What was the most pivotal moment of all time? Thousands of readers voted in our online poll, and the invention of the printing press has soundly beat Jesus’s birth …


What was the most important year in human history? That was the question we put to you in our first More Intelligent Life poll, which brought votes from nearly 3,000 readers. And the winner is … 1439, the year Johannes Gutenberg figured out how print words on paper. The arrival of the printing press saw off all other events including the birth of Jesus.

Over a third of voters agreed with Ann Wroe, The Economist’s obituaries editor, who argued for 1439:

No other single action has been so influential. A spoken word, even from the mouth of the greatest ruler, prophet or sage, dissolves into the air. Words that are printed survive, thrive and multiply. Since 1439 words printed by Gutenberg’s process have driven every invention, change of thinking and political idea.

That so many people believe in the primacy of the printed word is heartening news for this media outlet--even in its paperless incarnation. Something to tweet home about, for sure.

The debate began with an article by Andrew Marr, a British television presenter, who writes the history column in Intelligent Life magazine. “How we answer it,” Marr wrote, “says a lot about who we are.” He drew up an informal shortlist of very important years--1776, 1945, 1953, 1989, even 2009--and five Economist journalists chimed in with their own nominations--5BC, 1204, 1791 and 1944 as well as 1439. The year that saw the invention of the steam engine--1712--was tossed into the ring. And then we drafted in the wisdom of crowds.

With voters able to plump for one of the front-runners or choose any other year they liked, the polling results extend for pages. (At our last check, we had over 260 write-in suggestions, indicating we have happened upon a provocative subject and some excitable readers.) Second place went to 5BC, the estimated date of Jesus’s birth, which Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist’s Washington bureau chief, had argued for. Not a believer himself, but co-author of the new book “God Is Back”, Wooldridge wrote that Jesus not only inspired the world’s most popular religion, but “also shaped all subsequent secular history”. Many hundreds of readers--over 22%--agreed.

The discovery of DNA in 1953 came in third with nearly 10% of the vote (“Biology rules!!!” commented “george the biologist”). In a close fourth, around 8% of votes went to 1945, the year that marked the fall of both Nazism and the atomic bomb, and the rise of American hegemony and Stalinist bondage. (“Although the events of that year may seem to be momentous in and of themselves,” commented one 1945 voter, “the importance of that year for me is defined primarily by the future consequences of those events.”) The year Marr reckoned perhaps the most important--1776, when America declared its independence from Britain--came in fifth place, with around 6% of votes. Even if, as Marr suggested, “the world is still dominated by the American example,” few readers seemed to care. In our comments section, some complained that this theory was far too America-centric.

The many write-in suggestions included the years the Ford Model T hit the road (1907), Muhammad was born (570), Isaac Newton invented Calculus (1693), Charles Darwin wrote about evolution (1859), the twin towers fell (2001) and the French had their revolution (1789). At least one reader thought Michael Jackson’s death was worth mentioning, and quite a few felt the most important year in the whole of history was the one in which they were born.

A prominent thread in the comments section dealt with what might have happened if Greece had become part of the Persian Empire in 480BC. (Valur Gunnarsson argued that “there would have been no Alexander, no Roman Empire, no Christianity, no colonisation by Europeans and so on”.) While some complained that any sort of contest that tries to compare the birth of Jesus with a moon landing is perhaps a little silly.

Finally, quite a few readers suggested that this very year, the one we are now living in, is in fact the most important. Marr had raised this himself, arguing that the 2009 Copenhagen summit may offer our last real chance to take action against global warming. But several voters plumped for 2009 for a related yet different reason: “the rest are in the past and can't be changed,” wrote one reader. “The year we are in now is the only one we have the power to change.”

If you haven’t voted and would like to, the polls are still open.


TOP TEN (so far):

1. 1439 - Gutenberg's press: 35% (1116 votes)

2. 5BC - Jesus's birth: 22% (693 votes)

3. 1953 - DNA is discovered: 9% (284 votes)

4. 1945 - Nazism falls, bomb dropped, new world order: 8% (264 votes)

5. 1776 - United States is born: 6% (197 votes)

6. 2009 - Copenhagen climate summit: 3% (97 votes)

7. 1791 - Telegraph and Morse code are invented: 2% (59 votes)

8. 1989 - Berlin wall falls, World Wide Web rises: 2% (53 votes)

9. 1204 - Christianity split by Crusades: 1% (43 votes)

10. 1944 - Modern ideological warfare takes off: 1% (38 votes)


Picture credit: secretlondon123 (via Flickr)