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50 important historical events: from Sutton Hoo to Rosa Parks

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: September 22, 2022 at 5:05 pm
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1

c2667-2648 BC: The first pyramid is built

Constructed around 4,700 years ago, the Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara is not only the first of the Egyptian pyramids to be built, but world’s oldest intact largescale stone monument. It was designed as a tomb for the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser, and was completed in his lifetime. Previous large structures in Ancient Egypt consisted of mud bricks; the time and care taken to stack and sculpt the stone’ suggests that Djoser had substantial finance and resources – as well as a huge workforce – to underpin the project. It became the prototype for the 80 or so pyramids subsequently built across the kingdom.

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2

776 BC: The first Olympics are held

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. There 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.

The Greeks light the first Olympic torch.
The Greeks light the first Olympic torch. (Image by Getty Images)
3

507 BC: Democracy is conceived in Athens

If Athens is the cradle of democracy, then Kleisthenes was its midwife. Despite being born into a less-than-democratic lineage (his maternal grandfather was the tyrant Cleisthenes of Sicyon), Cleisthenes the lawgiver was the architect of a new system of government, one that valued equality over patronage. Having displaced a pro-Spartan oligarchy, Cleisthenes undertook a radical reshaping of the Athenian constitution.

He sought to break up entrenched alliances and to reduce the power of aristocratic families, attempting to replace the status quo with a pan-Athenian worldview that united all strata of society. Under this mindset, the three regions of Attica (the peninsula that projects into the Aegean Sea) worked together to run the city, cutting across previous notions of clan. But while all citizens enjoyed equal rights, there was a glass ceiling. Only men were deemed to be citizens.

4

27 BC – AD 180 Pax Romana: Peace reigns over the Roman Empire

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”.

5

AD 150: Ptolemy maps out the future

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 explorers were indebted to this pioneering cartographer.

Ptolemy’s world map stretches from Europe to Sri Lanka
Ptolemy’s world map stretches from Europe to Sri Lanka. (Image by Getty Images)
6

cAD 206-220: The invention of the compass

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.

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7

AD 618-907: Paper money is first used

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.

8

AD 690: China's only female emperor takes control

If the accounts of Wu Zetian’s life are to be believed, hers is a story of raw, naked political ambition that respected few moral boundaries. To what extent these chronicles are historically accurate, though, has to be measured through the prism of male observers considering the behaviour and impact of the only female emperor in Chinese history. To reach those lofty heights surely required a well defined ruthless streak on her part, but she was often portrayed as the devil incarnate.

What isn’t disputed is the upward passage that Wu’s life took, how she scaled social strata to become the most powerful individual across the empire. Well-born and educated, she joined the Imperial household as a low-ranking concubine with domestic chores, far removed from real power. One day she managed to catch Emperor Taizong’s eye – apparently while changing his bedsheets. Upon his death in AD 649, she was sent to a Buddhist nunnery.

Wu was having none of that. She escaped and attempted to regain her position in the Imperial court. One particular unsavoury story suggests that she murdered her own baby and blamed it on the new Empress, the wife of Taizong’s successor (his ninth son, Gaozong). When the Empress was exiled, Wu took her place, as Gaozong’s wife. Another story has her ordering the limbs of her rivals to be cut off, before they were left to drown in vats of wine.

When Gaozong suffered a severe stroke in AD 660, Wu became the court’s administrator – a highly powerful position. Gaozong died in AD 683, whereupon the couple’s son Zhongzong became emperor, although he reigned for just two months before Wu demoted him and sent him into exile. Zhongzong was succeeded by his brother Ruizong – he lasted six years before suffering the same fate as his sibling.

Wu then assumed power for herself, ruling as Empress Regnant for the next 15 years until AD 705. For someone so apparently ruthless, Wu’s impact on Chinese society was significant. China greatly expanded into Central Asia during her rule, while she also declared Buddhism to be the state religion, replacing Daoism.

A strong supporter of meritocratic success over hereditary privilege, Wu built up the Chinese education system to help facilitate this (the fact that she could read and write was one of the attributes that initially attracted Taizong to her), and oversaw a substantial growth in China’s agricultural output. Despite these achievements, it’s her supposedly cold-blooded ways that history remembers.

9

AD 723: A Buddhist monk harnesses time

We might regard it as a mechanical clock, but its inventor chose to name it a ‘Water-Driven Spherical Birds-Eye-View Map Of The Heavens’.

An eighth-century Chinese-Buddhist monk called I-Hsing was that inventor, a keen mathematician and astronomer who aimed to combine the two disciplines with his creation. As its name suggests, this water-powered clock was designed to trace celestial activity and proved to be a relatively accurate timepiece, accurate to within 15 minutes a day. However, over time, the water began to corrode its metal components and, on subzero days, would freeze.

More than 200 years later, another Chinese astronomer, Zhang Sixun, rebuilt the device using mercury instead.

10

1088: Europe's first university opens its doors

The first English-speaking university was the University of Oxford, which began accepting students in 1096. However, by this point the University of Bologna had already been in existence for eight years.

This particular seat of learning was born out of the system of mutual aid societies, or universitates scholarium, which operated around the Italian city at the time. Divided by nationality, these societies helped to protect foreign students from city laws which declared them to be culpable for the sins, debts and misdemeanours of their fellow countrymen. Each society engaged the services of scholars to teach its members such subjects as law, theology and the arts. When these mutual aid societies decided to group together through common purpose and interests, the larger association they formed was effectively a university.

A carving of studying people at the University of Bologna
The university wasn’t formed with academia in mind – the provision of teaching came later. (Image by Getty Images)

This collective approach strengthened the position of foreign students in Bologna, who also determined the appointment and pay of their teachers, as well as electing a student committee, known as the Denouncers of Professors, to evaluate teaching methods and content – and, if necessary, recommend fines and other punishments. When it became a royal chartered university in 1158, the students became responsible for professors’ salaries.

Still rated as one of the leading Italian academic institutions, the university’s alumni over the centuries has included Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, Renaissance poet Petrarch, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, and popes Alexander VI, Innocent IX, Gregory XIII and Gregory XV.

11

1215: Magna Carta is sealed

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.”

12

1439: Gutenberg's printing press rolls into action

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.

13

1492: Columbus arrives in the New World

When, in October 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing under the flag of the Spanish crown, landed on an island in the Bahamas, the future of the Americas and the Caribbean would never be the same. The find was accidental: Columbus wasn’t intending on discovering the New World, he was trying to find a western trade route to the East Indies. Indeed, believing he’d reached his target destination, he named the indigenous population ‘Indians’. Columbus moved on to Cuba and Hispaniola, establishing a settlement on the latter (presentday Haiti), putting in process what would become the mass colonisation of the New World.

But while his arrival was a great leap in European exploration, it was to have a devastating impact on the indigenous populations he – and later settlers – encountered. Violence, slavery and disease are among the many sources of controversy associated with the 15th-century explorer.

14

1512: Michelangelo redecorates the Sistine Chapel ceiling

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”.

15

1610: Galileo spots Jupiter's moons

By the 17th century, there was a general acceptancen that Earth wasn’t flat, but a sphere. But the Aristotelian idea that our planet was the centre of the universe, around which all other planets revolved, still held sway. Then Italian Galileo Galilei came along, brandishing his homemade telescope. Through it, he observed that Jupiter is orbited by four moons, just as Earth is orbited by our solitary Moon. The conclusion he drew, which encountered great scepticism, was that the planets revolved around the Sun.

Italian Galileo Galilei.
Italian Galileo Galilei. (Image by Getty Images)
16

1628: William Harvey makes a bloody revelation

In 1628, in the pages of the snappily titled Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, English physician William Harvey explained the purpose of the one-way valves found in the cardiovascular system: that they are evidence that the human heart propels blood around the body in a circulatory fashion. A handful of other medical scientists had made the observation before Harvey, but it was the depth and detail of his description of the process – gained from extensive dissections of animals – that ensured the kudos came his way, albeit with a delay of around 20 years.

William Harvey explains the purpose of the one-way valves
William Harvey explained the purpose of the one-way valves found in the cardiovascular system. (Image from Getty Images)
17

1687: Isaac Newton announces his findings about gravity

In 1687, a prolific British mathematician and astronomer called Isaac Newton published a book that would shape thinking about the cosmos for the next 200-plus years. His Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (aka Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) set out his thoughts about gravity, tides and the movement of planets, all but confirming the heliocentric school of thought – that the Solar System’s planets revolve around the Sun.

Newton’s findings would become the dominant worldview for more than 200 years, until Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity came along, although the Englishman remained modest about how he had recalibrated people’s thinking. “If I have seen further than others,” he once confessed, “it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

18

1773: The first published African American poet

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.

Phyllis Wheatley
Wheatley was freed shortly after her poems were published. (Image by Getty Images)

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.”

19

1776: The United States commits to human rights

“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.

A committee of five men drafted the Declaration
A committee of five men drafted the Declaration, two future presidents – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – among them. (Image by Getty Images)

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.

20

1796: Edward Jenner administers the first vaccine

In 1980, smallpox became the first major disease to be eradicated. And it was all down to one 18th-century doctor from rural Gloucestershire. In 1796, using a local boy as his guinea pig, he tested an old piece of folklore: that if you'd caught cowpox, you couldn't then be infected with smallpox. Rubbing cowpox pocks on the boy's arm, Edward Jenner witnessed that, while he did come down with the lesser disease, his patient became immune to the much more dangerous smallpox. Taking its name from vacca, the Latin word for 'cow', vaccination transformed global death rates. It's believed that the work of no other single person in the world has saved as many lives as that of Jenner.

21

1792: Mary Wollstonecraft publishes seminal book on women's rights

“Would men but generously snap our chains,and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens.”

Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft’s reputation was almost destroyed by a posthumous biography. (Image by Getty Images)

The most famous work of proto-feminist and author Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was a radical manifesto for its time, published in 1792, five years before her tragically early death at the age of 38. The importance of both Wollstonecraft and her writings was damaged by posthumous accounts of her premarital affairs and her illegitimate first daughter, but she was later hailed as a guiding spirit for the suffragist movement at the turn of the 20th century.

22

1811-12: Mary Anning makes an historic discovery

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.

23

1821: Faraday builds the first primitive electric motor

In 1821, a young, self-taught scientist from London called Michael Faraday made a breakthrough that modern civilisation would become dependent upon. Building on the discovery of electromagnetism by Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, Faraday built two instruments that produced what he dubbed ‘electromagnetic rotation’. He had, in effect, invented the electric motor, an achievement that had eluded his mentor, the celebrated inventor and chemist Sir Humphry Davy.

Faraday’s achievement cannot be overstated, as confirmed by this tribute by the physicist Ernest Rutherford: “When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time.”

24

1822: The Rosetta Stone is translated

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.

25

1829: Stephenson's Rocket wins the Rainhill trials

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.

Stephenson's Rocket.
The Rocket won Stephenson the right to build locomotives for the new railway. (Image by Getty Images)
26

1854: Japan renews trade with the west

After two centuries of isolation, Japan warmedto the idea of opening its borders in 1853. With the US and China already enjoying extensive trade, US Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan with an four-strong fleet and, endowed with “full and discretionary powers” by his Secretary of State, employed intimidatory tactics to get Japanese agreement. Such gunboat diplomacy worked. Perry returned the following year, whereupon Japan signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened its ports to US ships.

27

1833: Britain passes the Abolition of Slavery Act

There’s some irony that the country that was once most active in the slave trade was also the one that led the campaign to outlaw slavery and servitude. In the last decade of the 18th century, 80 per cent of Britain’s foreign income came from the triangular route that the slave trade had established – British goods going to Africa to buy slaves; slaves being transported to the West Indies; cotton, sugar and tobacco coming back to Blighty. But this was also a time when abolitionist sentiment was starting to percolate.

The impetus came from the anti-slavery committees of the Quakers, who presented a petition to Parliament in the early 1780s. A few years later, MP William Wilberforce was asked to make representations for the cause from his seat in the House of Commons. Researching further into the subject, he declared that he “thought himself unequal to the task allotted to him, but yet would not positively decline it”. In fact, his name would be forever synonymous with abolitionism.

In 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed by Parliament, prohibiting the buying and selling of slaves on British soil, but not slavery itself. That came 26 years later, in 1833, when the Abolition of Slavery Act became law. Certain caveats ensured the legislation wasn’t as absolute as it might have been. Not only were certain parts of the British Empire exempt, but only slaves aged six and under were officially freed. The remainder were classified as ‘apprentices’, with their emancipation staggered and delayed (although this clause was removed five years later). Slave owners were also paid generous amounts for the loss of their 'property'. Twenty million pounds was set aside to recompense them, a figure equating to 40 per cent of Britain’s annual income at the time.

However flawed, the passing of the Act effectively freed around 800,000 slaves across the empire. It also marked an acceleration of worldwide anti-slavery feeling, though US President Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t make his Emancipation Proclamation for another 30 years.

28

1859: Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species

“Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Charles Darwin had developed his theory of evolution – that species adapt and evolve over time as a process of natural selection – during his travels in the 1830s, specifically to the Galápagos Islands.

But it would be 20 years before he published it in On The Origin Of Species. There was a reason why he had delayed. His ideas were in contravention of the creationist explanations of the natural world that were dominant at the time – a domination not unconnected to religious benefactors underwriting the work of scientists. Had Darwin published his theory as soon as he had shaped and sanded it, he would have been at the mercy and probable ridicule of the scientific community.

In the end, Darwin’s hand was called. Another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had sent him a short overview of his research: Wallace’s theories mirrored Darwin’s own. He hurriedly edited his manuscript and published. The book’s reception from religious quarters was predictably scathing, but some of his scientific brethren stood in his corner, themselves liberated by Darwin’s bravery.

29

1861: Louis Pasteur publishes his germ theory

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.

Louis Pasteur
Pasteur also found renown for creating the first rabies and anthrax vaccines. (Image by Getty Images)

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. The 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.

30

1869: DNA is identified

When the Swiss biochemist Friedrich Miescher embarked on a pursuit to isolate the protein found in white blood cells, he instead encountered a substance with properties very unlike those of the protein he was researching.

He had effected the first purification of what he named ‘nuclein’ – what we now know as deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Miescher believed his discovery to be an important one, although he remained unsure as to the exact function of nuclein. Initially, the scientific community didn’t take too much notice of it either, and it wasn’t until the last decade of the 19th century that nuclein’s hereditary properties began to be understood.

The German biochemist Albrecht Kossel successfully isolated and named the five compounds that provide molecular structure to DNA and in 1910 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his pioneering work in cell biology. Other scientists picked up the DNA baton. By the 1940s, the Canadian-American physician Oswald Avery and his colleagues identified that DNA was “the transforming principle” in genetics.

Their work inspired others to research further and deeper. In 1950, Erwin Chargaff made the discovery that DNA was species-specific, and two years later Rosalind Franklin advanced our understanding further still. Her high-resolution photographs of DNA were extraordinary, and pushed Franklin towards a belief that DNA took a helical structure. However, she was beaten to confirming the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Along with their colleague Maurice Wilkins, they won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Despite her photographs being key to their breakthrough, Franklin wasn’t saluted with a share of the honour. Nor was the name of Friedrich Miescher remembered, either.

31

1893: New Zealand gives women the vote

During the 1990s, a new face replaced that of Queen Elizabeth II on the New Zealand ten-dollar note. It was that of another Englishwoman, albeit one who spent almost all her adult life in the southern hemisphere. This woman was Kate Sheppard, a figure largely unknown in the country of her birth, but whose actions and influence were felt right across the world.

Sheppard was the leading suffragist in New Zealand, a woman whose reasoned public speaking and writings – in publications such as Ten Reasons Why the Women of New Zealand Should Vote – successfully swung opinion towards universal suffrage. After a series of mass petitions had been collected by Sheppard and her fellow campaigners, on 19 September 1893, New Zealand governor Lord Glasgow signed the new Electoral Act into law. With neither the UK nor the US extending the vote to women until the other side of World War I, New Zealand blazed the trail, becoming the first self-governing nation to allow women to vote in parliamentary elections.

32

1898: The Curies discover Polonium and Radium

Marie Curie’s contribution to science is huge. In 1903, she became the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize; eight years later, she won her second. Marie shared the first with her husband Pierre, with whom she undertook pioneering work in radioactivity, and Antoine Henri Becquerel. In 1898, the Curies discovered two new elements – polonium and radium, both of which are more radioactive than uranium. Marie’s correct assumption was that radioactive rays could treat, reduce and even eradicate tumours, and her name remains synonymous with cancer treatment today.

33

1911: Roald Amundsen reaches the South Pole

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.

Scott’s party arriving at the Pole
Scott’s party arrived at the Pole only to find the Norwegian flag planted by Amundsen and his expedition. (Image by Getty Images)

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 Theodore 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”.

34

1922: Howard Carter opens the tomb of Tutankhamun

“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.

35

1928: Penicillin is discovered

“When I woke up just after dawn on 28 September 1928,” Alexander Fleming later admitted, “I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.” The Scottish microbiologist was only thinking about his impending holiday when he absentmindedly left an amount of Staphylococcus bacteria on a tray in his lab. On his return, he noticed that a patch of mould had stopped the bacteria’s spread. He realised that a substance in the mould, which Fleming called penicillin, had antibiotic qualities that could stem the spread of chronic infections. The number of lives subsequently saved are countless.

36

1930: Gandhi's Salt March

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.

Gandhi's salt march
The 240-mile march was in protest at the British Raj’s weighty tax on salt. (Image by Getty Images)

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.

37

1939: The Sutton Hoo ship burial is discovered

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.

38

1945: WW2 finally comes to an end

When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced in a solemn radio address on 3 September 1939 that Britain was at war with Germany, there was none of the flag-waving patriotism of August 1914.

Instead, the British people – many of whom had lived and fought through the horrors of World War I – were mostly resigned to the fact that Adolf Hitler, and his aggressive form of German territorial expansion, needed to be stopped.

The road to Allied victory was far from inevitable and the German army proved to be an efficient and effective fighting force. But a combination events – from the US’s entry into the war in 1941, to D-Day (the largest seaborne invasion in history) in June 1944 – saw the conflict enter its endgame in April 1945. On 7 May 1945, Germany’s unconditional surrender was signed in Rheims and the following day – known as Victory in Europe (VE) Day – was celebrated as the war’s official end in Europe.

“This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole”, Chamberlain’s successor Winston Churchill announced in his VE Day address from the balcony of the Ministry of Health in London. But while the streets of Britain erupted in celebration in the wake of the German surrender, war continued to rage in the Far East as Imperial Japanese forces fought the Allies for control of eastern Asia and the western Pacific.

On 6 August, following continued Japanese refusals to surrender to the Allies, an atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 140,000 people, 70,000 immediately and the remainder from the effects by the end of 1945. A few hours later, US President Harry S Truman again requested Japan’s surrender, stressing that the alternative was “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth”.

Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped, this time on the city of Nagasaki, wreaking mass destruction on its civilian population. Japanese Emperor Hirohito ordered the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War to accept the Allies’ terms. On 15 August 1945, Truman declared the day as Victory over Japan (VJ) Day, signalling the end of the war.

“Our hearts are full to overflowing, as are your own. Yet there is not one of us who has experienced this terrible war who does not realise that we shall feel its inevitable consequences long after we have all forgotten our rejoicings today”, said King George VI during his address to the nation and empire on VJ Day. Out of the blood and destruction of the six-year conflict, peace had finally been achieved, but at a terrible cost to human life. Figures vary, but up to 80 million lives were lost over the course of the conflict.

39

1954: The first four-minute mile

Sporting history was made on 6 May 1954, at a modest Oxford running track, when a junior doctor by the name of Roger Bannister did something no other human had ever managed before: to run a mile in under four minutes.

Aided by pacemakers Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, and roared on by a 3,000-strong crowd, Bannister had undertaken very little training prior to the race but forged on to break the tape in a new world record. Not that the large crowd actually heard the official time. The cheers drowned out announcer Norris McWhirter. All they heard, and all they needed to hear, was: “A European record of three...”

Roger Bannister runs a four-minute mile
Bannister’s triumph didn’t last: his record of three minutes and 59.4 seconds was beaten after 46 days. (Image by Getty Images)
40

1955: Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat

“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.

Rosa Parks rides on a Montgomery bus
Rosa Parks rides on a Montgomery bus on 21 December 1956 – the first day of integrated seating. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

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.

41

1960: The world's first elected female head of government takes office

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.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Sirimavo Bandaranaike. (Image by Getty Images)

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.

42

1961: The first human goes into space

“Nothing will stop us. The road to thestars is steep and dangerous. But we’re not afraid.” Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin wasn’t afraid on that April morning in 1961 when his Vostok spacecraft was launched into the (largely) unknown. More than three years after Laika the dog had been sent out of the Earth’s atmosphere, Gagarin completed a single orbit of our planet before, after 108 minutes, returning to Earth and touching down in Russia via parachute.

Yuri Gagarin
One of Gagarin’s qualifications was his height: the capsule was tiny, and he was only five feet and two inches tall. (Image by Getty Images)

During re-entry, Gagarin whistled the tune The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows, a song that contains the lines “the motherland hears, the motherland knows, where her son flies up in the sky.” For the time being, the Soviet Union was ahead in the Space Race.

43

1963: Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech

It was one of the iconic speeches of the 20th century, one that saw how – as the writer Jon Meacham has noted – “with a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who have shaped modern America”. Delivered before an estimated crowd of 250,000 at the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom in August 1963, the speech defined an era in US history. It was a poetically worded, brilliantly delivered demand for long-overdue freedom and equality.

Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (Image by Getty Images)

King never got to see his dream come true: he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968. A week later, the Civil Rights Act 1968, which had been making slow progress in Congress, was rushed through the legislature and immediately signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

44

1967: The UK decriminalises homosexuality

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.

The fight for gay rights continued through PRIDE events
The fight for gay rights continued through PRIDE events. (Image by Getty Images)

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”.

45

1969: Apollo 11 lands men on the moon

On a steamy July day in 1969, those gathered in the control room of what is now the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, held their collective breath.

Hearts were pounding. Brows, perspiring. More than 380,000 kilometres away, close to the surface of the Moon, the object of their concern and anticipation – a strange-looking spacecraft named Eagle – was possibly in difficulty. Alarms were sounding from its in-flight computer as the crew attempted to land it amongst the strewn boulders of the Moon’s Mare Tranquillitatis. Fewer than 30 seconds’ worth of fuel remained.

The tension among NASA’s ground staff in the control room was absolute and unbearable, but eight words from mission commander Neil Armstrong punctured that anxiety. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The immediate response from one of the controllers back at base said it all. “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

As heroic as it sounds, “The Eagle has landed” wouldn’t be the most-quoted statement Armstrong would make that day. This he reserved for the moment at which he planted the first human foot on the loose lunar surface. “It’s one small step for man,” he was heard saying down an understandably crackly line, “one giant leap for mankind.” The 650 million TV viewers who were tuned in at home could forgive him for slightly fluffing his lines; he should have said “one small step for a man”. Armstrong later maintained he had said it. Armstrong and his colleague Buzz Aldrin then spent a couple of hours exploring the lunar surface, which the latter described as “magnificent desolation”. Before embarking on the return leg of their journey, the pair planted a US flag into the rocky ground, as well as affixing a plaque to one of the legs of the soon-to-beabandoned Eagle: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”

“All mankind” might be debatable. There was a definite political edge to the US’s determination to put a man on the Moon, with the accelerating Space Race being a key (and conspicuous) tenet of the Cold War. Just a month after the Soviets successfully propelled Yuri Gagarin into space to take the advantage, US President John F Kennedy delivered his ‘moonshot’ speech to Congress, outlining his vision of landing men on the Moon and returning them to Earth “before this decade is out”. For him, the US needed to be the leading party in conquering this final frontier, these uncharted waters. “Only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence,” he observed during another speech, this one in September 1962 at Rice University in Houston, “can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new, terrifying btheater of war.”

Kennedy was also driven by the idea of creating history, of titanic accomplishment. “We choose to go the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

The subsequent Apollo programme, which ran until 1972, consisted of both manned and preparatory unmanned missions. It wasn’t an unqualified success. In January 1967, the Apollo 1 mission ended in tragedy when a fire in the command module during a launch rehearsal killed the three-strong crew. Three years after the tragedy, and nine months after the successful Apollo 11 mission, the explosion of an oxygen tank on its outward journey denied the crew of Apollo 13 the opportunity to land onthe Moon. Their safe passage back to Earth was a dramatic, touch-and-go affair.

For those first men on the Moon, their short walk was a profound one. Buzz Aldrin later recalled the experience of gazing back at his home planet. “From the distance of the Moon, Earth was four times the size of a full Moon seen from Earth. It was a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky. Yet it was still at a great distance, considering the challenges of the voyage home.” The third member of the Apollo 11 mission, Michael Collins, never got to feel moondust under his feet. His experience was seen through the window of the command module Columbia, orbiting solo around the Moon while Armstrong and Aldrin got to stretch their legs. He would report that he was neither lonely nor disappointed by this, detailing his emotions as being “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.

But was this extraordinary achievement by these three men actually an achievement? Did the 1969 Moon landing really happen? Conspiracy theorists, seeking a new cause célèbre six years after John F Kennedy’s assassination, poured scorn on the idea that science was able to accomplish a feat as far-fetched as landing a spacecraft on this distant natural satellite.

These doubters believed NASA falsified the landings, filming fake footage to trick people into believing that the Space Race had been won. While up to a fifth of US citizens continue to subscribe to this notion half a century later, substantial third-party evidence has been produced to debunk the theory, including subsequent photographs showing the tracks made by various Apollo crews, as well as the flags that each mission left behind. The Apollo missions were far more than flag-planting, strength-showing exercises.

After Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface, ten more astronauts did likewise over the following three-and-a-half years as five further missions successfully reached their destination. They returned to Earth with the data gathered from extensive experiments – both geological and meteorological – along with an accumulated 382 kilograms of rock samples. But did their findings justify the stratospheric expense, the $25.4 billion outlay that was reported to Congress in 1973?

When Kennedy had announced the Apollo programme, his predecessor in the White House, Dwight Eisenhower, had dismissed it as “just nuts”. But the country wasn’t with old Ike. They were dreaming.

As Andrew Smith, author of Moondust: In Search Of The Men Who Fell To Earth, points out: “For one decade, and one decade only, Americans appeared happy, even eager, to place their trust and tax dollar on the collection plate of big government and its scientist priests”. And they got what Kennedy had promised them. Footprints on the Moon. And one giant leap.

46

1974: The Terracotta Army is unearthed

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 Terracotta Army
The army was made to protect Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife. (Image by Getty Images)

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.

47

1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall

From the first days of its construction in 1961 until its demolition at the turn of the 1990s, the Berlin Wall was a dominating feature of a city divided. It kept the West German-administered West Berlin separate from East Berlin, governed by the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany). Governments on either side saw the wall differently: in the East, its official title was the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. WillyBrandt, the West Berlin mayor, labelled it the “wall of shame”.

Although not impregnable (an estimated 5,000 East Berliners successfully managed to cross into the West), around 20 times that number tried and failed. Thanks to the East Germans’ shoot-to-kill policy, around 200 escapees lost their lives in search of freedom. The Cold War began to thaw after Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union in 1985, and a new world order started to emerge. Global politics was coming out of the deep freeze. With it came a heightened discontent that the wall continued to divide Berlin.

Germans celebrate atop the wall
Germans celebrate atop the wall on 12 November 1989. (Image by Getty Images)

In 1987, US President Ronald Reagan made a speech at the city’s Brandenburg Gate that contained a direct appeal to the Soviet Premier, a man whose policy of glasnost aimed to open up his country to outside influence. “General Secretary Gorbachev,” said Reagan, “if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation, come here to this gate. Mr Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Six days earlier, David Bowie had held a concert nnear to the wall in West Berlin. The music had been heard on the other side of the divide, prompting anti-wall rioting. The following summer, in an apparent attempt to assuage and placate its younger citizens, the East German government allowed Bruce Springsteen to play a show in East Berlin. Speaking in German, Springsteen announced that he held “the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down”.

The pressure wasn’t just cultural. Across the Eastern Bloc, the Iron Curtain was fraying. Along with Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR, the 1989 Polish elections had ousted its communist regime, while the Hungarian government started pulling down fences along its border with Austria. This prompted many East Germans to leave for the West via Hungary and, later, via Czechoslovakia.

To stem the tide, on 9 November 1989, East Germany made an abrupt announcement: that the gates of the wall’s border crossings – hitherto only accessible to foreigners – would be flung open for all to pass through that very evening.

That night was one of the most joyous in German history, with West Berliners climbing on top of the wall to mingle with those from the eastern side of the city. The guards had put down their guns and the most visible division between Eastern and Western Europe was now rendered meaningless. While formal demolition didn’t commence until the following year, citizens on both sides of the divide hacked away at the structure, both for souvenirs and for deeply symbolic reasons. The process reached its denouement in 1990 when Germany was formally reunified after 45 years.

48

1991: The World Wide Web is launched

In 1989, after noticing that the large number of global scientists he was workingwith at CERN (the large particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland) were having difficulty sharing information easily, Oxford graduate and software engineer Tim Berners-Lee developed an idea that would revolutionise the way we communicate.

His proposal was for a “hypertext project” called “WorldWideWeb”, which would enable “browsers” to view a “web” of “hypertext documents”, rather than logging onto a different computer every time they wanted to access new information.

Essentially, what Berners-Lee was suggesting was an application that uses the Internet (conceived in the late 1960s) to share information such as videos and text. By the end of 1990, the first web page had been served on the open Internet, and in 1991, this new web community was made available to people outside of CERN. The World Wide Web had been spun.

49

1994: Nelson Mandela becomes South Africa's first black president

“Our country has arrived at a decision. Among all the parties that contested the elections, the overwhelming majority of South Africans have mandated the African National Congress to lead our country into the future. The South Africa we have struggled for, in which all our people – be they African, Coloured, Indian or White – regard themselves as citizens of one nation is at hand.”

On 10 May 1994 – four years, two months and 29 days after taking slow, deliberate stepsb to freedom on his release from jail, where he had been held for nearly three decades – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was sworn in as the first black president in South Africa’s history, after a life dedicated to fighting the Apartheid system.

Initially arrested, charged, tried and jailed in 1962 for inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without permission, Mandela was charged the following year with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. At his trial in Rivonia, Mandela delivered an extraordinary, three-hour speech from the dock. It closed with a chilling confirmation of his commitment to the cause of black majority rule. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people will live together in harmony,” he told the packed courtroom. “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Supporters crowd to see Mandela
Supporters crowd to see Mandela during a 1994 election rally in Durban. (Image by Getty Images)

The starkness of his words resonated around the world, with even the United Nations calling for Mandela and his fellow accused to be released. Instead, they were found guilty and incarcerated; Mandela would spend 18 of his 27 prison years on the infamous Robben Island, in a damp cell with a straw mat for a bed. All the while, the global clamour for his release continued.

The Special AKA released the anthem ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, while the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1988 was marked by a concert at Wembley that drew an estimated global audience of 600 million.

Mandela had been offered his release in 1985 in return for denouncing violence as a political tool; he refused to leave jail while the African National Congress (ANC) political party remained banned. When FW de Klerk became president four years later, an unconditional release became a very real prospect.

On his release in 1990, Mandela began negotiations for a multiracial general election. The electorate would eventually return him as president, with the ANC taking 62 per cent of the vote.

This was a transformative era in what had been one of the world’s most conflicted countries – a land where black citizens had been denied a voice at the polling booth for generations. The last paragraph of Mandela’s “I am prepared to die” speech is now written on the wall of South Africa’s Constitutional Court building in Johannesburg.

50

1998: The Good Friday Agreement is signed

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 The 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.

Irish PM Bertie Ahern (left) and British PM Tony Blair
Irish PM Bertie Ahern (left) and British PM Tony Blair (right) were signatories. (Image by Getty Images)

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”.

Nige Tassel writes about sport and popular culture as both a journalist and author

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This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed

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