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The Great 100 (well, almost)…

May 22, 2011

About six years ago, the Discovery Channel attempted to identify the 100 most important people of the second millennium. I didn’t see the program and don’t know who all was on the list (other than   at #1 and Princess Di [!!!] somewhere in there.) But I got to thinking: Whom would I identify as the 100 most important people of the millennium? I decided to try and a couple of things became clear to me. First, it was a fun intellectual exercise that caused me to do some reading and research; and second, I couldn’t come up with 100. All I’ve managed so far is about 80, and some of those are marked as questionable because I’m not certain if I want to include them or not.

The people I selected had an impact on the course of events in the world, for better or for worse. I didn’t select Abraham Lincoln, great as he was, because his impact was limited pretty much to the US, rather than worldwide. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, however, were both instrumental in establishing our nation, which has gone on to influence the world ever since.

The hardest part of this exercise for me was in the field of art, specifically, painting, music and literature. On the one hand, it’s hard to ignore the joy, truth and beauty that great art brings into our lives, affecting people the world over. On the other hand, there are so many greats in the arts over the last 1000 years that I think it would be fairly easy to compile a list of 100 painters, composers and authors. Maybe that’s what I’ll do next.

In any case, here’s my list, broken down by century. (Couldn’t think of anybody for the 14th century. There must be someone—after all, Barbara Tuchman wrote a whole book about the 1300s, A Distant Mirror.) Take a look at my list and let me know if you agree or disagree with my selections. And feel free to suggest additions or subtractions and note them in “comments” on the blog. Enjoy.


12th Century (2)

Genghis Khan, Maimonides

13th Century (2)

Marco Polo (?), Thomas Aquinas

15th Century (6)

Christopher Columbus, Nicholas Copernicus, Johann Gutenberg, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo (?) ,William Caxton (?)

16th Century (5) Henry VIII, Magellan, Martin Luther, Queen Elizabeth I, Sulieman the Magnificent

17th Century (7) Galileo, Johannes Kepler, John Locke, Rembrandt (?), Shakespeare (?), Isaac Newton, Christian Huygens

18th Century (11) Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Johann Sebastian Bach (?), Beethoven (?), Voltaire (?), Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Lister, Joseph Priestly, Napoleon, James Watt

19th Century (14) Alexander Graham Bell, Clara Barton, Ernest Rutherford, Florence Nightingale, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx,Louis Pasteur, William James (?), Bismarck (?), Vincent van Gogh (?), Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, Max Planck (could also be included in 20th cent.), Alfred Russell Wallace (?)

20th Century (30) Adolf Hitler, Alexander Fleming, Bill Gates, Einstein, Francis Crick, James Watson, Edwin Hubble, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gandhi, Henry Ford Ivan Pavlov (?), Jonas Salk, Josef Stalin, Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Gugliemo Marconi, Marie Curie, Teddy Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Robert Oppenheimer, Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King, Jr., Stephen Hawking,Steven Jobs, Thomas Edison, Werner Heisenberg, Wilhelm Roentgen, Winston Churchill, Orville Wright,  Wilbur Wright, Yasser Arafat (?)

And here are the first two entries to start this millennium:

21st Century (2): Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush

See ya next week …

(BTW–I’ve found that what I see in ‘preview’ is not always what gets published: formatting is lost, graphics are rearranged (none this week), all kinds of problems. So, it’s not me—it’s the system.)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Joseph Thompson permalink
    May 23, 2011 4:18 pm

    This inspires me to think some more about it. Right now, your list seems quite western-centric. There must be many eastern/afro/island folks who have had widespread impact, although none jump to mind. I wonder about the fields of science, mathematics, electronics, space, madicine, writing, etc.

    • May 23, 2011 6:04 pm

      You’re right, it’s very western-centric, which simply underscores how little I know about cultures/peoples in other parts of the world. And this in spite of the extensive reading I do and my years of education. I’d love to have nominations – got any?

    • Bob Seidensticker permalink
      May 24, 2011 2:22 pm

      Great point about other cultures. The Golden Age of Islam lasted until the 13th century, for example. One of the problems with incomplete history, however, would be that many of the names are lost to us. For example, our word “algorithm” comes from the Persian mathematician Al-Khwārizmī who lived during this period.

  2. Bob Seidensticker permalink
    May 24, 2011 4:57 am

    (The #1 person on the original list was missing. I’m guessing Jesus?)

    There are lots of scientists who are given credit for something (Mendel for genetics, for example) but who had no actual impact because their precedence was discovered only in hindsight.

    You’re going to include the leaders of the American revolution but put a question mark after Shakespeare?

    It’s challenging to avoid a myopic view. It’s easy IMO to include people who are quite important in our own time but not really that big a deal in the big picture. Nelson Mandela might be an example. But we could nitpick for hours. In the end, any list like this says a bit about the list maker as well. Thanks for this!

    What about Chaucer for the 14th century?

  3. May 24, 2011 1:41 pm

    First, the list starts with the 11th century so Jesus was never under consideration. And, as you’ll read in comments by another reader, the show used “point of the spear” people to represent accomplishments achieved by many people working separately. Mendel may well fall into that category.

    As I noted in the intro, the arts were problematic in putting together the list. There are probably enough over the last millennium to put together a substantial list of dancers, musicians, composers, sculptors, artists, and writers. Chaucer would certainly be on that list.

    • Bob Seidensticker permalink
      May 24, 2011 2:23 pm

      So who was #1 then? It doesn’t show up in my browser.

      • May 24, 2011 3:43 pm

        Gute…Gutenberg, that is.

        Sent from my iPhone

  4. May 24, 2011 1:42 pm

    These comments were sent to me via email:

    That show was actually on A&E’s “Biography.”

    Sadly, by their rules you didn’t even make it to 80, since they lumped together people whose accomplishments were hopelessly intertwined. (The Wright brothers, Crick & Watson, etc.)

    They also used some “point of the spear” people to represent accomplishments that were in fact achieved by many people working separately. (Neil Armstrong)

    Princess Di made it only because the producers allowed a popular vote component to pick some of the spots, while the rest were chosen by a panel of experts. I’m guessing that in hindsight they probably wished they had given the experts veto power over the worst public choices.

    I can’t resist adding my own to the 18th century: English clockmaker John Harrison, who invented the first clock that would work accurately enough on board a ship to allow longitude to be calculated. (It was basically the GPS of its day.)

  5. May 24, 2011 1:43 pm

    Thanx! Unquestionably Harrison belongs on the list. I’d forgotten about his contribution, even tho I read the book, Longitude, documenting his work.

  6. NRJ permalink
    May 25, 2011 7:23 pm

    It’s always interesting to see how much we value our own presence – that is, every list of “major”, “important” or “influental” people all seem to feel that the closer the time to our lives, the more important folks are that exist. I’ve especially noted this case in music and literature, perhaps because I’ve followed them more closely. I think one really needs to narrow down their choices to a period and a particular category – such as astronomy, physics, jazz, painting, etc., to even begin making a real list. And why Roosevelt, but not Eisenhower or Truman, who had as much influence world-wide? Remember, Roosevelt may have helped us out of the depression (which was not necessarily a world-wide problem), but he got us into WWII, not out of it. And Lincoln certainly had a world-wide impact by closing down the lid on slavery, which impacted both the views on all humans as people, and the way the world would begin the real age of manufacturing. As to the comments on Jesus, perhaps we should also discuss Buddah and Mohammad and Confucius, et al if we are going to discuss the origins of religion and it’s impact around the world. And if so, why not start that list with God (whatever and however it may be viewed)?
    None-the-less, a fun exercise…

    • May 26, 2011 2:39 pm

      True, there are far more entries for the 19th and 20th centuries than for earlier ones, but that’s in good part due to the fact that I’m much more familiar with that more recent history and it’s easier to come up with names. It’s also due in part to the advances being made in so many fields of endeavor.

      If the list were to include both millennia, than certainly those you cite would be on the list (except for Buddha who was born in the 1st century BCE).

      I think I would have to include Eisenhower on the list but I’m holding out on Lincoln. The British were far ahead of the rest of the world in both their opposition to slavery and leadership of the Industrial Revolution.

      I’m sure there are some prominent scientists I’m also overlooking.

      • NRJ permalink
        May 26, 2011 6:59 pm

        You illustrate my point about these types of surveys. We always assume that we are somehow in the most important period because it is what we know about. I’ve always felt that specific subjects or ideas would be more important than specific people. For example, although you list Bill Gates, he was really a minor cog in the development of the computer, although he did much to make it grow fast. But the folks who developed transistors, micro-chips and the early computer languages, etc, were much more important in the over-all picture. With time we tend to lose track of people anyway, and think more in terms of real history. For example, which was more important in modern painting, Picasso or cubism? Or in jazz, Dizzy Gillespie or bebop. Or in science, Einstein or the evolving theories of energy, time, space and the atom (which have a very long history)? I do think the British were important in setting their opposition to slavery, although they also had a long period in which they were the main traders in slaves, including in the US. But the United States was seen as the emerging “new world” power by Europe and they set the standards for much of the idnustrial revolution and developed the machinery to do away things such as child labor and, ultimately slavery. I think Lincoln was very symbolic to the rest of the world when he took his stand – understanding it was as politically motivated as the rest of the world’s was. My only point about Buddha was to reply to the comments about the omisssion of Jesus, to which you had alread made a response. If we really want to go back in time, who invented the wheel, or early writing, or language? These were people, but no one remembers the individual. I believe that even with our current written record keeping, in the next millenium very few of the names on your list will be remembered on anyone’s “importance” list, but many of their evolutionary accomplishments will…

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