20th century

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Centuries:
19th century - 20th century - 21st century
Decades:
1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s

1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

The twentieth century of the Common Era began on January 1, 1901 and ended on December 31, 2000, according to the Gregorian calendar.

The 20th century saw a remarkable shift in the way that vast numbers of people lived, as a result of technological, medical, social, ideological, and political innovation. Arguably more technological advances occurred in any ten-year period following World War I than the sum total of new technological development in any century before the industrial revolution.

The period witnessed radical changes in almost every area of human endeavors. Scientific discoveries, such as the theory of relativity and quantum physics, radically changed the worldview of scientists, causing them to realize that the universe was much more complex than previously believed, and dashing the hopes at the end of the 19th century that the last few details of scientific knowledge were about to be filled in. Accelerating scientific understanding, better communications, and faster transportation transformed the world in those hundred years more than at any time in the past. It was a century that started with steam-powered ships and ended with the space shuttle. Horses and other pack animals, Western society's basic form of personal transportation for thousands of years, were replaced by automobiles within the span of a few decades. These developments were made possible by the large-scale exploitation of petroleum resources, which offered great amounts of energy in an easily portable and storable liquid form.

Humanity took its first footsteps on the Moon. Information technology put the world's knowledge at the disposal of anyone with a personal computer and an Internet connection. But war also reached an unprecedented scale and sophistication: in World War II alone, approximately 57 to 62 million people died, mainly due to massive advances in weaponry, and after the war, nuclear bombs mounted on intercontinental missiles gave humankind the technological means to destroy itself.

The massive arms race of the 19th century finally culminated in a war which involved every powerful nation in the world: World War I (1914–1918). After more than four years of horrifying trench warfare, and 20 million dead, those powers who had formed the Triple Entente emerged victorious over the Triple Alliance. In addition to annexing much of the colonial possessions of the vanquished states, the Triple Entente exacted punitive restitution payments from their former foes, plunging Germany in particular into economic depression. The Russian Empire was plunged into revolution during the conflict, and the Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires were dismantled at the war's conclusion.

At the start of the period, Britain was the world's most powerful nation. However, its economy was ruined by World War I, and its empire began to shrink, producing a growing power vacuum in Europe. Fascism became a growing movement which gained momentum in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s. The largest and most devastating war ever fought, World War II claimed the lives of about 60 million people.

When the conflict ended in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two most powerful nations, and while they had been allies in the war, they soon became hostile to one other. The military alliances headed by these nations were prepared to wage total war with each other throughout the Cold War (1947–1991). The period was marked by a new arms race, and nuclear weapons, the most devastating ones yet to have been developed, were produced in their tens of thousands, sufficient to end most life on the planet had they ever been used. This, paradoxically, ensured that the cold war never became hot; both sides had too much to lose. This was known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

After World War II, most of the European-colonized world in Africa and Asia gained independence in a process of decolonization. (Most Latin American countries had gained their independence in the 19th century.) This, and the drain of the two world wars, caused Europe, which had been the pre-eminent continent for centuries, to lose much of its power. On the other hand, the world wars drew the United States into taking a position of major influence over world affairs. By the end of the century, the US was the undisputed economic, military, and cultural powerhouse of the world. It was allied with a still-powerful Europe, meaning that the West dominated the world at the end of the century as it had at its beginning.

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