In today’s connected world, “reach” will take you far. It’s no longer just about who you know. It’s about who you know on FaceBook. But for all the hemming and hawing about web presence, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the most influential names weren’t even around for the Internet takeover.
So, who are the most influential people ever to inhabit this world? Look no further than Wired’s measure of the most influential people. Combining a number of metrics utilizing Wikipedia data (like number of languages for which each person had a page), Wired’s list is an interesting reminder of the old school names (born before 1950) that make up the modern world.
5. Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
The youngest entry to this list, Einstein truly encapsulates the modern era. His push for knowledge and discovery is best remembered for the development of the theory of relativity, which basically dismantled Newtonian conceptions of space and time.
That alone would be enough to earn Einstein a place as one of the world’s most influential people. But for some people, inspiring countless scientific developments with more than 300 academic papers is simply not enough. Einstein’s reach also extends from his prominence in world affairs during the development of the atomic bomb in the Second World War. As a German and an America citizen, Einstein would subsequently lead the fight against nuclear weaponry until his death from an aneurysm in 1955.
4. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
Best remembered for his tenets of non-violence and peace, it’s easy to forget what a truly political figure Gandhi was. Fighting tirelessly against the presence of the Empire in India, Gandhi never stopped seeking the independence that would come with Swaraj. His career began when he mediated civil liberties disputes between Muslims and Hindus in South Africa. Subsequently he would teach and live the practice of self-reliance as the chief executive of the Indian National Congress where he extended his power through a policy of inclusion for Muslims, women, and even India’s Untouchables.
3. Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
Can you imagine a world without gravity? Not really without gravity, but one in which things simply fell and accelerated with no descriptive understanding of why?
As impossible as it is to conceive of, that was the world that Isaac Newton was born in to. By the time he gone, however, Newton would leave behind an understanding of gravity, three basic laws of motion, a complex description of the heavens, and more in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, widely considered the most influential scientific text ever.
That’s right. Newton not only made revolutionized the way in which every person perceived and experienced the world through science, he also wrote in Latin.
2. Confucius (551-479)
So far this list has been pretty heavily dominated by the West. Even Gandhi’s life was marked by his constant conflict with the Western world. But it’s worth noting that from an Eastern perspective, specifically a little country with, oh, over a third of the world’s population, there is no more relevant name in history than Confucius.
Even after the rise of Communism in China and centuries of socio-cultural progress, Confucius remains the philosophical touchstone for many. Specifically remembered are his Analects (the source of all those “Confucius say” jokes) and contributions to all of China’s Five Classics, in which he advocated for filial devotion, personal accountability and development, and an early version of the Golden Rule.
1. Jesus (c.2 BC – c.33 AD)
It’s no surprise that one of the most controversial figures, the founder figure of a widely followed religion, and a recognized prophet in others would end up at the top of this list. What is surprising though is that for such a widely known figure, there’s actually not that much that’s, well, known about Jesus. While scholars agree on the historicity of his existence as a Jewish teacher and subsequent crucifixion, details like his birthday and attributed accounts of his specific teachings are not always taken as the Gospel truth.
What really matters for our purposes here though are the myriad number of people that claim (or spurn) him as one of their own. And on that count, Jesus just can’t be beat.
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