Some of the world’s most lasting legacies have been created by people who looked at the world around them and asked: “Can this work better?”
What questions have inspired the creation of history’s greatest legacies?
It may be impossible to know the minds of people long dead, but we can make an educated guess at the questions they posed themselves. Perhaps some may inspire you to ask questions of your own.
What question will you set out to answer?
Lived: Greece, 470–399 BC
His question: Can dialogue create better understanding?
On-going legacy: The father of Western philosophy and the theory of knowledge, and founder of the Socratic method, in which intelligent questioning leads to new understanding, the basis of almost all innovation and progress
Lived: Japan, c.978–1014
Her question: How can a story explain the human condition?
On-going legacy: Instrumental in popularizing the written Japanese language, her works became central to the development of Japanese society and culture
Leonardo da Vinci
Lived: Italy, 1452–1519
His question: Does nature provide a blueprint for solving man’s problems?
On-going legacy: Helped inspire the Renaissance, vastly advancing Western painting, sculpture and engineering and inspiring future generations of artists and scientists alike
Queen Elizabeth I of England
Lived: England, 1533–1603
Her question: How can I make my country safer and more prosperous?
On-going legacy: Began the first moves towards the British Empire, leading to English becoming one of the world’s leading languages; inspirational female leader; increased role of parliament in government, leading to modern Western representative democracy
Lived: England, 1564–1616
His question: How can stories tell a greater truth?
On-going legacy: The single most influential writer in Western literature, shaping modern storytelling; his contemporary popularity helped shape the structure and makeup of the modern English language
Queen Nzinga of Ndongo
Lived: Angola, 1583–1663
Her question: How can I protect my people?
On-going legacy: Helped spread Christianity to West Africa; by using diplomacy to counter early European colonialism and the slave trade, remains an inspiration to modern African leaders
Sir Isaac Newton
Lived: England, 1642–1727
His question: Can theory predict reality?
On-going legacy: Theory of gravity formed the basis of most developments in physics for three centuries; invented calculus, the basis of modern mathematical, scientific, economic and engineering modelling I
Lived: United States, 1706–1790
His question: Can I capture the power of the elements?
On-going legacy: As well as being a Founding Father of the United States, Franklin’s experiments with electricity, meteorology and refrigeration directly led to many of our modern devices, from power lines to air conditioning
Lived: United States, 1809–1865
His question: Would a more equal society be more prosperous?
On-going legacy: As well as promoting equality and democracy and being credited with ending slavery in the US, Lincoln began the modernization of the US economy that helped it grow into the superpower it is today
Anandi Gopal Joshi
Lived: India, 1865–1887
Her question: Why can’t a woman be a doctor?
On-going legacy: The first Indian woman and one of the first Indians to seek a Western medical education, she remains an inspiration to both women and people from the developing world to this day
Vincent Van Gogh
Lived: The Netherlands and France, 1853–1890
His question: Can I paint the world as it feels, not just as it looks?
On-going legacy: Inspired much of the 20th century’s radical new artistic movements; still one of the world’s most popular (and expensive) artists; his life has also increased interest in and understanding of mental illness
Lived: United States, 1818–1895
His question: Why can’t all men (and women) be treated equally?
On-going legacy: Fundamentally altered perceptions of the role of African-Americans and women in society, advancing democracy in the US and inspiring modern equality and civil rights movements across the globe
Lived: United States, 1892–1926
Her question: How can we bring flight to the masses?
On-going legacy: Not just the first woman or black woman to hold an international pilot’s licence, but the first American; popularized the concept of commercial passenger aviation, helping create today’s globally connected world
Lived: Japan, 1867–1930
His question: Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
On-going legacy: The father of modern management thinking, his “Five Whys” approach revolutionised trouble-shooting in the industrial age, driving efficiencies far beyond his own business
Lived: Poland and France, 1867–1934
Her question: Can we harness the power of things we can’t see?
On-going legacy: Developed the first theory of radioactivity, leading to modern nuclear power; pioneered the use of X-rays to assess internal damage, and radiation to treat tumors, revolutionizing modern medicine
Lived: Austria and England, 1856–1939
His question: How can we heal a wounded mind?
On-going legacy: As the father of psychoanalysis, revolutionized understanding of the human mind and opened up the way to radically more effective treatments of mental illnesses.
Lived: India, 1861–1941
His question: Can art shape a people’s identity?
On-going legacy: Helped shaped modern Indian national identity both for Indians and non-Indians through his writing, poetry, plays, music and painting; inspired modernist writers across the globe
Lived: Croatia, Austria, Hungary, France & America, 1856–1943
His question: Does electricity need wires?
On-going legacy: Of around 300 patents granted in his lifetime, most around electricity, many are still being used and developed; his theories of wireless communication and electrical transmission led to the mobile phone, satellite communications and wireless internet