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A brief history of human time

Historical accounts often assert that notable individuals matter for the growth of particular cities. This column uses a new database of 1.2 million people from 2,000 cities since 800CE to show that some types of ‘notable’ individuals have made a difference. Specifically, the presence of many entrepreneurs and artists is associated with faster long-term growth, but the association does not hold for notable military, political or religious figures.

What is the real influence of notable people on city growth over the very long run? Complementing the pioneering work by Schich et al. (2014) and more recent work by Yu et al. (2016), we collected extensive data on 1.2 million people through an in-depth analysis of their Wikipedia biographies. This ongoing research is aimed at identifying the causal impact of the presence of these famous people on the growth of some 2,000 cities located in 30 countries around the world since 800AD.

In a new paper (Gergaud et al. 2016), we explain how we collected a database of 1,243,776 notable people and 7,184,575 locations (Geolinks) associated with them throughout human history (3000BCE-2015AD). The work is updated in real time on a dedicated website (http://brief-history.eu/).

The approach was pioneered by Schich et al. (2014) who tracked the births and deaths of 120,211 notable people in history using Freebase, a Google-owned knowledge database. de la Croix and Licandro (2015) built a sample of 300,000 famous people born between Hammurabi's epoch and 1879 – Einstein's birth year – from the Index Bio-bibliographicus Notorum Hominum. Recently, Yu et al. (2016) also used Freebase to assemble a manually verified dataset of 11,341 biographies in more than 25 languages on Wikipedia.

Our work extends these approaches. We compile the largest possible database of “notable” people rather than focusing only on “very famous” individuals, because we are ultimately interested in detecting the statistically significant local economic impact of these individuals. It turns out that weighting individuals by measures of their impact does not make a big difference, which ex post justifies our collection of information on hundreds of thousands of lesser known artists, business people, and local rulers who are famous enough to have been listed and described somewhere on the internet or in various rankings, but are left out of the vast majority of internet sources.

A few interesting facts emerge:

  • There has been an exponential growth over time of the database, with more than 60% of notable people still living in 2015 – with the exception of a relative decline of the cohort born in the 17th century and a local minimum between 1645 and 1655.

  • The average lifespan has increased by 20 years, from 60 to 80 years, between the cohort born in 1400AD and the one born in 1900AD.
  • The share of women in the database follows a U-shape pattern, with the lowest point in the 17th century and a high of 25% for the most recent cohorts.

  • The fraction of notable people in governance occupations has decreased, while the fraction in occupations such as the arts, literature/media and sports has increased over the centuries. Sports caught up with the arts and literature for the cohorts born in 1870, then remained at the same level until the 1950s cohorts of the 1950s, and eventually came to dominate the database after 1950.

  • The top ten visible people born before 1890 are all non-Americans and of ten different nationalities. In contract, six out of the top ten visible people born after 1890 are US-born citizens. From 1800, the share of people from Europe and the US in the database declines, while the number of people from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere grows to reach 20% of the database in 2000. Coincidentally, in 1637, the exact barycentre of the base – represented below by large aggregate periods (moving from the Middle-East to Western Europe) – was in the small village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (in the Champagne region of France), where Charles de Gaulle lived and passed away. Since the 1970s, the barycenter has oscillated between Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

  • The average distance between places of birth and death follows a U-shape pattern. The median distance was 316km before 500AD, 100km between 500AD and 1500AD, and has risen continuously since then. The greatest mobility occurs between the ages of 15 and 25.
  • Individuals with the highest levels of visibility tend to be more distant from their birth place, with a median distance of 785km for the top percentile, compared to 389km for the top decile and 176km overall.
  • In all occupations, there has been a rise in international mobility since 1960. The fraction of locations in a country different from the place of birth rose from 15% in 1955 to 35% after 2000. However, notable people experienced international mobility a long time ago (see, for example, Erasmus’s trajectories as automatically detected by our algorithms).

  • There is no positive association between the size of cities and the visibility of people measured at the end of their life. If anything, the correlation is negative.
  • Last and not least, we find a positive correlation between the contemporaneous number of entrepreneurs and the urban growth of the city in which they are located the following decades. More strikingly, the same is also true for artists, with the contemporaneous number or share of artists positively affecting city growth over the next decades. In contrast, we find a zero or negative correlation between the contemporaneous share of “militaries, politicians and religious people” and urban growth in the following decades.



de la Croix, D. and L. Omar (2015), “The longevity of famous people from Hammurabi to Einstein”, Journal of Economic Growth 20(3): 263-303.

Laouenan, M, O. Gergaud and E. Wasmer (2016), “A brief history of human time. Exploring a database of ‘notable people’, (3000BCE-2015AD) Version 1.0.1”, LIEPP Discussion Paper No. 46 and Sciences Po Economics Dept. Working No. 63. 

Schich, M. S. Chaoming, A. Yong-Yeol, M. Alexander, M. Mauro, D. Albert-László and D. Helbing (2014), « A network framework of cultural history", Science 345 (6196) : 558-562.

Yu, A. Z., R. Shahar, H. Kevin, L. Tiffany and C. A. Hidalgo (2016), “Pantheon 1.0, a manually verified dataset of globally famous biographies”, Scientific Data 3, Article no. 150075.

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