The 20th (twentieth) 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.
The 20th century saw the largest transformation of the world order since the Fall of Rome: 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. The average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit) since 1880; Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20 °C per decade.
The repercussions of the World Wars, Cold War and Globalization crafted a world where people are more united than any previous time in human history, as exemplified by the establishment of international law, international aid, and the United Nations. The Marshall Plan--which spent $13 billion ($100 billion in 2018 US dollars) to rebuild the economies of post-war nations--launched "Pax Americana". For decades, the United States shouldered the burden of protecting other nations so as to limit threat of nuclear proliferation, and this global stabilizing hegemony influence impeded the expansion of communism while allowing for democratic proliferation to more than half of the existing countries. Open warfare amongst large armies disappeared; an unprecedented historical period, dubbed the "Long Peace", occurred after the World Wars, in which the world transitioned from active wars between nation states to internal civil wars or local insurgency conflicts.
It took over two-hundred thousand years 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%. Up until a couple hundred years ago, life expectancy was about thirty in most populations; 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).
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 the 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.
(The map shows the flag of the Austrian Empire but in 1914 that did not exist, only the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)
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 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 decline.
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 various 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.
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 the white-dominated societies of North America, Europe, and 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, 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 domination.
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 pressing global issues. 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 nuclear weapons.
Disease threatened to destabilize many regions of the world. New viruses such as SARS and West Nile continued to spread. Malaria and 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 due 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.
Map of territorial changes in Europe after 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 century.
Civil wars occurred in many nations. A violent civil war broke out in Spain in 1936 when General Francisco Franco rebelled against the Second Spanish Republic. Many consider this war as a testing battleground for World War II, as the fascist armies bombed some Spanish territories.
The 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 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.
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 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 the world.
Led Zeppelin are widely considered one of the most successful, innovative, and influential rock groups in history.
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.
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 the 1920s to allow for color films. Sound films were developed, with the first full-length feature film, The Jazz Singer, released in 1927. The Academy Awards were established in 1929.
Modern Dance is born in America as both a 'rebellion' against centuries-old European ballet, as well as born from the oppression in America. Dancers and choreographers Alvin Ailey, 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. Alvin Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th-century concert dance. His company gained the nickname "Cultural Ambassador to the World" because of its extensive international touring. Ailey's choreographic masterpiece Revelations is believed to be the best known and most often seen modern dance performance.
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.
The FIFA World Cup was first held in 1930, and was held every 4 years after World War II.
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 planets.
No trace of life was discovered on any of the other planets in the 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.
Cocaine/crack and heroin were found to be dangerous addictive drugs, and their wide usage had been outlawed; mind-altering drugs such as LSD and 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 marketdrugdealing, 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 earlier.
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.
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.
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 in the 1970s).
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, electronics, engineering, travel, medicine, and war.
The first airplane was flown in 1903. With the engineering of the faster jet engine in the 1940s, mass air travel became commercially viable.
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.
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 world.
The Global Positioning System, a series of satellites that allow land-based receivers to determine their exact location, was developed and deployed.
Semiconductor materials were discovered, and methods of production and purification developed for use in electronic devices. Silicon became one of the purest substances ever produced. The wide adoption of the MOSFET led to silicon becoming the dominant manufacturing material during the late 20th century to early 21st century, a period that has been called the Silicon Age, similar to how the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age were defined by the dominant materials during their respective ages of civilization.
The number and types of home appliances increased dramatically due to advancements in technology, the wide adoption of MOSFETs, electricity availability, and increases in wealth and leisure time. The microwave oven became popular during the 1980s and have become a standard in all homes by the 1990s. 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 was enabled by the development of the transistor radio, 8-track and cassette tapes in the 1960s, which slowly began to replace record players, culminating in the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s. These were in turn replaced by the CD during the late 1980s to 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.
^"Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750." (p 11) "From 1750 to 2011, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production have released 375 [345 to 405] GtC to the atmosphere, while deforestation and other land use change are estimated to have released 180 [100 to 260] GtC." (p. 10), IPCC, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis - Summary for Policymakers, Observed Changes in the Climate System, pp. 10-11, in IPCC AR5 WG1 2013.