Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Who Are the 100 Most Influential People In History?

A List of the Absolute Most Important People Ever...as determined by some guy you've never heard of from 1978.

When I started college - which was about half a decade ago now - my first history course began with a primer on Michael H. Hart’s book “The 100.” The book, which was published in the late 1970s, was a listing of the 100 people that author considered to be the absolute most important in human history - hence, the subtitle “A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History.” 

Ever since that afternoon (in which the professor made us guess who made the top ten), I have had an interest in scoping out the entire list. This was only heightened when, a few years later, I realized that the same author released a “speculative history” book in which he counted down the 100 most important people in history from a hypothetical year 3000 perspective.

Well, it only took me a good five years, but I recently got around to actually reading Hart’s 1978 opus. As with anything you’ve been waiting on for several years, the experience really couldn’t live up to the lofty expectations I had for it, but it still serves as a springboard for some interesting debate about history, what human culture deems important and ultimately, what to make of the present in front of us.

The first thing you have to note about “The 100” (which is nominally erroneous, since the inclusion of the Wright Brothers technically makes this a listing of the 101 most influential persons in history), is that it is really, really out of date by now. Granted, the beat-to-shit hardcover copy my university had on file would probably automatically inform you of that, but it isn’t until you delve into the tome that you realize just how vast a gap in technology and culture there is between 1978 and right now.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was rather apparent that the pre-November 1989 world was one anchored around fears of Communism and atomic warfare. Of the 100 people on Hart’s official scorecard, approximately one tenth of the list is comprised of either individuals central to the expansionism of Communism (Marx, Mao, Lenin, etc.) OR innovators in the field of atomic theory (Einstein, Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, you get the picture.) Throughout the book, Hart makes some ill-advised assumptions that, as a global institute, both Communism and atomic advancement would continue to play central roles in the development of human civilization, which, yeah, kind of went out the window around 1992. Hart seems to be completely oblivious to the emergence of the two largest specters of the modern age, the Internet and globalization, which aren’t even hinted at in “The 100.” In fact, Hart’s only mention of computing is a brief write-up on Charles Babbage in the index of the book, whom he said wasn’t quite worthy of inclusion for inventing this thing called “a computer.” Obviously, there’s no way Hart could have predicted a complete inversion of the global order in ten years’ time, so we can cut him some slack here - although, as the modern products we are, it’s pretty hard to trudge some of the book’s wholly inaccurate predictions.

As for the role call itself, it’s bound to stir some controversy. I mean, shit, how could a list of the like not get people both rabbling and rousing, after all? 

As a general topic, I’m rather leery of giving credit to single individuals for massive movements throughout humanity, based on the almost-universally accepted truth that nobody is really responsible for doing anything by themselves. I’ve brought up the “Great Man” fallacy many, many times before on this blog, and when you’re analyzing a book dedicated completely to celebrating just such a fallacy, there’s going to be some moments where you just feel iffy about the entire prospect.

To make things even more contentious, Hart makes the decision to list several people that, well, have “historical actualities” that are extremely, extremely debatable. To this day, historians are pretty divided on whether or not “figures” such as Lao Tzu and Homer really existed, and both of them…as well as some soon to be addressed figures of debatable historicity…ended up making Hart’s official list, while 20th century titans like FDR, Churchill, Gandhi and MLK are relegated to brief nods at the tail end of the book.

The top ten demonstrates just how thorny these kind of rankings can be. Within the top ten, there are three “people” (Jesus, St. Paul and the Buddha) listed that have virtually zero historically verified records, and an additional three that have historical records that are a mishmash of realities and fabrications (Muhammad, Confucius and Ts’ai Lun - the guy historically credited for coming up with the idea of paper, in case you were wondering.) That means that, of the top ten most influential people in all of history - per Hart, anyway - only four (Newton, Gutenberg, Columbus and Einstein) of them have verified, historical records that grant us conclusive proof that they existed and said or did what so many claimed they did. 

Meet the most important person in history (according to Michael Hart, anyway.)

Obviously, Hart’s decision to rank Muhammad as the absolute most important person in history is going to be met with a lot of conflicting attitudes. Hart’s argument that he deserves the number one spot primarily on the basis that he’s the only human in history to serve as both a triumphant religious and military leader is pretty agreeable, but regarding the expansion of Islam - as remarkably fast as it grew - I think Hart tends to give him way too much credit. Personally, I could vouch for Muhammad’s selection for the top spot from a historical standpoint, pending he shared credit with two other figures vital to the growth of Islam, Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al-Khattab (who, to Hart’s credit, did make the list at around the 51st slot).

A lot of people accuse Hart of being biased towards scientists and industrial innovators with this book (as the two professions make up at least half of the total list), but I honestly think he doesn’t give them enough representation. There’s no denying that political figures like Oliver Cromwell and Simon Bolivar had tremendous influences on their epochs, but at the current, the political leanings and governmental ideologies of guys like Francis Bacon, Voltaire and Rousseau are virtually irrelevant to modern civilization. We can agree that Hitler and Stalin had a tremendous amount of influence on their contemporary world, but their influence on modernity are virtually non-existent; meanwhile, the influence of minds like Nikolaus Otto and Wilhelm Rontgen are still vital components of our day to day lives. Eventually, the world of 3000 A.D. will reflect upon World War II as “just another battle,” the same way we think about the Napoleonic Wars as just another series of “pointless” skirmishes contested forever ago - that said, future generations will no doubt reflect on the technological boom of the 20th century, and still see such a revolution as integral to the world in which they inhabit.

Of course, when reading something like this, you can’t help but think about compiling your own list. Rather than simply refine and regurgitate a lot of Hart’s points, I instead thought about some potential names I would add to the list knowing what we know today about the so-called “Information Revolution.”

Clearly, Tim Berners-Lee - perhaps the man that can lay the greatest claim to “developing” the World Wide Web - would deserve a spot on the revised list. Seeing as how Claude Shannon’s “Information Theory” laid the groundwork for just about every digital communication breakthrough of the 20th century, it would seem unwise to not include him, as well. Additionally, Victor Hayes (the “father” of WiFi), Roger Easton (the man credited with developing GPS tracking) Leon Theremin (the first man to develop an RFID-like tracking device) and George H. Heilmeier (who pioneered liquid crystal display technology) all seem to be shoo-ins had Hart published his book now instead of during the Carter Administration. Looking ahead, it seems as if Sun Jiadong and Vladimir Putin are destined to join such a list, pending the lofty aspirations of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program and Eurasian Union bear even half the fruits they are projected to yield.

In a good one hundred years we might just look back on this obscure, pioneering Russian electronica musician as one of the most influential persons in history. And no, I'm actually being dead serious about that. Really.

As douchey as it is, I have to take Hart out to pasture on some of his selections and omissions, however. Hart ranks Euclid at #22, even though a number of the mathematical advents he supposedly ushered in were pioneered by unheralded Mesopotamians centuries early. Likewise, all time son-of-a-bitch hall-of-famer Thomas Edison makes the list at #38 (despite the fact that he invented very, very few of the things he’s credited with), and for the kicker, Tesla isn’t even given an honorable mention in the back of the text. It also seems odd that Hegel wouldn’t make the official countdown, seeing as how the dude is pretty much responsible for coming up with the very idea of history as a quasi-scientific study, not to mention the fact that his ideas about the dialectic were pivotal in the formation of what would come to be known as communism. And perhaps showing a favoritism toward higher culture, Hart totally snubs the inventors of television and indoor plumbing - alas, the plight of Philo T. Farnsworth and Sir John Harrington doth continue.

Even weirder is Hart’s selection of John F. Kennedy at #80, who, for reasons that remain rather cloudy, he arbitrarily designates as the man most responsible for reaching the moon. I suppose the inclusion of JFK would make some sense pending the author brought up the Kennedy’s significance during the Cuban Missile Crisis (you know, that one event that almost led to humanity getting thermonuclear annihilated), but oddly, Hart doesn’t even bring it up in his write-up. I suppose if we’re going to go that route, two men that literally held the fate of humanity in their hands at two separate points in the Cold War - Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov - should likewise make appearances on the countdown. And lastly, don’t expect to see a lot of African or South American names on the countdown, as officially one Hispanic (Bolivar) makes the list, and the only representatives from the “Mother Continent” all just so happen to be Egyptian.

Yeah, you can bitch and moan about Hart getting a few “wrong ones” here and there, but at the end of the day, “The 100” is still a really fun read, and odds are you’ll pick up more than a few new facets of information about the world’s most revered and infamous peoples in the process. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that Genghis Khan was pretty much the real-life inspiration for Conan the Barbarian, nor was I aware that Francisco Pizarro pretty much conquered the entire continent of South America with a crew of less than 200 men. I was even more surprised to find out that Queen Isabella of Spain was the person most responsible for the Spanish Inquisition, and I almost peed myself when I found out that just about all of Jesus’ supposed quips and one-liner were lifted from either Confucius or Rabbi Hillel. Odds are, you’ve never even heard of figures like Mani and Edward Jenner before, and Hart gives us a TON of information on Chinese history, which, as Westerners, we know pretty much jack shit about.

That, and you have to give the dude some major props for his analytical breakdowns at the end of the book, which separate the figures on the list into all sorts of categories, like profession, nationality, and timeframe; and if you can’t sleep soundly tonight knowing that a good one fifth of the list were either Scottish and/or chronic sufferers of gout, I simply don’t know how you’ll ever doze off again.

1 comment:

  1. The Quran is a well preserved and historical account of not only the life of Prophet Mohammad but also his teachings so it cannot be said that there are no historical records in his case.
    influential people in history