For years I have posed the following question at parties and salons:
By the 25th century, who will be the household names of the 20th century?
My top contender, Armstrong, has died today. I pick him because the best known name of the 15th century is probably Columbus, also known as the first explorer to a major location — even though he probably wasn’t the actual first.
Oddly, while we will celebrate him today and for years to come, Armstrong was able to walk down the street for the past few decades unlikely to be recognized in his own time. Though I had his photo on my wall as a child (along with Aldrin and Collins.) They were the only faces I ever put on my wall, my childhood heroes. I was not alone in this.
Unlike Columbus, who led his expedition, Armstrong was one of a very large team, the one picked for the most prominent role. He was no mere cog of course, and his flying made the difference in having a successful mission.
Others of the 15th century who are household names today are:
- Henry V (thanks to Shakespeare, I suspect) and Richard III
- Jeanne d’Arc
- Vlad the Impaler (thanks to legends)
- Some artists (Bosch, Botticelli)
- Amerigo Vespucci (only by virtue of getting two continents named after him)
As we see, some are famous by accident (writers etc. picked up their stories.) That may even be true for Jeanne d’Arc whose story would mostly only have been preserved in French lore.
The great inventors and scientists like Gutenberg and Leonardo give a clue to help. Guru Nanak founded a major religion but his name is not know well outside that religion.
So while many people suggest Hitler will be one of the names, I am more doubtful. I think it would be appropriate if his evil is forgotten, after all he wasn’t even the greatest butcher of the 20th century.
No, I think the fame will go to explorers and scientists, and possibly some artists from our time. We may not even know what names will be romantacised. Some candidates I suspect are:
- Drexler or Feynman if nanotechnology as they envisioned it arrives
- Crick and Watson (or even Venter) if control of DNA is seen as central
- Von Neumann, Turing or others if computers are seen as the great invention of the 20th century (which they may be.)
- It’s hard to say what music, writing, movies or other art will endure and be remembered. Did the 20th century get a Shakespeare?
What are your nominations? Of the people I list above, once agan all of them were capable of walking down the street without being recognized, just as Armstrong could. I suspect in the pre-camera days, so could Columbus and Gutenberg.