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Who Are the World's 5 Most Famous Historical Figures?


"...the authors present the rankings of more than one thousand of history's most significant people..."

Who are history's most popular figures?

Authors and researchers Steve Skiena and Charles Ward attempted to answer this very question in their new book, "Who's Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank."

Following quantitative extensive analysis, Skiena, who is a computer science professor, and Ward, who works for Google, determined that the following five individuals are history's biggest, most popular names:

  1. Jesus
  2. Napoleon
  3. William Shakespeare
  4. Muhammad
  5. Abraham Lincoln

So, how were these rankings determined?

A screen shot from Jesus' profile as published on

In researching for the book, Skiena and Ward compared the reputations of various historical figures by exploring millions of opinions and perspectives on each person.

From Jesus Christ to George Washington and Aristotle, some of the nation -- and world's -- most well-known figures were examined and subsequently ranked.

"Along the way, the authors present the rankings of more than one thousand of history's most significant people in science, politics, entertainment, and all areas of human endeavor," reads an official description of the book.

It continues, "Anyone interested in history or biography can see where their favorite figures place in the grand scheme of things. While revisiting old historical friends and making new ones, you will come to understand the forces that shape historical recognition in a whole new light."

Skiena detailed the process through which he and Ward conducted their research.

"The input variables that we're using tend to be quantities extracted largely from Wikipedia," he said. "Things like -- how long somebody's article is, how many times people read it, how central it is, how many times people edit it."

The researchers used computers to correlate related data sources and to assess each individual's historical significance.

Of course, it wasn't only Wikipedia information that was used. These "related" sources included poll ratings, lists and rankings in previously written books and, when relevant, the current price for both autographs and paintings.

According to Religion News Service, the two relied upon both Wikipedia and Google ngrams, which are a searchable collection of words in English language books, as the basis of their research.

This presents a few potential research problems, including a bias toward English-language sources and the sometimes inaccurate information that appears on Wikipedia.

But the researchers are confident in their work.

"Our rankings do a pretty good job because they are a meta analysis of many different factors," Skiena explained.

A screen shot from Hitler's profile as published on

Each historical figure was rated on two specific indicators: celebrity and gravitas. The former is based on personal achievement and its related notoriety and the latter is based simply on how popular a person is.

"A figure like Britney Spears is going to score very high in celebrity and very low in gravitas," he added, noting that the reverse would be true of Aristotle.

Not all of the ranked figures are revered or loved. Consider that Adolf Hitler ranks as the seventh biggest name on the list -- with the rankings having a male-heavy dominance.

Religion News Service details some of the challenges the authors faced in putting their list together as well as additional information on the process.

Find out more about the book here.


Featured image via Cambridge University Press


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