Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Top-tier people, ideas, inventions, events, and countries from 1700-present

My younger brother wanted my take on the five most influential and important people, ideas, inventions, events, and countries from the beginning of the 18th Century to the present. I'm notoriously bad at comprising such lists, especially off the top of my head. That's why normative rankings I post here are always (uh, except this time) comprised via a quantitative formula that I am able to explain.

My choices should be enough to cut it in high school honors history, but reader lists would be greatly appreciated. I can never tap that collective erudition enough.

Shooting from the hip in response to a request like his allows me to reflect on why I lean towards some thing and leave another out. Dressing downs for my inclusions and/or omissions are also welcome. I ticked off fifteen people to insulate myself as much as possible from looking foolish by missing somone truly monumental, although in leaving the list devoid of 18th or 19th Century British economists (and every US President including Washington, as Half Sigma points out), I probably did so nonetheless.


1) Karl Marx
2) Immanuel Kant
3) Charles Darwin
4) Isaac Newton
5) Alexander Hamilton
6) Josef Stalin
7) Napolean Bonaparte
8) Winston Churchill
9) Albert Einstein
10) Thomas Edison
11) Ben Franklin
12) Francis Galton
13) Adolf Hitler
14) Mao Zedong
15) Ronald Reagan


- Natural Selection
- Marxism
- Isonomy (codified equality under the law)
- Secularization of government, politics, culture
- Nationalism


- Gasoline-powered internal combustion engine
- Airplanes (or human-on-board flight)
- Microprocessor/PC/internet
- Modern antibiotics
- Steam power


- American Revolution
- Industrial Revolution
- French Revolution
- World War II
- Landing a man on the moon in '69


- US
- Great Britain
- Russia
- Japan
- France


Half Sigma said...

George Washington doesn't make the list?

John Savage said...

"although in leaving the list devoid of 18th or 19th Century economists, I probably did so nonetheless"

Does that mean you don't consider Karl Marx an economist?

Audacious Epigone said...


Like I said, I'm bad at these sorts of things.


I meant to say "devoid of 18/19 Century British economists".

Anonymous said...

Could you change that to Gasoline-powered.

Gas-powered brings to mind LPG/LNG in other parts of the English-speaking world.

BillyBob said...

You hit on many of the important industrial events, but I would like to add a couple of more....Arguably, there could be a couple of hundred items listed in each category. Here's mine:
Movies: Remember, movie theaters were the first place the public could see news in motion. Prior to that it was limited to print and radio.
Immediately following movies, of course, was television--while introduced in the forties, and taking off in the fifties, allowed us the basis for how we receive the majority of information today..Imagine what life would be today without CRT's, a direct derivative of tv?
The telephone instantly brought people together, and communication, the fabric of our society today became instantaneous--think the roots of the internet.
Lastly, transportation, particularly rail and air travel: The primary goal of a family's survival was food production, and with the railroads criss-crossing the country with fresh produce and other food items year round, other areas of development occured.

agnostic said...

Adam Smith.

Germany over Japan, for sure.

Newton wasn't doing much after 1700. He should be replaced by Gauss, if you included Newton for math. If for physics, just go with Einstein.

Ronald Regan -- emphasizing the recent past too much.

I'm no history buff, but I'd say Lenin over Stalin. He paved the way for Stalin, plus most communist revolutionaries start out Leninist or Maoist.

Airplanes are overrated or too specific -- harnessing / controlling electricity is more important.

Russian Revolution or Chinese Revolution would win over the moon landing.

End of persecution of Ashekenazi Jews -- the last century hasn't been called "The Jewish Century" for nothing.

Somewhere you have to work in the Demographic Transition / drop in fertility rates, either in events or ideas.

The dandies doing away with knee-britches, silk stockings, brocaded coats, facial powder, and wigs.

Audacious Epigone said...


There are several modes of transportation and of communication that arguably deserve a spot in the inventions category. Movies and rail are both good ones. You might even say the concept of a "shrinking world" belongs in the ideas category.


Refreshing myself on Newton's life, you're definitely right. In his last 30 years, he was primarily tied up in government and writing (or at least having published) religious tracts.

Re: emphasizing the recent past too much, that's the case with Japan. Prior to the Meiji Restoration, which took place right in the middle of the time frame being considered, Japan was a non-player. Only in the last half century or so has Japan become more important than Germany.

How about the invention of modern contraceptives to capture the fertility downturn?

agnostic said...

I would just talk about the Demographic Transition itself, like the Industrial Revolution. Contraception doesn't have anything to do with the D.T.

(This is one of the few times where there is experimental evidence on humans of public policy. They tried to lower fertility in Bangladesh to ameliorate the overcrowding, saturating one area with info, education, contraceptives, etc., and leaving a similar area untouched. Fertility rates began and ended at the same levels!)

agnostic said...

That's unclear: fertility rates started at the same level in both areas, and decreased in both, but by the same amount.

Audacious Epigone said...


Contraception doesn't have anything to do with the D.T.

I think you have to qualify that statement. The availability of contraceptives alone aren't enough to guarantee the major drop in fertility below replacement levels, but without modern contraceptives would it possible for, say, Spain's TFR to be as low as it is today? Don't they at least facilitate self-immolation through failure to procreate (how loaded/alarmist a question that is!)?

agnostic said...

No, because again that would mean that in the two areas of Bangladesh, the control region would've dropped at some rate due to non-contraceptive factors, while the experimental region would've dropped that rate plus the rate due to contraception. But the two regions had the same decline in birth rates.

Audacious Epigone said...


So you're saying contraceptives have zero effect on fertility? How are TFRs kept so low without them? Coitus interruptus?

agnostic said...

There's a good review paper by ... I can't remember his name, Pratchett or something, from the World Bank, showing that of all measures, "desired fertility" (e.g., ask women how many kids they want) is the best predictor of actual fertility. Just google "desired fertility" and it should bring up a JSTOR link.

I don't recall if the correlation between availability of contraception and actual fertility is zero, but it's very low, makes little difference.

agnostic said...

To more directly answer your question: you're assuming that all females are of the mindset that if there's contraception available, they'll use it.

But if their desired fertility is high, they just won't use it -- as freely available as it may be, and as educated about it as they may be.

Audacious Epigone said...


Sharp memory. Here's the paper referred to.

As Pritchett shows, the availability of contraceptives has little downward pressure on fertility rates--desired fertility and TFR rates correlate at .95. But where it seems to me that they must have some effect is in allowing those who desire low fertility to actually have low fertility. If you're an 18 yo girl who only wants one kid but your sexual life has 25 years left, how, without modern contraceptives (I'd include abortion procedures from the mid-1800s on to that), are you going to avoid popping out more than just one kid?

Fugu said...

This sort of falls out of your year restriction, but I would add John Locke (end of 1600's). His influence in modern western civ would be hard to ignore.