Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in History

A data-driven ranking. Plus, have former TIME People of the Year been predictive?

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Who’s bigger: Washington or Lincoln? Hitler or Napoleon? Charles Dickens or Jane Austen? That depends on how you look at it.

When we set out to rank the significance of historical figures, we decided to not approach the project the way historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.

Significance is related to fame but measures something different. Forgotten U.S. President Chester A. Arthur (who we rank as the 499th most significant person in history) is more historically significant than young pop singer Justin Bieber (currently ranked 8633), even though he may have a less devoted following and lower contemporary name recognition. Historically significant figures leave statistical evidence of their presence behind, if one knows where to look for it, and we used several data sources to fuel our ranking algorithms, including Wikipedia, scanned books and Google n-grams.

To fairly compare contemporary figures like Britney Spears against the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, we adjusted for the fact that today’s stars will fade from living memory over the next several generations. Intuitively it is clear that Britney Spears’ mindshare will decline substantially over the next 100 years, as people who grew up hearing her are replaced by new generations. But Aristotle’s reputation will be much more stable because this transition occurred long ago. The reputation he has now is presumably destined to endure. By analyzing traces left in millions of scanned books, we can measure just how fast this decay occurs, and correct for it.

We don’t expect you will agree with everyone chosen for the top 100, or exactly where they are placed. But we trust you will agree that most selections are reasonable: a quarter of them are philosophers or major religious figures, plus eight scientists/inventors, thirteen giants in literature and music, and three of the greatest artists of all time. We have validated our results by comparing them against several standards: published rankings by historians, public polls, even in predicting the prices of autographs, paintings, and baseball cards. Since we analyzed the English Wikipedia, we admittedly measured the interests and judgments of primarily the Western, English-speaking community. Our algorithms also don’t include many women at the very top: Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) [at number 13] is the top ranked woman in history according to our analysis. This is at least partially due to women being underrepresented in Wikipedia.

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Each year since 1927, TIME Magazine has selected an official Person of the Year, recognizing an individual who “has done the most to influence the events of the year.” Our rankings provide a way to see how well these selections have stood up over time. Adolf Hitler [7] proves to be the most significant Person of the Year ever. Albert Einstein [19] was the most significant modern individual never selected for the annual honor, though TIME did name him Person of the Century in 1999. Elvis Presley [69] is the highest ranked figure that has been completely dissed: no author or artist has ever so been honored.

The least significant Person of the Year proves to be Harlow Curtice [224326], the president of General Motors for five years during the 1950s who increased capital spending in a time of recession, which helped spur a recovery of the American economy. Other obscure selections include Hugh Samuel “Iron Pants” Johnson [32927], who Franklin Roosevelt appointed to head the depression-era National Recovery Administration, and fired less than a year later. John Sirica [47053] was the District Court Judge who ordered President Nixon to turn over tape recordings in the Watergate Scandal. David Ho [66267] is credited with developing the combination therapy that provided the first effective treatment for AIDS. His contributions to human health arguably deserve a better significance rank than our algorithms gave him here.

The 100 Most Significant Figures in History

1 Jesus

2 Napoleon

3 Muhammad

4 William Shakespeare

5 Abraham Lincoln

6 George Washington

7 Adolf Hitler

8 Aristotle

9 Alexander the Great

10 Thomas Jefferson

11 Henry VIII of England

12 Charles Darwin

13 Elizabeth I of England

14 Karl Marx

15 Julius Caesar

16 Queen Victoria

17 Martin Luther

18 Joseph Stalin

19 Albert Einstein

20 Christopher Columbus

21 Isaac Newton

22 Charlemagne

23 Theodore Roosevelt

24 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

25 Plato

26 Louis XIV of France

27 Ludwig van Beethoven

28 Ulysses S. Grant

29 Leonardo da Vinci

30 Augustus

31 Carl Linnaeus

32 Ronald Reagan

33 Charles Dickens

34 Paul the Apostle

35 Benjamin Franklin

36 George W. Bush

37 Winston Churchill

38 Genghis Khan

39 Charles I of England

40 Thomas Edison

41 James I of England

42 Friedrich Nietzsche

43 Franklin D. Roosevelt

44 Sigmund Freud

45 Alexander Hamilton

46 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

47 Woodrow Wilson

48 Johann Sebastian Bach

49 Galileo Galilei

50 Oliver Cromwell

51 James Madison

52 Gautama Buddha

53 Mark Twain

54 Edgar Allan Poe

55 Joseph Smith, Jr.

56 Adam Smith

57 David, King of Israel

58 George III of the United Kingdom

59 Immanuel Kant

60 James Cook

61 John Adams

62 Richard Wagner

63 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

64 Voltaire

65 Saint Peter

66 Andrew Jackson

67 Constantine the Great

68 Socrates

69 Elvis Presley

70 William the Conqueror

71 John F. Kennedy

72 Augustine of Hippo

73 Vincent van Gogh

74 Nicolaus Copernicus

75 Vladimir Lenin

76 Robert E. Lee

77 Oscar Wilde

78 Charles II of England

79 Cicero

80 Jean-Jacques Rousseau

81 Francis Bacon

82 Richard Nixon

83 Louis XVI of France

84 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

85 King Arthur

86 Michelangelo

87 Philip II of Spain

88 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

89 Ali, founder of Sufism

90 Thomas Aquinas

91 Pope John Paul II

92 René Descartes

93 Nikola Tesla

94 Harry S. Truman

95 Joan of Arc

96 Dante Alighieri

97 Otto von Bismarck

98 Grover Cleveland

99 John Calvin

100 John Locke

Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward are the authors of Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank, Cambridge University Press, 2013. The views expressed are solely their own. 

437 comments
anjaliberdia
anjaliberdia

where is gandhi and martin luther king....

elibzadel
elibzadel

There are three women on this ENTIRE list. Come on, TIME magazine. 

egp
egp

The authors admitted that it was a very Western- and english speaking-list at the beginning, but even for something that admits that it's exceedingly white-centric! No Martin Luther King Jr, no Nelson Mandela?! And I know that some countries are giants that tower over others, especially in terms of history, but if Australia can have James Cook in there can we also please have Eddie Mabo whose landmark case reversed the 18th century declaration of 'terra nullius' and changed Australia forever? And why no Confucius if we have Jesus and Muhammed and Buddha? I know in a list of 100 you can't fit everybody but make it a worldwide list, not just a 'people Americans have heard of' list! 

Knowledge_Is_Power
Knowledge_Is_Power

Steve Jobs

Napoleon Hill 

Julius Caesar 

Francisco Pizarro 

Napoleon Bonaparte

Attila the Hun  

Cyrus The Great

Tamerlane

Mahmud of Ghazni 

Genghis Khan

Eureka Archimedes 

Alexadia

Leonardo DaVinci

Lika Madonna

Benjamin Franklin

Luis Pasteur's

Alexander Graham Bell 

Grace Hopper. 

Nikola Tesla


AlistonKhan
AlistonKhan

This list should be renamed to "most significant figures in history for western civilizations". Im sorry but William Shakespeare was not very significant in Asia, Africa and maybe even South America.

EdConrey
EdConrey

How are Bill Wilson and Doctor Bob, the founders of AA and most every other 12 step fellowship not on this list?

atyourservicecaters1
atyourservicecaters1

1.Muhammad(PUBH)

A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History is a 1978 book by Michael H. Hart, a self-described white separatist.[1] reprinted in 1992 with revisions. It is a ranking of the 100 people who, according to Hart, most influenced human history.[2]

The first person on Hart's list is the Prophet of Islam Muhammad,[3] a selection that generated some controversy.[4] Hart asserted that Muhammad was "supremely successful" in both the religious and secular realms. He also believed that Muhammad's role in the development of Islam was far more influential than Jesus' collaboration in the development of Christianity. He attributes the development of Christianity to St. Paul, who played a pivotal role in its dissemination.

Adree
Adree

Salk, Mendel, and Pasteur... Not a single one is mentioned.

But judging by the lack of many important names and the respective positions of the names on the list, perhaps that criticism is irrelevant. Oh well, might as well just tack on Nicholas Cage as #101 and call it good.

42twentyfour
42twentyfour

MIcheal Faraday isn't in this. What the hell?

Martijn
Martijn

This list raises some questions. Why are two fictional persons in the list: Jesus and King Arthur?

Second, it is all viewed from modern day perspective. If Jesus and Muhammed are that high on the list, why are not Zeus and Thor? And George W. Bush higher ranked than Genghis Khan? Come on.

It is hard for me to see 5 or 6 US presidents in a list of 100 most influential persons, while a person like Gorbatsjov in not on it.

Great thinkers like Confucius, writers like Dostojevski, and artists like Rembrandt or maybe less populair in the US, but that does not mean they are less influential.

PennilessPilgrim
PennilessPilgrim

@Martijn Jesus as a real human being was definitely not fictional. King Arthur might have a been a real person, his existence is unclear, but his legend was drawn upon in English arts for centuries. I do agree though, that if he is not a confirmed human being he should not be on the list. 


Zeus and Thor however are gods, not men, and are not even depicted as such.


Regarding George W. Bush over Genghis Khan, I completely agree completely also. George W. Bush will soon be relegated to a small page in history, but Genghis Khan changed a vast portion of the world over the course of centuries and his legend remains to this day.

KennyMichaelHernandez
KennyMichaelHernandez

@Martijn Ask any reputable scholar who has studied the history of Jesus, and they will clarify that he did in fact exist, if you want to believe all that is said about him, well that's up for you to decide

Miro_Azuma_Kara
Miro_Azuma_Kara

Alan Turing single-handedly invented computers and revolutionized our lives. You would not be reading this if it wasn't for him. He broke the german codes during WW2 and saved more than 14 million lives by shortening the war by two years. All he ever got in return was too little too late posthumous recognition and forced chemical castration because he was gay. He committed suicide out of desperation after two years of "treatment".

Michal_s
Michal_s

@Miro_Azuma_Kara

He modernized invention of Marian Rajewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, Polish mathematicians whom broke enigma first in 1930's and build machine named cryptology bomb. Information about all of this was given to British in 1939. So Turing build better and faster version.

dradenus
dradenus

@Miro_Azuma_Kara Enigma code were first broken by Polish mathematicians - Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski in 1932. Their work has been reused by British cryptologists leaded by Alan Turing. British scientists were broken new version of Enigma code in 1939.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enigma_machine

But I agree that Alan Turing had a great influence on the history of mankind, especially science.

MaliHawthorne
MaliHawthorne

How are neither Confucius or Lao Tsu on this list?


Seriously - could this list be more white-centric?

كريمسالم
كريمسالم

Maybe better to have Lionel Messi at the top of the list because he is the only one who won the title of best player in the world four times in a row this except Cups titles to meet the won, and in other middle ranking Cristiano Ronaldo, the two most famous in the world.

Knowledge_Is_Power
Knowledge_Is_Power

@كريمسالم Please just shut your mouth. How old are you 12 years old this is history pefore you were born even me and most of those people. Think you idiot!

sergiocrespo10
sergiocrespo10

this list is 50% about USA and not about world. thats bad

SeemabShoukat
SeemabShoukat

Muhammad S.A.W should be on no.1...... There is no person in history who is more influencing than HIM. He is a  role model for all human beings. 

ashfaq07
ashfaq07

@SeemabShoukat he is on the top of the list already bro.. this list is not recignizd.. go and see wikipedia ,," 100 most influential people in history"  


NidaKhan
NidaKhan

His influence still and always will be above all humans

smithjenkins1
smithjenkins1

Martin Luther King Jr. And Nelson Mandela, those two are no brainers.

PatrickO'Connor
PatrickO'Connor

Norman Borlaug should be on this list, he is credited with saving over 1 billion lives. 

thekidilli28
thekidilli28

Prophet muhammad peace be upon him is number 1 !

You know this list is off when you dont mention osama bin laden before a majority of those people on that list.

shahbaz.1288
shahbaz.1288

MOHAMMAD P.B.U.H was , is , and will be remain at the top of the list.I don't know others.

EddieSJackson
EddieSJackson

I'd like to see the top 10,000. Time...we're waiting.

DanCaesar
DanCaesar

Julius Caesar should be in the top ten it is a shame that an idiot like lincoln is there and someone like Caesar is not!

SyedTariqAli
SyedTariqAli

And who knows Napolean in east? Why its on number 2 ? How many knows about napolean in china,pakistan,bangladesh ,india,afghanistan,and middle east ?? And south america ?? Which makes more than half of the population.

Hitler is more influential than napolean.

MauroP
MauroP

@SyedTariqAli Napoleon was very important in South America. His incursion in Spain allowed the Spain colonies in the new continent to gain freedom because Spain was busy trying to stop him. Also, he spread the legacy of the French Revolution in Europe and South America