Did your favourite icon win?
Was it Bowie, Chaplin, Holiday or Monroe who captured your hearts? Was it the discoverer of radium and polonium or the inventor of a cure for malaria; the forefather of the computer or author of E=mc² who got your vote? Did Mandela, Roosevelt or Thatcher beat Churchill? And was it the polar explorer, first man on the moon, pioneering primatologist or desert explorer who came out top?
ICONS has asked you to assess the achievements of the 20th century's most important and influential figures across seven different fields of human endeavour. See below for the winners of the public vote for Entertainers, Scientists, Leaders and Explorers – and find out just why these figures were so significant.
There’s still an opportunity for you to vote for your favourite Activist, Sports Star, and Artist or Writer. Check out the Voting Schedule to find out when you can next get involved.
All the category winners will go head to head in a live final with a public vote on the 5th of February on BBC Two. Ultimately, you will get to decide who is the greatest person of the 20th century.
Born: London, UK
Known for: An innovator constantly at music’s cutting edge
David Bowie’s cutting-edge music gave the world the sound of the future, today.
We can be heroes just for one day.
1. He was always at the cutting edge
Often adopting a series of personas, and never afraid to reinvent his sound, David Bowie was a constant musical innovator – keeping him ahead of the pack. The characters he created, from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, allowed him to inhabit new sonic landscapes. And Bowie astutely picked the best collaborators to help him achieve his goals. Unlike many other musicians, he remained current for his entire career.
2. He was an early adopter
Bowie sang of the future, but he was also keen to embrace it off-record. An early champion of internet technology, his 1999 album Hours was the first by a major artist to be made available as a download (pub fact: Spotify founder Daniel Ek was just 16 at the time.) He also briefly ran an internet dial-up service called BowieNet.
3. He will be missed, but he left something special behind him
The announcement of David Bowie’s death on 10 January 2016 shocked the world. It wasn’t just that one of music’s greatest icons had passed, but he had just released a brand-new album the week before. Bowie had turned his own impending death from cancer into the inspiration for this final work: Black Star. On its release, fans and critics had speculated about the songs’ meaning for a week, before their true depth was revealed. Few of us are truly prepared to confront death but David Bowie turned his into art.
Born: London, UK
Known for: Considered the father of the computer and World War Two code-breaker
Alan Turing’s calculations made computers possible and helped win a war.
Those who can imagine anything, can create the impossible.
1. He invented the computer – and stops you getting spammed
Turing’s mathematical genius allowed him to foresee the possibility and function of computer like machines before the existence of the necessary technology. Laying out the theory for such devices in an essay in 1936, his revolutionary work provided the foundation for modern computers. He later came-up with the ‘Turing test’ to determine whether a machine is intelligent – or not. The principles of it are reversed online today, when a computers sets you a CAPTCHA test (like distorted letters) to prove you’re a human and not a rogue bot!
2. His machines helped win a war
At the start of World War Two Turing, along with other mathematicians, was recruited to break enemy codes. Working at Bletchley Park, Turing built a machine called a Bombe. It sped-up code-cracking efforts from weeks to hours by trying multiple permutations. The information gleaned helped the Allies gain an upper hand in the war.
3. His legacy has helped change social attitudes in Britain
Turing was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Despite his wartime contribution he was arrested for gross indecency in 1952 and given a stark choice between prison and chemical castration (opting for the latter). The arrest also lost him his security clearance and two years later Turing died of cyanide poisoning – whether it was suicide or not is still debated. A campaign to grant him a pardon, fittingly started by e-petition, resulted in him being granted one posthumously in 2013. A subsequent legal amendment dubbed Turing’s Law pardoned 65,000 other people convicted of the same ‘crimes’.
Born: Kilkea, Ireland
Known for: Polar explorer and pioneer. Led the famous ‘Endurance’ expedition
Adventurer and man to get you out of jam, Ernest Shackleton escaped after being stranded in Antarctica
Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.
1. He had ‘Endurance’ in more ways than one
Shackleton was probably tempting fate in 1914 when he set off in his boat, Endurance, on an expedition to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. Still, it was a quality he and his crew all shared. After the ship got trapped in the ice and eventually sank, they were all left stuck on a vast bit of ice for over two months.
2. He never lost hope
Shackleton and his crew escaped in lifeboats to the tiny Elephant Island… but it was uninhabited and inhospitable. Not one to be deterred, Shackleton went out in search of help – no mean feat when they were 800 miles from civilisation. First, he sailed with five of his men across near frozen seas in one of the tiny, open lifeboats. Then, having landed on the island of South Georgia, he had to lead a mountain climbing expedition, with no map, across the island before eventually reaching a base on the other side.
3. He got everyone home
Without the modern aids of radios, GPS or emergency helicopters Shackleton achieved the near impossible. Once he reached help, rescue parties were sent for his crew and, remarkably, every single member made it home. One of his contemporaries later commented, whatever qualities other polar explores, like Scott of the Antarctic or Roald Amundsen, had: "when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."
Born: Mvezo, South Africa
Known for: Defeated apartheid became South Africa’s first black president
His body was abused but his mind remained free, Nelson Mandela’s sacrifice helped defeat apartheid.
It always seems impossible until it's done.
1. He made difficult decisions
In 1952 Mandela was the deputy president of the African National Congress – a party determined to overthrow the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Initially its policies were non-violent, but this changed after state police killed 69 black activists in 1960. Now the ANC, and Mandela with it, agreed to attacks on the state. Railway tracks, power lines and government buildings were all targeted and though the intention was never to kill, lives were lost.
2. His resilience inspired the world
After his arrest in 1962 Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and he was held on the remote Robben Island. He endured long stints of solitary confinement, often going without sleeping or toilet facilities – treatment designed to reinforce Mandela’s sense of powerlessness. Yet the opposite happened. Mandela became the focal point for a global campaign against apartheid which eventually forced the South African government to change its mind. He was finally released in 1990.
3. He was president for a whole nation
Once Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first free elections in 1994 he did not seek retribution, despite his brutal prison treatment. Instead, he governed for the whole country, arguably preventing a civil war. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to heal South Africa through confession and forgiveness rather than revenge, was established during his time in office. It has since been used as a model for other countries.