What is significant about today’s date, the 12th September? Well in 1885, Arbroath beat Bon Accord by 36 goals to 0, a world record in Association Football. I am also reliably informed that Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005. Unfortunately, I don’t have an exceptional talent for remembering Victorian football dates or the opening dates of amusement parks. I know this as Wikipedia contains a page that contains a very long list of things that happened on September 12th – and indeed on every other day in the calendar.

It also contains an extensive list of famous people who were born or died on September 12th. While the fame of some of these people is somewhat questionable (did you know of Martin Klein, the Estonian wrestler who won a silver medal in the 1912 Olympics?), it begs the question:

What defines fame, and how has this changed across the years?

To start, we looked everyone who died on the dates falling on 8th-12th September, in order to get a big enough sample size. We categorised them by the reason that they were famous – these categories are:

  • Political leaders (including monarchy)
  • Religious leaders
  • Business leaders
  • Writers (includes novelists and poets)
  • Scientists (includes mathematicians)
  • Artists
  • Musicians (from the traditional composer to the modern pop artist)
  • Sportsmen
  • Movies/Theatre

Any person who didn’t fall under these categories was ignored (apologies to Jon Brower Minnoch, the heaviest human of all time).

We can get a good idea as to what was considered famous in specific time periods by looking at the number of people in each category as a percentage of the total number for that time period. A bit of a mouthful, but it’s easily demonstrated by an example:

In the 16th Century, 8 famous people died on a date falling on the 8th-12th September. 4 of these were political leaders, 2 were religious leaders, a writer and an artist. We could assume that in the 16th Century, fame consisted of:

  • 50% political leaders
  • 25% religious leaders
  • 12.5% writers
  • 12.5% artists

Using this method, we can see how the definition of fame has changed over time. The graph below shows the transition over the last 6 centuries:

The first thing that strikes me about the graph is the decrease in the percentage of ‘political leaders’ as the main category of fame. Before 1500, 83% of our famous deaths belonged to political leaders – this figure has fallen to just 14% in the 21st century. Perhaps people prefer to think about glamorous people who are actors or musicians, rather than the political leaders of today.

This could be an indication of the change in people’s views and beliefs. Religious leaders aren’t as prominent in society today as they were several centuries ago, and interestingly the fall in the number of religious leaders coincides with the rise in the number of scientists in the 18th and 19th century – something I am sure Richard Dawkins would have something to say about.

Although the graph above makes interesting viewing, its difficult draw any reasonable conclusions from it as there weren’t enough data points before the 20th century. It does, however, begin to illustrate the impact of the ‘Movies/Theatre’ and ‘Sportsmen’ categories on the definition of fame since the start of the 20th century. We looked at how the definition of fame has changed over the last century, and the results are shown below:

As you would expect, the impact of film has also grown the size of the ‘Movies/Theatre’ group from 10% to 25% over the last century. The deaths of ‘Sportsmen’ have also had a significant impact on the definition of fame, growing from 5% to 22% over the same timeframe.

As the world has become more affluent in general in the 20th and 21st century, society can support more people doing apparently ‘unproductive jobs’. Whereas centuries ago people would gain fame for achieving things which would shaped the future of humanity, today we can follow the lives of the modern day celebrity – the sportsmen, the movie stars and the musicians.

So what will fame look like over the next 100 years?

So far, we have looked at what the famous ‘deaths’ indicate about our perception of fame. There is a caveat with this approach – you would expect the majority of deaths to occur after each respective famous person was at their peak of fame. A famous death in 2000 could belong to an actress in the 1950s. By looking at the birthdays of famous people on September 12th, we can get a better picture as to what fame looks like today. The results are in the graph below:

It appears that the future of fame belongs to the ‘Sportsmen’. But there is a similar caveat to using birthdays – if a famous person was born after 1980 then they will be younger than 34, and thus unlikely to be political or religious leaders and more likely to be playing sport.

Another factor to consider is the longevity of fame. I could name you more 2012 Olympic medallists than each political leader in the UK or USA today, but if you ask me to do the same for the 1952 Olympics I suspect that would be reversed. Although there may be more famous sportsmen, musicians and movie stars, who will stand the test of time?

In truth, it is difficult to tell where the future of fame lies. In 100 years, whose names will we remember? Will it be David Cameron or David Beckham? Nick Clegg or Simon Pegg? Join us on Wednesday 12th September 2114, when Figure it Out reveal the answer.