UW News

November 5, 2009

A matter of pluck: Staff member Ben Thompson chronicles history’s grittiest characters

Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

By day, Ben Thompson helps research the world’s most pressing public health problems as a program assistant at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

By night, Thompson is the arbiter of historic fortitude, deciding who is tough enough to be included on his list. On Oct. 27, HarperCollins Publishers unveiled Thompson’s first book: BADASS: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live. Thompson will be reading from the book Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the University Village Barnes and Noble.

One Amazon.com reviewer called it, “the most fun I have had with history since I read John Stewart’s America (The Book).”

Thompson graduated from Florida State University with a joint Bachelor of Science in political science and a Bachelor of Arts in history in 2002.

“I was always really interested in history, but so many teachers and books can make it so boring,” Thompson said. “I wanted to find a fun, exciting way to tell the stories in a way that hadn’t been done before.”

In April 2002, he put that notion into action by starting a Web site that details the heroic achievements of people such as Alexander the Great, George S. Patton and Crazy Horse, using over-the-top descriptors such as “face melting.”

“I pick only dead people,” Thompson said. “Because you can’t slander the dead.”

Most of Thompson’s choices are so obscure that only history majors would know their names. Bhanbhagta Gurung, anyone? During the Second World War, this British Indian Army soldier destroyed six bunkers all on his own. “He killed the last couple guys with a knife and a rock after he ran out of grenades and bullets,” Thompson said.

Many of them are, as the subitle implies, warriors of some sort. But a few made their mark with their minds. Thompson writes that Nikola Tesla, the father of radio, “harnessed the power of Niagara Falls into the first hydroelectric power plant, constructed a bath designed to cleanse the human body of germs using nothing but electricity, and created a 130-foot long bolt of lightning from one of his massive coils (a feat which to this day remains the world record for man-made lightning), but perhaps his most badass invention was his face-melting, tank-destroying, super-secret Atomic Death Ray.”

The site gradually picked up fans and now receives between 750,000 and 1.5 million hits every month. Those numbers were striking enough to catch the attention of HarperCollins, which is distributing the book nationally.

Because of the book deal, Thompson is working on a second book and talking with television producers about a series based on his book. It’s perhaps not surprising that he has been popular with morning drive-time DJs and has been approached by the producers of one of the country’s most popular late night TV talk shows.

“It’s completely overwhelming,” Thompson said. “There’s so much stuff going on right now that it’s hard to believe someone like me is doing something like this.”