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

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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

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.

9781107041370

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. 

496 comments
OscarBarandas
OscarBarandas

With Martin Luther do they mean the Martin Luther King JR or the historical figure leading Lutherism

eastgateshut1
eastgateshut1

@OscarBarandas im most certain that they mean the reformer.      martin luther king shook america  while martin luther  the reformer shook the world.and started a movement that revolutionized what we call religion.

ONE_GOD_ONE_PROPHET
ONE_GOD_ONE_PROPHET

why is jesus # 1. He shouldn't mohammad should be. Jesus should be # 3. The thing is without mohammad we would be hundred of years or thousands of years behind because he was the only one able to unite the world at that time. Jesus couldn't no other person could. Yes maybe someone can bring their country but not asia africa and europe together. We the muslims were able to do what no other religion was able to do, bring the people together. Everyone will disagree with me i know that i said this and they will say that jesus is better, but truth be told he isn't, he's great but not better. we were able to make medical advancements that if we didn't have we would be so far behind. We were the first to use hospitals, we made the basis for the plane, the plane would have been invented way before the wright brother but the muslim scholar died. We made algebra, and the basis for the phone and camera. Yes we didn't invent it but without us we would be so far behind. i know most people would disagree, people from America, because of 9/11 only because you think mohammad wants hate. but he has never made a sin in his life or ask someonw to make a sin unless its in self defense. this is an american list thats why its so racist. wheres nelson Mandela, MLKJ, and many others. I dont blame for only 3 girls, dont get me wrong, they just didnt have much oppertunity back then. I want to see you guys redo this list and make mohammad 1 and put more woman, if you can, more unamerican people who are not white, meaning black or colored people, and take off anyone or just change someone that anyone commets about because this list is wrong, more people should be on this and more should't.

eastgateshut1
eastgateshut1

@ONE_GOD_ONE_PROPHET your brainwashed.   muhammad your infalible prophet was a sick pedophile who also raped his slaves.  i dont hate muslims but i sure hate islam. you guys are evil and you want everybody who doesnt believe like you to die.    ive read your curan and its full of hate. im disgusted by your beliefs.

JoseGNava
JoseGNava

What a joke the great liberator of south america Simon Bolivar is not here..

StephenWilliams3
StephenWilliams3

Funny list,Where is MArtin Luther King,MAo Ze tung( He is greatest),Muhamad Ali,Al CApone,John Edgar Hoover, Louis PAster,Mendela,JAmes WAtt,Conrad Adenauer and more people who are indebted humanity

VirajRijal
VirajRijal

Why the hell is Jesus on this list. The guy never lived, never existed. 

KDJ92
KDJ92

@VirajRijal Historical consensus is that he did exist. Few historians would refute his existence. The books of the New Testament are historical documents written by different individuals, plus he is mentioned in Josephus and Tacitus.

DavidBrown6
DavidBrown6

Where is Walter White? Or Jesse Pinkman?

KyleWinfrey
KyleWinfrey

No Hippocrate, Cleopatra, Confucius, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Louis Pasteur ......and they put a lot of americans on it

ArsalanZamanKhan
ArsalanZamanKhan

Shame shame. Deep deep shame on this list and today's Time magazine. Without Henry Ford, cars would be made available to the average citizen of the world long after his death. The same is the case with Edison and electricity, JD Rockefeller and the use of oil, Carnegie and the advancement of railway travel. Oil of these men have been on Time's covers decades before but today they have not been mentioned. Shame.

john2190
john2190

The comments on this list are hilarious....

Muslims typically in their delusional state complaining why Muhammad isn't at the top of this list (even though his influence/significance is nowhere the level of Jesus). 

Women, using their illogical brains bitching how there are only 3 women on this list (even though women didn't have the opportunity to be influential/significant due to lack of education etc.). 

Idiots who think Zeus and Thor should be included even though they're fictional (might as well put in Bigfoot and Santa in there in that case). 

I, for one think this list is pretty accurate.  Those are some hugely influential figures throughout the ages and centuries. 

john2190
john2190

Although I would place Isaac Newton much higher than 21.  The guy is possibly the greatest scientist in history along with Einstein and Darwin.  His discoveries and achievements in mathematics and physics are unique.

ONE_GOD_ONE_PROPHET
ONE_GOD_ONE_PROPHET

@john2190 

why is jesus # 1. He shouldn't mohammad should be. Jesus should be # 3. The thing is without mohammad we would be hundred of years or thousands of years behind because he was the only one able to unite the world at that time. Jesus couldn't no other person could. Yes maybe someone can bring their country but not asia africa and europe together. We the muslims were able to do what no other religion was able to do, bring the people together. Everyone will disagree with me i know that i said this and they will say that jesus is better, but truth be told he isn't, he's great but not better. we were able to make medical advancements that if we didn't have we would be so far behind. We were the first to use hospitals, we made the basis for the plane, the plane would have been invented way before the wright brother but the muslim scholar died. We made algebra, and the basis for the phone and camera. Yes we didn't invent it but without us we would be so far behind. i know most people would disagree, people from America, because of 9/11 only because you think mohammad wants hate. but he has never made a sin in his life or ask someonw to make a sin unless its in self defense. this is an american list thats why its so racist, and so are you bc you cant admit it.

emnmbabe71
emnmbabe71

WHY THE HELL ISNT ALAN TURING ON THE LIST??? HE HELPED BY SOLVING ENIGMAS WHICH HELPED WIN WW2 BY AT LEAST TWO YEARS AND HES NOT EVEN ON THE LIST :( :( :(

KDJ92
KDJ92

@emnmbabe71 Yes, judge them for not including someone you yourself probably only discovered months ago thanks to a historically inaccurate movie...

MI6
MI6

This list seems to be from the author's point of view which really doesn't help the rest of us. Columbus above Lenin and Joan of Arc? Come on! All he did was find America by mistake when he was looking for India. He even called the natives red indians!

random_person9999999
random_person9999999

why would you put Columbus so high on the list. first, he didn't discover america. second, he lead a mass murder. and third, he is only important to america. oh and he didn't discover that the world is round, some one 2000 years before him found that out.

KDJ92
KDJ92

@random_person9999999 Agree with your first point. Based on your second point, are you opposed to Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Alexander the Great, etc.? And third, he wasn't only important to America, unless by America you mean South America, Central America, North America, Europe, and Africa.

1yroy
1yroy

Should change the article title to   "Who’s Biggest? The 100 Most Significant Figures in Western History" #americanignorance

draco3691147
draco3691147

@1yroy Yeah man. Jesus, Ghandi, Churchill, Bach, Buddha, and Muhammed are all very important western figures. Did you even read the list?

KDJ92
KDJ92

@draco3691147 @1yroy Jesus, Churchill, and Bach are all important Western figures. Although I'd be cautious to blame this on "American ignorance," as Eastern peoples are similarly as "ignorant" of Western figures as we are of Eastern figures. Of course there's a natural bias. I would disagree with having figures like Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee over a handful of much more significant world figures. It's definitely based on significance to Americans.

1yroy
1yroy

Gandhi at 46??  Tesla at 93?? where is Steve Jobs???? seriously???  Wow! THIS LIST IS A JOKE.

igemnx
igemnx

Hazart Mohammad (PBUH) is number 1 in all the world ...  him self give message of love ,pieces , and unity . 

AlexAmazingAA
AlexAmazingAA

Wheres Marilyn Monroe 

Bruce Lee 

yeah Gandi and Martin Luther King, theres barely in any women on this list :L

Schminkster
Schminkster

Tim Berners-Lee anyone? Inventor of the world wide web?

nolanhmusch
nolanhmusch

tl;dr, but I have a feeling Micheal Faraday isn't on this list.

anjaliberdia
anjaliberdia

where is gandhi and martin luther king....

elibzadel
elibzadel

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

john2190
john2190

@elibzadel Oh yeah typical female logic. Let's just put in 10 more women for the sake of it, just to be politically correct....EVEN though the entire reason why women aren't featured on the list is because they haven't had the opportunity to create a impact or be influential...due to a lack of education over the centuries and other factors etc. 

You need to learn your history and try thinking with your head not your emotions for a change...

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.

john2190
john2190

@AlistonKhan Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer/proponent of the English language and as English is the international language used the world over in modern times, I would say he's pretty significant. 

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.