History that weren't so: Myths and Misperceptions

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HISTORY THAT WEREN'T SO – Myths and Misperceptions

Mark Twain is supposedly wrote that, "it's not the things that people don't know which hurt them; it's the things they know which ain't so." (Incidentally, the quote itself could be a "weren't so;" it has been attributed to a number of people and with variable wording.) In this feature, we attempt to set the record straight on historical misperceptions, some of which have been repeated so often that they have become taken as fact. We welcome submissions from our readers debunking misperceptions they have come across

Edison's First Lightbulb

Thomas Edison did not invent the first lightbulb, nor even the first incandescent lightbulb.  He invented an incandescent lightbulb which was reliable, long-lasting, and manufacturable.  Edison's first lightbulb is not viewable in any museum, however.  It was broken up in the laboratory in order to find out what had made it work so well.

Heinrich Hertz's Burial Place

The name of Heinrich Hertz is widely known in the history of science and engineering—he was the first to demonstrate experimentally the production and detection of the electromagnetic waves predicted by James Clerk Maxwell, and, as a result, the unit of frequency—cycles per second— is named the Hertz (Hz) in his honor. In 1987, when IEEE wanted to establish an award in the field of radio waves, it named it the Heinrich Hertz Medal. Hertz was born in Hamburg in 1857 to a father from a wealthy, educated and incredibly successful family that had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism a generation before. Heinrich’s mother was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. So it is no surprise that after a nomadic academic life, when he died (tragically young, at the age of 37), Hertz’s body was returned to Hamburg and buried in the main Protestant Ohlsdorf cemetery (which today bills itself as the largest cemetery in the world).
A figure as important as Hertz is of course going to be well represented on the World Wide Web. But wait…when you Google him you will find that almost all sites that mention the disposition of his body claim he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg…a cultural impossibility as well as just plain wrong (several sites, such as Wikipedia and the IEEE Virtual Museum, do not mention what happened after his death). Someone must have once posted the idea (how they thought it up, who knows?), and other sites blindly copies without checking the facts themselves. Ironically, a trip to the library for an authoritative print biography would not have been necessary. Clever use of the Web itself would have turned up the Ohlsdorf cemetery’s list of its famous occupants which includes the entry “Hertz, Prof. Heinrich Rudolf, 1857 – 1894, Physiker, Q24, Q25 (53-58).”