Quick, what famous historical figures were living roughly 500 years ago?

A few creative people might bring to mind the rhyme “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and recall Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella. Some clever souls might recall that Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel in 1512, and recall from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a few other names -- Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello. Or real history buffs might recall the astronomical work of Copernicus, or Henry VIII's diva dips in the early 1500s.

But for most of us, what will come to mind is probably the hum of nothingness, or the gentle chirping of crickets. Most of what people remember from history class is pretty pathetic, a weak smattering of names and random anecdotes, like Eli Whitney and his revolutionary cotton gin, or Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in Florida.

We tend to learn about history by following a particular life or a conflict through the years – what Tim Urban, who runs the blog Wait But Why, calls “understanding history in a vertical sense.” But in a new blog, Urban offers another fascinating approach to understanding history: Taking a big “horizontal” slice to look at who was alive around the world in a certain year.

Here's Urban's illustration of horizontal history around the year 1500. The bars below represent the life spans of various historical figures.

You can see right away some of the big themes of the world at the time. There’s Machiavelli and Michelangelo in the Italian Renaissance. Magellan, Ponce de Leon, Columbus and Pizarro are carrying out the golden age of European exploration. And Martin Luther, William Tyndale and John Calvin are sowing the seeds of the Protestant Reformation.

Urban acknowledges that the names in his graphics are American and Euro-centric, since his research looked at materials made for an English-speaking audience. And of course, the list leaves a lot of people out -- history is pretty big, after all. But there are a few non-European and non-American names in these graphics -- over on the right above, for example, is Guru Nanak, the founding prophet of Sikhism.

Here's a much bigger version of this same kind of horizontal history, stretching from 1450 on the bottom  to the present day on the top. The colors indicate the historical figure's main area of influence -- religion, politics, science, etc. (You can click on the graphic to enlarge it, or click here to see a horizontal version.)

The charts above show the life spans of historical figures, but Urban also breaks things down by generation, using the decade of a historical figure's birth.

Urban figures that one generation is typically about 30 years. So he color-codes the decades in this chart blue, green and then pink so you can jump up and down the chart by generations. Here's how that looks:

In the chart below, for example, you can jump from the first pink line to the second pink line and see that Malala is young enough to be J.K. Rowling’s daughter. J.K. Rowling in turn is young enough to be the daughter of Elvis or Carl Sagan (that would be one amazing family).

Whether somebody dies early or late, and whether they have the most historical impact early or late in their lives, really affects what we think of their time period. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Anne Frank were actually born in the same year. Even the fact that Princess Diana and Barack Obama were born in the same decade seems kind of strange.

This gets more interesting as you go back in time. While we’re used to thinking of everyone in history as just old, obviously they would have felt differently.

Urban writes, “So Darwin would have seen Twain as some young kid and he would have shaken his old man fist at Gandhi from the rocking chair on his porch. Meanwhile, Nietzsche would have seen Marx as a guy his dad’s age and Freud as a contemporary, though a bit younger.”

The chart above is just part of Urban's graphic, which goes all the way back to 580 BC. You can see the rest on Wait But Why.

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