05/17/2012 07:31 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

14 Ambitious Amateurs Who Made It Big (PHOTOS)

Americans have been ridiculed as amateurs since the very beginning. At the time of the Revolution, it was even thought that Americans were amateurs physically. The French, especially, believed that the environment of the New World turned the evolutionary clock backward. American men were presumed smaller than their European counterparts and our animals were believed to be weak and stupid. A common French notion held that American snakes ate by laying back and unhinging their jaws until one of our spastic squirrels just fell in their mouths. But America's amateur status has also produced one generation after another of tinkerers and fiddlers--kids in dorms, grownups in garages--poking around with a new idea, some of which occasionally become, say, a pair of bifocals, a light bulb, a desktop computer, or a whole new way to organize human society. It's a rich and zigzagging tradition out there, beginning, as so much does in this country, with that famous bald guy known for his kite and his inscrutable smile.

Here are a few amateurs who are nothing to scoff at:

Jack Hitt is the author of Bunch of Amateurs [Crown, $26.00].

14 Ambitious Amateurs