Who’s the most famous person of all time? Who else is near the top of the list? How do you quantify fame anyway? Is it all about the amount of people who recognize a celebrity’s name, or do we need to take into consideration other factors, like how well-liked the famous person is, or how much information most people know about them? How do we compare historical figures to contemporary figures?

There are a number of “most famous people” or “most influential people” lists out there. This website, which is essentially a continuation of a 2013 book on the topic, ranks people according to an algorithm that takes several factors into consideration. This user-generated list is also interesting to browse. Although Jesus is at the top of both lists, and the classical Greek philosophers fare pretty well on both, the similarities pretty much end there.

It’s also worth noting that “most famous” and “most influential” are not the same thing. I think that we tend to assume that two things are pretty closely correlated, at least as far as historical figures go, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Sure, the most famous historical figures are famous specifically because they did things that shaped the course of history. But there are other people who aren’t household names even though their inventions, ideas, or accomplishments have had an impact on our everyday lives. So, just for the fun of it, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series of blog posts to write about these forgotten figures.

I’m starting with someone so obscure that I can’t even find a Wikipedia article about him. To find any sort of biographical information, I’ve had to resort to census records, city directories, and slave emancipation documents. The inventor in question was born a slave, freed at the age of eight months, and didn’t show up on many documents and records after that. But at the age of sixteen, he invented a very common and handy device that you probably use every day: the doorknob.

Osbourn Dorsey was probably born in September 1861. His mother’s name was Christina Dorsey and he had two older siblings, Mary and Levi. We know this from the Washington DC slave emancipation records from April 1862, where he is listed as “Osbourn Dorsey- son of the above named Christina- Aged about eight months- ordinary size- dark complexion.” For the record, Mary was six years old and also “ordinary size” while Levi was four and “large in stature”. The children’s father is not mentioned. Mary Peter, the Dorseys’ former owner, submitted a petition for compensation after they were freed. Evidently, Mary Peter had no slaves other than Christina Dorsey and her three children. They had previously belonged to a family by the last name of Washington, but after Ann Washington died, Mary Peter acquired the Dorseys in April 1861, prior to Osbourn’s birth. Mary asked for $1350 in compensation for the freeing of her four slaves.

We next see Osbourn Dorsey in the 1870 census, although it lists him as being eleven years old, which must have been an error. The other members of the household were his parents, (the father’s name is Levi) a “domestic servant” named Barbara, and three siblings: Mary, Levi, and a younger sister named Cecilia. According to the 1880 census, 18-year-old Osbourn worked for a butcher and lived with his parents, sister, brother, and brother-in-law named Isaac Williams. Cecilia is not listed.

DoorknobThe salient part of this story came shortly before that 1880 census. On December 10, 1878, patent #210,764 was issued to Osbourn Dorsey of Washington DC, who had “invented certain new and useful improvements in door holding devices”. The diagrams and written description are clearly recognizable as what we now call a doorknob. (Although it has more parts; it involves a rod that extends horizontally between the doorknob and the doorframe.) There are two very important things to note here. One is the surprising fact that doorknobs have only been around for a little over 140 years. The other is that the doorknob was invented by someone named Dorsey, which is hilarious. It was my favorite fun fact for months; I have annoyed many people with this knowledge.

The name Osbourn Dorsey does show up in city directories and a couple censuses. Actually, it shows up a little too often; it would appear that there were at least three Osbourn Dorseys living in Washington DC in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Because of that, it has to be acknowledged that it’s possible that I’ve been looking at the wrong Osbourn Dorsey. The inventor of the doorknob was definitely not the Osbourn Dorsey who was born in 1878 and was incarcerated as of the 1900 census.

But it could have been the Osbourn Dorsey who was born around 1830, worked as a janitor, had a wife named Rachel who died prior to 1910, and had either two or three children. It appears that he had two daughters named Cora and Christy, but that his household also included a boy named William Smith who later married Christy. However, neither the 1870 nor 1880 census records specified that William’s last name was not Dorsey or that he was not the son of the head of the household.

As a side note, if you Google the name Osbourn Dorsey, you might find a picture that has been posted in various places with his name, but that is incorrect. It’s actually of James Meredith, a civil rights activist who was more than sixty years younger than Dorsey.

I’m just going with the Osbourn Dorsey born in 1861 because that the estimated birth year that I saw on a couple websites that may not be entirely reliable. Also, the city directories from 1907 to 1910 list this Osbourn Dorsey as an engineer, so it makes sense to speculate that he’s the one who had patented a significant invention. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything to indicate when Osbourn the Engineer died, or whether he had a wife and children. Also, I find it interesting that these two Osbourn Dorseys never seem to be listed in the same city directory. Yet they can’t actually be the same person; they both show up in the 1870 and 1880 censuses, and the older Osbourn Dorsey was an adult by the year 1870.

Maybe someday, someone will find an old diary or some letters that will clear up this mystery, or maybe someone will figure it out just by poring through these same records more thoroughly than I have. (To be honest, I have spent way too much time on this. It’s a little ridiculous.) If you know more than I do, please share your information in the comments. But as things stand now, we know very little about this brilliant inventor who changed the world by revolutionizing the way we open and close doors.