The people who influenced history the most, the “movers and shakers” from ancient times until today, have one thing in common: they challenged the status quo. By and large, they were rebels who were willing to take on established norms and traditions. Keep reading to learn about some of the people who helped make the world the way it is today, for better or worse.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and teacher who lived in about the fifth century BCE. His teachings formed the basis for much of Chinese thought, particularly regarding family relationships (the role of wives to husbands and children to parents), morality in government, and the promotion of justice. The system of thought that he established became known as Confucianism and is still widely practiced in modern China. In the West, his theory has become translated into a form known as Neo-Confucianism.
The man who founded Microsoft and helped make personal computing accessible to the masses quickly became the wealthiest man in the world (although that title no longer belongs to him). In addition to pioneering his own computer software, he established the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help alleviate poverty in developing countries. Today the Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the United States and has been a part of significant healthcare initiatives, including the eradication of polio.
Winston Churchill was the prime minister of the United Kingdom during World War II and, along with Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, helped bring about the defeat of the German Third Reich. He conducted much of the war from his underground bunker and ordered blackouts of major cities to prevent the Nazi bombing raids from being able to target civilians. He also helped engineer the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which spelled the beginning of the end for the Nazis.
The iconic explorer did more than travel to the New World. He helped bring about the almost complete destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by bringing to them European diseases to which they were not immune. He helped open up the slave trade between Europe, the Americas, and Africa by bringing indigenous people back to Europe as slaves and also pioneered colonialism by paving the way for wealthy Europeans to build colonies and plantations in the West Indies. All of his influences were not necessarily helpful for the people around him.
We know very little about the historical figure of Homer except that he was probably a blind poet and wrote two of the most famous epics in history, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Iliad dramatizes the Trojan War, something that we may have never even heard of otherwise. The Odyssey tells of the return of Odysseus, one of the heroes of the Trojan War, back to his homeland. The poems also say of the role that the gods and goddesses supposedly played in these events.
Henry Ford didn’t just begin the Ford Automotive Company, which is still in operation today. He revolutionized production by creating an assembly line. Before Ford, products were produced by factory workers building one product from beginning to end. Ford sped this process up by having workers focus on one part of the final product. His method is still used today to mass-produce goods all over the world.
Michelangelo was one of the most famous artists of the Renaissance. He was a painter, a sculptor, pretty much anything that involved aesthetics. His most famous works are the statue of David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at Vatican City. Some consider him to have been the most celebrated artist of all time, while others compare him to his rival, Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential “Renaissance Man.”
Nelson Mandela‘s life and achievements were dramatized in the book and film Long Walk to Freedom. He was a lifelong activist for black rights in South Africa, though the violent activities that he endorsed as a young man led to him being imprisoned for nearly three decades. When he emerged from prison, he was a changed man who espoused nonviolence as a means of ensuring equal rights for blacks. He became the first black president of South Africa.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, penned the words of the Declaration of Independence. He also helped write the Constitution and became the third president of the new country. He is also remembered for having an affair with one of his slaves, producing illegitimate mixed-race children, and for pioneering the idea of “separation of church and state” in US politics.
Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. Many of the pieces that he wrote are still recognized today and even used in contemporary musical compositions. However, what is perhaps most remarkable about his career is that the infamous musician was completely deaf. There is a story that following one concert that he performed on the piano, a friend had to turn him around to see the audience’s thunderous because he could not hear it.
Marie Curie was one of the most noteworthy female scientists in history. She discovered radiation, which became crucial in X-ray technology, cancer treatments, and many other aspects of healthcare today. Curie won the Nobel Prize for her work, an accolade that was rarely awarded to a woman. Sadly, she was not aware of the dangers of radiation and died from exposure to it.
Benjamin Franklin, whose image is seen on the one-hundred-dollar bill, was one of the Founding Fathers and an all-around genius. He wrote an almanac for farmers that accurately predicted future weather patterns (Poor Richard’s Almanac) and helped discover electricity. Benjamin Franklin also invented bifocals and the Franklin Stove. Additionally, he was a crucial figure in the writing and signing of founding documents, such as the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
The Great Khan founded the Mongol Empire which, after his death, became the largest contiguous empire in all of history. The Mongol Invasions that he initiated terrorized people from Asia to Europe, even prompting the construction of underground cities so that people could hide until the danger had passed. As he requested after he died his body was buried in an unmarked grave. For Mongolians, a true mark of honor is proof that one is a descendant of the Great Khan.
The mystery around the death of the famous Austrian composer is almost as famous as the man himself. Mozart was a prodigious musician who composed the melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” when he was only three years old. By 17, he was a court musician in Salzburg. His incredible talent and arrogance drew the ire of established musicians, particularly Salieri, who, in the movie Amadeus, acknowledged his role in the death of the young musician.
Thomas Edison is most famous for his invention of the light bulb, but he did much more than that. Believed by many to be America’s greatest inventor, he also invented the phonograph, which enabled people to play records in their homes, and the motion picture camera. His discoveries helped pave the way for mass communication, particularly regarding the advancement of telegraph technology, the generation, and transmission of electricity, and sound recording.
The world as we know it would not exist without Johannes Gutenberg. Prior to his invention of the Gutenberg Press, books had to be painstakingly written by hand. They were prohibitively expensive, so only a few wealthy people owned them. The Gutenberg Press used moveable type to enable mass production of print materials. The first mass-produced book was the Bible, and things like newspapers followed it. His invention helped spark the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.
The “Little Emperor” is not so little in the history books. He rose to power during the French Revolution, which quickly spiraled into chaos and threatened to destroy the nation. Napoleon reunited it as a military dictator and went on to conquer much of Western Europe in the Napoleonic Wars. His defeat at Waterloo brought about an end to his empire; a European military empire would not be seen again until Adolf Hitler rose to power.
Martin Luther was the founder of the Protestant Reformation. He was a monk but became disillusioned with corruption inside the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding the selling of indulgences (people could pay money to the church in exchange for forgiveness of their sins, no questions asked). He set out to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within, but instead, he sparked a movement that created a major schism in Christendom, Protestantism.
Karl Marx was a bright man who is today remembered for, along with Friedrich Engels, writing the Communist Manifesto. He was exiled from his native Germany due to his extreme political views and lived much of the rest of his life in England, mostly impoverished and supported by the generosity of Engels. Then and now, people either love him or hate him. What they can’t do is ignore him.
The first Roman emperor, Julius Caesar transformed Rome from a republic into an empire. He expanded its military might while promoting virtue among Roman citizens, believing that the realm would be upheld through Roman families. He usurped for himself many of the powers and privileges that had previously belonged to the Senate, and along the way, he earned himself a good many enemies. Even his friends turned on him, and they stabbed him to death on the Ides of March.
The founder of the Buddhist religion was born a prince into a royal family, and his parents took great care to ensure that he was not exposed to any suffering. One day, he left the palace compound and saw extreme poverty and suffering, things that completely changed his life. He went on to sit under a lotus tree until he became “enlightened” as to how to avoid suffering and anguish. His teachings formed the basis of Buddhism, which has millions of followers today.
Nikola Tesla was a futurist and inventor. Born in Serbia, he emigrated from Serbia to the United States to work for Thomas Edison. He soon separated from his role model and found his own backing to pursue his discoveries and inventions in electrical current and providing electricity to the masses. Telsa even came up with a way to offer limitless power from the ground completely free, but his vision never became a reality because it would not be financially profitable.
The Hebrew slave-turned-prince, whose story is dramatized in the animated movie The Prince of Egypt, is believed to have written the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. After leading the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt through the desert for 40 years, he codified the system of laws that would become the foundation of the Jewish religion. The historical evidence regarding his life is disputed, but his significance cannot be understated.
You don’t have to be a good guy to prove to be influential. Case in point: Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party who was responsible for World War II and the deaths of tens of millions of people, including six million Jews in the Holocaust. However, few historians would debate the fact that without Hitler, the world today would look vastly different. One reason is that German war inventions changed the face of military technology.
The Father of the United States of America, George Washington was the man who led the Patriots to victory against the British during the American Revolution. He signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and as president, set many of the precedents that presidents today still follow. You may remember the iconic story of him cutting down the cherry tree and confessing to the crime because he cannot tell a lie; however, that story was false.
Born into dire poverty in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln would rise to become one of the most important figures in American, and world, history. He was elected to the Senate before becoming President of the United States, just before the Civil War broke out. In his Emancipation Proclamation, he declared that slavery was no longer a valid institution and all slaves were free. He was assassinated shortly before the war ended, but his legacy is impossible to understate.
Born into India while it was under the British colonial government, Mahatma Gandhi became a leader in the independence movement. He advocated nonviolent resistance as a means to not only end British rule but also to create a new Indian nation. After India gained independence in 1947, he worked tirelessly to promote peace with the newly-partitioned state of Pakistan. He was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who disapproved of his work with Pakistani Muslims. Today, he is known as the Father of India.
Not much is known about Socrates through his writings. Instead, what we know about him is from his most famous pupil, Aristotle. Socrates’ thought helped lay the foundation of Western theory and philosophy, particularly in regards to ethics. “Socratic thought” refers to an approach in which people create their own knowledge by exploring the world on their own rather than reciting dogma that other people have told them.
The Civil Rights leader was also a Baptist pastor in Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized nonviolent resistance movements, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. He went on to help organize the March on Washington, where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. A white supremacist assassinated him, but his efforts were ultimately successful.
His most famous play was Romeo and Juliet, but there is more to Shakespeare than the star-crossed lovers. He is responsible for many of the sayings and idioms that we still use today, such as, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” He also invented many of the words that are still used today, as well as many literary devices, such as comic relief, knock-knock jokes, and five-act plays that have an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Plato, the most famous disciple of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, founded the Academy, the first institute of higher learning in Athens. We have him to thank for the concept of higher education and the humanities as a viable field of study. He was so central to the development of Western thought that some have even suggested that all subsequent European philosophy is merely a footnote on Plato.
Charles Darwin was the author of The Origin of the Species, which details the findings and discoveries that he made while exploring the Galapagos Islands. He observed adaptations that organisms on the archipelago had made that could not be found in other places. He used these observations to develop his theory of evolution, which is now central to modern biology. The Origin of the Species became one of the bestselling books of all time.
The son of Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great led the Greek army on a lightning-fast expansion that brought it to the edge of modern India. He died at the age of 33 and had not established a formal system of governing his vast empire, so it fell apart shortly after his death. Still, he is remembered for his military prowess and is still considered a hero to many Greeks.
Galileo Galilei constructed his telescope using a couple of lenses and a tube. When he lifted his telescope to the heavens, he discovered that Jupiter was its own system, complete with its own set of moons. His discoveries drew the ire of church officials, who believed that the earth was the center of the cosmos and put him under house arrest. Today, he is considered one of the fathers of modern astronomy.
Muhammad was orphaned at an early age and raised by his uncle, Abu Talib, before marrying a wealthy woman named Khadija. He was known as a devout man and would frequently go on spiritual retreats up in the surrounding mountains. On one of these retreats, he is believed to have received the first of a series of revelations from the angel Gabriel; together, the revelations would form the Qur’an, the scripture of the Muslim religion.
Little is known about the life of Aristotle, but he studied in Plato’s Academy from the time he was about 17 years old and absorbed the teachings of Plato and his predecessor, Socrates. Aristotle made many scientific discoveries that paved the way for modern scientific thought. His works included topics as disparate as ethics, physics, astronomy, zoology, logic, poetry, music, biology, rhetoric, and even government. Together, his works form the foundation of Western philosophy and scientific thought.
The ultimate “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, scientist, writer, botanist, musician, polymath, inventor, you name it, he could do it. Even if you can’t name it, he could probably do it. He painted masterpieces such as The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. His enigmatic notebooks, which are sometimes written backward, contain drawings of things like prototype helicopters and anatomical depictions of humans. He is widely regarded to be one of the most widely-talented people who ever lived.
Isaac Newton is probably most famous for his discovery of gravity, which explains both why things fall to earth and why planets stay in orbit around the sun. When he needed to make measurements that involved a form of math that didn’t exist, he invented a new branch of math: calculus. He wrote down many of his discoveries in a book called Principia, which is still considered a masterpiece. His findings were used by Einstein over two centuries later.
Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist who emigrated to the United States and remained there after Hitler rose to power in his native Germany. He discovered general relativity, then supplemented it with special relativity to fill in some of the gaps. Einstein also studied things like the photoelectric effect, which helped form the basis for quantum physics. During World War II, he was recruited for the Manhattan Project so that he could help develop the technology for the atomic bomb.
Jesus was not the founder of the religion that bears his name; he was actually a Jewish carpenter he traveled as an itinerant preacher and worked miracles. After his death and resurrection, his followers initially remained part of the Jewish religion until they were completely expelled from the synagogues. Today, two billion Christians worldwide profess to be followers of Jesus, and he is also a prominent figure in Islam. In fact, many Muslims also claim to be followers of Jesus.
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