A Brief History of Brave Thinking

Since 1857, The Atlantic has presented some of America’s most provocative thinkers, people with the bravery to challenge convention or imagine the future. Plenty have been prescient, and more than a few have been proved wrong—but time and again, they’ve inspired us all to think for ourselves.

As We May Think (July 1945)
by Vannevar Bush
As head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Bush oversaw the military’s technological advancement during World War II. Afterward, he turned his attention to a litany of new projects, including one aimed at making voluminous stores of information more accessible. In this visionary article, Bush proposes a curious device that resembles what is now the Internet.

American Civilization (April 1862)
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
One year after the start of the Civil War, Emerson, a co-founder of The Atlantic, issued a vehement call to free the slaves—predicting that the world would take notice of the statesman with the courage to “break through the cobwebs” of fear and do so. Within a year, President Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Women Must Weep (May and June 1938)
by Virginia Woolf
As war brewed in Europe, the British novelist responded to a letter urging “daughters of educated men” to join in opposition to the conflict. Her surprising retort called for fair wages for women—not just to advance equality, but to hasten the fighting’s end.

Glandular Activity and Feminine Talent (June 1926)
by Faith Fairfield
Rebuffing a piece published two months earlier, Fairfield dismissed the popular notion that women are biologically inferior to men. Real societal barriers—not then-supposed differences in the endocrine system—were the reason women were held back, Fairfield argued.

Broken Windows (March 1982)
by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson
In a piece that had far-reaching effects on law enforcement, Kelling and Wilson took aim at policing techniques that were quietly endangering communities. The changes they called for—putting more officers on the streets, empowering them to combat the conditions that cause lawlessness—were credited with sharp declines in urban crime nationwide.

The American Forests (August 1897)
by John Muir
In decrying the destruction of woodlands by loggers, settlers, and industrialists, Muir, the father of America’s conservation movement, advanced the notion that natural resources ought to be preserved—an idea that spawned vast new parks as well as the creation of the U.S. Forest Service.

The Ethics of Animal Experimentation (September 1926)
by John Dewey
Dewey, the philosopher and social reformer, argued that experimenting on animals in the interest of medical advancement is not merely a right but a duty.

Catholic and Patriot (May 1927)
by Alfred E. Smith
As a presidential candidate who would become the first Catholic nominated by a major party, the New York governor responded to charges that he would be unable to reconcile his faith with his duties in the White House. Though he lost the race, his admonition against religious division blazed a path for John F. Kennedy, a fellow Catholic, and was invoked again this year as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, pursued the presidency.

Mars (May, June, July, and August 1895)
by Percival Lowell
As telescopes brought Earth’s planetary neighbors into closer view, Lowell, an astronomer, proffered a bold theory about the nature of faint lines glimpsed on the surface of the Red Planet. They were, he deduced, irrigation canals built by intelligent Martian life forms. Though his colleagues were skeptical, Lowell’s conjecture helped popularize the field of astronomy, and his later work—his search for “Planet X”—paved the way for the discovery of Pluto.