I have an old and dear friend* who asked me to ask my new and equally dear friends the following question: who’s the most important — meaning influential, as in, could play the lead in the book or movie version of, [Insert Name]: And How S/he Changed America** — historical figure about whom most people know nothing?

Well friends, what say you? I suggested James Eads, a nineteenth-century engineer who invented and built: a diving-bell(ish) device that allowed him to walk on the bed of the Mississippi; salvage boats with which he pulled wrecks from the bottom of the same river; gunboats that helped the Union Navy control the same river (are you detecting a theme?) during the Civil War; a bridge in St. Louis that spanned the same river (okay, now you’re getting it, right?); and jetties that solved the problem of silting at the mouth of the same river (don’t make me hit you over the head).

James Buchanan Eads is someone about whom many specialists — historians of science and technology, for example — know a great deal. But most adult general readers***** would not have heard of him. And honestly, the fact that there hasn’t been a good Eads biography ever is at least a little bit stunning. But whatever.

So who’s your James Eads? Seriously. I’m genuinely curious. As is my friend. Do you know who invented the grape? Or made Hitler famous? Or changed the way we think about towels? Don’t be shy. Spill. Tell us all about it. Step up, people.

* No, I’m not making said friend up. Unlike my other old and dear friend who has this persistent rash. What should I he do about that, while we’re on the subject? Seriously, is there an ointment or something? He’s really itchy.

** A book for which an author receives a large*** advance and then earns out on said advance after book climbs to #3**** on the NYT Non-fiction bestseller list

*** How large? That’s not really your business, is it? Back away from the blog.

**** We shouldn’t be unrealistic, right? So let’s stick with #3. Anything more than that would be quite unlikely. And also greedy. We’re not greedy here. Really.

***** This is, if you don’t already know, a desirable market to reach. As in: $$$.