Rebirth of Reason


Who are the 100 Greatest Britons?
by Marcus Bachler

What makes an individual great? 

Here in the UK the BBC has started a vote of the top ten Britons over the next few weeks to try to find out, what is greatness and who was the greatest Briton of all? The top 100 "Great Britons" have been voted for by 30 000 members of the public last year, with the top ten initially listed in alphabetical order. The top ten will be voted for each week after various celebrities host their own documentaries on the life and works of the top ten, each making their own case for a particular individual being greatest. This will all culminate in a live studio debate, during which the public will cast their final votes.

At first glimpse, the premise for this project seems dodgy to say the least. Previous TV programmes with top 100 greatest of all time as voted for the public, such as Movies, Singles and even TV moments have reflected that the voting public usually equate "greatest" with "most popular" and seem hard pressed to remember anything more than a few years old. Compounded by this observation is the predominance of the celebration of shock, destruction or triteness of popular culture typically demonstrated in the media today. The attention is usually given to the anti-globalists and green terrorists of the world rather than the innovators and capitalists who have and continue to carry the rest of the world on their shoulders.

The quality of the top "100 Great Britons" therefore has come as a pleasant surprise to me. The list does not contain as many range-of-the-moment populist whims as one would imagine; in fact, the list contains only 22 Britons still alive today. The list stretches as far back as the legendary King Arthur at number 51, if you believe he existed, or King Alfred the Great at number 14 if you don't, to as recent as the pop star Robbie Williams at number 77.

The list contains great heroes of human endeavour including scientists, engineers, innovators, explorers, war heroes, sporting heroes, artists and even entrepreneurs. There are also freedom fighters in the list including Thomas Paine at number 34 who was an active campaigner for American independence, the slave abolitionist William Wilberforce at number 28 and the campaigner for universal suffrage, Emmeline Pankhurst at number 27. The list is also positively full with inventors. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee at number 99, the first efficient steam engine, James Watt at number 84, the automated calculator, Charles Babbage at number 80, the first vaccine, Edward Jenner at number 78, the first English printing press, William Caxton at number 68, the first public railway, George Stephenson at number 65, the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell at number 57, the jet engine, Frank Whittle at number 42, the television, John Logie Baird at number 44 and the computer, Alan Turing at number 21.

The top ten Great Britons is quite an impressive list including Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Horatio Nelson, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare. The only two disappointments being Princess Diana, who was a great media magnet but nothing much else, and John Lennon, a great pop musician but nothing much else. These are typical choices by those in the public who are more impressed by the way a famous individual died than how they actually lived. As for the rest of the top ten there are two great scientists, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, who radically changed our view of both the physical and the natural world. Two great inspirational leaders in times of war, Elizabeth I and Winston Churchill. The greatest playwright the world has ever known, William Shakespeare, the champion of parliament and reformer of the British State, Oliver Cromwell, and a war hero, Lord Horatio Nelson.

One of the most surprising and also most thrilling choices to have come out of this vote is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Until recently I knew little about him. Since a brilliant documentary for his case hosted by the car enthusiast and columnist Jeremy Clarkson has been recently aired, Brunel has continuously ranked in first position.

So, who was Brunel? Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 - 1859) was a genius engineer of great vision during the industrial revolution. He was the Howard Roark of the industrial revolution. The things he would design were always daring in their scale and innovation that he would relentlessly champion in the face of fierce opposition to change by incumbent local councils and MP's. He insisted on personally overseeing the building and construction of all the projects he undertook, and the things he got built were built to last. He envisaged a railway from London to Bristol, insisting on reducing all incline to a minimum. In the realisation of this mammoth task he created the worlds longest railway tunnel, the two mile long "Box tunnel," and the "Maidenhead bridge" across the Thames, which includes two wide-spanning arches of brick, 39 metres each. Critics of the day said the bridge would fall down and the tunnel would prove too dangerous, but the entire railway line is still in use today. The completed Great Western Railway meant that trains on the new line could reach speeds of 70 miles an hour, whereas they usually could only manage 10 miles per hour. This feat revolutionised the expected travelling times possible between London and Bristol. He also undertook to a build huge steam ship twice the size and more of conventional ships used in his day to travel Bristol to New York. He silenced his critics by calculating that the ship would not need twice as much coal, but less, and he was right. He also designed one of the first screw propellers, which advanced computer simulations of today can only minimally improve in efficiency. There is a famous black and white photo of him standing confidently in front of huge link chains at the Bristol wharf with a cigar in the corner of his mouth and his hands tucked under his belt. This was taken shortly before his death while supervising the building of one of his last colossal ships, the 20 000 ton "Great Eastern."

So what makes a person great? Although greatness is often relative to the context of the field of endeavour and the particular age that one lives in, to judge a person's greatness is also to judge a person's character and values. Character and values are reflected in the individual's actions and achievement. If Isambard Kingdom Brunel is the greatest Briton, it is through his actions of courage, ambition, discipline and ingenuity embodied in the living monuments to him, which are still in use today, 150 years later.

Many of the others in the top ten have also embodied these characteristics in their achievements to a greater or less of an extent. It will be exciting to find out who will be voted the greatest Briton of all. To see if the British public will be able to identify the heroic spirit of individuals of the past and take heed of those examples as a template for their own lives in the Britain of today. I certainly hope so. This is part of the revolution in the hearts and minds of responsible individuals needed to carry humanity forward into a bright future. The identification and preservation of the heroic spirit of mankind. 

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