Centuries of Change 2

The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Invention, the Spread of Democracy, and women’s rights…

Ian Mortimer’s magnificent new book ‘Centuries of Change’ describes the myriad ways in which European societies have been transformed over the past thousand years. This series of blogs summarises Mortimer’s work and asks just how much progress have we made?

This second post looks at the increasing pace of change during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period that defined the modern world.  

‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’   Rousseau

Eighteenth Century

This was the century when classical music began – the century of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Mozart. It was also a century of revolutions – Agricultural, Moral, Economic, Industrial and Political.

Agricultural and Moral Revolutions

The eighteenth century witnessed major increases in food security, which led to a gradual relaxation of the policing of group morality. European farmers realised that animals did not have to stay the same size as they had been, and began to use selective breeding to improve their animal stocks.

The average cow that had produced 170 pounds of meat, now produced 600 pounds; the average sheep that had provided 22 pounds now provided 70 pounds. Improved farming methods also resulted in yields per acre of food staples such as wheat increasing almost threefold.

As food security improved and superstition was replaced by science and reason, the stranglehold of group morality began to ease. Previously people had kept strict control over their neighbour’s moral behaviour in the belief that God would communally punish populations for the transgressions of a few – through a bad harvest, or a plague, for example. During the 1700’s, that gradually began to change, allowing room for the expression of diverse opinions.

Economic Revolutions

The eighteenth century saw the transition of western societies to modern market-based industrial economies – it was the century of private enterprise, international trade and modern banking, and of the Industrial Revolution.

In the 1690s de Belesbat had proposed that rather than capturing territory, countries should compete commercially – a radical new idea. However it took more than a century for governments to begin to pursue economic growth through free trade rather than through conquest.

Adam Smith’s ‘An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations’ provided the blueprint which European countries used to make the transition from economies based on mercantilism to economies based on competition between private enterprises.

Modern banking, in which banks act as multipliers of money printed by the state, also appeared at this time. This vastly increased the amount of capital available for private investment in agricultural and industrial developments, and provided the lifeblood for the Industrial Revolution.

As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, the Industrial Revolution was not an episode with a beginning and an end; instead it marked the beginning of a process in which ‘revolutionary change became the norm’. The driver for that revolutionary change ever since has been the development and application of wave after wave of new technologies.

The background to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain was a huge demand for coal on the one hand, and growing demand for cotton and woollen cloth on the other. By the eighteenth century, coal had become the staple fuel for heating homes across Britain. Steam engines were first developed to pump water out of coal mines to allow mines to match that demand.

Then in 1775 John Wilkinson commissioned a steam engine for his ironworks, and Richard Arkwright installed one at his cotton factory a few years later.

The application of steam power to the factory system of production gave birth to the Industrial Revolution as we know it, enabling mass production of goods at prices low enough for the majority of people to afford them. The Industrial Revolution spread first to Western Europe and then to the United States, and in doing so changed the world.

Political Revolutions

The eighteenth century was the century of Diderot and the Encyclopedie, and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. Diderot’s, Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s books were phenomenally successful and provided intellectual arguments for equality and democracy.

In the English Revolution of 1688 a parliament, representative of the people, had ousted a king and replaced him with another, and then imposed a series of limitations on the king’s power. The political revolutions of the eighteenth century in the U.S. and France went further by formulating the idea of equality of all men and putting that idea into force.

In the American Revolution it was the Republican nature of the Revolution that mattered most. At the time, the only established republics in Europe were small – the Italian city states and the Swiss cantons. There was no precedent for a republic of five million people. However equality, while espoused in the Declaration of Independence, was not enacted in the new United States where slavery remained widespread.

In France, equality of all men was a central aim of the revolution. What began as an attempt by members of the National Assembly to force a constitution on the French king turned into a mass revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the National Assembly in 1789, declared that all citizens are born equal in rights, are equal in the eyes of the law, and that the purpose of government is the preservation of these rights for all men.

Four years after the Revolution, the Reign of Terror began.

As Ian Mortimer writes however, ‘The abuses that followed … should not distract us from the key point:  the French Revolution was not simply a revolution, it was the revolution, the testing of one of the most far-reaching ideas of the whole millennium: namely that one man is worth the same as any other.’ [1]

While this was a Christian sentiment in origin, no Christian kingdom had ever tried to put it into practice. Equality in practice began with the French Revolution.

photo credit: Storm Crypt via photopin cc

photo credit: Storm Crypt via photopin cc

Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century was a century of invention, increased global linkages, and social reform.

Age of Invention

This was the age of invention – even more so than the twentieth century. Applications for UK patents, for example, averaged almost 24,000 per year in the 1890s; by the 1990s this had more than halved.

In 1829 George Stephenson’s Rocket won the competition to power the Liverpool to Manchester Railway and set off a railway craze in England. The first passenger railway opened in America in 1830 and in Germany in 1835. Railways linked Europe and North America like never before.

Until the nineteenth century, ships crossing the Atlantic relied on wind. By 1900, steam ships had had changed that and cut the journey time to just over 5 days.

The new steam ships fuelled explosive population growth in North America. Millions of emigrants from Europe moved to new continents as faster journeys and larger ships made long distance travel affordable. The population of the U.S. increased by over 1,300 per cent, and that of Canada by over 1,400 per cent, in the course of the century.

Technology also revolutionised communications. By 1861 telegrams linked the east and west coasts of America, and from 1866 a submarine cable linked Liverpool and New York. The invention of the telephone and radio communication quickly followed. The invention of photography allowed armchair travellers to see for the first time what other parts of the world were like.

Gas street lighting, indoor gas lighting, gas cookers, public cinemas, gas powered cars, and the bicycle, were all invented in the nineteenth century.

The arrival of long distance rail transport also allowed countries to give up being self-sufficient in food production. By 1860 Britain imported around 40 percent of all its food. International transport networks meant that food shortages in Western Europe became largely a thing of the past – at least in peacetime.

These changes drove urbanisation all over Europe. In 1700 around 70 percent of Europe’s population worked in agriculture. By 1900 in England that had fallen to around 4 percent.

Reducing Destitution

In 1800 every city in Europe was highly polluted, rife with disease and populated by large numbers of needy poor. Over the course of the century, due to advances in science and medicine, conditions in cities across Europe improved considerably.

As Ian Mortimer writes, ‘The nineteenth century was when the West discovered what caused most illnesses, and worked out, in many cases, how to prevent them, how to cure them, and how to limit contagion.’ [2]

The most important advances included the developments of vaccinations for smallpox, and the discovery that cholera was transmitted through infected water, which lead to the development of sewage systems and clean running water as a basic requirement for urban housing.

Social Reform

The French Revolution had been fought on the belief that one man is of the same worth as any other. The nineteenth century saw growing acceptance of this fundamental principle in western societies.

The century witnessed the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (in 1807) and the abolition of slavery in Spanish (1811) and British (1833) lands, as well as in the U.S. (1865). Portugal’s abolition in 1859 marked the end of European endorsement of slavery.

The century also saw major advances in the development of democracy. In 1870 all adult males in the U.S. were given the vote, although in practice widespread discrimination against blacks limited their ability to take part in elections. By 1900 all adult males in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Greece, Australia and New Zealand were entitled to vote.

The century also saw advances in women’s rights.

In 1800 women in many western countries were denied the most basic rights. In England a man could legally beat his wife as long as he did not kill her. Women were barred from giving evidence against their husbands in court and could not divorce them. The property of married women legally belonged to their husbands, including any money they earned. And no university or medical school would allow women to study.

By 1900 all this was changing. Marie Curie was awarded the Noble Prize in 1903, and again in 1911 – the first person, man or woman, to have won two such prizes.

While most European countries did not allow women to vote until after the Second World War, some countries did so earlier, including New Zealand (1893), Australia (1894), Finland (1907) and Norway (1913).

Another major social change of the nineteenth century was a massive increase in literacy.

In 1800 more than half the population of the developed world was illiterate. Following the introduction of free compulsory primary education, both Europe and America became predominantly literate in the course of the century. Crucially, female literacy was almost as high as male literacy by 1900.

Finally, the nineteenth century was also the century of Darwin, Marx and Freud – thinkers whose ideas would shape the western world in the century to come.


[1] Centuries of Change: Which century saw the most change and why it matters to us, Ian Mortimer, Bodley Head, 2014, page 219

[2] Centuries of Change: Which century saw the most change and why it matters to us, Ian Mortimer, Bodley Head, 2014, page 245

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