The Secret Talents of 17 Historical Greats

By D.G. Hewitt

Thanks to the work of historians, both amateur and professional, we now know almost every single detail of the lives of the great men and women of years past. Or at least we think we do. In reality, many great figures had hidden talents, things they did on the side. Sometimes these were simply hobbies, or sometimes they were much more than this. Indeed, in some cases, politicians might have enjoyed alternative careers in the arts so gifted were they. Similarly, some of the greatest artists of all time might have excelled as scientists or as musicians had they chosen a different path in life.

Sometimes, such talents weren’t always ‘hidden’. So, for instance, in his day, one of America’s greatest Presidents was celebrated for his dancing skills, but nowadays is almost wholly remembered for his political accomplishments. Similarly, Romantic composers who were once feted as chess greats are now only remembered for the music they left behind. By overlooking such talents, we fail to see the full picture and get a full understanding of what made such people who they really were.

So, from foxtrotting Founding Fathers through to bomber-fighting Hollywood icons, here we reveal the hidden talents of 17 figures from the past:

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was a huge chess fan, even if he had few opponents. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Benjamin Franklin had many skills and interests outside of politics, including chess, a game he excelled at and brought to the United States.

In December of 1786, The Colombian Magazine enjoyed its best month ever. The edition featured an essay by Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a true national celebrity. Entitled The Morals of Chess, the essay was Franklin’s thoughts on the game he loved – and had been playing for more than 50 years. The magazine article is widely-regarded as the first text about chess to be published in the United States and to this day it’s still in print and cited as an influence by chess players and politicians alike.

Quite how skilled Franklin was at chess has been – and continues to be – the source of much debate. Undoubtedly, he had a passion for the game, which he had first played whilst on one of his many visits to Europe. However, a lack of opponents in America meant that he rarely got to play the game he loved, meaning he was sometimes easily beaten by players who had more practise. Nevertheless, as his famous essay shows, Franklin learned a lot from the game. Above all, he credited his hobby with teaching him the virtues of patience and planning ahead, things he would use to his advantage in the world of politics.