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. 

367 comments
byrnzie28
byrnzie28

There's zero evidence that Jesus ever actually existed, therefore he should not be included in this list. If you're going to include Jesus then you may as well also include Superman and Batman.

KeiperSniper
KeiperSniper

From the perspective of a woman, I find this list very sad. Skimming through it I only picked up on Queen Elizabeth I, and Joan or Arc.  But, I realize trying to rank the "top 100 most significant figures" in history would be difficult, and history is a mans world. What about Cleopatra, or Mother Theresa?

The only thing that should've been different is think was that maybe it would've been helpful to more specifically define what you meant by "the most significant figures". Because as some could interpret that "figures" means potentially fictional characters such as Jesus who one could argue did not exist. This opens the door to a ton of characters who would not be considered in the poll before hand.

I think that conducting a survey to get an actually accurate, globalized estimate of who the top 100 figures are in history, would be pretty impossible. But I would need to know ore about the details this research was conducted in, in a step by step breakdown. Is that provided somewhere?

Anyways, it seems that there are enough complaints advocating for specific figures not mentioned in the comments below...

VishalAdhikari
VishalAdhikari

it is not fair....i think jesus and buddha are two equally famous person but jesus is ranked as 1st while buddha is ranked as 52th no......its totally unfair....people who have no knowledge to judge the person is better to no judge the person....




txtravel
txtravel

Ulysses S Grant? Grover Cleveland?


A pretty weak list all around.  Not enough scientists/inventors (Pasteur, James Watt, Faraday, Maxwell, Clausius, Lavoisier, Kepler, Hutton, Heisenberg, for starters).  Way too many presidents and heads of state who didn't do anything unique.  Not enough non-Europeans.  Where is Confucius?  Probably influenced more people than any human being in history, Jesus and Mohammed (possibly) excepted - and as someone pointed out below, Zoroaster influenced both of them... 

WilliamA.James
WilliamA.James

Hart's well-known list as revised in 1992 notes a number of scientists and an inventor or two who are missing here. Why are Maxwell, Faraday, Heisenberg and the Wright Brothers and others on the Hart list, but missing here. For that matter, why are Watson and Crick missing here and from the Hart list as well?

3rabianFreedom
3rabianFreedom

That's not the proper way to conduct a research. The list is clearly listed in western perspective.

The list is not stable because today we live in a western dominated world. For example if China became a world super power, Chinese figures would be significant to much of the world population. Or if we lived in an Islamic dominant world, the list would have been mostly notable Islamic figures. And so on. It's all about perspectives. 

kazi48
kazi48

Michael Jackson, Malcolm X, Michael Jordan, Beatles, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates


DavidRam
DavidRam

Men/Women=o.o3%.   It´s a phallic world.

AakashRai
AakashRai

Gods of Christanity and Islam at top. What about the Gods from where all religions originated? Hinduism. No man from India whose history is oldest and richest.


ercan
ercan

perfect list, however you just forgot justin bieber

EduTpm
EduTpm

It is a very western perspective, I would even dare say North American perspective.If hte aim is human population history, it should be more open. where is Gutenberg? why is there Ronald Reagan? Lincoln didnt mean a thing in Asia or South America.

hattori_md
hattori_md

This list is complete nonsense. It's such a shame that we could not see Ataturk, Fatih Sultan Mehmed, Cengiz Khan, Atilla, Timur in that list and even Johannes Gutenberg whom you owe him for inventing printing..

FurkanTufan
FurkanTufan

Fatih sultan mehmet ? Mustafa kemal atatürk? Attila? ibni sina?

WossenAmogne
WossenAmogne

Michael Jackson and Leo Tolstoy should have been in the list

Khan33
Khan33

MUSTAFA KEMAL ATATURK? CONQUEROR SULTAN MEHMET? CHENGİS KHAN? etc. 

The list is very very poor.

Areopolis
Areopolis

Herodotus: the Father of History

JoseVinicioAdames
JoseVinicioAdames

really? George W placed ahead Tesla, Michelangelo, GANDHI, Freud?! 

MAGarcía
MAGarcía

This is a very Anglosaxon/Eurocentric list, and most of the minority people that appear are in it because they have to do with America or Europe. Just another misleading list that reinforces the notion that the only important history is the history of Europe and the United States.

andreslinaresp
andreslinaresp

What an awful top. ¿Does anyone believe that George W Bush is goint to be important for people in 300 years? I mean, he appears to be more important than Locke or Descarte

bmbcmulayim
bmbcmulayim

What a parallel list. Where is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We know how to list. We know for sure.

haseev
haseev

That;s the view from western world !

JohnDissinger
JohnDissinger

Who were the idiots that assembled this list by order of importance? Did anyone notice who came AFTER Reagan and Elvis. This is very stupid.

umariqbal
umariqbal

and reason for putting Jesus number 1 ? barely 1 out of 100 Christians believe in him or follow him or know who and what exactly he was. All the respect for Jesus. 

umariqbal
umariqbal

Muhammad should be number 1. it is followed by 1.10 billion people and every single one of them think of HIM as a leader. 

M.A.Rauf
M.A.Rauf

you have to remove the word History or you have to go back to school for fresh education. Your Number one Jesus Christ does not exist in History.

HajarKalid
HajarKalid

After reading the list, I don't know why I feel like I should be in the list too XD

ohyoungyoung18
ohyoungyoung18

Very Euro-centric, isn't it. Great job being "progressive," Time. I think this list is significant because of who's not on it, rather than who is.

AnelHazirovic
AnelHazirovic

Lincoln before Nikola Tesla its funny how most of americans are uneducated

SteveCurrie
SteveCurrie

George Bush ahead of Winston Churchill, what are these people smoking.

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

dorieller
dorieller

@byrnzie28 then there is zero evidence that columbus existed. 

there are actual recorded historic facts of Jesus's existence. the new testament also act as "accounts" for the existence of jesus as there is evidence it was written around his time period. however the general problem is whether to believe their accounts or not. so go do some research before you throw out your "zero" evidence thing next time. what evidence do you have of columbus's existence apart from written accounts in the form of letters,etc? very little.

DianaIsabelAragón
DianaIsabelAragón

@byrnzie28 u are wrong because jesus is not only a religous figure but also a historical figure... before speaking u have to look for information. i have seen a lot lot scientific documentals about jesus... according scientists jesus lived about more than 2000 years ago and and he was probably a preacher because there are a lot of quotes of people who speak about the jesus who was very mentioned at this time because he was a "headache" for the Roman Empire. 

17schannej
17schannej

@EduTpm I understand your complaint, I definitely disagree with many Americans on this list, however you may have chosen the wrong examples. gpureta already answered Lincoln but Reagan won the world war. I definitely think Genghis Khan should be in the top 5. He led to the Yuan Dynasty, Mughal Empire, Ottoman Empire, and a more unified Russia.

gpureta
gpureta

@EduTpm well, lincoln was the greatest advocate of abolishing slavery at the time. his existence pretty much rewrote american life. and america, like it or not, was a major influence to Asia during ww2. according to the butterfly effect,  it would have been a very different asia if lincoln werent around. 

Ciyaresh
Ciyaresh

@hattori_md Here comes the white Turk with his god Ataturk.  All hail the master race; Turks.

Khan33
Khan33

@umariqbal For you number 1, for other not important. He isn't universal. 

dorieller
dorieller

@M.A.Rauf 8D you dont look at historical stuff often do you? Yup. i was thought in school that Jesus EXISTED while being thought about the romans, etc. as his existence influenced certain things (cant remember exactly) and the teacher wasn't at all being religious as she admitted that she isnt christian nor believes in the teachings but she believes he existed as a person as it is historically recorded. but then again, you dont seem to know what 'history' is.

Planet27
Planet27

@passenger
Im not religious but there are 2.18 billion Christians world wide...

24redefined
24redefined

@passenger The facts are that 800 million Muslims are illiterate, and the rest don't have time to read the Quran five times a day.

OmarSaleem
OmarSaleem

@24redefined @umariqbal those 6 billion people are blinded by hatred that media has infused in them. if for once they take off that the blindfold of hatred they would see that Islam (the religion of Muhammad PBUH) means "Peace"...