This year has been a year of firsts for many of us. There’s been a global pandemic that literally stopped the world and forced us into a new normal with face masks, social distancing, and heaped amounts of hand sanitizer.

In the arts, Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Motion Picture at the Oscars. Not forgetting the feat that America is on the verge of having its first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person as vice president. 2020 has been jampacked with highs, lows but plenty of firsts. It made me wonder about other firsts in history and the excitement, or fear, people must have felt.

So here’s a list of firsts in history, including some bad-ass women and people of color who defied their status quo. 

1. The first person to run a marathon.

Statue of Pheidippides.
[Image Description: Statue of Pheidippides. ] Via Finding Dulcinea
The story behind the modern marathon follows the legend of an ancient Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who raced about 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of an important Greek victory over an army of Persians in 490 B.C. After making this announcement, he collapsed and died. To commemorate this run, the 1896 Olympic marathon was set to the same distance.

2. The first planet discovered by telescope.

A picture of Uranus through a modern telescope.
[Image description: A picture of Uranus through a modern telescope.] Via Science Museum
As the other planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were all bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, Uranus is arguably the first planet to be ‘discovered’. In 1781, Sir William Herschel found Uranus through his observations in his telescope, which he initially thought was a star and later a comet due to its proximity to Earth. 

3. The first beauty pageant.

A portrait of P.T. Barnum.
[Image Description: A portrait of P.T. Barnum.] Via Racked
The first modern beauty pageant was staged by P.T. Barnum in 1854. It didn’t last long due to public protest and outrage. Instead of holding live pageants, he advertised for women to submit daguerrotypes of themselves for judgment.

4. The first heart transplant.

A photograph of the first heart transplant.
[Image Description: A photograph of the first heart transplant.] Via Popular Mechanics
In South Africa in 1967, Christiaan Barnard with his team performed the first human-to-human heart transplant. The patient was given drugs to suppress his immune system so that his body wouldn’t reject the heart. Unfortunately, this left him vulnerable to sickness, and 18 days later he passed away from double pneumonia. Although the new heart functioned normally until his death. 

5. The first birth control clinic.

Margaret Sanger with other women at the first birth control clinic.
[Image Description: Margaret Sanger with other women at the first birth control clinic.] Via Times
Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in 1916 in New York. At the time birth control and abortion were still illegal in the US, and the circulation of information on both the topics was considered obscene and illegal. The clinic was open for ten days as it was found guilty of violating the Comstock Act, and as a result, shut down. Margaret was also arrested for “maintaining a public nuisance.” Sounds like a queen to me. 

6. The first form of modern currency.

The first ever minted coins from Lydia.
[Image Description: The first ever minted coins from Lydia.] Via Coinweek
In 600 B.C., King Alyattes of Lydia minted the first official currency. The coins were made from electrum, a naturally-occurring mixture of silver and gold, and stamped with pictures that acted as denominations. 

7. The first selfie.

The first selfie by Robert Cornelius.
[Image Description: The first selfie by Robert Cornelius. ] Via The Public Domain Review
Robert Cornelius took a picture of himself in 1893, at the back of his family’s store in Philadelphia. He set up the camera and ran into the frame for the self-portrait. The picture clearly shows the man knew his angles.

8. The first mini-skirt.

Ancient figurines wearing short skirts and bracelets.
[Image Description: Ancient figurines wearing short skirts and bracelets.] Via Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog
I know you might be thinking Mary Quant in the 1960s invented the mini-skirt but it turns out that mini-skirts have a more ancient origin. Archaeologists have unearthed figurines in Europe from between 5400 to 4700 B.C. dressed in mini-skirts with short tops and bracelets. 

9. The first discovered human fossil.

The firAncient figurines wearing short skirts and discovered Neanderthal skull.
[Image Description: Ancient figurines wearing short skirts and bracelets.] Via Natural History Museum
In 1848, the first Neanderthal skull was discovered in a quarry in Gibraltar. At first, its significance wasn’t recognized until years later when it was named a new species of human, Homo neanderthalensis.

10. The first woman to receive a medical degree.

A picture of Elizabeth Blackwell.
[Image Description: A picture of Elizabeth Blackwell.] Via Smithsonian Magazine
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree at Geneva Medical College in New York. It is said that Elizabeth was inspired to become a doctor after a dying friend told her that her sickness was made worse by the fact that all the doctors were men. An experience I think, almost any woman can relate to. 

11. The first food cooked in a microwave.

A bowl of popcorn in front of a microwave.
[Image Description: A bowl of popcorn in front of a microwave.] Via Mashed
The first food deliberately cooked in a microwave is exactly what you would expect. Popcorn! Microwaves were invented for magnetron tubes used for short-range military radar during World War II. It allowed enemy aircrafts to be detected by the British. The inventor, Percy Spencer, mistakenly realized food could be heated in a microwave when a peanut bar in his pocket began to melt and cook as he stood close to the tubes. Curiously, he asked for a bag of popcorn and tested what would happen. His suspicions were correct, and popcorn became the first food deliberately cooked in a microwave. 

12. The first woman to be granted a motorcycle license.

Sally Halterman on a motorcycle.
[Image Description: Sally Halterman on a motorcycle.] Via Pinterest
Sally Halterman was the first woman to be granted a motorcycle license in Washington, D.C. in 1937. Despite a motorcycle of that time being four times her size, she was determined to earn her motorcycle license despite the pushback from authorities. 

13. The first cellphone.

Martin Cooper with his invention - the first cell phone.
[Image Description: Martin Cooper with his invention – the first cell phone.] Via Mobiles Street
Motorola built the first working prototype for the first cell phone in the 1970s. The phone weighed about 2 pounds and only worked for 30 minutes of calling after a ten-hour charge. 

14. The first YouTube video.

The first YouTube video was uploaded on April 23, 2005, by YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim. It is an 18-second video titled, “Me at the zoo”. It has since garnered over 122 million views. 

15. The first woman to receive a pilot’s license.

Raymonde de Laroche on a plane.
{Image Description: Raymonde de Laroche on a plane.] Via Scandinavian Traveler

In 1910, Raymonde de Laroche became the first woman to receive a pilot’s license. She further set two women’s altitude records and the women’s distance records at the time.

16. The first woman to publish a book.

A statue of Julian of Norwich.
[Image Description: A statue of Julian of Norwich.] Via Wikipedia
During the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich wrote the first book written in English by a woman to get published called, Revelations of Divine Love

17. The first Black artist to win a Grammy.

A photograph of Ella Fitzgerald.
[Image Description: A photograph of Ella Fitzgerald.] Via Biography
The first Grammy awards were held on May 4, 1959. The same night, the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, took home two awards – Best Vocal Performance, Female and Best Jazz Vocal Performance. 

18. The first Black actor to win an Academy Award.

Hattie McDaniel with her Oscar award.
[Image Description: Hattie McDaniel with her Oscar award.] Via Pinterest
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. This may seem like a beautiful win until you find out that at the time, The Ambassador Hotel had a strict “no-blacks” policy, and a special request had to be granted so that Hattie was allowed into the building. She sat at a small, segregated table away from the rest of her white co-stars.

19. The first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

A photograph of Wangari Maathai.
[Image Description: A photograph of Wangari Maathai.] Via Nobel Prize
In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. She was also the first female scholar in East and Central Africa to take a doctorate in biology, and the first female professor in her home in Kenya. 

20. The first African-American woman to refuse to give up her seat for a white passenger on a bus.

A photograph of a young Claudette Colvin.
[Image Description: A photograph of a young Claudette Colvin.] Via BBC
Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, thus defying segregation laws in 1955. However, it was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who did the same nine months earlier. It is believed that her story was not popular because Civil Rights leaders thought that she was not the right person to be a symbol. Rosa Parks was an adult who had the right look and hair, ie. she was lighter in complexion with good hair. 

21. The first BIPOC to serve as the US vice president.

A photograph of Charles Curtis.
[Image Description: A photograph of Charles Curtis.] Via Britannica
In 1928, Charles Curtis was elected as Herbet Hoover’s vice president. Charles was born to a white father and a quarter Native American mother, he is also a member of the Kaw Nation. However, his politics were problematic. He sponsored the Curtis Law of 1898 as a congressman, which did little to protect Native American land. It helped to weaken and dissolve Native American tribal governments by abolishing tribal courts, while also giving Native American people the ability to vote

As the year comes to an end and we continue to make history in all facets of life, let’s be daring and brave to be the firsts in history. Everyone once was met with obstacles and doubts, but this list truly shows the power of our actions and our intent. Just a little courage is all it takes to be a part of something historical and great.

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  • Tamia Adolph

    Tamia Adolph is a writer and journalist, who writes poetry and fiction writing under the pseudonym, Imogene Mist. She is the founder of a mental health awareness organization called #MeTooButImStillHere, which aims to advocate for mental illness in Africa. She holds a BA in Journalism and BA (Honours) in English Literature. Currently, she is completing her Masters in English Literature. Her passions include musicals, environmentalism, and all forms of art.