The 50 key dates of world history
19 October 2007
(c) 2007 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved
The eminent historian RICHARD OVERY, editor of The Times Complete History of the World, chooses the dates that he believes have most influenced humanity
Choosing 50 key dates from world history is a daunting task. No two people are likely to choose the same 50. Any list will prompt the response "why did you leave that out? Or put that in?"
Important dates are not the same as well-known dates. Every schoolchild used to know 1066, 1588 and 1815 but only the last appears in my list, and not just for the sake of the Battle of Waterloo. Any list of just 50 dates has to take account of some obvious limitations. No date appears before the start of human civilisations about 5,500 years ago and the beginning of a written or pictorial history. Some dates are very fuzzy, partly because there is no particular year in which it is possible to say "the wheel was invented then", despite its clear importance; partly because the accounts we have, even of quite recent events, can be misdated; partly because primarily oral cultures produce either no chronology or one that is wholly speculative.
The question of geography means leaving out many key dates from the history of Europe to make room for dates from Ancient China, or the Middle East, or the Americas. World history is global, even if it much of it has been dominated by Europe.
Why, then, these dates and not 50 others? Human history is a vast and complex story, but human society has worked over the past 5,000 years only because of some key inventions and discoveries. That is why the wheel, the plough, the sail and the watch are there.
Human societies have been held together by religion, which is why the major religious founders are here. Religion links the modern world with the past 2,000 or 3,000 years. Every day millions of people read the Bible, a document of an entirely lost world, but a book, like the Koran, of enormous power.
Political events are seldom as important, but at times they shape the future in fundamental ways. That is why the unification of Ancient China is there. China is still a large, unified state occupying roughly the same area that it did 2,000 years ago. If the Persians had blotted out Ancient Greece, or the Carthaginians had destroyed Rome, the classical world would have been very different. The rise and fall of Communism in the 20th century affected the lives of millions.
Lastly, human intelligence and creativity shaped the way we think about the world.
Newton-ian physics, Einstein's relativity theory, Darwin's biology and the works of Shakespeare have all made the world a different place. If there were room, Copernicus or Goethe or Nietzsche, or a dozen non-European thinkers, might all have as good a claim.
These are dates that arguably changed the way human society developed for better or worse over the past five millennia.
The Times Complete History of the World, edited by Richard Overy, is published by Collins and available now, price Pounds 75. It is available from Times BooksFirst for Pounds 67.50, free p&p. 0870 1608080, timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
THE HISTORIAN'S CHOICE
1 c.3500 BC Invention of the wheel and plough in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq); invention of the sail in Egypt: three fundamental inventions for trade, agriculture and exploration.
2 c.3200 BC Invention of writing in Mesopotamia: the means to record and understand human history.
3 c.3000 BC Founding of the first cities in Sumeria (present-day Iraq): origin of modern social and administrative structures.
4 c.1600 BC Modern alphabet invented: the essential means of communication of complex concepts and culture.
5 c.1600 BC Beginning of Greek civilisation: essential to Western heritage and the root of mathematics, philosophy, political thinking and medicine.
6 753 BC Foundation of Rome: the Roman Empire is a pillar of the modern age, producing ideas on justice, law, engineering and warfare.
7 c.670 BC Invention of iron-working: metallurgy is the key to further technical, economic and military developments.
8 c.551 BC Birth of Confucius, the founder of one of the world's major philosophical systems.
9 490 BC Battle of Marathon: the Greeks repel a Persian invasion, securing the survival of Greek culture and science.
10 486 BC Birth of Buddha, founder of one of the world's major religions.
11 327 BC Empire of Alexander the Great reaches into India: the first example of a long-term and often violent interrelationship between Europe and Asia.
12 202 BC Hannibal is defeated by Rome: the victory is essential to secure the survival and expansion of Roman civilisation.
13 27 BC Founding of the Roman Empire: this is the start of the classic period of Roman domination in Europe and the Mediterranean.
14 c.5 BC Birth of Jesus Christ, founder of the many branches of Christianity. The exact date is disputed.
15 AD 105 First use of modern paper: this replaced stone, slate, papyrus and vellum as a cheap and convenient medium.
16 AD 280 Unification of China under the Western Chin dynasty creates the political shape of modern China.
17 AD 312 Roman Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity: this made it possible for Christianity to spread across Europe.
18 AD 476 Fall of the Roman Empire in the West ends 800 years of Roman hegemony.
The creation of moderen Europe begins.
19 c.AD 570 Birth of Muhammad, founder of one of the world's great religions.
20 c.AD 730 Printing invented in China: an essential step in mass communication/ administration/cultural dissemination.
21 AD 800 Charlemagne crowned Emperor of the new Western Empire. This marked the point at which Europe began to reintegrate. The Holy Roman Empire lasts for 1,000 years.
22 1054 Schism of Greek and Latin Christian Churches divides Christianity permanently into two geographical and denominational halves.
23 1088 First university founded in Bologna, Italy: the start of a modern conception of higher learning and universal knowledge.
24 1206 Genghis Khan begins his conquest of Asia. This has a major impact on Asian development and the movement of peoples.
25 1215 Magna Carta signed by King John at Runnymede: this is the origin of the modern concept of constitutional rule.
26 1453 Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks: Almost 500 years of Turkish domination of the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East begins.
27 1455 First book printed with moveable type: Johannes Gutenberg's revolution in printing technology makes mass-market reading possible.
28 1492 Christopher Columbus discovers the New World, bringing the Americas into a global trading/cultural system.
29 1509 Invention of the watch: essential to a modern economy and administration, this introduces the concept of regular timekeeping.
30 1517 Martin Luther launches the Reformation. It is the start of Protestant Christianity and the idea of religious individualism.
31 1519 Cortes begins his conquest of South America, which becomes part of the wider world economic and political system.
32 1564 William Shakespeare is born: his plays make fundamental statements about the human condition.
33 1651 Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan is published: this is the origin of the modern idea of civil society, equality before the law and egoistic individualism) 34 1687 Isaac Newton publishes Principia Mathematica, the foundation of modern physics.
35 1776 American Declaration of Independence determines the political evolution of the New World and the rise of American power.
36 1789 French Revolution marks a fundamental break with the tradition of monarchy; the "rights of man" are enshrined.
37 1815 Battle of Waterloo: the Napoleonic Empire ends, and with it Napoleon's ambition to rule and reform all of Europe.
38 1825 Rocket steam locomotive built, marking the start of the railway age of cheap, fast land transport.
39 1859 Publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species. His theory of evolution transforms the view of Man and his environment, and belief in God.
40 1885 Benz develops first petrol-driven car, starting the most profound technical and social revolution of the modern age.
41 1893 New Zealand introduces unrestricted women's suffrage. At this point women win the principle of full political equality.
42 1905 Einstein's theory of special relativity published. It transforms the nature of modern physical knowledge.
43 1917 Russian Revolution creates the first successful, long-term revolutionary state.
44 1918 End of the First World War. The Habsburg and Ottoman empires collapse; maps of Europe and the Middle East are redrawn.
45 1939 Outbreak of Second Worldd War: 50 million die worldwide from 1939-45 in the world's largest and most deadly conflict, which ends the long age of imperialisms.
46 1945 End of Second World War; when the first nuclear bomb is detonated, mankind develops the means to destroy itself.
47 1949 Communist China founded: China is created as a single territorial unit with a common administration and a modernising economy.
48 1959 Invention of the silicon chip is the major technical invention of the past century, making possible the computer age.
49 1960 First contraceptive pill made available for women, who can now make their own biological choices about reproduction.
50 1989-90 Collapse of Communist regimes in Europe: marks the end of the long communist experiment; Asian communism is also transformed.
..OR ARE THESE MORE IMPORTANT?
Sir Ranulph Fiennes, adventurer
AD0000 Birth of Christ
1415 Battle of Agincourt: always nice to keep the French in their place
1066 My family arrived at Hastings and we've been here ever since
1990 Berlin Wall knocked down: victory over Marxism
1945 VE Day: victory over Fascism
Amanda Foreman, biographer; author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
753BC Foundation of Rome: the spread of civic virtue
1564 Birth of Shakespeare: the apotheosis of the English language
1767 Invention of the Spinning Jenny: the subjugation of man to machine
1945 Detonation of the A-bomb: the perfection of war
2001 9/11 attacks: the triumph of terrorism
Orlando Figes, historian; author of A People's Tragedy
c. 1438 Johannes Gutenberg's printing press
1685 Birth of J.S. Bach, father of modern music
1789 The first modern revolution (French Revolution)
1796 Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccination: the first real breakthrough in combating infectious diseases
1833 Abolition of slavery by the UK Parliament
Baroness Neuberger, rabbi; Liberal Democrat peer
2737BC The discovery of tea by the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung
1847 Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrates that thorough handwashing by doctors and midwives dramatically reduces death in childbirth
1849 Henry Layard discovers the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh and the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains the earliest version of the flood story
1907 James Murray Spangler invents the vacuum cleaner that becomes the Hoover
1967 Dame Cicely Saunders founds St Christopher's Hospice in London, the first modern hospice
Richard Morrison, columnist and critic
1066 Last invasion of Britain (Battle of Hastings)
1685 Birth of three great composers: Bach, Handel and Rameau
1807 Abolition of the slave trade
1876 Wagner completes The Ring, the most stupendous artwork ever created
1926 John Logie Baird gives the first public demonstration of television
Hugo Rifkind, Times diarist
456BC Birth of Aristophanes, father of comedy
1789 Most famous misquote, when Marie Antoinette almost certainly does not say "let them eat cake"
1875 Henry Nestle and Daniel Peter invent milk chocolate
1912 Opening of the world's first fast-food outlet, Automat, in New York City
1957 Panorama shows the world's greatest hoax, of Swiss spaghetti farmers preparing for harvest
HOW GOOD ARE YOU AT HISTORY?
1 How old was Alexander the Great when he died?
2 When did Julius Caesar cross the Rubicon?
3 In which city was the prophet Muhammad born?
4 Which island group did Christopher Columbus arrive at first in 1492?
5 Where did Luther launch the Reformation?
6 When were the United States formed?
7 Who was the author of The Rights of Man?
8 Where was Napoleon exiled after Waterloo?
9 What was signed on June 28, 1919?
10 In which year was the Chinese "Gang of Four" overthrown?
History Quiz Answers
1. 32 2. 49BC 3. Mecca 4. The Bahamas 5. Wittenberg 6. 1783 7. Thomas Paine 8. St Helena 9. The Treaty of Versailles 10. 1976