The Most Important People in History

Once upon a time, we had a quiz on our site called "The Most Important People in History". It was based on a book by author Michael H. Hart. And while it was one of our most popular quizzes, I didn't like it.

In my opinion, Hart's list of history's 100 most influential people has some major problems. For one, the biblical character Moses appears on the list. There is no historical evidence that Moses ever existed. If we include Moses, why not include Noah, or better yet, Adam and Eve? There were some other strange decisions as well. John F. Kennedy appears in his top 100 while Abraham Lincoln was left out. In any case, I thought we could do better. So I made my own list.

JetPunk's 100 Most Important People in History

You're Going to Hate My List

Top 100 lists get a lot of hate. For example, here are some of the comments on our Top 100 NBA Players Quiz:

I have no problem with Steph Curry being up here, but above Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen and Wade this early in his career? Come on now ESPN...

OHHH the disrespect on this list!

this quiz is an outrage how is LeBron so damn high he is a bum he is basically the smartest kid on the shortbus. nobody in this era should be on the list period nothing but overrated bums

The Top 100 NBA Players list was compiled by a panel of experts. People think they know better than a panel of experts. Now imagine it was just one person who wrote the list. It's easy to find some "flaw" in the ranking, but making a list like this is hard.

Existing Lists are Bad

In addition to Michael Hart's book, there are a couple other different lists of most influential people.

Who's Bigger. This website (and book) used computer algorithms to make a list of the most influential people in history. The results are predictable. We learn, for example, that George W. Bush was the 36th most important person in the entire sweep of world history. Pity Mao Zedong who only ranks 151st.

Ranker.com. This list pools the wisdom of the internet more directly by allowing people to vote. It's not the worst list ever, but we still get the Moses problem (#17), and fan favorite Nikola Tesla shows up at (#19) just ahead of Buddha.

In any case, the state of the art in these lists is not that great.

My List is Bad Too, and Wrong

While I firmly believe that my list is a lot better than the three other lists mentioned, it's still bad and wrong. It is impossible to make an objectively correct list. I am sure that I overlooked some people and rated others too highly. The list will be revised over time as I acknowledge and correct my mistakes.

Anticipated Criticism #1

Your list has too many mass murderers

This is a list of the most influential people in history, good or bad. Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler were not good people. But they majorly changed the course of history. That's what influential means.

Anticipated Criticism #2

Only four women?

Throughout history, women were denied the chance to participate in the public sphere. It's hard to start a religion or conquer Asia if society expects you to stay home and raise kids. This list is not an honor roll, it's a list of people who changed the world, for better or worse. And to change the world, you need to have the opportunity to do so. If Columbus hadn't been born in a specific time and place, he never would have sailed across the Atlantic.

Anticipated Criticism #3

There are too few people from Africa / South America on the list

See the above. To change the world, you need to be born at the right time and place. A person born in the United Kingdom in 1800 had a much better chance than a person born in Kenya in 1500. It doesn't mean one person is better than another. Keep in mind that many people on this list were terrible people.

Anticipated Criticism #4

What about mothers / wives of historical figures?

In 2014, Kevin Durant (#22 on our list of greatest basketball players) was named MVP of the NBA. When given the award, he thanked his mom saying "You da real MVP".

Everyone is who they are because of their parents and loved ones. But if we were to include them on the list, it would be ridiculous. With a few symbolic exceptions, my list only includes the people who directly effected change. Otherwise #1 on the list would surely be Mitochondrial Eve, the African woman who lived 150,000 years ago that all humans are Earth are descended from.

Anticipated Criticism #4

Your list is too Western, too anglo-Centric

This is probably true. Like most Westerners, I know comparatively little about Chinese and Indian history.

That said, the current world we live in has been massively shaped by European, and especially English-speaking culture. Scientists living in Europe and the United States made huge advances in the 19th and 20th centuries while there were few significant discoveries in other parts of the world. This isn't because Westerners are smarter, it's because they had the opportunity to make these discoveries.

In Conclusion

Please try to be charitable. I did the best I could in making this list and I know it's not perfect. I hope you enjoy the quiz, and try to remember that complaining on the internet almost never makes the world a better place.

+3
Level 67
Jan 12, 2019
Am I missing something, or did you not include a link to your list?
+5
Level ∞
Jan 12, 2019
Lol, it has now been added
+2
Level 67
Jan 21, 2019
Thanks!
+7
Level 56
Jan 13, 2019
Those complaints you encounter in this blog shouldn't be complaints to your list, but complaints to history. You can't make a list of the most influental People of history and include only "good" people or include as many men as women. I think it's a good list though, as you mentioned, there can be no "correct" list.
+3
Level 61
Jan 14, 2019
How about Ada Lovelace who invented a lot of coding? That's the foundation of much of our economy today.
+1
Level ∞
Jul 6, 2020
Had she never existed there would be practically no difference in our current world. True of 99.999% of us, alas.
+3
Level 66
Jan 19, 2019
Hi, you wrote 'making a list like his is hard'.
+3
Level 80
Mar 16, 2019
I was considering making a quiz like this myself, based on subjective opinion. About greatest people, or most atrocious empires, or more important inventions. I anticipated all of the same criticisms you have. This is one reason why making a quiz based on something objective, or at least with some attributable source, is often much more attractive. But I still might do one of those quizzes some day.
+1
Level 80
Mar 16, 2019
Is the original quiz gone now? Pity. It had one of the more lively debates going in the comments section of all the quizzes on the site.
+1
Level 68
Mar 18, 2019
I appreciate that you went to these lengths and also provided and accepted criticism on your list. That said, I do not understand the reasoning at including John Lennon over Michael Jackson. If you want to have the Beatles on the list as a group, that makes sense, but Lennon as a solo musician does not hold nearly as much sway over pop music as Mike.
+1
Level 65
Mar 28, 2019
Not over music, but I think Lennon was huge figure socially and politically, which Jackson never was.
+1
Level 73
Mar 19, 2019
This is a good list. You did very well, Quizmaster. One change I would personally make is Benjamin Franklin in place of someone--I don't know who.
+1
Level 68
Mar 21, 2019
"JetPunk's 100 Most Important People in History" is one of the quizzes that almost completely ignore women. I made my own quiz about just women, which thankfully got featured. I also made a second one which unfortunately seems to be too obscure for the public audience.
+5
Level 59
Mar 22, 2019
It's not ignoring women, just acknowledging the fact that for the vast majority of history they have been less influential than men, owing to the fact that they were not given the opportunity to be as influential.
+2
Level 80
Mar 26, 2019
I think that, even given the same opportunities as men, you're going to end up with more men influencing the world than women. It's not that women aren't capable, or that individual women are not smart or talented, but rather than in a large population of people there are certain trends that emerge among humans. First, while men and women have the same average intelligence, there are more outliers with men - there are more men who are either very stupid or who are geniuses. While there are certainly brilliant women, there aren't as many of them. Many of the men on the list are there because they were brilliant. Additionally, to get involved in something like politics or business you almost have to be a psychopath. Men are more often psychopaths than women. Many men on the list are there because they were politicians, business leaders, inventors or great warriors. Men are also more physically capable than women. They can do things like climb Mt Everest or win the World Cup more easily.
+2
Level 80
Mar 26, 2019
All that being said, I do think the original list, which QM borrowed a lot from, was pretty sexist. The most obvious example of this IMO, as I've pointed out, is the inclusion of Pincus over Margaret Sanger. That makes no sense at all.

Margaret Sanger was fighting for political reform from an early age as early as the 1910s. She started publishing a newsletter pushing for women's issues. At the time, even discussing contraception, of any kind, was illegal in the USA. She started smuggling contraceptives into the country and opened the first birth control clinic in the country in New York where she gave out contraceptives and information to women. She and her associates would go to jail for these activities multiple times, but she used the court cases to raise awareness about these and other issues, significantly shifting moral attitudes. She founded Planned Parenthood which became the 1st and largest international organization of its kind ...
+1
Level 80
Mar 26, 2019
... promoting sexal education, birth control, and reproductive health all over the world. She led this organization until she was 80 years old, all the while always fighting for various women's issues. Though she had already succeeded through endless persecution in getting various birth control methods and information to women all over the world, methods and information that had previously been illegal or unavailable, she also convinced philanthropist Katharine McCormick to fund research into oral contraceptives. With this funding, a team of researchers was able to develop the birth control pill. Sanger pushed for a variety of liberal social reforms including advocating for the idea that women should be able to enjoy sex without fear of it leading to reproduction - extremely forward thinking for a woman born in the 1800s. She also spoke out against prejudice toward homosexuals and was a strong advocate for free speech. She is credited for inspiring the comic book character Wonder Woman
+1
Level 80
Mar 26, 2019
She was named Humanist of the Year in 1957 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 31 times. There have been innumerous works done about her life and parks, clinics, statues, buildings, awards, etc. named in her honor.

What did Pincus do? Well... he took the money that Margaret Sanger was able to procure for research, and with it he recruited some other researchers notably gynecologist John Rock, and became the CO-inventor of combined oral contraceptives. He was one guy in a team of researchers who looked in to something that Sanger fought to get funding for. and that's it. He was not involved in politics or social reform (Rock was). He has no other notable inventions to his name. And he can't properly be credited with inventing the pill because he didn't even conduct the research in to it himself.
+1
Level ∞
Mar 27, 2019
Interesting. I'll take another look when I update the quiz. If he didn't actually invent the pill, then I don't think he deserves to be on the list.
+1
Level 80
Mar 27, 2019
He worked on it, but others did most of the important research, McCormick funded the research, Sanger secured funds for the research, Sanger pushed for the research to be done, Sanger pushed for the social reforms that made it possible for women to know about and take the pill, Sanger was among those pushing for social change in the decades leading up to the pill that made such research even possible.

Anyway point is, if you believe that the sexual revolution, the availability of contraception to women, or changing attitudes about sexuality, feminism, and women's rights in the 20th century is important, that's all well and good, but give credit where credit is due. Sanger deserves that credit more than probably anyone else. Not the co-inventor of one of the above birth control methods (that she funded).
+1
Level 58
Jul 23, 2019
About the English having more opportunity to discover stuff, in maths polish, russian and indian people were and are some of the best, discovering heaps of stuff all the time. For example, the only Millenium Problem* ever to be solved was solved by a russian guy called Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman. After solving it he lived in some hut in Sibiria. *Seven extremely important mathematical problems that would change a lot in maths when the answer is found, if there is a solution.
+1
Level ∞
Jul 6, 2020
Solving Millennium Problems doesn't really matter though... I'm in awe of Perelman's intellect, but the world hasn't changed in the slightest because of his proof.
+1
Level 50
Jul 2, 2020
In Your Blog you Point out that your list is Too Western, which Is true.
So, I created this Quiz on Important/ Famous/Influential People in Indian History.

I suggest that you should incorporate some people from my list into Quiz.

Maybe, Mani, Pelé, Charles Dickens ,John Lennon and Walt Disney could Make way for Guru Nanak, Rama, Aryabhatta , Subhas Chandra Bose?
+1
Level 33
Jul 14, 2020
Thank you for this disclaimer. I was just about to complain before I clicked the link!
+1
Level 37
Sep 18, 2020
Your list is great but you should add salahuddin