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The 100 Most Significant Figures in History

It’s an interesting question.

“Who are the most significant people in history?”

It’s the perfect example of the kind of question we should be asking our kids. A question that doesn’t have an easy answer. That raises other questions. That we can argue about.

Seriously. What do you mean by “significant?” Who decides? What is the criteria? How many people get to make the list? All of history? The entire world? Men? Women?

Plus . . . it’s a list. Who doesn’t love a list of 100 somethings?

The latest answer to the question can be found over at Time magazine.

. . . 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.

I also like the way the researchers weighted and compared current with past people. How does a contemporary Britney Spears rank against ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle?

This seems like the kind of question you ask at the start of the year to suck kids into the fun of history. Create a March Madness type of tournament where kids are assigned a historical character (or select their own), seed them, and let them loose to do research, present findings to a panel, and move up the ladder. Develop your own tournament or use something from Josh.

The social studies department at Wamego Middle School created a cool Hall of Fame activity that incorporates some sweet literacy pieces.

Maybe do this at the end of a unit. List the people and decide which five make the cut for entry into the next history iBook.

The top ten?

  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

Let the arguing begin!

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Three US presidents and no British monarchs? No Marx, whose ideas shaped much of the modern world, or Genghis Khan or Attila, who shaped the ancient? Montesquieu, who came up with many of the ideas used for the foundation of the American system of government? Julius Caesar or Hammurabi or Narmer? I might pull a couple of the presidents and add some antecedents.

    Feel free to pick my choices apart 🙂

    I did something similar with my 20th century history class – they had to pick the sound of the century: what sound, which had not been heard prior to 1900, defined the 20th century? Lots of good arguments in favour and against a bunch of different contenders.

    December 12, 2013
    • glennw #


      Love the sound idea! The list does have some holes – that’s what makes this sort of thing so much fun. Thanks for sharing!


      December 12, 2013
  2. Jeremy Greene #

    Check out The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History:

    And if I may humbly add my activity using the painting Discussing the Divine Comedy with Dante here (Addendum F and in text): What I like about this painting is that is skewed to East Asian personalities.

    December 12, 2013
  3. This is my go to article for tournaments: Can easily be adopted to different topics and abbreviated or extended formats.

    December 12, 2013
  4. The other thing to do with the Time list is to question it. The way they aggregated certainly privileges literate societies. Thus, a literate culture with many newspapers will have many more people on the list than say Pakistan or Indonesia which is less literate. Even though, we could guess that they were thinking of Muhammad more than Jesus throughout their lives. And more on local affairs than foreign leaders, excepting the British, of course.

    December 12, 2013
    • glennw #


      Thanks for the comment! I like your ideas about literate vs. non-literate societies. Thanks also for the links to other resources. The link to the tournament rules and instructions is exactly what I was thinking about – awesome!


      December 12, 2013
  5. Amanda Jessee #

    A&E did a cool series in 2000 about the top people from the previous millenia. Johann Gutenberg ranked #1. I was surprised, but quickly agreed. Look around at all the print material!

    December 12, 2013
    • glennw #


      I would have never thought of Gutenberg but you’re right – huge impact!

      Will need to go check out the PBS series. Thanks for sharing!


      December 12, 2013
  6. David K. #

    In the title it says “significant” ….. That is hard to narrow down…. Let me throw out my top five “significant”. I would say these people will continue to have had in impact long after people have forgotten their names.

    1. Archimedes
    2. Gutenberg
    3 Alexander Bell
    4 Thomas Edison
    5. Lawrence Roberts ( Inventer of the internet )

    December 17, 2013
    • David K. #

      I know I went with inventors for my top five… I would start adding Alexander the Great, Mohammed, Jesus, Adolf Eichmann, John Locke if I continued down the list.

      December 17, 2013
      • glennw #


        Like your list! Started me thinking about having different groups of kids create lists based on different topics – politics, science/tech, social, entertainment, religion – and then have the kids argue for putting people from their list on the master Top ten list.

        Thanks for the comment!


        December 17, 2013
  7. Great list to get kids talking! Our Modern History kids do a unit called the Power of One and, after discussing Hitler’s rise to and maintenance of power, have to choose a figure from the last 200 years and argue their significance. There’s the Martin Luther King Jnrs, but one year I also got Winston Churchill, Idi Amin, Malcolm X and a few different ones. I did Mao for the exemplar. Lots of great debates!

    December 19, 2013
    • glennw #

      I like the idea of the “Power of One!” Really forces kids to evaluate and support ideas with evidence.

      Thanks for sharing!


      December 19, 2013

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