History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

From Sutton Hoo to Rosa Parks: 50 giant leaps in history

Some were hailed as world changing in an instant. Some only years later. But each of these moments – whether for better or worse – has helped shaped the world we know today, writes Nige Tassell

Rosa Parks rides on a Montgomery bus
Published: December 27, 2019 at 10:05 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed


The achievement of Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole, has been somewhat overshadowed by the tragic tale of Captain Robert Scott. The Englishman’s own party, believing themselves to be the first to the Pole, arrived there in January 1912, only to be welcomed by the sight of a Norwegian flag. Amundsen and his men had beaten them by little more than a month. On their retreat, Scott and his four dejected compatriots perished, their bodies not found until the following November.


Following their successful mission, Amundsen’s party began their 11-week return journey, arriving in Hobart, Tasmania, in early March. He immediately despatched telegrams to inform the world of their achievement. And the world was impressed. King George V sent a congratulatory telegram, even though Amundsen reached the Pole ahead of his own subjects, as did former US President !eodore Roosevelt. Having broken the news, Amundsen then set about supplying the Daily Chronicle newspaper in London, which had bought exclusive rights, with the full story of the expedition – even if his had been notably less eventful than Scott’s devastating journey.

Some quarters were less than generous withtheir praise. Sir Clements Markham, the famous geographer, cast doubt on Amundsen’s news, huffily declaring: “We must wait for the truth until the return of the Terra Nova [which was Scott’s ship].” Ernest Shackleton, no stranger to Antarctica as a member of previous Scott expeditions, didn’t share Markham’s disdain, announcing that Amundsen’s achievement made him “perhaps the greatest polar explorer of today”.



The Pax Romana describes a two-century period when the early Roman Empire was largely defined by peace and stability. Off the back of the Final War of the Roman Republic (32–30 BC), Rome’s new emperor, Caesar Augustus, successfully persuaded his subjects that peace was a more attractive option than costly back-to-back wars.

The success of Augustus’s worldview – one inherited and upheld by the following 16 emperors – led to a buoyant empire. Incomes rose across the Mediterranean, while there was a substantial uplift in trade with the Far East. The period ended with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the so-called ‘good emperors’. The 3rd and 4th centuries AD descended into frequent warfare, transforming – in the words of the statesman Cassius Dio – “a kingdom of gold into one of iron and rust”.



In 1761, a young girl from West Africa – who had been sold into slavery – was bought by the Wheatley family of Boston. She was named Phillis by her new owners and, unusually for the time, taught to read and write.

Noticing Phillis’s appreciation of and aptitude for poetry, the family actively encouraged her vocation. When, in 1773, Phillis’s anthology Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London (Boston publishers having declined to do so), the response was affirmative. “When we consider them as the productions of a young, untutored African, who wrote them after six months careful study of the English language,” trumpeted The London Magazine, “we cannot but suppress our admiration for talents so vigorous and lively.”



In the late 1930s, self-taught amateur archaeologist Basil Brown accepted an invitation from a widowed landowner who wished to learn the secrets of the mysterious barrows that dotted her land.

What was subsequently found in the Suffolk soil hugely expanded what little had, until that point, been known about Anglo-Saxon society. The greatest discovery of all was undoubtedly the remarkably intact ship from around the early 7th century, 80 feet in length.

What the ship had been buried with was also of high value and plentiful, including an exceedingly well-preserved ceremonial helmet.



George Stephenson, engineer of the soon-to-open Liverpool and Manchester Railway, needed to prove to its directors that steam locomotives would be the best source of power for the line’s trains, rather than using stationary steam engines to pull the trains by cables. The Rainhill Trials, held over a mile of track in Lancashire, were contested by five locomotives, but only one – Stephenson’s own Rocket – made it to the finish. Although not the very first steam locomotive, the Rocket’s engineering made it the prototype for the locomotives that followed. The rail revolution could begin.



“When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.” In the early evening of Thursday 1 December 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded a bus in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, on her way home after a long day at work. She took her place in the first row of the ‘colored’ section of the bus, located beyond the seating reserved for white passengers. As the bus continued its journey, it became increasingly busy, with a couple of white passengers being forced to stand as all the seats in their section were taken. Noticing this, driver James F Blake stopped the bus, walked down the aisle and moved the sign that marked the ‘colored’ section.

He then ordered the four African-American passengers in that first row to move further down the bus in order that the standing white passengers could take those seats. After a brief stand off, three of the African-Americans did as requested. Parks refused. In fact, she simply moved to the window seat of that row. Blake then threatened to call the police. “You may do that” was her calm but defiant response.

Arrested and charged with a violation of Montgomery’s city code, Parks was tried and found guilty the following Monday, by which time the seeds of a city-wide bus boycott had been sown. The boycott would last for a year and became a pivotal moment in the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, with the protest only ending when the US Supreme Court declared that Montgomery’s segregated buses were unconstitutional.

In 1957, despite the campaign’s success, Parks – at least in the short term – didn’t fare too well. Having lost her job as a seamstress, and facing continued harrassment, she moved to Detroit in order to find work. Congress would come to call her “the mother of the freedom movement”.

While history remembers Parks, she wasn’t the first Montgomery citizen to refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger. Nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had made a similar act of defiance (“History had me glued to the seat,” she later said). But, with the unmarried teen becoming pregnant within the year, civil rights leaders chose not to promote her as a figurehead for the movement.



As art criticism goes, it’s difficult to imagine more complimentary words than those of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when he evaluated Michelangelo’s extensive ceiling painting in the chapel of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel,” Goethe wrote, “one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

Commissioned by Pope Julius II and having taken four years to complete, the ceiling is indeed an extraordinary achievement, arguably the high-water mark of Renaissance art. But Michelangelo – better renowned at that point as a sculptor and already engaged in creating sculptures for the tomb of Pope Julius II – initially declined the invitation.

Eventually he acquiesced and set about working on a fresco based on nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, one that would eventually feature no fewer than 343 figures. Working on a self-designed scaffold, Michelangelo didn’t, as myth would have it, paint while lying on his back. He stood as he worked, but the conditions were still difficult and uncomfortable. He later wrote a poem that explained how his body was strained “like a Syrian bow” and that his loins “into my paunch like levers grind”. The everlasting glory of the finished work justified his pain though: “the fruit of squinting brain and eye”.



When, one March morning in 1974, farmers in the Chinese province of Shaanxi began digging a well, they had no idea what that day’s endeavours would uncover. Their spades encountered an extraordinary haul: life-sized terracotta figurines of soldiers that had been buried to ‘protect’ the body of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, upon his death in around 210 BC.

The scale of what lay beneath was extraordinary, with estimates putting the number of ‘soldiers’ excavated at around 8,000. But the figures weren’t just soldiers. Also buried with the emperor were 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry, along with non-military figures such as public officials, musicians and acrobats. Qin Shi Huang’s tomb formed part of a much wider necropolis, one which surveying equipment has been estimated to cover an area of almost 38 square miles – an extraordinary insight into life and death in the Qin dynasty



During the so-called Summer of Love, a significant piece of legislation was passed by the House of Commons: the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalised private sexual acts between two consenting men over the age of 21.

The Act put gay rights both on the statute books and high on the political agenda, but it didn’t represent a tide of liberalism. The bill faced great opposition in Parliament. In the House of Lords, the Earl of Dudley voiced his disapproval of gay men. “Prison is much too good a place for them,” he said.

Nor did the Act offer parity with heterosexual citizens. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, the Earl of Arran, said of gay men that “any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future, or any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful”.



Throughout much of the 19th century, the dominant thinking about how disease was transmitted was explained by miasma theory. This explanation held that serious diseases, such as the plague and cholera, weren’t passed between people but were the result of some form of air pollution – specifically the apparently poisonous mist produced by decomposing natural matter. Whether you were struck down with a particular disease was thus not determined by who you had interacted or fraternised with, but rather was the result of your location and the levels of bad hygiene encountered within.

That miasma theory was superseded by another school of thought – germ theory – was largely down to one man: Louis Pasteur. The French biologist believed that microorganisms, (germs) that were too small to be visible were responsible for causing disease. By invading a host’s body and reproducing, these germs increase the chance of disease taking hold.

The theory wasn’t Pasteur’s own. It had been proposed in the mid-16th century, by Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro. A couple of hundred years later, it was expanded upon by the Viennese Marcus von Plenciz. He believed that different organisms caused different diseases, but was unable to prove it.

That was where Pasteur came in. During the mid-19th century, he undertook a series of experiments in an attempt to put the link between germs and disease beyond question. One of them concerned the fermentation of beer and wine; he proved that these didn’t spoil as a result of spontaneous generation but because of active bacteria. He discovered the same was true of milk.

Not only did Pasteur find the cause, he also provided the solution. !e process that would bear his name – pasteurisation – involved heating beverages to a temperature that would kill off microorganisms, thus making them safer to consume and prolonging their shelf life. For this achievement alone, Pasteur has been saluted as the father of microbiology.



“Can you see anything?” “Yes, wonderful things!” This famous snippet of conversation – between financier Lord Carnarvon and the Egyptologist Howard Carter – announced one of the greatest discoveries in archaeological history: the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. Here, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, Carter was peering, by candlelight, through a gap in an excavated doorway, and was met by the sight of extensive golden treasures twinkling back at him. The following three months were spent cataloguing the finds of this antechamber, before work moved into the burial chamber, revealing the sarcophagus of King Tut himself. It proved to be the best-preserved tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings.



The exact date that paper was involved in transactions isn’t known, but it occurred during the reign of China’s Tang Dynasty.

With merchants finding copper coinage heavier the richer they became, an alternative system was devised whereby they would deposit coins with a dependable third party who would issue a note – a credit note, effectively – outlining how much they were holding for the merchant.

When copper became harder to come by during the later Song Dynasty, paper transactions became more popular. Paper money wasn’t introduced to Europe until the 17th century, when a Swedish bank began to issue banknotes. However, within three years, the bank had gone bankrupt, having devalued the currency by over-printing.



When a slight, bespectacled man named Mahatma Gandhi strode out on a protest march one spring morning in 1930 in the Indian state of Gujarat, the reason for his discontent was clear and precise. He and the 78 protestors accompanying him were voicing their dissent over the tax levied by the British rulers on the Indian population for the purchase of salt. But the march took on a deeper significance: it was the first major example of non-violent direct action against the colonial rule.

The 24-day march gathered in size and number as it made its passage towards the Arabian Sea. By journey’s end, Gandhi encouraged civil disobedience by suggesting Indians prepare their own salt, an act that was prohibited by law. The tide was turning. Seventeen years later, Indian independence was declared.



More than half a millennium before Tim Berners-Lee unveiled the internet, another inventor had already revolutionised mass communication, rapidly accelerating the gathering and dissemination of knowledge and information.

Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, apprenticed as a goldsmith, but turned his attention to publishing, with the intention of making copies of the Bible more widely available. “Through it,” he declared, “God will spread His Word.” To describe the Gutenberg printing press as profound is a chronic understatement. Until then, printing had been undertaken by hand, using wooden blocks. Gutenberg’s press used mechanical movable type, which effectively introduced mass production to the publishing process. It had a huge effect on European society.

Mass production meant more books printed, and thus more people having the chance to read them. The resulting spread of ideas and knowledge empowered those previously denied such access.



Discovered in Egypt in 1799, 23 years elapsed before the Rosetta Stone was fully deciphered – and with this came the unlocking of hitherto mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The stone (known as a stele) bears inscriptions in three languages: Greek, Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphics. Only bwhen the first two were translated did it become apparent that they were saying the same thing: a decree issued in 196 BC on behalf of Ptolemy V. Thus it was correctly assumed that the hieroglyphics were a third transcription, allowing French scholar Jean-François Champollion to decode them.



In geological circles, the name of Mary Anning is sainted. At least, it is now. She was a 19th-century fossil collector and palaeontologist who, on the beaches of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, uncovered the first-ever skeleton of an ichthyosaur, an extinct marine reptile. This was but one of her achievements, but throughout her life she was denied the praise that her science demanded – and which she would have been afforded had she been a man.



The Good Friday Agreement was a crucial turning point in the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland. Following the decades of bloody conflict known as !e Troubles, the two-part multilateral accord – the first signed by almost all Northern Ireland’s political parties, the second by the Irish and British governments – devolved political power to a new Northern Ireland Assembly and ended direct rule from Westminster.

Confirmed by large majorities in referenda held on both sides of the Irish border, the agreement came into force the following year. As a mark of the agreement’s significance, its two main architects – David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party – were jointly awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland”.



Even in the 2nd century AD, when much of the world was unexplored, the decision to compile and describe all geographical knowledge was a Herculean task. But Greek mathematician Ptolemy shouldered the task admirably. His eight volume Geographia includes a lengthy gazetteer of locations one country at a time; and a collection of maps, mainly regional in nature. Originally written in Greek, subsequent translations made centuries later into Arabic and Latin meant future explorersbwere indebted to this pioneering cartographer.



“We hold these truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As the 13 soon-to-be-former British colonies drew up the Declaration of Independence that gave birth to what would become one of the most powerful nations on Earth, they ensured that the preservation of rights would be a key tenet of the new country’s constitution.

Indeed, US historian Joseph Ellis has suggested the declaration’s most famous sentence to be “the most potent and consequential words in American history”. While its application was far from watertight (slavery in the US wasn’t abolished for another 89 years, and US women wouldn’t get the vote until 1920), this commitment did offer the blueprint for an advancement of human rights.

Thirteen years later, after its own revolution, France adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document which greatly influenced the opening up of democracy across Europe. In 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 217, otherwise known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a code confirming an individual’s rights, which 50 of its 58 member states had voted to uphold (the eight abstained). The spirit of 1776 lived on.



Although bearing little resemblance to the scale and the circus that the Olympic Games represent in the 21st century, the very first Olympics, held in the Greek sanctuary of Olympia, set the template for multisport competition for millennia to come. The contest quickly became a pageant of athletic endeavour, triumph and despair, with many events still recognisable today – in particular, running and boxing. !ere were also some disciplines that have fallen by the wayside: chariot-racing has rather gone out of vogue, while pankration – a strenuous, violent cross-breed of boxing and wrestling – is another now-extinct event.

The Olympics only became a global affair from 1896, after Pierre, Baron de Coubertin, set up the International Olympic Committee and resurrected the Games, which hadn’t taken place since the fourth century AD. In the original incarnation, the events were only open to male athletes from Ancient Greece’s city-states and colonies, although this wasn’t as restrictive as it might appear: at that point, the Greek Empire stretched westwards from modern-day Ukraine to Spain.



Sirimavo Bandaranaike didn’t formally enter the political arena until she was 54. When her husband, the Ceylon Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated in 1959, she stood for election the following year and became the first elected female head of government anywhere in the world.

A dutiful wife until that point, Bandaranaike proved to be a formidable politician, serving three terms (1960–65, 1970–77 and 1994–2000) while adhering to a doggedly socialist agenda during some of the country’s most tumultuous years. Arguably her greatest achievement was overseeing the island’s transformation from British dominion Ceylon to independent republic Sri Lanka in 1972.

Bandaranaike was 84 when she resigned from her final term of office, and she died just two months later. Her pioneering legacy and inspiration for other female politicians lived on; at the time of her death, her daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga was serving as the country’s president.



Without navigational aids like a map or compass, sailors were reliant on what they could actually see to determine their passage, whether that be earthly landmarks or celestial bodies. However, such techniques were useless on days or nights that were particularly foggy or cloudy. The compass – invented in China during the Han Dynasty and originally known as a ‘south-governor’ – would come to revolutionise navigation, but its original use was for something else entirely.

Originally made from lodestone, a stone of iron that is naturally magnetised, it was first deployed for the purposes of feng shui – for instance, in determining in which direction a new house should face. The compass wasn’t used as an instrument of navigation until around the 10th century, during the time of the Song Dynasty.



During the early years of the13th century, King John was facing more than a little local difficulty. Considered to be one of the most disastrous kings England had ever known, he had raised taxes on the country’s barons in order to finance expensive overseas wars.

The barons revolted, and once they took control of London they forced John’s hand. Their demands were articulated and then negotiated over, resulting in the document known the world over as Magna Carta – Latin for ‘Great Charter’. In June 1215, at Runnymede on the banks of the River Thames, the two sides signed and sealed this charter in anattempt to author an uneasy peace.

Despite the apparent agreement, the mistrust between the King and the rebel barons continued to simmer, effectively rendering the accord redundant. However, the agreement had a more lasting legacy: while responding to specific demands from the barons, Magna Carta also set out a framework for political and societal reform.

Areas that it addressed includedthe rights of man, limitations ontaxation levels, and the protection of Church rights. As such, it has become something of a prototype for written constitutions across the world ever since, in particular influencing the founders of new republics from the United States in the 18th century to the newly independent India in the 20th. King John’s successor, his son Henry III, renewed the charter when he ascended the throne, as did subsequent monarchs – at least until the embryonic English Parliament truly established itself as the legitimate balance on the power of the Crown.


Magna Carta also continues to underpin existing notions of justice on these shores and beyond, most significantly the right to a fair trial. Its words still resonate: “No free man shall be … imprisoned … except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”


Sponsored content