Below is a list of the 10 most influential living people of all time at the start of every decade from 1940 to 2020 as implied by various Time magazine honors (person or the year, people of the century, etc). Even though my readership is extremely bright, I’d be surprised if anyone (before reading this article) can recognize every face on the list, but familiarizing yourself with them all is a great education on post-WW II history. And while some might find the selections to U.S.-centric, America is, and certainly was, the World’s sole super-power, and its cultural capital

The list was first topped by FDR who won a record four presidential elections but he was quickly dethroned by Churchill whose victory over the Nazis so dramatically changed the course of history that he was King of the World until his death in 1965, clearing the way for Truman to hold the title.

Meanwhile Wallis Simpson was for decades the only woman among the 10 most influential for decades, until finally being joined by Queen Elizabeth by 1960.

By 1980 President Nixon’s impact on history had become enough for him to top the list, before being dramatically overtaken by Mikhail Gorbachev. Meanwhile after 50 years as the World’s most influential woman, the great Wallis Simpson finally died in 1986, allowing the Queen to finally be the Queen, but by 2010, Oprah’s intimate confession culture and role in electing the first black President made her important enough to overtake her.

By 2020, the genetic revolution became so important that even the great Gorbachev was dethroned by James Watson and the cultural significance of the Beatles had slowly accumulated to the point where their only surviving members leapfrogged to the top five.


To make this list I looked at all the  people who had ever been Time’s person of the year, person of the decade, person of the century, or included on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people of the year, the century, or all time. Points were allotted as follows:

One of the 100 most influential of the year = 0.01 points

Person of the year: 1 point

One of the 100 most influential of the century = 1 point

Person of the decade = 10 points

Person of the half-century = 50 points

Person of the century = 100 points

One of the hundred most influential people of all time = 50 points (since recorded history is 5000 years and there are 100 people)

If they shared any of these honors with someone else, the points got divided by the number of people. So for example James Watson got 1 point for being one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century and got 50 points for being one of the 100 most influential people of all time, but since both honors were shared with Francis Crick, his total was 25.5 points making him the most influential living person ever (according to the collective wisdom of the World’s most prestigious magazine). If there was a tie, the person who achieved the distinction first was given preference.

In order to get points, the person had to be alive at the time they were honored. So even though Einstein was person of the century (100 points) he never ranked among the ten most influential living people because that award wasn’t given until the late 1990s (when Einstein was dead).