Image: Oprah Winfrey
Julie Jacobson  /  AP
Oprah Winfrey has turned her name into a global brand, under which she has launched a magazine, a website, a satellite radio show and a television network.
updated 7/15/2011 11:25:25 AM ET 2011-07-15T15:25:25

From bifocals to Twitter, history's entrepreneurs have changed the way we deal with the world.

Benjamin Franklin
As one of the nation’s founding fathers, Ben Franklin was also one of its first entrepreneurs. He was the inventor of successful products like bifocal glasses, the lightning rod and the Franklin stove (among others) as well as a media magnate where he published several newspapers and his popular "Poor Richard’s Almanac," in which Franklin used a fictional character to share his own views on topics like politics and philosophy. Of course, Franklin also earned fame with other contributions such as creating the nation’s first free library.

Jerome Hal Lemelson
While he was not as well-known as others, Lemelson, known as “Jerry,” was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century, with some 600 patents to his credit for products like automated warehouses, industrial robots, cordless telephones, fax machines, videocassette recorders, camcorders and the magnetic tape drive used in Sony’s Walkman tape players. Lemelson also made a name for himself — not always in a positive way — as a defender of inventor’s rights, where he actively sued organizations and companies he felt had infringed upon his patents.

Thomas Alva Edison
Considered by most to be the greatest inventor of all time, Edison, known as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” is credited with some 1,093 U.S. patents for a range of inventions that includes the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. Just as importantly, his work on the distribution of electricity led to the world’s first power plant in New York City (though his technology choice, direct current (DC), was eventually surpassed by the alternating current approach (AC) championed by rival inventor, Nikola Tesla).

Henry Kaiser
Few entrepreneurs can match the track record of Henry Kaiser, who, starting in 1914 with a road-paving company, built a series of wildly successful companies in several industries that included: construction, ship building, forging steel and aluminum, car manufacturing and even healthcare, where he created Kaiser Permanente (named for a creek located near one of Kaiser’s cement companies), the first health maintenance organization, or HMO, as a way to provide health care to his thousands of employees.

Ted Turner
Turner began building his media empire in 1963 at the age of 24 where he took over running his father’s billboard company. He soon bought a UHF TV station and launched Turner Broadcasting System, which grew popular showing reruns of old TV shows and movies as well as Atlanta Braves’ baseball games (a team Turner had bought). But it was in 1980, when Turner launched CNN, the first 24-hour news channel, that he truly made his mark on the world. More recently, Turner launched Ted’s Montana Grill, a national chain of restaurants that sell buffalo meat.

Richard Branson
Branson, the dashing entrepreneur behind the Virgin Group, the brand behind some 400 enterprises, was just 16 when he started his first business, a magazine called Student. But it was his chain of music stores called Virgin Records, which he opened in 1972, which made Branson’s fortune. But, he didn’t stop there as he subsequently launched an airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways; a phone company, Virgin Mobile; and, most recently, Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company. Branson has also disclosed plans to work with Al Gore to create new sources of fuel via a venture called, not surprisingly, Virgin Fuels.

Oprah Winfrey
Widely considered to be one of the most influential people in the world, Winfrey has ridden the popularity of her self-titled daytime TV show to international fame. But Winfrey has also turned her name into a global brand, under which she has launched a magazine, a website, a satellite radio show, a television network called OWN and published five books under her company, Harpo Productions (which is Oprah spelled backwards). Through Harpo, Winfrey has also taken an active role in a variety of movie and theatre productions including "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" and "Beloved," which Winfrey also starred in.

Magic Johnson
Rather than rest on his laurels as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Johnson, who retired in 1996, now spends his days honing his skills as an entrepreneur. His company, Magic Johnson Enterprises, has a reported net worth of $700 million based on the success of subsidiaries such as Magic Johnson Productions, a promotional company; Magic Johnson Theaters, a nationwide chain of movie theaters; and Magic Johnson Entertainment, a movie studio. Johnson, who sold his ownership stake in the LA Lakers, is rumored to be looking to bring a football team back to LA.

Esther Dyson
Esther Dyson is one of a handful of business journalists who can claim to have hopped the fence and become as successful as the entrepreneurs she used to write about. Starting her career as a fact checker at Forbes, Dyson used her keen eye to spot trends and opportunities in emerging technologies and markets to gain fame, which helped fuel the purchase of her first company, EDventure Holdings. After selling her firm in 2004, Dyson has since helped fund and guide dozens of successful start-up companies such as Flickr, del.icio.us and Meetup.

Evan Williams
No list of the world’s most influential entrepreneurs would be complete without Evan Williams, who helped found two of the most influential companies in the Internet era: Blogger (which was eventually bought by Google) and Twitter. Williams, who grew up on a Nebraskan farm and spent his summers irrigating crops, may be an unlikely tech hero, but his foresight into how people use social media is uncanny. (For example, Williams coined the term “blogger.”) Williams recently stepped down as CEO of Twitter, which might mean that he might be working at his next great idea.

Robert Johnson
Born the ninth of the ten children in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson climbed the ranks of the world’s most wealthy people thanks to his foresight in founding Black Entertainment Television, BET, in 1980. After selling BET to Viacom in 2003 for some $3 billion, Johnson started what he calls his “second act” by launching The RLJ Companies, an asset management and holding company that has stakes in a diverse range of industries including: financial services, real estate, hospitality, professional sports, film production, automotive and gaming. Johnson also became the first black American to own a major-league sports franchise when he teamed with superstar Michael Jordan to acquire the Charlotte Bobcats franchise in 2004.

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