A 20th-Century Retrospective

Looking Back at the Age of Extremes

Join me for a few minutes in a journey back in time to the beginning of this century. We are in Paris, the year is 1900, and we are in an optimistic, celebratory mood. A remarkable exhibition has been prepared, and we are here along with multiple millions of others to enjoy it.

The reason for the fifth Paris International Exposition, one of the largest and most ambitious international gatherings ever, is simple. It is a celebration of the remarkable accomplishments of the 19th century—accomplishments that have dramatically changed society and the lot of the common man. But its horizons extend beyond the century just completed to the exciting prospects for the 20th century ahead. The catalog lists almost 80,000 exhibits, and more than 40 million visitors will attend.

To set the scene for the mood and emphasis of the exposition, we must briefly go back further in time. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Europe in the latter part of the 18th century, provided a sudden acceleration in technical development. With the new steam engine as a basis, factories were rapidly transformed and the railways developed. During the 19th century the revolution continued apace and spread from Europe to the world. Understanding of electricity advanced and, with the invention of the dynamo, a whole new world of power and possibilities rapidly opened up. With further developments and refinements, electricity became available on a commercial scale in the 1880s.

In 1864 James Maxwell developed his theory of electromagnetic waves, and by the late 1890s Marconi was busy inventing wireless telegraphy. At about the same time Röntgen discovered X-rays, and French physicist Becquerel discovered radioactivity. In the next few years Marie and Pierre Curie carried out their pioneering work on radioactivity using radium. Rutherford was engaged in his own work on radiation, which led to the formulation of a theory of atomic structure—the first to describe a nucleus encircled by electrons.

All of a sudden, it seemed, massive new powers and fundamental forces were becoming available, generating exciting promise of advancement and discovery.

The Paris Exposition, perhaps more than anything else, captured this sense of newly available powers. Electricity and the dynamo were much in evidence. With the gathering pace of invention and technological and industrial development, there was a feeling that times were beginning to race ahead faster than ever before.

Henry Brooks Adams, American author and historian, in observing this progressive acceleration, wrote that “the new American—the child of incalculable coal power, chemical power, electric power, and radiating energy, as well as new forces yet undetermined—must be a sort of God compared with any former creation of nature. At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived in the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power” (The Education of Henry Adams, 1906, quoted by Hillel Schwartz in Century’s End, Doubleday, New York, 1990, p. 168).

The 19th century may have belonged to Great Britain and the European powers, but the United States was developing fast. It grew from 16 states in 1800 to 45 by 1900, while its population grew from 5 million to 76 million. At century’s end it was apparent that the seat of energy had migrated from Europe to America. An awesome and burgeoning engine of production was girding itself not only to dominate the 20th century, but to become the world’s only superpower.

Optimism Rewarded

The optimism expressed at the beginning of this century was not misplaced. The 20th century has far exceeded expectations for its progress as the newly discovered powers of one hundred years ago have been developed, refined and implemented on a wide scale. If not quite wielding “unlimited power” today in the developed world, we nonetheless wield awesome power undreamed of at the beginning of the century—or, for that matter, even as recently as 30 years ago.

Rutherford’s pioneering work eventually led to the splitting of the atom. In 1919 he conducted the first artificially induced nuclear reaction, which inspired succeeding generations of scientists to further examine the nature and properties of radiation and other nuclear phenomena. The examination of the minutiae of matter progressively revealed the secrets of the very building blocks of matter, with enormous ramifications for greater understanding and advancement. The development of the science of molecular biology, for example, has yielded up the bewildering complexity of even the “simplest” cell.

In developed countries, electric power for industry and the home became universally available—fueled by coal, oil, gas and nuclear generating plants. And with that power has come every conceivable kind of gadget and appliance to make life easier and more enjoyable—the radio, the television, the vacuum cleaner, the refrigerator, the washing machine, the microwave oven, the record player, the tape deck, the food processor, to name but a few examples. What’s more, the development of batteries enabled the invention and proliferation of many portable devices. And so we have the Walkman, the calculator, the cell phone and the laptop computer. Truly, the widespread availability of electric power has dramatically changed our world and the way we live, work and play.

It was the 19th-century ideas of Charles Babbage, who in 1835 conceived of building a large machine that would execute extended sequences of operations, that led to the development of the computer. Mankind now had a radical tool with which to advance even faster than before. And as the computer developed, the digital revolution got under way—seemingly transforming all before it.

If we had had similar progress in automotive technology, today we could buy a Lexus for about two dollars. It would travel at the speed of sound and go about 600 miles on a thimbleful of gasoline.

Randall Tobias, former vice chairman of AT&T, offered a comparison to illustrate the astounding rate of development in computers—which, incidentally, shows no sign of slowing down. According to Tobias, if we had had similar progress in automotive technology, today we could buy a Lexus for about two dollars. It would travel at the speed of sound and go about 600 miles on a thimbleful of gasoline.

Today every conceivable type of digital diversion—music, education, movies, sports and other entertainment—can be summoned at the touch of a button to fulfill our every whim. We take these diversions with us wherever we go; they share our homes, our planes, our trucks and our automobiles. Satellite- and cable-based digital television and radio beam multiple channels into our homes, now heard with the latest stereo surround-sound effects. Compact disc players, audio cassette players, video players, digital still and video cameras and more—all abound to feed an ever hungry public eager to experience the latest advances. We enjoy crystal-clear telephone communication—thanks to satellite, microwave and fiber-optic technology—to almost every corner of the globe. And the burgeoning Internet promises to further revolutionize the way we communicate, shop, do business and obtain previously inaccessible information. Now experts promise the convergence of television, telephone and interactive computer technologies as the next major advance, with other mobile-phone-based Internet devices in the pipeline.

New Science, New Values

Despite the optimism so apparent at the Paris Exposition, all was not brilliance and light in the early years of this century. There was a marked uncertainty caused by advancing discoveries, and it was unsettling. Radical new ideas and thinking were being proposed, which would dramatically challenge the traditional order of things.

Around the turn of the century in Berlin, Max Planck was undermining traditional views of physics—views that had stood since the time of Descartes and Newton in the 17th and 18th centuries—with his study of heat radiation and the development of quantum theory. Albert Einstein, famous for developing these ideas into his theories of relativity, acknowledged that a fundamental crisis in physics was under way at the turn of the century. This crisis was to have a profound effect on scientific developments as the century progressed. Although Einstein’s theories were proven to be correct, Einstein himself was later shocked to see the way his ideas concerning relativity were misinterpreted and confused with moral relativism, thus contributing toward a hastening moral decline.

Einstein’s ideas concerning relativity were misinterpreted and confused with moral relativism.

Other ideas that were to develop, progress and dominate thinking throughout the 20th century—questionable ideas that would dramatically transform society, arguably for the worse—had already been proposed. The dark side of mankind’s nature was much in evidence.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed throughout the 19th century, major concerns surfaced about the relationship between capital and labor. Resentment gradually built up because of the exploitation that was taking place. In Britain, various “factory acts” attempted to curb abuses and regulate conditions of work, hours of labor, safety, and sanitary provisions. Despite these developments, however, class conflict grew and socialism began to take root. Movements aimed at establishing a classless society began—a society in which common ownership would replace private ownership of production, distribution and exchange. By century’s end, feelings of anarchy and revolution were in the air, fueled by Karl Marx’s revolutionary “scientific” socialist philosophy.

In a 1922 article on capitalism, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (12th edition) said, “It is admitted by Marx’s most fervent admirers that most of his theories were wrong, that many of his assertions were incorrect, and that most of his forecasts have been proven to be baseless. But the fact remains that he was able to describe a state of things in English industry, which was entirely disgraceful. . . .”

Marx’s theories were to dominate the 20th century and result in decades of ideological confrontation between the West, represented largely by the United States, and the Soviet Union. This “Cold War” occupied a significant portion of the mind and energy of millions of people for almost half a century.

On another front, Charles Darwin responded to popular notions concerning evolution by proposing how it might have taken place. In 1859 he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a seminal work that was to dramatically influence the world at large into accepting a Godless view of creation and the natural world.

Today Darwin’s theories, though stubbornly adhered to in many quarters, are no longer adequate to explain how the natural world came to be.

In a parallel intellectual development, Austrian physician and author Sigmund Freud, who became known as the father of psychoanalysis, synthesized prevailing ideas into a new approach to the understanding of human personality. In particular, he advanced the controversial notion that hysteria and neuroses were linked to repressed sexual experiences in childhood. His ideas have had a widespread and profound influence on 20th-century thinking.

Freud saw all religion as illusory and, through his unproven (and unprovable) theories, he challenged orthodox ideas concerning philosophy and religion by advancing natural, deterministic notions that ignored God and the spiritual perspective advanced within the Bible. He was a skilled writer who nevertheless attracted considerable criticism by the way he attempted to generalize his theories—seen as controversial and unscientific by some—and apply them to all avenues of life.

The ideas of Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein arguably had a greater impact on the 20th century than those of any other person. As such, they need to be well understood in order for us to comprehend the forces that have shaped this century.

Masters of War

Adding to the uncertainty that tinged the general mood of optimism in 1900, the political situation in Europe was deteriorating. The Industrial Revolution was fueling not only peaceful developments: the mechanics of war were progressing as well.

As the century began, the Boxer rebellion in China was under way, as was the Boer War in South Africa. The automatic machine gun, invented by Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, proved to be a decisive factor in both.

The 1860s saw the development of the breach-loading rifle, which was to transform the role and effectiveness of infantrymen. In addition, equipping artillery with rifled barrels resulted in greatly increased range and accuracy. The development of the telegraph and the railway improved both the speed of military communications and the transport of armies. Further developments included the tank, the battleship and the submarine, and soon nations were pressing airplanes into military service.

At the turn of the century the prospect of war—for generations seen as almost an exciting pursuit and often consisting of nothing more than local, limited and short-lived skirmishes—took on a far more menacing character. Nations were arming and the future began to look progressively more alarming. Winston Churchill, recently returned from the war in South Africa and giving his maiden speech as a member of parliament, warned, “We must not regard war with a modern power as a kind of game in which we may take a hand and with good luck and good management may play adroitly for an evening and come safe home with our winnings. . . . A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heartrending struggle, which . . . must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community.”

Even Churchill could not have foreseen the madness of a few years hence when the majority of Europe would effectively commit suicide in the Great War, destroying the flower of an entire generation as well as any further pretensions to empire. This war eventually became global and involved 32 nations. Its fundamental cause was rooted in the intense nationalism, the political and economic rivalries, the military alliances and the large armaments that had prevailed in Europe since 1871, coinciding with the emergence of Germany as a great world power. The cost of the war was enormous: 47 million military and civilian deaths and $146 billion in direct costs to the belligerents.

The era of mass destruction had begun, and it developed rapidly as technology progressed.

The era of mass destruction had begun, and it developed rapidly as technology progressed.

The “war to end all wars” was succeeded by a chaotic and confused period that included the great depression of the 1930s, with all the deprivation and hardship that entailed. This led inexorably to an even greater conflagration—another world war that necessitated the renaming of the first. This time it easily qualified as the most devastating war in history: It is estimated that direct expenditure by the 61 nations involved (three fourths of the world’s population) easily topped $1 trillion, with more than 55 million military and civilian deaths. By far the single most horrifying aspect was the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps. Also significant, however, was the use of the rocket and the atom bomb, first seen during this war; they were harbingers of even worse things to come.

During the postwar standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union—the ideological Cold War—an unparalleled arms race developed, where each power bloc sought to outdo the other in destructive capacity. One could say that missile technology skyrocketed, and destructive capacity of warheads went through the roof—quite literally.

The atom bomb was succeeded by the even more destructive hydrogen bomb, and scientists went on to develop hideous chemical and biological means of warfare. By the 1950s mankind coined the dubious term kill—meaning that all life could be erased—and thereafter progressed into the entirely superfluous realms of overkill. As someone famously quipped, “Once would be quite enough!”

As the digital revolution gained momentum, it inevitably impacted the development of armaments, and a new generation of “smart” weapons, possessing frightening accuracy, was born. By the time of the 1990 Gulf War, technology had advanced to the point that television networks beamed the first live “television war” into millions of homes the world over. Viewers watched as laser-guided rockets and bombs delivered from hundreds of miles away disappeared down elevator shafts to annihilate their targets. Cruise missiles, guided by digital maps etched deep in their electronic brains, inexorably homed in on hapless targets to deliver their payloads of death and destruction.

A Giant Leap Forward; Two Steps Back

Who cannot marvel at the breathtaking wonders of progress across the whole spectrum of human endeavor? Never before has humanity advanced in knowledge so far, in so many different directions, and on such a wide front. We can know more about this world, experience its varied delights, and travel its length and breadth more affordably and with greater ease than ever before. We have seen this globe of ours shrink dramatically before our eyes.

Scientific progress has been nothing short of phenomenal. Medical advances have been staggering. Technological production has brought an ever more tempting array of goods and services within reach of the average man and woman. An insatiable curiosity drives humanity relentlessly forward at an ever quickening rate, resulting in the world changing faster than ever before.

In this century alone we have passed through the age of the horse and carriage, the automobile and the airplane, and entered the space age in which man has actually walked on the moon. We have progressed through the age of technology to the information age and now the digital age, which staggers us with its potential.

The result is that, at the turn of the millennium, we stand poised on the threshold of a very different age. The sheer genius of man’s accomplishments, which has gathered so much momentum this century, appears to hold great promise for the general improvement of life.

However, all is not well with our world. We are an age in deep crisis—despite many obvious advances. Those developed nations that have led in bringing new knowledge are themselves plagued by many unsolved evils, some of them related to the very inventions their creators have pioneered. Less-developed nations are not able to share in the progress others have achieved.

Two world wars have left us with haunting and inescapable fears that there might be a third. In recent years we have seen numerous national and ethnic struggles come to the forefront as the Soviet Union disintegrated into its constituent parts. Wars this century—of every shape and size in every corner of the globe—have made us wonder what fatal flaw of madness grips humanity to make us behave in such uncivilized and ferocious ways.

Wars this century—of every shape and size in every corner of the globe—have made us wonder what fatal flaw of madness grips humanity to make us behave in such uncivilized and ferocious ways. 

The much-vaunted New World Order to be ushered in by the end of decades of Cold War was supposed to bring a kinder, gentler world of peace and prosperity. But the happiness and greater understanding we all hoped for has not transpired.

It is more accurate to say we live in the New World Disorder, marred by continuing human evil, conflict, barbarity and selfishness. Wars have not ceased. The perceived communist threat may have receded, but in the meantime other threats are on the rise, providing new challenges and dangers. Nuclear proliferation and widespread arms sales have created an unstable world.

Despicable acts of terrorism horrify and appall us, yet their likelihood, potential and scale increase with the passing of time. Crimes of every variety continue to proliferate. Famine stalks the earth, as it always has, on the heels of weather upsets, natural disasters and human conflict.

Fierce Extremes

Yes, we can send men routinely to space atop thundering pillars of fire and then return them safely. We can set in orbit powerful and complex satellites. We can dispatch space probes to distant planets and beam back remarkable pictures of amazing clarity. We can see farther toward the outer reaches of our universe than ever before. But we still cannot solve the grinding and crushing poverty that enslaves increasing multitudes of people.

The most amazing and remarkable advances in medicine can enable the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk again. We are in the process of mapping the human genome—finding out where every gene on every chromosome fits in our DNA and how each impacts our health, intelligence and longevity. The rapidly developing science of genetics promises answers for every possible need and so much more besides, raising along the way a multitude of ethical questions we are ill equipped to answer. We have already cloned Dolly the sheep. How far behind can the first human clone be? Yet disease and ill health still abound. And now there is worrying talk of superbugs that are immune to the most powerful drugs in our medicinal armory.

So while we may marvel at the advances the brilliance of the human mind has produced, we can only despair at the poverty, the evil, and the daunting problems that blight the globe. Such is our age of extremes. In one sense, nothing much has changed. Human nature is still capable of the noble, the loving and the altruistic—and it is still responsible for the ugly, brutal results of depraved thinking.

Martin Gilbert, author of A History of the Twentieth Century, sums it up: “No year passed in the twentieth century in which death, conflict, turmoil and destruction were not in evidence in many parts of the globe. Yet at the same time, no year passed without efforts being made, and initiatives taken, to push ahead along a path of co-operation and mutual benefit.”

How do we make sense of it all? Where are we going and how will it all end up? Will mankind finally rid itself of its problems and burst forth to a scene of splendor, beauty and solutions for all, where the human spirit can truly demonstrate all its incredible potential? Or will the dark side of mankind’s nature prevail, as it has so often threatened to do, bringing in its wake a new dark age of evil, injustice, cruelty and a shriveling of the human spirit—or worse?

Perhaps only time will tell. But we should be aware of a source that reliably informs us of the outcome. We would do well to heed its message—a message that will be extensively developed throughout each issue of Vision.