood, which then traveled to the bodily tissues before the body consumed it all. English physician William Harvey was skeptical, and after conducting experiments—including collecting data from blood draws and animal and human dissections—he showed that Galen's theories were impossible. Harvey observed beating hearts in animals and calculated the volume of blood that moves through the body every hour, showing that the body could not replenish this much blood regularly, as Galen proposed.
1661: First person to define chemical elements
Robert Boyle, an Oxford University chemist, was the first to define chemical elements and their properties. He observed that while most substances can break down into simpler components, a chemical element, like hydrogen, can't be broken down further. This definition is still taught in chemistry classrooms today.
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