Who will be remembered from the 20th Century? - Island of Sanity

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Who will be remembered from the 20th Century?

As I write this, we are just beginning the 21st Century. And so it's natural to look back on the 20th Century. And I found myself asking, When people of the distant future look back on the 20th Century, who will they say were it's great heroes? Who will they remember?

Of course it doesn't necessarily follow that people who are famous today will be remembered hundreds of years from now. Every now and then it occurs to me that someone who was considered quite famous and important when I was a boy is already forgotten. On the other hand, there may be someone who is little noticed today, but who started something that will one day become big.

Oh, and let's recognize that future generations are not going to remember a long list of 20th Century "greats". How many important people from the 15th Century can you name? If you can come up with three or four you're probably doing better than most. But the people at the time surely thought that there were many important people in the world around them. For example, we remember William Shakespeare from that century. Can you name any other writers of the time? Oh, of course a professor of English literature surely could name a few. But the average person? My guess would be zero. (Ben Johnson comes to mind as the only other one that I can name. Please don't ask me to quote a single line of his work.)

Of course there are different levels of "famous". As I've already noted, surely college professors in any given field could name more people who made contributions to that field in the past than the average person could. But I'd guess that outside of educators and history buffs there's little difference. I mean, I doubt that even the average lawyer could name many famous lawyers from the past, or that the average engineer could name many famous engineers from the past.

A plan

It seems to me that a good way to get an idea of who from the 20th Century will be remembered hundreds of years from now is to ask, Who from past centuries do we remember today?

So think about it. Who do the history books refer to as the great heroes of past centuries? Who do they even mention?


I am immediately struck by one interesting fact: If you made a list of people who are famous today -- people whose names would be widely recognized, who are frequently mentioned in the media, etc -- it would surely be dominated by actors, musicians, and athletes. Indeed, every now and then someone takes a survey asking young people who their role models are or something to that effect, and the people named are overwhelmingly actors, musicians, and athletes. But ... how many actors, musicians, or athletes who lived 100 or more years ago can you name? Personally I can't think of the name of a single actor or athlete, and while I can name a couple of musicians, that's only because they're really famous for something else, and just happened to be musicians too. (Like, Bach was an accomplished player of the organ, but he's really remembered for being a composer, not a performer.)

Now it's possible that our generation will be different on this point. Perhaps performers of the past are forgotten, not because history has judged their contributions to be relatively unimportant, but rather because it is impossible to appreciate their contributions without actually seeing or hearing them. With the invention of recorded music and film, it is now possible for future generations to appreciate the work of performers. So perhaps from this time on performers will be remembered. Time will tell.

If any 20th Century musicians are remembered, I'm hard pressed to think of who it would be. The Beatles or Elvis Presley, perhaps? They're the only people I can think of who made a big impact, but their work seems far too plebian to be remembered by historians.

Creative Artists

We certainly do remember some number of creative artists. Writers, like Shakespeare. Composers, like Beethoven. Painters, like Rembrandt. A few such people from each century may be remembered.

My guess is that the 20th Century will be remembered for the introduction of a new art form: film. And I suspect that one or two particularly notable film makers will be remembered. I'd guess either Cecile B DeMille (The Ten Commandments, etc) or George Lucas (Star Wars etc).

Scientists and Inventors

We remember some number of scientists and inventors. Very few, considering the impact that their discoveries and inventions have on our lives, but some. Archimedes (early efforts at mechanics), Isaac Newton (theory of gravity, calculus), James Watt (steam engine), and Louis Pasteur (law of biogenesis) are reasonably well-known.

Perhaps more 20th Century scientists and inventors will be remembered because this was an era of great advances, and so there were more of them. But then again, maybe not: Ancient Greece and Rome were also times of great scientific and technological advance, but few of the people who made it happen are remembered today.

Einstein's name is quite well-known today, but I question if he will be remembered in the distant future. I think Einstein is well known mostly because his work was so esoteric and counter-intuitive: people found something quite fascinating about scientific discoveries that were so far removed from their everyday experience. But will such an appeal last? It's not at all clear.

Someone involved in the invention of the computer will probably be remembered. There is much debate today about just who deserves credit for inventing the computer, because many people contributed in different ways. I think it's a very easy guess that future generations will be uninterested in this debate: Somewhere along the line historians will pick one person or team as deserving the "primary credit", and that one person will be remembered and all others reduced to footnotes. My guess is that it will be Mauchly and Eckert.

Maybe, just maybe, the Wright Brothers will be remembered. (And maybe I'm biased here, as I work at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. And I'm sorry, Mr Patterson, but few people remember you now, nevermind hundreds of years from now.)


Exploreres seem to be rememberered a little better than scientists and inventors. We remember Leif Ericson, Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, etc.

The most obvious 20th century explorer to be remembered is surely Neil Armstrong. Perhaps Scott or Amundsen (polar exploration) will be remembered also.

Empire Builders

But looking back over history as it was taught to me in school and as I see it in movies and documentaries, it seems to me that the people who are most likely to be remembered as heros are the great empire builders. Men like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, William the Conquerer, Napolean, and so on. It would seem that the surest route to "greatness" is to conquer large amounts of territory. Even if your empire quickly crumbles, this doesn't seem to detract much from your greatness: Note that Alexander's empire died with him and Napolean was ultimately defeated, but this has done little to tarnish their reputations. In other words, the way to be remembered as a great human being is to kill or enslave more of your fellow human beings than anyone else, regardless of what comes of it, if anything.

By this standard, the people who will probably be remembered by future generations as the greats of the 20th century may well be ... Hitler and Stalin.

© 2002 by Jay Johansen


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