The (Second) Greatest Shift in Human History

Without any doubt the greatest shift in human history was when in Mesopotamia, in between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the population decided to settle and farm the land. Once farming had been mastered the world’s first civilisation rapidly developed with written laws, established trade and urban society. Indeed, the Code of Hammurabi is prevalent in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Second to this shift in our shared history is surely the Industrial Revolution. Put simply it was the change from making products by hand to using machines. Nobody can put their finger on why this began – what we do know is that it first occurred in Britain towards the end of the eighteenth century. This article will look the western world in 1800 compared with 1900, and the changes which remain greater than any we have experienced in the last century.

Throughout nearly all of history no detailed message could go faster than the person who carried it. This period put an end to that. In 1828 the first railway in the world opened between Stockport and Darlington; within fifty years there were 13,000 miles of railroads criss-crossing Britain. In 1800 it would take a rapid traveller three weeks to get from London to Edinburgh; by 1880 it took six hours. Each country across the world had dozens of time zones but railway mania quickly meant that this had to be centralised lest the timetables became too confusing for rushing commuters and jolly holiday makers on Thomas Cook excursions.

And what of international communication? The instant messages sent by telegraph ended the cumbersome and unwieldy ancient systems. In 1851 a telegraph cable was laid between Britain and France, in 1858 across the Atlantic then in 1870 all the way to India. Developments in radio communication meant that by 1904 ships could communicate wirelessly with one another around the world. The car was even making inroads to society although there were strict speed limits of 4mph in the countryside and 2mph in cities. By 1914 planes could now fly at a breath-taking 100mph and mankind had at last achieved the ancient Greek dream of Daedalus and Icarus – myth had become reality.

In this century exploding with developments in all aspects of society the population of Britain quadrupled. Manageable towns such as Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol rapidly became teeming and seething hives clumsily coated with a thick layer of smoke and grime. Their waste seeped into drinking sources decades before Thomas Crapper, ahem, patented the toilet we know today (Careful now, the word crap comes from the Latin for chaff – crappa). Where plague was once the scourge of populations, cholera became a widespread killer. One fifth of a million Londoners died during the various outbreaks of the disease from drinking dirty water. Governments whose previous concerns had been foreign affairs now found themselves having to play more of a role in their compatriots’ lives. Subjects were fast becoming citizens. From education to transport and pollution to medicine, governments had no choice but to take care of the general populace – well at least to try anyway.

Until now women had featured periodically in history although for every Cleopatra and Hapshetsut there were hundreds of Tutankhamens and Khufus; and the Matilda’s and Mary’s were vastly outnumbered by the Williams and Henrys. In 1880 there were 19 female clerks in the country, by 1911 there were 150,000. The harsh traditional dress such as corsets were giving way to more flexible and easy to wear garments. Skirts even rose to 2 inches above the ankle! Women were finally seizing their place in society. Greater changes were to come for women in the following years…

In 1900 you could send an instant message to New York, take the London Underground to the airport or see an FA Cup match. Instead you could take in a Wilde play at your local theatre before going out for a curry. In 1800 these were the whispered dreams of poets and madmen. A colleague of mine summed up these huge changes when he noted that many of us could be transported back in time to 1900 and merge into society with relative ease. Possibly even do 1850 at a stretch. But any time before this would be nay on impossible. Yes we have experienced seismic changes almost daily for decades, but these were made possible by the second greatest shift in human history: the Industrial Revolution.

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1 Response to The (Second) Greatest Shift in Human History

  1. I love that picture – especially that it shows the Underground in an actual map, rather than the stylised map we have today.


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