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. 

313 comments
dgmccool
dgmccool

Nice fabrication:


"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."

Alexandrus
Alexandrus

And what about chinesse leaders kings and such?

JimmyThesia
JimmyThesia

lol,lol,lol,lol,lol,lol,lol,lol,lol,.........................................are you really intelligent? (time magazine)

CatoWGustavson
CatoWGustavson

Both Confucius and Zoroaster are not on the list, but Steve Jobs is? Are you effing kidding me?

Zoroaster was the proto-founder of judeaism, christianity and islam and Confucius helped found the very basis of present day China, encompassing and heavily influencing the next superpower and 1,5 billion people! - get a grip, Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward!

passenger
passenger

seriously?

its like when i saw the list of the most read book in the world. and guess what, the bible was in the top :p
nonsens because we all know tht at least 1billion people across the word read one Specific book at least 5 times a day everyday: the Koran

at least be neutral in reporting the facts

DrTinz
DrTinz

Only 2 Popes, Peter and John Paul II, but none in between?


SimoMBentaleb
SimoMBentaleb

If you guys believe that G W Bush belong in such a list of greats then you should be fair and give a shot to Homer Simpson and Sponge Bob!

TunisianArabic24Lessons
TunisianArabic24Lessons

OMG  George W.Bush in the same list as Shakespeare, Mozart, Ghandi, Jane Austin, Beethoven !!!??? lol

anesthesman007
anesthesman007

the only one on that list that is correct is number one Jesus Christ. And Richard Nixon should be absolute last on a list of 100 Million, luckily. Signed with love, an American. :-)

OlanMcGowan
OlanMcGowan

And three women in the top 100? Have you heard of Florence Nightingale? Have you heard of Emmeline Pankhurst? Cleopatra? Jane Austin? Susan B Anthony? Marie Curie? Coco Chanel? Eleanor Roosevelt?


OlanMcGowan
OlanMcGowan

13 American presidents in the top 100? Are you absolutely kidding? The arrogance of this American publication.


In 221 BCE, Qin Shi Huang united China. The nation is named after him! And no appearance in the top 100? 13 American presidents, including Reagan, Nixon and Bush, are deemed more significant? Seriously???


Constantine the great was the first Christian emperor. Without his role, Christianity could not have been the dominant religion it is today. In other words, he is almost equally important to almost Jesus, in terms the dissemination of that particular faith. 


Constantine is at 67 in a list which places George W Bush at 36.


Of course, lists are highly subjective. But at least call the list "people who have had the most profound effect on modern WESTERN culture", and stop pretending it represents the rest of the world. Asia, Africa, and so on.


Even then, the list is absurd. King Arthur? Much of what is understood about King Arthur is grounded in myth and legend, as well as historical fact.


But my main gripe is the inclusion of 13 American presidents in the top 100. 


"Earth to USA! You are 238 years old! Humankind has been on the planet for 200,000 years. Civilisation as we know it developed from about 10,000 years ago.  Recorded history about 5000 years old, dating back to Sumerian script, the oldest known or discovered writing!"


238 years, United States? You are but a child!


Kind of makes you think, doesn't it?  but then again, maybe it doesn't.

ForzaGreen
ForzaGreen

You'd better say "100 Most Significant Figures in WEST's History".
You think that History starts and ends in the West. Get rid of this selfishness guys !!!

VictorEssang
VictorEssang

I've seen some stupid lists, this one beats them all. Thomas Jefferson in top ten on what grounds? and no Buddha? are you kidding me? George Bush ahead of Leonardo daVinci, Nicola Tesla and Ghengis Khan? Ronald Reagan ahead of Paul the Apostle? Woodrow Wilson ahead of Galileo Galilei? The complilers of this list must have been smoking something strange.

sjithomas
sjithomas

This is not the  list of 100 Greatest people of history..   This is the list of  100 Greatest people of history , what white Americans think.   Even most of the Americans do not agree with this list. 

I can say this list is created by using American White  people's perceptions  .    In reality  Buddha , Gandhi and other greater people historical figures  are much widely regarded all over the world  than Bush  and Reagan..   This is the reality..  

I feel sorry you come up with such a faulty list.   If you make a global list,  think like a global person . 


cami.vergara99
cami.vergara99

I can tell this was written by a white, western, christian male

SefaSaglam
SefaSaglam

So sad how ppl are making ihnorant comments, bare in mind that if prophet muhammad did not exist in this world none of the universe would have been created, the almighty GOD reveals..!!!!!

SefaSaglam
SefaSaglam

Ahmed mahmud MUHAMMAD mustafa, (SAW)

İs the greatest human of all times with no doubt

ThamsanqaPrinceKenke
ThamsanqaPrinceKenke

The idea is brilliant but a more comprehensive and inclusive research still needs to be to include all those non-English parts of the world for such a concept to have legitimacy. It does not make sense that Rameses II, Ikhnaton, Confuscius, Mandela and Che Guevera are not included. Time magazine has to evolve from being an American mouth piece and be a world voice.

RajeshwarMajety
RajeshwarMajety

Where is Asoka The Great? Its because of this great king , people in today's world have any idea of Buddhism.And he is a very inspiring and motivating character than most of those members in your 'list'.

NozzCalacuayo
NozzCalacuayo

King Arthur is a fictional character or at best a legend.  Certainly not a historical figure.  Ridiculous list. How are Bush and Reagan on the same list as Alexander the Great and Leonardo?

YunusEmre
YunusEmre

Was napoleon more effective Muhammad (phub)? Even Jesus wasn't.The original Bible has been changed but Quran remains unchanged. You may say, Jesus has more followers. However, I say compare the numbers of prayers in Churches and Mosque. As for the main idea of religion, it has not been changed in Islam.Rules are the same as time of Muhammad. By the way, we muslims accept Jesus as one of our prophets like Muhammad.Adam, Noah, Solomon, David and others were messenger of the God. Just search what Muhammad brought to humanity, you may understand his value.

SabyasachiMitra
SabyasachiMitra

As usual they ignored the East. Where is Gautam Budha? Mahatma Ghandhi? Akbar the Great and Ashoka the Great? Please rename the list as World's sans the East Biggest. And how it's that Hitler and Bush figured in this list?

radumarian27
radumarian27

Why on earth G. W Bush is on that list????

AswinPrasannaKumar
AswinPrasannaKumar

Great list..but i guess the edition of TIME which publishes this list must be circulated on the Europe and American continents only..!! because 2/3rd of the Worlds population will not be overly fond of this "compiled list of personalities"..

RyanKeithHancorne
RyanKeithHancorne

lol. Everybody calling for Ghandi, etc in the top 100 and calling this Western propaganda... Read the article before reading the list. The article clearly outlines that there is a Western, and male, bias due to the compilation protocol and the sources that were used. You must also consider the fact that the English world has transcribed more of the world's knowledge, than all other cultures have combined and it is quite obvious that the influence of Western civilization on the rest of the world far outweighs the influence of Chinese history, for example. Elvis Presley for example may appear as an odd selection, but he was perhaps the figurehead of a cultural movement in Western music & entertainment that has changed the landscape of the world and has permeated all cultures and people, from India, to China, to Turkey.

WalterWolf
WalterWolf

WELL THEY BASICALLY O WALK ALL IN  WOMEN'S DRESSES, I GUESS THAT EXPLAINS IT, DRAG QUEENS UNDERCOVER EVERYWHERE

WalterWolf
WalterWolf

WHY DID THE CATHOLIC CHURCH MAKE A TRANSVESTITE THEIR EMBLEM? I HAVE NO IDEA

DavisCollins
DavisCollins

@OlanMcGowan From what I gathered, this is based on an algorithm of some sort, not really on their selections. How else would they have figured out placements out to six-digit numbers?

faketway
faketway

@VictorEssang I agree with most of that, but Buddha is on there.

KJMOTO
KJMOTO

@sjithomas true its so western. but u also only mentioned india-origin people. Bhuddha and Gandhi. The fact that the 2 examples are both from where you are from, ur contradicting yourself. 

OlanMcGowan
OlanMcGowan

@SefaSaglam Muhammad is in the top 100. Maybe you didn't notice.   actually, maybe I should just draw you a picture?

KJMOTO
KJMOTO

@SefaSaglam I cant believe u said that... I have respect in wat u believe, but dont call other comments/beliefs ignorant jst cuz they believe something else.  

maze764
maze764

@YunusEmre you know i recently came across a video of a man who researched the quoran and supposedly found more information of Jesus than of muhammed. Got it through whatsapp. 

He states that it is written in the quoran that jesus is greater than muhammed. No offense here just asking to know the facts from someone who reads the quoran. Please confirm or deny after checking yourself. I cant read arabic and i thought it would have been wise to read the original arabic text.

RyanKeithHancorne
RyanKeithHancorne

@AswinPrasannaKumar Lucky they're not out to appease the ego of anybody with the list. The list was objective, not subjective. The protocol used is bias to English information of course, but you must also consider that the English world has transcribed more global knowledge than all other cultures and nations combined. The influence of Western civilization far outweighs that of others, because it permeates all cultures and countries heavily. Elvis Presley for example may appear as an odd selection, but he was perhaps the figurehead of a cultural movement in Western music & entertainment that has changed the landscape of the world and has permeated all cultures and people, from India, to China, to Turkey.

Again, it is bias. But it is objective.

OlanMcGowan
OlanMcGowan

@RyanKeithHancorne Well then,  They should certainly rename the title of the list.  in any event, lots of people throughout history have had an impact on the Western world, even those who didn't live in it.

mohamedyousof20
mohamedyousof20

@maze764 @YunusEmreNonsense. I memorize the whole quran in it's original language (arabic). There is no verse in quran states that jesus is better or greater than mohammed