For centuries, Kentucky’s lands have been home to generation after generation of artists, inventors, developers, politicians, activists, and all manner of creative people. Kentucky innovators have enriched their state, nation, and world with dazzling scientific advancements, progressive social policies, and invaluable new community resources. These brilliant individuals have come from every corner of the state—East, West, North, South, Central—and have persevered through poverty, tragedy, and racial and gender barriers to use their talents for the common good.
Martha Layne Collins, the first female governor of Kentucky, lead our state through the intense economic globalization of the 1980s. Amid anxieties that the state would lag behind, she once boldly claimed that “[Kentuckians] know we can compete with anyone… anywhere… anytime… and win.” Kentuckian after Kentuckian has proven her claim to be true time after time, and each time we “win,” it is not just a win for Kentucky, but for all.
The Kentucky Historical Markers Program, created and managed by the Kentucky Historical Society, remembers and honors thousands of people, places, and events that shaped history as we know it. Among these markers, many tell the stories of Kentuckians who turned opportunities into meaningful and lasting changes. These are the innovators featured on this tour.
Kentucky artists have achieved worldwide fame for their feats in all mediums. Woman sculptor Enid Yandell, raised by a single mother, worked her way towards a world-class education and created internationally known works that were displayed at the World’s Fair and still stand in parks and museums today. Effie Waller Smith, the daughter of formerly enslaved Black people, quietly wrote poetry in Pike County that she eventually published in volumes that sold nationally and won widespread praise. Ernest Hogan started out as a child performing in a circus in Bowling Green, and then went on to become the first Black man to produce and star in a Broadway musical. These artists, among many others, harnessed their creative talents to engender revolutionary changes in their fields.
Other Kentucky innovators gave the world their gifts as inventors. James Morrison Heady conquered both deafness and blindness to develop a diplograph that allowed blind people to write, along with several other inventions to advance accessibility. John Fitch designed the first functional steamboat, which allowed traders to deliver goods through strong upstream currents. Nathan B. Stubblefield, a farmer and backyard tinkerer who stopped his schooling at the age of fourteen, invented and patented the first wireless radio telephone. This Kentucky ingenuity remains a proud export of our state.
Some were social innovators, focusing their time and talents into creating whole communities to better the areas they lived in. Alice Lloyd founded a school, community center, and college in the Appalachian region of Knott County, which offered abundant educational opportunities and still educates students to this day. James Thomas Taylor, a Black real estate developer, carved out a suburban district in Louisville where Black families could achieve homes, businesses, and educations in a time when those opportunities were scarce. Businessman Alexander Alan Arthur founded the industrial boom town of Middlesboro in the frontier lands of the Cumberland Gap, creating economic opportunities for thousands of hardworking Kentuckians. These innovators helped build some of the most essential pieces of Kentuckian society and elevated the quality of life for multitudes of people.
The KY Innovators tour highlights the achievements of these outstanding and successful individuals, delving into the history and context of their lives and careers. Their stories are bound to inspire readers through tales of determination and passion, and teach that impactful change can grow from even the smallest of seeds planted in everyday encounters.
Take this tour to read about these sixteen remarkable Kentuckians. Enjoy their victories, learn from their setbacks, and celebrate their legacies of artistic, engineering, and social transformation.