Making a list of the smartest people who ever lived may not be a smart thing to do. After all, intelligence can be measured in a variety of different ways. Some believe in IQ tests, others place more stock in emotional intelligence. There’s also something to be said about having accomplishments. Being intelligent is not the same as using that intelligence to create something that no one else can, to somehow advance humanity, to be smarter than everyone.
Many smart people do not live up to their potential. It is also true that prejudices and lack of opportunities have surely prevented some brilliant people from reaching their full potential and being recognized. Still, for the sake of argument, we will use all criteria at our disposal to come up with a list of the brightest humans.
Note: while IQ testing was developed in the early 1900s, there have been subsequent studies that estimated IQs of geniuses of the past. Anything above 140 is generally considered near genius-level.
24. William Siddis (1898-1944) was an American child prodigy, whose IQ was reportedly between 250-300, perhaps the highest ever. He had outstanding abilities in math, entered Harvard at age 11, and claimed to know 40 languages. An MIT professor predicted the young Siddis would become the greatest mathematician of the 20th century. William crashed and burned as an adult, however, holding menial jobs and getting in trouble with the law, never finding an avenue to live up to the expectations.
William Sidis. 1914.
23. Judit Polgar (b. 1976) is a Hungarian chess grandmaster, widely regarded as the strongest female chess player of all time. She broke Chess World Champion Bobby Fischer’s record to become grandmaster at age 15. Her IQ is recorded as 170.
The youngest international chess grand master, 17-year-old Judit Polgar (L) writes down her first move 16 February, 1993 in her last match with Russian born chess champion Boris Spassky (R) in Budapest. (Photo credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)
22. Philip Emeagwali (b. 1954) is a Nigerian inventor and scientist, reportedly with an IQ of 190, voted as the “greatest African scientist of all time”. Although this claim is controversial, his math work is often credited as being instrumental in the creation of the internet.
Philip Emeagwali with Exxon-Mobil partial differential equations for petroleum reservoir simulations across an internet powered by 65,536 computers. 2013. ©Photo: emeagwali.com
21. Terence Tao (b. 1975), Chinese, born in Australia, is a former a child prodigy whose IQ scores range from 220-230, some of the highest ever recorded. He is currently a Professor of Mathematics at UCLA.
Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
20. Cleopatra (68-30 B.C.) was the last pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, ruling the country for almost thirty years. She was fluent in five languages and had an IQ of around 180. Cleopatra was also known for relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony.
Painting of Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse. 1888.
19. Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was an Indian mathematician, who made great contributions in such areas as number theory, continued fractions, and infinite series, despite not having any formal education in math. His estimated IQ was 185.
Srinivasa Ramanujan. 1920.
18. Garry Kasparov (b. 1963), Armenian-Jewish, is regarded by many as the greatest chess player of all time, with an IQ reportedly in the 190s. He was the world’s number one player for nearly two decades, winning the world championship when was only 22.
Chess legend Garry Kasparov plays chess with his Russian peer Anatoli Karpov (unseen) at the Arts Palau in Valencia on September 24, 2009, 25 years after their epic world championship duel. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)
17. Aryabhata (476—55) was probably the earliest Indian mathematician and astronomer. He is known for approximating the value of pi and developed the knowledge and use of zero.
A statue of Aryabhata in Pune, India. 2006.
16. Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was a leading figure of the French Enlightenment. With an IQ of 190 to 200, he was a notoriously witty writer, historian and philosopher. "Voltaire" was actually his pen name as he was born François-Marie Arouet.
Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
15. Hypatia (b.350-70, d. 415) was a Greek astronomer, philosopher and mathematician, who lived in Egypt and later the Eastern Roman Empire. She was the first female mathematician that we know of, with an estimated IQ of 170-190. She was accused of witchcraft and brutally murdered by a group of Christian fanatics.
Actress Mary Aynderson in a scene from the play, 'Hypatia'. circa 1900: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
14. Johann Goethe (1749-1832) was a German polymath, with notable achievements in science and considered to have been one of the greatest talents in Western literature, penning the classic “Faust”. His projected IQ was 213.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. circa 1790. Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
13. Avicenna aka Ibn Sina (980 – 1037) was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most important thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age. He wrote on philosophy, medicine, astronomy, alchemy, logic, math, physics, psychology and other subjects. He is particularly known for his work on Aristotelian philosophy and his medical books (like “The Canon of Medicine”), which became standard at Medieval universities.
Drawing of Avicenna from 1271.
12. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was one of the seminal scientific heroes of all times, making significant contributions in a variety of areas, from astronomy to physics to math and philosophy. The Italian's championing of heliocentrism, which saw Earth revolving around the sun got him branded as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition. His IQ range: 180-200.
Galileo Galilei, circa 1630. Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
11. Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was another German polymath - a philosopher and mathematician who is best known for inventing calculus. His philosophy work is noted for the conclusion that we lived in the best possible universe that God could have created. Leibniz’s IQ estimates range from 182 to 205.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, circa 1690. Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
10. Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serbian-born inventor and futurist, known for AC electricity, Tesla coil, wireless transmission of energy, the “death” ray, as well as predicting the smartphone, drones and other technologies. Estimated IQ - 195.
9. Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) was a Bengali Indian physicist, whose brilliant work on quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein resulted in Bose-Einstein statistics. Bosons, a class of particles, are named after him.
8. Marie Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish physicist and chemist. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in fact, winning it twice). She developed the theory of radioactivity (coining that term) and discovered two elements (polonium and radium). Her estimated IQ was 180-200.
Marie Curie in her laboratory. 1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
7. Confucius (551 B.C. - 479 B.C.) was a highly influential Chinese philosopher and teacher, renowned for popular aphorisms. His moral and political teachings had a profound impact all across East Asia. Some recent scholars have argued that much of what we know about Confucius is a myth.
Chinese philosopher Confucius, or K'ung Fu-tzu, circa 500 BC. Source - Rischgitz/Getty Images.
6. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a German-Jewish theoretical physicist who, for most people, is an obvious candidate for such a list as this. Arguably the most famous scientist who ever lived, Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, received a 1921 Nobel Prize for physics and had a revolutionary impact on his field. His IQ was estimated to be somewhere between 160-190.
Albert Einstein. 1930. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.
5. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is widely seen as the greatest writer of the English language and one of the world’s most popular and esteemed playwrights. With an approximate IQ of 210, Shakespeare wrote such constantly-performed classic plays as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth”.
A painting of William Shakespeare which is believed to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life. 1610. (Source - Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
3-4. Plato (427 - 347 BC) and Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) were both Greek philosophers, who also had a major scientific influence on the Middle Ages. Plato was a foundational figure of Western science, math and philosophy, writing a number of famous works like “Republic”. Aristotle was actually a pupil of Plato’s, being a part of Plato’s Athenian Academy for over 20 years. Aristotle had a major influence on the development of Western philosophy and science, writing on physics, biology, metaphysics, logic, theater, esthetics and other topics. IQs of the Greek thinkers are projected to be at 180-190.
Greek philosopher Plato Aristocles with the philosopher and scientist Aristotle. Ca. 350 BC. Original Publication: From Raphael: School of Athens - Vatican Stanzae (Source - Picture Post/Getty Images)
2. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726) was an English physicist and mathematician, most famous for discovering gravity. One of the most celebrated and influential scientists of all time, Newton had an estimated IQ of 193. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica was the foundational text of classical mechanics and influenced scientific thought for over 300 hundred years.
English scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, creating a shaft of light, circa 1665. Original Artwork: Engraving by J A Houston, RSA Original Publication: Aldus Disc - People & Personalities - 1353 - 007 (Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian Renaissance man, who excelled in a variety of fields, from science to painting and sculpture to inventions. His painting “Mona Lisa” is arguably the most famous art work in the world. The IQ of the man, who was perhaps the most diversely talented person ever, is estimated to have been around 200.
The Italian painter, sculptor, architect and engineer Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1510. Original Artwork: Engraving by J Posselwhite after an engraving by Raphael Morghen, (1758 - 1833), after a self-portrait by da Vinci. (Source - Hulton Archive/Getty Images)