Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays

D.G. Hewitt - October 2, 2018

Throughout human history, child prodigies have fascinated us. Youngsters who are wise beyond their years, or who exhibit extraordinary levels of skill or talent that adults could only dream of possessing. There’s also something uniquely fascinating about children in positions of power, whether it’s boy kings or teens who inherit whole regimes when the rest of their peers are still studying.

In some cases, such children pay a high price for their genius. They often burn out or break down. Very rarely do they go on to achieve great things as an adult as well. But sometimes, they cope admirably with their talents or power, showing wisdom well beyond their years. So, from boy kings and pharaohs to young men who revolutionized music, math and warfare before they even turned 16, here we have 20 of the most notable teenagers in history.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Joan of Arc was a peasant girl who claimed she had visions from God to save France. Smithsonian Magazine.

1. Joan of Arc was just a teenage peasant girl, but she persuaded the King to let her lead his troops into battle

The ‘Maid of Orleans’, Joan of Arc was just 19 when she was burned alive in May 1431. By this point, however, she was a military veteran. Despite her young years, she was a fearsome soldier and a true leader. Indeed, the fact that grown men and seasoned warriors were willing to follow a teenage peasant girl into battle is testament to her bravery and charisma. To this day, Joan of Arc is a national heroine in France and proof that age is no barrier to courage.

She was born into a peasant family in a small village in north-east France in 1412. As a young girl, Joan claims to have seen visions of Archangel Michael and several saints. They all instructed her to help France’s deposed king, Charles VII, in his battle against the English. People believed that she was indeed receiving divine guidance and Joan slowly built up a following. Aged just 16, she convinced the king’s followers to grant her an audience with the monarch. There, she accurately predicted that the French would be routed – against the odds – at the Battle of Rouvray. When this turned out to be true, Charles too believed the teen to be something special.

Joan requested that she be allowed to lead the French Army and break the siege of Orleans. With nothing to lose, the king agreed. Aged just 16 or 17, Joan, with her head shaved and dressed in male military gear, successfully lifted the siege after just nine days. Joan swiftly became a national hero. What’s more, she transformed what was once a political war between two royal houses into a religious struggle. This inspired the French and the precocious teen enjoyed several more military victories before she was captured in May 1430.

She was tried by the English and burned at the stake in May 1431. Joan was just 19 at the time of her death. Three decades later, Pope Callixtus III looked into her case and declared that she was a Catholic martyr. Then, in 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint. While historians remain divided on her abilities as a military leader, and while some elements of her story are often exaggerated or even simply made-up, she remains a true French icon and one of the most famous teenagers in history.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Mozart was performing his own compositions before European royalty by the age of 12.

2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is possibly the ultimate child genius, writing his own operas and symphonies before he even hit his teens

The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is often held up as the ultimate child genius. And for good reason. He was a piano and violin virtuoso from an early age and famously penned his first composition at the age of just five. What’s more, he was a genuine celebrity before he hit his teens, giving royal performances at the age of 12. Indeed, though he died at the age of 35, he fitted more into his short life than most people might manage in a century.

Born Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart in the Austrian city of Salzburg in January 1756, his father was a violinist for the city. He was also a composer, albeit not a very successful one. The young Mozart first showed an interest in music while watching his elder sister take piano lessons at the family home. Before long, he was learning to play himself and his prodigious talent was evident straight away. According to some historians, he was composing pieces by the age of four or five. Along with his sister Nanneri, he was soon traveling Europe and giving performances as a child genius. While on the road, he met J.S. Bach, gained a reputation as a musician of merit and even wrote his first symphony at the age of just eight. Financial success eluded him, however.

At 17, Mozart settled down. He was employed as a court musician in his home city of Salzburg but soon grew tired of it. Instead, he devoted himself to composing. In all, he wrote more than 600 pieces of work, including operas and several symphonies. While celebrating the opening of one of his operas in Prague, he fell ill. Though he made it home, Mozart died in December 1791 at the age of just 35. Due to his financial circumstances, he was buried in a common, unmarked grave. He remains, however, probably the most famous and celebrated classical music composer of all time, with many of the works he wrote before the age of 16 performed regularly by the world’s finest orchestras to this day.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Braille was just 15 when he invented the system of reading that still bears his name. Wikipedia.

3. Louis Braille didn’t let a childhood accident get him down but instead was inspired to invent a whole new language while still in his teens

As a young boy, Louis Braille was playing in his father’s workshop when he suffered a terrible accident. He was impaled in one eye and lost his sight in it. The eye also became infected and this spread to the other eye. Within a few days, he was completely blind, with no hope of regaining his sight. Since this was early-19th century France, it seemed likely that the young Louis would struggle through the rest of his life. However, he not only completed his education, he also invented a system of reading and writing that’s used by blind people right around the world to this day.

Born in a small town on the outskirts of Paris in January 1809, Braille was blind by the age of five. However, his parents did their best to give him a normal childhood. Using canes crafted by his father, he managed to explore his town and he excelled at school. Indeed, he was so bright that the local teacher and priests recommended that he study at the prestigious National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.

At the Paris school, Braille and the other students ‘read’ using books designed by their teacher. However, these consisted of nothing more than raised lettering. They were costly to produce and reading them was a slow and frustrating process. Braille was soon determined to devise a better system. Inspired by a communications system used by the French Army, he came up with his own system. The new method was completed by 1824, when Braille was just 15. Within a few years, he had published his work nationally, though his special system was not embraced until after his death.

Braille spent most of the rest of his life perfecting the system he devised as a teenager. In 1854, two years after his death, his system was adopted by the National Institute for Blind Youth. After that, it spread rapidly through the French-speaking world and then through the wider world. While the technology used for producing braille scripts may have evolved, the system used by blind people today remains largely unchanged from that devised by the innovative teen a century ago.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
King Tut was a sickly child who became Egypt’s most famous ruler. Wikipedia.

4. Tutankhamen ruled over Egypt from the age of nine, leading the ancient kingdom to war and transforming its religious beliefs

Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen, or ‘King Tut’, is probably the most famous child ruler of all time. He ascended to the throne of Egypt in the year 1333 BC when he was aged just nine or 10. He reigned as the absolute ruler of all of Egypt for nine years until his untimely death in 1323. Since he died without a male heir, his demise sparked a crisis of succession – one of the reasons we know so much about this one ruler – and the reason for his death remains a mystery to this day. What cannot be doubted, however, is that Tutankhamen was one of the most powerful teenagers who ever lived.

Little is known about King Tut’s early life, and only a little more is known about his years in power. It is known, for example, that, upon assuming control of Egypt, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun. The couple tried to start a family, but both of their daughters were stillborn. However, historians are divided on the matter of whether King Tut was all-powerful or, due to his young age, relied on a close circle of advisors to rule. Either way, under him, Egyptian society changed significantly.

Under Tutankhamun, the worship of the god Aten was brought to an end. Instead, Tut ordered his people to worship Amun instead. The boy king oversaw numerous ambitious construction projects, mainly temples for the various gods and goddesses. Perhaps more importantly, he also worked hard to build bridges with Egypt’s neighboring kingdoms, though he was also ready to use force against them. Indeed, Egypt fought numerous battles during his brief reign, even if Tutankhamun’s physical weaknesses meant it’s unlikely he went to war himself.

Quite why Tut died before the age of 20 continues to be the source of much scholarly debate. Some argue that he died after a chariot accident, others maintain he was assassinated. Regardless, immediately after his death, Tutankhamen was venerated, and a cult grew up around him. His tomb, famously discovered in the 1920s, added to his legacy as one of Egypt’s greatest rulers, and one of the most important teenagers in world history.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Isabella II was completely unfit to rule Spain and finally gave up the throne. Wikipedia.

5. Isabella II was a lazy, moody teenage girl who just happened to be the Queen of Spain

Queen Isabella II ascended to the throne of Spain when she was just an infant. She would rule for 36 years, even if during the first few of these, power lay in the hands of a regent. When she did finally assume full control of the country herself, she was still a teen and singularly unfit for the job. Indeed, Isabella II’s reign was one of unrest, intrigue and turmoil, and the whole of Spain undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when she finally abdicated.

When King Ferdinand VII died in 1833, his daughter, Isabella assumed the crown. This was despite the fact that she was only a three-year-old child. From the very start, her status was fiercely contested. Her uncle, Don Carlos, believed he was the rightful heir to Ferdinand’s crown and his followers, the Carlists, agreed. The dispute led to an all-out civil war that would drag on for seven bloody years. Through it all, Isabella enjoyed a pampered upbringing while her mother ruled in her place – and made herself extremely rich in the process.

When Isabella turned 13, she was declared of age and assumed the full powers and responsibilities of the throne. According to most accounts, she was ill-educated, ignorant and, though cheerful, often lazy. Her marriage to the impotent hypochondriac Prince Francisco de Asis was a huge failure. Isabella took many lovers and rumors of her incompetence and infidelity spread throughout Spain and the rest of Europe. Nevertheless, with the support of the Spanish Army, she held onto power for three decades.

Eventually, the generals who were once loyal to her, including her favorite lover, abandoned her. In 1868, Isabella II abdicated the throne in favor of her son, himself still a teenager. She moved to France and lived in exile until her death in 1902. These days, her reign is seen as one of scandal, intrigue and decadence, with the teenage queen often pictured as vain, stupid, overweight and incapable of doing the job she inherited at such an early age.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Ivan was a most terrible teen, raping and robbing before proclaiming himself Tsar. Wikipedia.

6. Ivan the Terrible declared himself the Emperor of all of Russia at the age of just 16, and he was just getting started

At the age of just 16, Ivan IV of Russia, better known as Ivan the Terrible, declared himself Emperor (or Tsar) of all Russia. This meant that he wielded absolute power. And, despite being still a teen, he was not afraid to use it. Under him, Russia was transformed from an inward-looking Medieval state into a true empire. This was despite the fact that Ivan was indeed as ‘terrible’ as his moniker suggests, and his bad behavior started while he was still a young boy.

Born in Moscow in 1530, Ivan was just three years old when his father, Vasili III died. In accordance with the deceased ruler’s wishes, Ivan was named Grand Prince of Moscow and was destined to assume full power when he came of age. For a few years, Ivan’s mother ruled as his regent. But then, when her son was just eight, she was murdered with poison. The regency was then swapped between different noble families, while young Ivan grew up. By all accounts, he was an intelligent yet cruel boy. For instance, while he would read widely and study hard, he would also throw dogs and cats from the palace walls to see them suffer. As he grew older, he would also find joy in raising peasant villages, attacking poor men and raping their women.

At the age of 16, Ivan finally came of age. Rather than carrying on the tradition of ruling as Grand Duke of Moscow, he declared himself the Tsar of all of Russia, fashioning himself after the Caesars of ancient Rome. From the start, he was ruthless in keeping his rivals down. His cruelty was infamous. Enemies, real of imagined, would be hung, boiled alive or fed to packs of dogs. Obviously, it worked. When he died in 1584 at the age of 53, it was from banging his head on a stone floor after falling off a chair rather than being assassinated.

According to most historians’ assessments, Ivan never really matured as a leader after assuming total power while still a teenager. His economic policies almost ruined Russia, while his aggressive foreign policies cost countless lives. Today, however, some Russians still admire him, and some have even suggested he was not only a fine leader but also a saint.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Alexander achieved his greatness while still a boy in Macedon. Wikimedia Commons.

7. Alexander the Great had already set up his own colony and named a city after himself by the time he hit 16

When King Phillip II of Macedon died in 336BC, his son Alexander inherited the throne. The new ruler was just 20. However, by that age, he had already proven himself ambitious, as well as a wily political operator and a skilled military commander. In fact, Alexander was already well on the way to becoming ‘great’ by the time he turned 16. Without a doubt, he was one of the most remarkable teenagers in human history.

Born in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, in 356BC, Alexander enjoyed the finest education imaginable. He was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle and also schooled in the art of war by his father’s finest generals. At the age of 16, his classical education was over. Alexander was deemed ready to take control of his father’s kingdom. While Philip II waged war against Byzantion, his son was left in charge to rule at home. Far from keeping things steady, however, the teenager ruler took a more-proactive approach. He crushed a Thracian uprising and then conquered their territory. He colonized it with Greece and even established a new city which he called, appropriately enough, Alexandropolis.

When Phillip returned home and took a new wife, Alexander’s status as heir came under threat. He left Macedon with his mother for a few months. However, he skillfully negotiated his way back and, within six months, he was back where he belonged. So, when Philip was assassinated at a family wedding, Alexander was ready to assume control. He stepped up to the throne aged just 20 and the rest is history. He would go on to conquer almost all of the known world, establishing dozens of new cities, revolutionizing warfare and spreading Greek culture throughout large parts of Asia.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Barbara Rose Johns was still a teenager when she made a stand against bigotry in 1950s America. Moton Museum.

8. Barbara Rose Johns led a student strike in 1954, a landmark event in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that ‘separate but equal’ public schools – that is, schools where pupils of different colors were kept apart – were unconstitutional. This was a landmark moment in the Civil Rights movement and a major victory for campaigners for equality. And few activists played a greater role than that played by Barbara Rose John Powell. She was just a teenager when she joined the struggle and 16 when she led a student strike for equal education at her Virginia school. Not for nothing is she cited as one of the bravest and most notable figures in the whole history of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Johns was born in New York City in 1935. Her uncle was Vernon Johns, a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement. He inspired his young niece to study black history and through him she developed a passion for equality. So when Johns realized that her all-black school in Farmville, Prince Edward County, had fewer resources than the whites-only school in the same town, she was determined to take action. In April 1951, she led a strike, having convinced her fellow students to join her in her affirmative action. The strike got the attention of the NAACP and the organization agreed to make it part of their wider struggle for full integration.

Led by Johns, the students filed the Davis v. Prince Edward County case, which would form part of a bigger case brought before the Supreme Court. Since this was the only case in the larger initiative that was started by a student, many regard it as the starting point of the Civil Rights Movement that would grow and grow during the 1950s and 1960s. As such, Johns, as a true pioneer, making an invaluable contribution to the movement for equality at the age of just 16.

Her accomplishment is even more remarkable given the risks she took. For leading the student revolt, Johns was subjected to abuse by the KKK, with a burning cross erected outside her family home. Johns moved to Montgomery, Alabama, married and raised a family. She worked as a school librarian right up until her death in 1991.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
The second-ever Medal of Honor was awarded to a 13-year-old drummer boy. Wikipedia.

9. Willie Johnston was not even 14 when he won the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the American Civil War

William H. Johnson was not old enough to carry a gun. Since he was not yet 14 years old when he saw action in the American Civil War, he was a drummer boy. His job was to keep playing his drum, keeping the Union Army troops in check and communicating commands across the chaotic battlefield, no matter what. And he did just this. Indeed, he did it in the face of such adversity that Johnston was awarded the Medal of Honor at the age of just 13, making him the youngest-ever recipient of America’s highest and most prestigious military decoration.

Johnston’s act of supreme bravery occurred during the Seven Day Battles of the Peninsula Campaign. He was a drummer boy for D Company of the 3rd Vermont Infantry, the same company his father had enlisted in. According to the records, he signed up when he was just 11 and no more than ‘five feet tall’, and as the Civil War unfolded, he saw action at Eltham’s Landing and the Battle of Williamsburg. Then, on June 28, 1862, D Company became involved in a skirmish at the Battle of Savage’s Station. It was, all the history books agree, a rout. Around one in six Union soldiers were killed or wounded. Many dropped their guns and fled. But Johnston kept on drumming his orders.

When D Company reconvened on the parade ground one week later, Johnston was the only drummer still with his drum. According to legend, President Abraham Lincoln was present that day on the parade ground and learned of the drummer boy’s bravery. True or not, Secretary of War Edwin B. Stanton certainly heard all about it and it was he who approved the Medal of Honor citation. Johnston was only the second person to win the award and remains the youngest-ever recipient.

Johnston saw out the rest of the war serving as a nurse. That was the end of his military career. The records show he tried – and failed – to get into the West Point military academy. After that, relatively little is known about his life. He moved to Massachusetts and raised a family. It’s believed he died in 1941 at the grand old age of 95, though the exact details of his death, as well as his resting place, remain unconfirmed.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Blaise Pascal was banned from studying math as a child but soon became a true genius. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Blaise Pascal taught himself math as a young boy and then went on to invent the world’s earliest calculator at the age of just 15

When Blaise Pascal was a young boy, his tax collector father banned him from studying mathematics. A keen mathematician himself, Etienne Pascal believed that, if his son started learning about numbers, he would love them so much that he wouldn’t be able to focus on learning Latin and Greek. Of course, this only made young Pascal even more curious. He would study math on his own and in private. He even started to work out geometry, giving his own names to terms and concepts. When his father found out about his secret studies, he couldn’t stay mad for long. After all, his young son was quite obviously a genius.

At the age of 12, then, Pascal Junior would accompany his father to lectures and seminars at the local mathematical institute. As well as learning from his elders, the precocious boy also worked on theories of his own. At the age of 16, he published a significant treatise on the subject of projective geometry. The paper had a huge impact within the academic community, both in France and throughout Europe. That its author was largely self-taught and still a teenager made it all the more remarkable.

Alongside his interest in geometry, Pascal also worked on developing a calculating machine. He hoped that such a device would help his father in his work. During his teenage years, it’s believed he built as many as 50 prototypes, some of which came to be known as ‘Pascal’s Calculators’. Though simple, they were nevertheless effective and the Frenchman is credited with being one of the first inventors of the mechanical calculator.

After his 18th birthday, Pascal’s creativity and genius started to wane. He struggled with ill health and then devoted much of his 20s and 30s to studying theology and philosophy. Pascal died in August 1622 at the age of just 39. However, the pioneering work he carried out while still a teenager ensure that he will always be remembered as one of the most important mathematicians that ever lived.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
The teenage Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was infamous for the cruelty of his reign. Wikipedia.

11. Sultan Murad IV might have been made Sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the age of 11, but he was a ruthless as a tyrant could be

Murad IV was just 11 when he became the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1623. But despite his young age, he was highly ruthless. Under him, internal stability was restored throughout the empire. What’s more, the young ruler also led his empire to war and the impact of his imperial ventures would be felt across the Caucasus for centuries. Indeed, the modern-day borders between Turkey, Iran and Iraq were largely drawn up during Muran’s reign, making him one of the most important teenagers in world history.

In the early 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was beset with intrigue and competition. Indeed, it was a palace conspiracy which overthrew Mustafa I and saw Murad installed in his place. At first, since he was just a child of 11, the Sultan’s mother was the real power behind the throne. However, from the age of 16, Murad started to assert his authority. He had his own brother-in-law executed on trumped-up charges. He also became increasingly authoritarian. Under him, alcohol, tobacco and even coffee was banned in Istanbul: being caught enjoying any of these ‘vices’ was a capital offence.

According to legend, Murad would patrol the streets of Istanbul in disguise. If he caught someone breaking the law, or even doing something he deemed offensive, he would reveal himself as the Sultan and then chop their head off on the spot. He also had a penchant for shooting arrows at innocent fishermen from the riverbanks. In the end, however, he avoided a bloody death himself. Murad IV died in 1640 at the age of just 27, most probably from cirrhosis. His dying wish that his own disabled brother be executed, thereby bringing the Ottoman line to an end, was ignored.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
By the time he reached his teens. King Oyo had been on the throne for a decade. New Vision.

12. King Oyo of Toro was crowned king before he turned four, and continues to rule over 1.5 million people

Rukirabasaija Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV made headlines around the world when he was named King Oyo in 1995. The new king was just three-and-a-years-old, making him easily the youngest monarch anywhere in the world. Since then, the young ruler has reigned over the Kingdom of Toro – one of the five traditional kingdoms located within the borders of Uganda – and has grown into a much-loved figurehead for around 1.5 million people.

It was only the sudden death of King Kaboyo that led to his infant son being crowned his successor at such a young age. The coronation took place within a matter of days. In keeping with centuries-old traditions, court officials called on the gods to strike Oyo dead if he wasn’t the genuine heir to the throne. Since the toddler was unharmed, he was named king, blessed with the blood of a freshly-slaughtered bull and presented to his people.

Of course, for the first few years of King Oyo’s reign, several regents, including his own aunt, his mother and even the President of Uganda, took on his royal duties. He was given a private education and spent several years studying in England, most notably at a prestigious international school in London.

Upon graduation, he assumed the full responsibilities of office and he now oversees a cabinet of advisers and a prime minister. Over recent years, King Oyo has set up a number of charities. However, while a modern monarch in some ways, he still adheres to tradition. His subjects are expected to gift him with livestock and even spears and they are also required to kneel before him and even kiss his feet.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
The teenage Pope is regarded as possibly the worst man to occupy the throne of St. Peter. Wikipedia.

13. Pope Benedict IX was a teenage hell raiser whose father pulled some strings to make him the head of the Catholic Church

There have been plenty of bad Popes over the centuries. But few were as un-Christian as Benedict IX. According to some accounts, he might have been as young as 14 when he assumed the Papacy, though some Church historians maintain he was 20. Either way, he was far too young, immature and devious to sit on the throne of Saint Peter. However, despite being one of the youngest popes in history, he certainly made his mark on the institution – not least because he is the only man to have ever sold the office!

Born Theophylactus of Tusculum in Rome in around 1010, Benedict was named as the head of the Catholic Church following the death of Pope John XIX, who happened to be his uncle. Benedict’s own father bribed enough Cardinals to ensure that his son got the job, and his first term began in the autumn of 1032. From the very beginning, he was inept, greedy and corrupt. He granted favors to his friends and allies and pocketed huge sums of money for himself. Unsurprisingly, the people of Rome were not too happy and, four years after taking office, he was kicked out in the face of widespread public opposition.

But that wasn’t the end of Pope Benedict IX. With the help of some well-placed allies, he returned for a second Papacy in September 1045, and then a third three years later. While he may no longer have been a teen, he was certainly no more mature. According to his successor Pope Victor III, he lived a “life as a pope so vile, so foul, so execrable that I shudder to think of it.” In the end, he gave up his Church ambitions, selling the throne of St Peter off to the highest bidder, the man who would become Gregory VI.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Was this teenage Emperor the worst ruler Rome ever had? Wikipedia.

14. Emperor Elagabalus was possibly the most debauched Roman ruler of them all – hardly surprising since he was still a teenage boy

Elagabalus Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus – more commonly known as simply Emperor Elagabalus – is far from Ancient Rome’s most famous leader. And if he is remembered, it’s almost always for the wrong reasons. As a ruler, he was vain, greedy, lazy and decadent. However, his bad behavior is hardly surprising. After all, he was a teenage boy with unlimited wealth and power – small wonder he behaved badly during his few years in the most powerful position on the planet.

A member of the Severan dynasty of Rome and the second son of Julia Soaemias and Sextus Varius Marcellus, Elagabalus was born in the year 203. As a young boy in modern-day Syria, he served as a priest in a local temple. However, almost overnight, and almost completely out of the blue, he was named Emperor of Rome when he was just 14. A series of murders and conspiracies led to a power vacuum at the top, and his grandmother, a wily operator by the name of Julia Maesa, succeeded in getting Elagabalus installed as Emperor. What followed has gone down in history as one of the most debauched reigns of any ruler.

According to most accounts, Elagabalus showed no respect for the role of Emperor. Rather than concerning himself with the duties of the office, he preferred organizing orgies or lavish banquets. It was rumored he took a string of male lovers, including servants and bodyguards, and it’s even claimed that he sold his own body. As the famous historian of Rome Edward Gibbon noted, Elagabalus “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures and ungoverned fury”. In the end, he was assassinated by his own guards after just four years in power. He was replaced by his cousin, who ruled as Severus Alexander for 13 years.

Elagabalus has been almost-universally proclaimed as one of the worst Emperors in the history of Rome. But still, he did hold the highest office in the world at the age of just 14. What’s more, he lasted for four years. Many older, apparently wiser, rulers didn’t last anywhere near that long in the ruthless world of Roman politics.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Bobby Fisher was a teen chess prodigy who burned out by his 30s. Sports Illustrated.

15. Bobby Fisher rose to the very top of the chess world while still in his teens and many still regard him as the greatest player of all time

According to many historians of the game, Bobby Fisher is almost the greatest chess player who ever lived. Despite his humble background, he became the United States Chess Champion at the age of 14. What’s more, he became Grandmaster at the age of 15, the youngest person to be the best player on the planet up until that point. Famously, he taught himself fluent Russian so that he could study their chess literature and then he achieved the only perfect score (11 wins in 11 games) at the 1663-64 US Championship. He was a true child prodigy, and one who would never live up to his teenage achievements.

Fisher was born in 1943 in Chicago and raised by a single mother. His sister bought him a $1 plastic chess set when he was just six and he immediately became hooked. Fisher would play night and day, usually by himself. Quite simply, he was obsessed by chess, sacrificing a normal childhood for the sake of becoming the world’s best. His unique abilities brought him acclaim and attention and, by the age of just 12, he was being proclaimed a true genius.

With an IQ of 180, however, Fisher denied being simply a chess prodigy. “I consider myself to be a genius who plays chess,” he famously once said. Certainly, his was a precocious talent, and the pressure Fisher placed on himself did him no favors. In 1975, while still at the peak of his powers, he refused to defend his world title. And by the start of the 1990s, he had retired from competitive chess and disappeared from the public eye altogether. The one-time child genius became a recluse and an international man of mystery. He left the United States for good, eventually ending up in Iceland, where he died in 2008.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Anne Frank might have become an acclaimed novelist had she not been murdered. Wikipedia.

16. Anne Frank wrote movingly on everything from life, love and the horrors of Nazism, despite the fact she was a teenage girl in hiding

Many people dream of becoming successful writers, though few actually manage it. Anne Frank did, however. What’s more, she penned her classic diary while she was barely in her teens. Tragically, of course, she didn’t live long enough to see it sell millions of copies around the world or hailed as a classic. Along with most of her family, she was murdered by the Nazi regime when she was just 14, a true literary talent extinguished far too soon.

Though she was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929, Anne lived most of her life in Amsterdam. It was here that the Frank family was forced into hiding when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and started persecuting the native Jewish population from the summer of 1942 onwards. Whilst hiding in the attic of a family friend’s house, Anne started to write what would become her famous diary. In it, she mused on the boredom of a life in hiding, as well as putting her personal thoughts on love, life and philosophy down on paper. However, her plans to write a novel were cut short. The family were found and, in November of 1944, Anne and her sister Margot were sent to a concentration camp and died a few months later.

After the war, Anne’s writings were published in The Diary of a Young Girl. The book has sold millions of copies and translated into many different languages. Notably, it’s been praised not just for its historical significance but also for its literary merits. Anne was evidently a genuine literary talent and wise beyond her years. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the past century and the Amsterdam home she hid in remains of Europe’s biggest visitor attractions.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
England’s Boy King hated conflict, making him far too soft and sensitive for the crown. Wikipedia.

17. King Henry VI was England’s ‘Boy King’, who came to power during one of the most troubled points in his country’s history

King Henry VI of England will forever be known as the ‘Boy King’. He was just nine months old when his father, Henry V died in December 1421. Since he only had one son and heir, the crown passed to him, despite the fact he couldn’t even walk or talk. Of course, a regency council was formed to rule in his stead. However, as a young boy, Henry became increasingly involved in politics, even if he never did have the temperament to be an absolute monarch, especially at such a turbulent point in English history.

According to most accounts, Henry was a shy and retiring teen. While some young monarchs were ruthless bullies and tyrants, he was quite the opposite. In fact, he hated conflict and was completely averse to warfare and violence. As such, though he came of age at the age of 16 – thereby becoming probably the most powerful man in all of Europe while still in his teens – he soon allowed himself to be dominated by the more vocal and assertive members of his inner court. Above all, while the young king wanted to bring an end to the 100 Years War, his closest advisors urged him to keep on fighting, with disastrous consequences.

Henry’s lack of aggression also had consequences at home. His kingdom started falling apart under him. The nobility became fractured, ultimately resulting in the War of the Roses, in which his own cousin, Richard of the House of York, claimed the throne for himself. By the 1420s, when Henry was still in his 30s, he was suffering from mental breakdowns. He was deposed by his rival in 1461 and thrown into the Tower of London. His own son and heir was killed and then Henry himself was murdered, most probably on the orders of Richard.

William Shakespeare wrote a trilogy of plays about Henry VI’s life and reign. In them, the monarch is depicted as too young, weak and naïve for the throne. He is – quite accurately – shown as being weak-willed and too easily dominated, both by his nobles and his own wife, Margaret. But still, he founded several of England’s most famous education institutions, including Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, ensuring his legacy endures to this day.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Young Annie Oakley was a true teenage shooting sensation. CBS.

18. Annie Oakley became an overnight celebrity, the teenage girl who was better with a rifle than any grizzled gunslinger

Teenage sporting prodigies are not that rare these days. But in the days of the ‘Wild West’, a youngster who was better with a gun than a grizzled old veteran gunslinger was almost unheard of. And a teenage girl who could shoot better than everyone else was very special indeed. Which is why Annie Oakley, who made a name for herself as a 15-year-old sharpshooter, became one of the most famous people in all of America in her day. Indeed, even today she’s remembered as a young, feminist icon of the American frontier.

It was on Thanksgiving Day in 1875 that the world first learned of young Annie Oakley’s prodigious talent with a gun. By that point, the 15-year-old had been shooting and hunting since the age of eight. She was a regular visitor to downtown Greenville, Ohio, where she sold game she had killed to local shops and restaurants. According to legend, her skill with a gun – and her entrepreneurial spirit – meant that she had helped her mother pay off the mortgage on the family home before she had hit her teens. So when the Baughman & Butler traveling shooting act arrived into Cincinnati and offered a prize of $100 to any local challenger who could beat the famous Frank E. Butler, Annie couldn’t resist.

As she herself remembered: “The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall 15-year-old girl named Annie.” But that’s what he got. And, of course, that Annie beat him soundly. She also won his heart that day and within a year, the pair were married. They started a double act and toured America showing off their sharpshooting skills. She became known as “Little Sure Shot,” testament to her skills, as well as her young age and small stature. By the time she was in her 20s, she was earning large amounts of money and was a famous celebrity, performing in front of Presidents and touring Europe.

Oakley carried on setting shooting records well into her 60s, and she remained devoted to Butler. She tragically died at the age of 66 in 1926, the result of a car accident. She will always be remembered most for her earlier years, and in particular for her teenage successes. Countless movies and books have been made about her, and her life story has also inspired a hit Broadway musical.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Nadia Comaneci made Olympics history with her faultless gymnastics performance. Wikimedia Commons.

19. Nadia Comaneci was just 14 when she made sporting history by scoring the first ever Perfect 10 at the Olympics

It’s one of the most iconic photographs in the history of sports: a beaming Nadia Comaneci stands with her arms aloft beside an electronic scoreboard. The scoreboard reads that she scored 1.00 for her gymnastics routine. In fact, she had scored 10.00. However, the organizers of the Olympic Games had told the company that made the scoreboards not to bother making the displays more than three digits. After all, it was simply assumed that, given the nature of Olympics gymnastics scoring, a perfect 10.00 would be impossible to achieve. At just 14 years of age, Comaneci proved them wrong, and made history in the process.

It was at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal that the Romanian teenager wrote her name into the history books. She went to the Games as one of her country’s brightest young athletes. Up until that point, she had excelled in a number of disciplines, though had rarely achieved perfect scores. However, she truly excelled once she got to Canada. In the compulsory team section of the gymnastics competition, she scored the first-ever Olympics perfect 10.00 in the uneven bars. The crowd in Montreal were confused. Surely there was some mistake? In the end, the judges had to make a special announcement, confirming that the audience had indeed just witnessed history being made.

What’s more, Comaneci went on to notch up an additional six perfect scores at the Games. She took home two Gold medals, a Bronze and a Silver. While several other gymnasts have since achieved perfect scores, Comaneci remains the youngest-ever athlete to win the all-round Olympic title, taking Gold at the age of 14. And it’s unlikely this honor will ever be taken away from her – now a gymnast needs to be at least 16-years-old to compete in the Olympic Games.

Not to Make You Feel Bad, but these 20 People Made History Before their 16th birthdays
Claudette Colvin was a teenager when she refused to give up her bus seat. Scoopnest.

20. Claudette Colvin might have just been 15-years-old, but she showed bravery beyond her years to defy Alabama’s segregation laws in the spring of 1955

Rosa Parks has – rightfully – gone down in history as a true Civil Rights hero, the woman who defied racist segregation laws by refusing to give up her bus seat for a white passenger in December 1955. However, a full nine months before that famous incident in Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette Colvin made a stand against bigotry. She too refused to give up her seat for a white person, and ended up in jail as a result. Remarkably, Colvin was a schoolgirl and just 15-years-old at the time.

It was just a normal day in March 1955 and Colvin and her friends were taking the bus back from school. As the journey progressed, more passengers got on. As was the custom, black passengers were supposed to vacate seats towards the front and move to the back of the bus. But when a young white lady got on, Colvin refused to move. She told the driver she had paid her fare and was entitled to stay where she was. The driver hailed a police car. Colvin was forcibly removed from the bus and locked up.

The teenager was the first person to be arrested for breaking the bus segregation laws in Montgomery. However, beyond a few small stories in the local media, her case remained largely unknown, especially after Parks made her famous act of defiance less than a year later. Much of this was due to Colvin’s young age, but it was also due to her own modesty. Additionally, it’s since been revealed that Colvin fell pregnant that summer and the NAACP were wary of using a pregnant teen to front their campaign for equality, so got behind Parks instead.

Colvin watched as Parks’ protest turned into a huge boycott and then blossomed into a bigger fight for Civil Rights. She moved to New York City and started work. She is now recognised as a key figure in the Civil Rights movement. This brave teen stood alone against bigotry, showing bravery well beyond her years.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Blaise Pascal Biography.” St. Andrews University.

“Sultan Murad IV.” All About Turkey.

“Holier than Thou? Pope Benedict IX.” Time Magazine, April 2010.

“History’s Nutcases: Emperor Elagabalus.” History Things.

“Bobby Fisher: From prodigy to pariah.” The Guardian, May 2011.

“Annie Oakley Biography.” Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

“Claudette Colvin: The 15-year-old who came before Rosa Parks.” BBC World Service.

“Biography: Barbara Rose Johns Powell.” The Moton Museum.

“The Truth About Joan of Arc, the Teenage Girl Who Commanded the French Army” The Culture Trip, April 2018.

“Mozart at 250: how to explain a 10-year-old talent for all time.” The Guardian, January 2016.

“What is Braille?” American Foundation for the Blind.

“King Tut: The Teen Whose Death Rocked Egypt.” National Geographic, November 2015.

“Death of ex-Queen Isabella II of Spain.” History Today, April 2004.

“Ivan IV, Tsar of Russia.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“Alexander the Great (356-323BC).” BBC History.