20th century was a century that began on January 1, 1901 and
ended on December 31, 2000. It was the tenth and final century of
the 2nd millennium. It is distinct from the century known as the 1900s
which began on January 1,
1900 and ended on December 31, 1999.
20th century was dominated by a chain of events that heralded
significant changes in world history as to redefine the era: World War
I and World War II, nuclear power and space exploration, nationalism
and decolonization, the
Cold War and post-
Cold War conflicts;
intergovernmental organizations and cultural homogenization through
developments in emerging transportation and communications technology;
poverty reduction and world population growth, awareness of
environmental degradation, ecological extinction; and the birth
of the Digital Revolution. It saw great advances in communication and
medical technology that by the late
1980s allowed for
near-instantaneous worldwide computer communication and genetic
modification of life.
Global total fertility rates, sea level rise and ecological collapses
increased; the resulting competition for land and dwindling resources
accelerated deforestation, water depletion, and the mass extinction of
many of the world's species and decline in the population of others;
consequences which are now being dealt with. It took all of human
history up to 1804 for the world's population to reach 1 billion;
world population reached an estimated 2 billion in 1927; by late 1999,
the global population reached 6 billion. Global literacy averaged
80%; global lifespan-averages exceeded 40+ years for the first time in
history, with over half achieving 70+ years (three decades longer than
it was a century ago).
1.2 The nature of innovation and change
1.3 Social change
1.4 The world at the end of the 20th century
2 Wars and politics
Culture and entertainment
3.2 Film and theatre
3.3 Art and Architecture
4.5.1 Notable diseases
4.6 Energy and the environment
5 Engineering and technology
5.1 Space exploration
8 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
Main article: 20th-century events
See also: Timeline of the 20th century
Map of the
British Empire (as of 1910). At its height, it was the
largest empire in history.
The century had the first global-scale total wars between world powers
across continents and oceans in
World War I
World War I and World War II.
Nationalism became a major political issue in the world in the 20th
century, acknowledged in international law along with the right of
nations to self-determination, official decolonization in the
mid-century, and related regional conflicts.
The century saw a major shift in the way that many people lived, with
changes in politics, ideology, economics, society, culture, science,
technology, and medicine. The
20th century may have seen more
technological and scientific progress than all the other centuries
combined since the dawn of civilization. Terms like ideology, world
war, genocide, and nuclear war entered common usage. Scientific
discoveries, such as the theory of relativity and quantum physics,
profoundly changed the foundational models of physical science,
forcing scientists to realize that the universe was more complex than
previously believed, and dashing the hopes (or fears) at the end of
19th century that the last few details of scientific knowledge
were about to be filled in. It was a century that started with horses,
simple automobiles, and freighters but ended with high-speed rail,
cruise ships, global commercial air travel and the Space Shuttle.
Horses, Western society's basic form of personal transportation for
thousands of years, were replaced by automobiles and buses within a
few decades. These developments were made possible by the exploitation
of fossil fuel resources, which offered energy in an easily portable
form, but also caused concern about pollution and long-term impact on
the environment. Humans explored space for the first time, taking
their first footsteps on the Moon.
World powers and empires in 1914, just before the First World War
Mass media, telecommunications, and information technology (especially
computers, paperback books, public education, and the Internet) made
the world's knowledge more widely available. Advancements in medical
technology also improved the health of many people: the global life
expectancy increased from 35 years to 65 years. Rapid technological
advancements, however, also allowed warfare to reach unprecedented
levels of destruction.
World War II
World War II alone killed over 60 million
people, while nuclear weapons gave humankind the means to annihilate
itself in a short time. However, these same wars resulted in the
destruction of the imperial system. For the first time in human
history, empires and their wars of expansion and colonization ceased
to be a factor in international affairs, resulting in a far more
globalized and cooperative world. The last time major powers clashed
openly was in 1945, and since then, violence has seen an unprecedented
The world also became more culturally homogenized than ever with
developments in transportation and communications technology, popular
music and other influences of Western culture, international
corporations, and what was arguably a true global economy by the end
of the 20th century.
Technological advancements during
World War I
World War I changed the way war was
fought, as new inventions such as tanks, chemical weapons, and
aircraft modified tactics and strategy. After more than four years of
trench warfare in western Europe, and 20 million dead, the powers that
had formed the
Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia, later
replaced by the
United States and joined by Italy and Romania) emerged
victorious over the
Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the
Empire and Bulgaria). In addition to annexing much of the
colonial possessions of the vanquished states, the Triple Entente
exacted punitive restitution payments from them, plunging Germany in
particular into economic depression. The regime of Tsar Nicholas II
was overthrown during the conflict, Russia became the first communist
state, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were dismantled at
the war's conclusion.
Ukraine, early days of the
1941 Nazi invasion. The
Soviet Union lost
around 27 million people between
1941 and 1945, almost half of all
World War II
World War II deaths.
At the beginning of the period, Britain was the world's most powerful
nation, having acted as the world's policeman for the past
century. Fascism, a movement which grew out of post-war angst and
which accelerated during the
Great Depression of the 1930s, gained
momentum in Italy, Germany and Spain in the
1920s and 1930s,
culminating in World War II, sparked by Nazi Germany's aggressive
expansion at the expense of its neighbors. Meanwhile, Japan had
rapidly transformed itself into a technologically advanced industrial
power. Its military expansion into eastern Asia and the Pacific Ocean
culminated in a surprise attack on the United States, bringing it into
World War II. After some years of dramatic military success, Germany
was defeated in 1945, having been invaded by the
Soviet Union and
Poland from the east and by the United States, the United Kingdom,
Free France from the west. The war ended with the dropping
of two atomic bombs on Japan. Japan later became a western ally with
an economy based on the manufacture of consumer goods and trade.
Germany was divided between the Western powers (West Germany) and the
Soviet Union; all areas recaptured by the
Soviet Union (East Germany
and eastward) became Soviet puppet states under communist rule.
Meanwhile, Western European countries were influenced by the American
Marshall Plan and made a quick economic recovery, becoming major
allies of the
United States under capitalist economies and relatively
World War II
World War II left about 60 million people dead. When the conflict
ended in 1945, the
United States and the
Soviet Union emerged as the
major world powers. Allies during the war, they soon became hostile to
one another as the competing ideologies of communism and democratic
capitalism occupied Europe, divided by the
Iron Curtain and the Berlin
Wall. The military alliances headed by these nations (
NATO in North
America and Western Europe; the
Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe)
threatened each other with total war in what was called the Cold War
(1947–91). The period was marked by a new arms race, and nuclear
weapons were produced in the tens of thousands, sufficient to end most
human life on the planet had a large-scale nuclear exchange ever
occurred. The size of the nuclear arsenals is believed by many
historians to have staved off war between the two, as the consequences
were too great to bear. The policy of massive nuclear attack, knowing
a similar counterattack would be forthcoming, was called mutually
assured destruction (MAD). However, several proxy wars, such as the
Korean War (1950–1953) and the
Vietnam War (1955–1975), were waged
United States implemented its worldwide "containment" policy
Albert Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics.
After World War II, most of the European-colonized world in Africa and
Asia gained independence in a process of decolonization. Meanwhile,
the wars empowered several nations, including the UK, USA, Russia,
China and Japan, to exert a strong influence over many world affairs.
American culture spread around the world with the advent of the
Hollywood motion picture industry, Broadway, rock and roll, pop music,
fast food, big-box stores, and the hip-hop lifestyle. Britain
continued to influence world culture, including the British Invasion
(The Rolling Stones, The Beatles) into American music, leading many
rock bands from other countries (such as Swedish ABBA) to sing in
English. The western world and parts of Asia enjoyed a post–World
War II economic expansion. After the
Soviet Union collapsed under
internal pressure in 1991, the communist governments of the Eastern
bloc were dismantled, followed by awkward transitions into market
Following World War II, the United Nations, successor to the League of
Nations, was established as an international forum in which the
world's nations could discuss issues diplomatically. It enacted
resolutions on such topics as the conduct of warfare, environmental
protection, international sovereignty, and human rights. Peacekeeping
forces consisting of troops provided by various countries, with
United Nations and other aid agencies, helped to relieve
famine, disease, and poverty, and to suppress some local armed
conflicts. Europe slowly united, economically and, in some ways,
politically, to form the European Union, which consisted of 15
European countries by the end of the 20th century.
In the last third of the century, concern about humankind's impact on
the Earth's environment made environmentalism popular. In many
countries, especially in Europe, the movement was channeled into
politics through Green parties. Increasing awareness of global warming
began in the 1980s, commencing decades of social and political debate.
The computer is a major technological advancement in this century.
The nature of innovation and change
Due to continuing industrialization and expanding trade, many
significant changes of the century were, directly or indirectly,
economic and technological in nature. Inventions such as the light
bulb, the automobile, and the telephone in the late 19th century,
followed by supertankers, airliners, motorways, radio, television,
antibiotics, frozen food, computers and microcomputers, the Internet,
and mobile telephones affected people's quality of life across the
developed world. Scientific research, engineering professionalization
and technological development drove changes in everyday life.
Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American civil rights leader.
At the beginning of the century, strong discrimination based on race
and sex was significant in general society. Although the Atlantic
slave trade had ended in the 19th century, the fight for equality for
non-white people in white-dominated societies of North America,
South Africa continued. During the century, the social
taboo of sexism fell. By the end of the 20th century, women had the
same legal rights as men in many parts of the world, and racism had
come to be seen as abhorrent. Attitudes towards homosexuality also
began to change in the later part of the century.
The world at the end of the 20th century
Communications and information technology, transportation technology,
and medical advances had radically altered daily lives. Europe
appeared to be at a sustainable peace for the first time in recorded
history. The people of the Indian subcontinent, a sixth of the world
population at the end of the 20th century, had attained an indigenous
independence for the first time in centuries. China, an ancient nation
comprising a fifth of the world population, was finally open to the
world in a new and powerful synthesis of west and east, creating a new
state after the near-complete destruction of the old cultural order.
With the end of colonialism and the Cold War, nearly a billion people
in Africa were left in new nation states after centuries of foreign
The world was undergoing its second major period of globalization; the
first, which started in the 18th century, having been terminated by
World War I. Since the US was in a dominant position, a major part of
the process was Americanization. The influence of China and India was
also rising, as the world's largest populations were rapidly
integrating with the world economy.
Terrorism, dictatorship, and the spread of nuclear weapons were some
issues requiring attention. The world was still blighted by
small-scale wars and other violent conflicts, fueled by competition
over resources and by ethnic conflicts. Despots such as
Kim Jong-il of
North Korea continued to lead their nations toward the development of
Disease threatened to destabilize many regions of the world. New
viruses such as
SARS and West Nile continued to spread.
other diseases affected large populations. Millions were infected with
HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. The virus was becoming an epidemic
in southern Africa.
Based on research done by climate scientists, the majority of the
scientific community consider that in the long term environmental
problems may threaten the planet's habitability. One argument is
that of global warming occurring, and that it may be due (at least
partially) to human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, particularly
carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels. This
prompted many nations to negotiate and sign the Kyoto treaty, which
set mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
World population increased from about 1.6 billion people in 1901
to 6.1 billion at the century's end.
Wars and politics
Main article: International relations of the Great Powers
Map of territorial changes in Europe after
World War I
World War I (as of 1923).
The number of people killed during the century by government actions
was in the hundreds of millions. This includes deaths caused by wars,
genocide, politicide and mass murders. The deaths from acts of war
during the two world wars alone have been estimated at between 50 and
80 million. Political scientist Rudolph Rummel
estimated 262,000,000 deaths caused by democide, which excludes those
killed in war battles, civilians unintentionally killed in war and
killings of rioting mobs. According to Charles Tilly, "Altogether,
about 100 million people died as a direct result of action by
organized military units backed by one government or another over the
course of the century. Most likely a comparable number of civilians
died of war-induced disease and other indirect effects." It is
estimated that approximately 70 million Europeans died through war,
violence and famine between
1914 and 1945.
After gaining political rights in the
United States and much of Europe
in the first part of the century, and with the advent of new birth
control techniques, women became more independent throughout the
Rising nationalism and increasing national awareness were among the
many causes of
World War I
World War I (1914–1918), the first of two wars to
involve many major world powers including Germany, France, Italy,
Japan, Russia/USSR, the
British Empire and the United States. World
War I led to the creation of many new countries, especially in Eastern
Europe. At the time, it was said by many to be the "war to end war".
Industrial warfare greatly increased in its scale and complexity
during the first half of the 20th century. Notable developments
included chemical warfare, the introduction of military aviation and
the widespread use of submarines. The introduction of nuclear warfare
in the mid-
20th century marked the definite transition to modern
Civil wars occurred in many nations. A violent civil war broke out in
1936 when General
Francisco Franco rebelled against the
Second Spanish Republic. Many[who?] consider this war as a testing
battleground for World War II, as the fascist armies bombed some
Great Depression in the
1930s led to the rise of
Nazism in Europe.
World War II
World War II (1939–1945) involved Eastern Asia and the Pacific, in
the form of Japanese aggression against China and the United States.
Civilians also suffered greatly in World War II, due to the aerial
bombing of cities on both sides, and the German genocide of the Jews
and others, known as the Holocaust.
During World War I, in the
Russian Revolution of 1917, 300 years of
Romanov reign were ended and the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of
Vladimir Lenin, established the world's first
Communist state. After
the Soviet Union's involvement in World War II, communism became a
major force in global politics, notably in Eastern Europe, China,
Indochina and Cuba, where communist parties gained near-absolute
power. This led to the
Cold War and proxy wars with the Western bloc,
including wars in Korea (1950–1953) and Vietnam (1957–1975).
Richard Nixon and
Leonid Brezhnev aboard the USS Sequoia, June 19,
Cold War had caused an arms race and increasing competition
between the two major players in the world: the
Soviet Union and the
United States. This competition included the development and
improvement of nuclear weapons and the Space Race.
The Soviet authorities caused the deaths of millions of their own
citizens in order to eliminate domestic opposition. More than 18
million people passed through the Gulag, with a further 6 million
being exiled to remote areas of the Soviet Union.
The civil rights movement in the
United States and the movement
against apartheid in
South Africa challenged racial segregation in
The two world wars led to efforts to increase international
cooperation, notably through the founding of the League of Nations
after World War I, and its successor, the United Nations, after World
Nationalist movements in the subcontinent led to the independence and
partition of India and Pakistan.
Gandhi's nonviolence and
Indian independence movement
Indian independence movement against the
British Empire influenced many political movements around the world,
including the civil rights movement in the U.S., and freedom movements
South Africa and Burma.
The creation in
1948 of Israel, a
Jewish state in the Middle East, by
British Mandate of Palestine
British Mandate of Palestine fueled many regional conflicts. These
were also influenced by the vast oil fields in many of the other
countries of the mostly Arab region.
The end of colonialism led to the independence of many African and
Asian countries. During the Cold War, many of these aligned with the
United States, the USSR, or China for defense.
After a long period of civil wars and conflicts with western powers,
China's last imperial dynasty ended in 1912. The resulting republic
was replaced, after another civil war, by a communist People's
Republic in 1949. At the end of the 20th century, though still ruled
by a communist party, China's economic system had largely transformed
Great Chinese Famine
Great Chinese Famine was a direct cause of the death of tens of
millions of Chinese peasants between
1959 and 1962. It is thought to
be the largest famine in human history.
Hong Kong, under British administration from 1841 to 1997, is one of
the original four Asian tigers.
Vietnam War caused two million deaths, changed the dynamics
between the Eastern and Western Blocs, and altered North-South
The Soviet War in Afghanistan caused one million deaths and
contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
The revolutions of
1989 released Eastern and Central Europe from
Soviet supremacy. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia,
and Yugoslavia dissolved, the latter violently over several years,
into successor states, many rife with ethnic nationalism. Meanwhile,
East Germany and
West Germany were reunified in 1990.
The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, culminating in the deaths of
hundreds of civilian protesters, were a series of demonstrations in
and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Led mainly by students
and intellectuals, the protests occurred in a year that saw the
collapse of a number of communist governments around the world.
European integration began in earnest in the 1950s, and eventually led
to the European Union, a political and economic union that comprised
15 countries at the end of the 20th century.
Culture and entertainment
20th century in literature
I and the Village
I and the Village by Marc Chagall, a modern painter.
As the century began, Paris was the artistic capital of the world,
where both French and foreign writers, composers and visual artists
gathered. By the end of the century
New York City
New York City had become the
artistic capital of the world.
Theater, films, music and the media had a major influence on fashion
and trends in all aspects of life. As many films and much music
originate from the United States, American culture spread rapidly over
1953 saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an iconic figure of the
Visual culture became more dominant not only in films but in comics
and television as well. During the century a new skilled understanding
of narrativist imagery was developed.
Computer games and internet surfing became new and popular form of
entertainment during the last 25 years of the century.
In Literature, science fiction, fantasy (with well-developed fictional
worlds, rich in detail), and alternative history fiction gained
Detective fiction gained unprecedented
popularity in the interwar period. In the
United States in
Press published Tropic of Cancer a novel by
Henry Miller redefining
pornography and censorship in publishing in America.
Led Zeppelin are widely considered one of the most successful,
innovative, and influential rock groups in history.
Main article: 20th-century music
The invention of music recording technologies such as the phonograph
record, and dissemination technologies such as radio broadcasting,
massively expanded the audience for music. Prior to the 20th century,
music was generally only experienced in live performances. Many new
genres of music were established during the 20th century.
Igor Stravinsky revolutionized classical composition.
In classical music, composition branched out into many completely new
domains, including dodecaphony, aleatoric (chance) music, and
Tango was created in Argentina and became extremely popular in the
rest of the Americas and Europe.
Blues and jazz music became popularized during the
the United States.
Blues went on to influence rock and roll in the 1950s, which along
with Folk Music, increased in popularity with the
British Invasion of
the mid-to-late 1960s.
Rock soon branched into many different genres, including Folk rock,
heavy metal, punk rock, and alternative rock and became the dominant
genre of popular music.
This was challenged with the rise of hip hop in the
1980s and 1990s.
Other genres such as house, techno, reggae, and soul all developed
during the latter half of the century and went through various periods
Synthesizers began to be employed widely in music and crossed over
into the mainstream with new wave music in the 1980s. Electronic
instruments have been widely deployed in all manners of popular music
and has led to the development of such genres as house, synthpop,
electronic dance music, and industrial.
The world's most popular / famous music artists of the 20th century
include : ABBA, Louis Armstrong, The Beach Boys, The Beatles,
Harry Belafonte, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan,
Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Robert Johnson, Led
Zeppelin, Madonna, Bob Marley, Charlie Parker, Pink Floyd, Elvis
Presley, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and many
Film and theatre
History of film
Film as an artistic medium was created in the 20th century. The first
modern movie theatre was established in
Pittsburgh in 1905.
Hollywood developed as the center of American film production. While
the first films were in black and white, technicolor was developed in
1920s to allow for color films. Sound films were developed, with
the first full-length feature film, The
Jazz Singer, released in 1927.
Academy Awards were established in 1929.
Charlie Chaplin in his
1921 film The Kid, with Jackie Coogan.
Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Clark
Gable, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe,
Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, are among the most popular
film stars of the 20th century.
D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Capra,
Howard Hawks, John Ford, Orson Welles, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock,
Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Walt Disney, Stanley
Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, and
George Lucas are among the most important and popular filmmakers of
the 20th century.
In theater, sometimes referred to as Broadway in New York City,
playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Arthur
Tennessee Williams introduced innovative language and ideas
to the idiom. In musical theater, figures like Rodgers and
Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and
Irving Berlin had an enormous
impact on both film and the culture in general.
Empire State Building is an iconic building of the 1930s.
Modern Dance is born in America as a 'rebellion' against centuries-old
Dancers and choreographers Isadora Duncan, Vaslav
Nijinsky, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Doris Humphrey,
Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor re-defined movement, struggling to
bring it back to its 'natural' roots and along with Jazz, created a
solely American art form.
Art and Architecture
Main article: 20th-century art
The art world experienced the development of new styles and
explorations such as fauvism, expressionism, Dadaism, cubism, de
stijl, surrealism, abstract expressionism, color field, pop art,
minimal art, lyrical abstraction, and conceptual art.
The modern art movement revolutionized art and culture and set the
stage for both
Modernism and its counterpart postmodern art as well as
other contemporary art practices.
Art Nouveau began as advanced architecture and design but fell out of
fashion after World War I. The style was dynamic and inventive but
unsuited to the depression of the Great War.
In Europe, modern architecture departed from the decorated styles of
the Victorian era. Streamlined forms inspired by machines became
commonplace, enabled by developments in building materials and
technologies. Before World War II, many European architects moved to
the United States, where modern architecture continued to develop.
The automobile increased the mobility of people in the Western
countries in the early-to-mid-century, and in many other places by the
end of the 20th century. City design throughout most of the West
became focused on transport via car.
The popularity of sport increased considerably—both as an activity
for all, and as entertainment, particularly on television.
The modern Olympic Games, first held in 1896, grew to include tens of
thousands of athletes in dozens of sports.
FIFA World Cup
FIFA World Cup was first held in 1930, and was held every 4 years
after World War II.
20th century in science
See also: Big Science
The pioneer of computer science, Alan Turing
Multiple new fields of mathematics were developed in the 20th century.
In the first part of the 20th century, measure theory, functional
analysis, and topology were established, and significant developments
were made in fields such as abstract algebra and probability. The
development of set theory and formal logic led to Gödel's
Later in the 20th century, the development of computers led to the
establishment of a theory of computation. Other
computationally-intense results include the study of fractals and
a proof of the four color theorem in 1976.
New areas of physics, like special relativity, general relativity, and
quantum mechanics, were developed during the first half of the
century. In the process, the internal structure of atoms came to be
clearly understood, followed by the discovery of elementary particles.
It was found that all the known forces can be traced to only four
fundamental interactions. It was discovered further that two forces,
electromagnetism and weak interaction, can be merged in the
electroweak interaction, leaving only three different fundamental
Discovery of nuclear reactions, in particular nuclear fusion, finally
revealed the source of solar energy.
Radiocarbon dating was invented, and became a powerful technique for
determining the age of prehistoric animals and plants as well as
A much better understanding of the evolution of the universe was
achieved, its age (about 13.8 billion years) was determined, and the
Big Bang theory on its origin was proposed and generally accepted.
The age of the solar system, including Earth, was determined, and it
turned out to be much older than believed earlier: more than
4 billion years, rather than the 20 million years suggested by
Lord Kelvin in 1862.
The planets of the solar system and their moons were closely observed
via numerous space probes.
Pluto was discovered in
1930 on the edge of
the solar system, although in the early 21st century, it was
reclassified as a plutoid instead of a planet proper, leaving eight
No trace of life was discovered on any of the other planets in our
solar system (or elsewhere in the universe), although it remained
undetermined whether some forms of primitive life might exist, or
might have existed, somewhere.
Extrasolar planets were observed for
the first time.
Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, is often credited with
saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.
Genetics was unanimously accepted and significantly developed. The
structure of DNA was determined in
1953 by James Watson,
Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice
Wilkins, following by developing techniques which allow to
read DNA sequences and culminating in starting the Human Genome
Project (not finished in the 20th century) and cloning the first
mammal in 1996.
The role of sexual reproduction in evolution was understood, and
bacterial conjugation was discovered.
The convergence of various sciences for the formulation of the modern
evolutionary synthesis (produced between
1936 and 1947), providing a
widely accepted account of evolution.
A stamp commemorating Alexander Fleming. His discovery of penicillin
had changed the world of modern medicine by introducing the age of
Placebo-controlled, randomized, blinded clinical trials became a
powerful tool for testing new medicines.
Antibiotics drastically reduced mortality from bacterial diseases and
A vaccine was developed for polio, ending a worldwide epidemic.
Effective vaccines were also developed for a number of other serious
infectious diseases, including influenza, diphtheria, pertussis
(whooping cough), tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella (German measles),
chickenpox, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B.
Epidemiology and vaccination led to the eradication of the smallpox
virus in humans.
X-rays became powerful diagnostic tool for wide spectrum of diseases,
from bone fractures to cancer. In the 1960s, computerized tomography
was invented. Other important diagnostic tools developed were
sonography and magnetic resonance imaging.
Development of vitamins virtually eliminated scurvy and other
vitamin-deficiency diseases from industrialized societies.
New psychiatric drugs were developed. These include antipsychotics for
treating hallucinations and delusions, and antidepressants for
The role of tobacco smoking in the causation of cancer and other
diseases was proven during the
1950s (see British Doctors Study).
New methods for cancer treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation
therapy, and immunotherapy, were developed. As a result, cancer could
often be cured or placed in remission.
The development of blood typing and blood banking made blood
transfusion safe and widely available.
The invention and development of immunosuppressive drugs and tissue
typing made organ and tissue transplantation a clinical reality.
New methods for heart surgery were developed, including pacemakers and
Cocaine/crack and heroin were found to be dangerous addictive drugs,
and their wide usage had been outlawed; mind-altering drugs such as
MDMA were discovered and later outlawed. In many countries, a
war on drugs caused prices to soar 10–20 times higher, leading to
profitable black market drugdealing, and to prison inmate sentences
being 80% related to drug use by the 1990s.
Contraceptive drugs were developed, which reduced population growth
rates in industrialized countries, as well as decreased the taboo of
premarital sex throughout many western countries.
The development of medical insulin during the
1920s helped raise the
life expectancy of diabetics to three times of what it had been
Vaccines, hygiene and clean water improved health and decreased
mortality rates, especially among infants and the young.
An influenza pandemic, Spanish Flu, killed anywhere from 20 to 100
million people between
1918 and 1919.
A new viral disease, called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV,
arose in Africa and subsequently killed millions of people throughout
the world. HIV leads to a syndrome called Acquired Immunodeficiency
Syndrome, or AIDS. Treatments for HIV remained inaccessible to many
people living with AIDS and HIV in developing countries, and a cure
has yet to be discovered.
Because of increased life spans, the prevalence of cancer, Alzheimer's
disease, Parkinson's disease, and other diseases of old age increased
Sedentary lifestyles, due to labor-saving devices and technology,
along with the increase in home entertainment and technology such as
television, video games, and the internet contributed to an "epidemic"
of obesity, at first in the rich countries, but by the end of the 20th
century spreading to the developing world.
Energy and the environment
Oil field in California, 1938. The first modern oil well was drilled
in 1848 by Russian engineer F.N. Semyonov, on the Apsheron Peninsula
north-east of Baku.
The dominant use of fossil sources and nuclear power, considered the
conventional energy sources.
Widespread use of petroleum in industry—both as a chemical precursor
to plastics and as a fuel for the automobile and airplane—led to the
geopolitical importance of petroleum resources. The Middle East, home
to many of the world's oil deposits, became a center of geopolitical
and military tension throughout the latter half of the century. (For
example, oil was a factor in Japan's decision to go to war against the
United States in 1941, and the oil cartel, OPEC, used an oil embargo
of sorts in the wake of the
Yom Kippur War
Yom Kippur War in the 1970s).
The increase in fossil fuel consumption also fueled a major scientific
controversy over its effect on air pollution, global warming, and
global climate change.
Pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals accumulated in the
environment, including in the bodies of humans and other animals.
Overpopulation and worldwide deforestation diminished the quality of
Engineering and technology
First flight of the
Wright Flyer I, December 17, 1903, Orville
piloting, Wilbur running at wingtip.
One of the prominent traits of the
20th century was the dramatic
growth of technology. Organized research and practice of science led
to advancement in the fields of communication, engineering, travel,
medicine, and war.
The number and types of home appliances increased dramatically due to
advancements in technology, electricity availability, and increases in
wealth and leisure time. Such basic appliances as washing machines,
clothes dryers, furnaces, exercise machines, refrigerators, freezers,
electric stoves, and vacuum cleaners all became popular from the 1920s
through the 1950s. The microwave oven became popular during the 1980s
and have become a standard in all homes by the 1990s. Radios were
popularized as a form of entertainment during the 1920s, which
extended to television during the 1950s. Cable and satellite
television spread rapidly during the
1980s and 1990s. Personal
computers began to enter the home during the 1970s–
1980s as well.
The age of the portable music player grew during the
1960s with the
development of the transistor radio, 8-track and cassette tapes, which
slowly began to replace record players These were in turn replaced by
the CD during the late
1980s and 1990s. The proliferation of the
Internet in the mid-to-late
1990s made digital distribution of music
(mp3s) possible. VCRs were popularized in the 1970s, but by the end of
the 20th century, DVD players were beginning to replace them, making
the VHS obsolete by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
The first airplane was flown in 1903. With the engineering of the
faster jet engine in the 1940s, mass air travel became commercially
The assembly line made mass production of the automobile viable. By
the end of the 20th century, billions of people had automobiles for
personal transportation. The combination of the automobile, motor
boats and air travel allowed for unprecedented personal mobility. In
western nations, motor vehicle accidents became the greatest cause of
death for young people. However, expansion of divided highways reduced
the death rate.
The triode tube, transistor and integrated circuit successively
revolutionized electronics and computers, leading to the proliferation
of the personal computer in the
1980s and cell phones and the
Internet in the 1990s.
New materials, most notably stainless steel, Velcro, silicone, teflon,
and plastics such as polystyrene, PVC, polyethylene, and nylon came
into widespread use for many various applications. These materials
typically have tremendous performance gains in strength, temperature,
chemical resistance, or mechanical properties over those known prior
to the 20th century.
Aluminum became an inexpensive metal and became second only to iron in
Semiconductor materials were discovered, and methods of production and
purification developed for use in electronic devices.
one of the purest substances ever produced.
Thousands of chemicals were developed for industrial processing and
Buzz Aldrin during the first moonwalk in 1969. The relatively
young aerospace engineering industries rapidly grew in the 66 years
after the Wright brothers first flight.
Space Race between the
United States and the
Soviet Union gave a
peaceful outlet to the political and military tensions of the Cold
War, leading to the first human spaceflight with the Soviet Union's
Vostok 1 mission in 1961, and man's first landing on another
world—the Moon—with America's
Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Later,
the first space station was launched by the Soviet space program. The
United States developed the first (and to date only) reusable
spacecraft system with the
Space Shuttle program, first launched in
1981. As the century ended, a permanent manned presence in space was
being founded with the ongoing construction of the International Space
In addition to human spaceflight, unmanned space probes became a
practical and relatively inexpensive form of exploration. The first
orbiting space probe, Sputnik 1, was launched by the
Soviet Union in
1957. Over time, a massive system of artificial satellites was placed
into orbit around Earth. These satellites greatly advanced navigation,
communications, military intelligence, geology, climate, and numerous
other fields. Also, by the end of the 20th century, unmanned probes
had visited the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus,
Neptune, and various asteroids and comets. The Hubble Space Telescope,
launched in 1990, greatly expanded our understanding of the Universe
and brought brilliant images to TV and computer screens around the
The Global Positioning System, a series of satellites that allow
land-based receivers to determine their exact location, was developed
See also: List of 20th-century religious leaders
Vatican II council was held from
1962 to 1965, and resulted in
significant changes in the Catholic Church.
The Wahhabi sect of
Sunni Islam gained in influence with the growth of
Multiple new religions were founded, including the
Nation of Islam,
Scientology, and the
Atheism became considerably more common, both in secular Western
Communist countries with a policy of state atheism.
Great Depression was a world-wide economic slowdown that lasted
throughout the 1930s.
Soviet Union implemented a series of five-year plans for
industrialization and economic development.
Most countries abandoned the gold standard for their currency. The
Bretton Woods system
Bretton Woods system involved currencies being pegged to the United
States dollar; after the system collapsed in
1971 most major
currencies had a floating exchange rate.
Death rates in the 20th century
Infectious disease in the 20th century
Short twentieth century
Timelines of modern history
List of 20th-century women artists
List of notable 20th-century writers
List of 20th-century American writers by birth year
List of battles 1901–2000
List of stories set in a future now past
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Century Research Project
Slouching Towards Utopia: The Economic
History of the Twentieth
20th century at the British Library
Decades and years
18th century ← 19th century ← ↔ → 21st
century → 22nd century
Centuries and millennia
History of the 20th century
State leaders: 1901–1950