Armstrong and the heroes of the 20th century


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:

  • Gutenberg
  • Henry V (thanks to Shakespeare, I suspect) and Richard III
  • Jeanne d'Arc
  • Vlad the Impaler (thanks to legends)
  • Some artists (Bosch, Botticelli)
  • Leonardo
  • 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.


Bob Dylan is the closest we have to Shakespeare.

Physicists are pretty good at remembering their own and the 20th century had some huge leaps. So I expect the giants of the Quantum era, Planck, Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, etc will still be remembered. Claude Shannon will likely persist too.

As for bits of culture, it's so hard to imagine what the next 500 years of ebb and flow, wars, pseudosigularities, speciation events, etc will do. I think 20th c. media pretty much tapped out what Mark I human brains can process, so until serious augmentation happens, I think many bits of pop culture will persist.

I started thinking about Ferdinand and Isabella and the Reconquista and Grenada War and wondered if Islam will still be an issue 500 years from now. Then I thought of Scientology and my final 20th century name - L. Ron Hubbard.

Tamerlane was probably the most successful mass killer of the 15th century, perhaps indicative of how Hitler, Stalin, Mao will fare. Surely anyone with a slight interest in history knows of Tamerlane, and I'd guess he's more well known still in Eurasia than elsewhere.

Einstein seems like the obvious choice.

But the 25th century may have much greater capacity to recognize much of the past than we do, or none at all.

The conflicts surrounding state-granted monopoly powers over expressions and ideas are getting ever more widespread and virulent. Whatever the ultimate outcome, it will shape society in a big way. I expect RMS to be remembered for his seminal role in this conflict.

If so, than as an anti-hero, not a hero!

Well, you seem to assume that the copyright/patent maximalists will win. Certainly a possibility.

I don't assume they will win. However, if they don't, then I assume civilization will vanish, so no-one will be around to remember RMS.

Exaggerated? Well, consider RMS's statement that it is a violation of human rights if software is not free (in his sense of the term).

If people want to give away software, fine. I've done so myself and also used software given away by others. No problem. I haven't sold any software, but I have paid for some. As long as consenting adults are involved, whatever floats your boat.

But if company A sells software, under whatever terms they want, and person B buys it, then it is completely inappropriate for RMS to criticize this, much less declare it a violation of human rights. Should he be able to develop a free competitive product? Sure, and indeed he has. No problem.

Yes, maybe some companies and governments are a bit overzealous in these matters. However, if you don't think like RMS, you are morally inferior.

Of course, it is RMS's view, not mine, that people who think otherwise are morally inferior.

I encourage people who might have heard of him but don't actually know that much about him to read some of his writings. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Down the road, he is a contender. Though right now Linus Torvalds has more popularity, but I don't see him lasting that long.

Of course I expect the people of the 25th to be partly, or entirely software, so software philosophy may be important to them, or entirely changed from today.

The other obvious computer non-theoretician candidate.

It's easy to imagine computation and communication as being seen as far more important than spatial exploration.

Yes, this has potential. The problem is that the WWW and all vestiges of it will be long gone in the 25th century, so for Tim to make the list it will need historians who teach the importance of the ancient web and who built it.

With Gutenberg, though his style of machine is no longer used, the general concept of movable type did not vanish so long ago, and the core invention of readily distributable and manufacturable printed knowledge lasted for 500 years and was in everybody's lives every day for all those centuries. Data networks will exist in the 25th century but they probably won't look anything like today's by the middle of the 21st.

I think Bell, from the 19th century is one of those who will persist, as will Edison -- and you can even put them partly in the 20th century. There is a move afoot to give more recognition to Tesla over Edison.

More debatable are Ford, Farnsworth, etc.

The Wright brothers are good contenders, again even with the other competitors they have for the title. Cars won't look at all like today in the 25th, and planes won't either (but they are more likely to have some similarities, at least if we have bodies.)

Also, the moon landings were more analogous to Zheng He's voyages than Columbus' -- expensive demonstrations of imperial supremacy with little long term consequence. I'd bet that's how the "space race" will be seen in the future.

Yes, I do think the giants of physics will be remembered. Einstein is still up in the air for me, because of his opposition to QM. Of course, who knows, by the 25th century perhaps QM will be passe, and Einstein's work will underlie the most relevant physics of the day.

I think there are a few ways you get to be a household name. One, impossible to predict, is to be romanticized by an influential writer, or to have had the PR to make it so. Another is to be seen as a great contributor to something still important in the future. If we use it every day, children are taught in school who invented it. Another is to be seen as having changed the course of history. For example, I think Gutenberg will be remembered long after paper books and movable type are ancient history.

As for Armstrong, if humans are actively in space he will be remembered for sure as Columbus is, but even without that we stare at the moon every day, and even if we somehow never return, I think the voyage there will be taught to the kids.

"Einstein is still up in the air for me, because of his opposition to QM."

Einstein was one of the founders of QM, and this is what his Nobel Prize was for. Yes, he disagreed with most over details of the interpretation, but himself did more for QM than most: the photoelectric effect, Bose-Einstein condensation etc. But even disregarding QM altogether, GR remains probably the greatest single achievement in the history of science. Unlike QM and SR, it was not "in the air" and if Einstein hadn't come up with it, perhaps we still wouldn't have it today.

RMS? Give me a break.

It's not about being 100% right, it's about making it into daily language what makes a name immortal.
You see very often the usage of Einstein as an adjective to describe intelligent people. Many that have not a clue of what Einstein really did ('all is relative' ahem) will recognize a photo of him. I think he has both feet well set into the future. Only Hawking gets near in popular recognition of a scientist.

In music, John Lennon / The Beatles, and maybe Michael Jackson are likely candidates. And Elvis!

Cinema, Charlie Chaplin would be my bet, but I am wary of the newer generations. I know some people just 3 years younger than I that do not know who Groucho Marx was. Marilyn Monroe.

Politics, El Che Guevara leads if just for the number of t-shirts. Gandhi, Mandela.

The stored program computer is a 19th century invention.

So many of the items that are regarded as defining the
20th century -- the computer, the telephone, automobiles,
movies, fax machines, electric lights, electric motors,
magnetic recording, plastic -- were actually invented
in the 19th century. While it is true that most of them
weren't fully commercialized until years later, often in
the 20th century, nevertheless they are rightly credited
as inventions of the 1800s.

Add new comment