The 20th century began on January 1, 1901 (MCMI), and ended on December 31, 2000 (MM).[1][2] It was the 10th and last century of the 2nd millennium and was marked by new models of scientific understanding, unprecedented scopes of warfare, new modes of communication that would operate at nearly instant speeds, and new forms of art and entertainment. Population growth was also unprecedented,[3] as the century started with around 1.6 billion people, and ended with around 6.2 billion.[4]

Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968 by astronaut William "Bill" Anders during the Apollo 8 space mission. It was the first photograph taken of Earth from lunar orbit.

The 20th century was dominated by significant geopolitical events that reshaped the political and social structure of the globe: World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, World War II and the Cold War. Unprecedented advances in science and technology defined the modern era, including the advent of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, space exploration, the shift from analog to digital computing and the continuing advancement of transportation, including powered flight and the automobile. The Earth's sixth mass extinction event, the Holocene extinction, continued, and human conservation efforts increased.

Major themes of the century include decolonization, nationalism, globalization and new forms of intergovernmental organizations. Democracy spread, and women earned the right to vote in many countries in the world. Cultural homogenization began through developments in emerging transportation and information and communications technology, with popular music and other influences of Western culture, international corporations, and what was arguably a truly global economy by the end of the 20th century. Poverty was reduced and the century saw rising standards of living, world population growth, awareness of environmental degradation and ecological extinction.[5][6] Automobiles, airplanes, and home appliances became common, and video and audio recording saw mass adoption. These developments were made possible by the exploitation of fossil fuel resources, which offered energy in an easily portable form, but also caused concern about pollution and long-term impact on the environment. Humans started to explore space, taking their first footsteps on the Moon. Great advances in electricity generation and telecommunications allowed for near-instantaneous worldwide communication, ultimately leading to the Internet. Meanwhile, advances in medical technology resulted in the near-eradication and eradication of many infectious diseases, as well as opening the avenue of biological genetic engineering. Scientific discoveries, such as the theory of relativity and quantum physics, profoundly changed the foundational models of physical science, forcing scientists to realize that the universe was more complex than previously believed, and dashing the hopes (or fears) at the end of the 19th century that the last few details of scientific knowledge were about to be filled in.



At the beginning of the period, the British Empire was the world's most powerful nation,[7] having acted as the world's policeman for the past century.

World powers and empires in 1914, just before the First World War.

Technological advancements during World War I changed the way war was fought, as new inventions such as tanks, chemical weapons, and aircraft modified tactics and strategy. After more than four years of trench warfare in Western Europe, and up to 17 million dead, the powers that had formed the Triple Entente (France, Britain, and Russia, later replaced by the United States and joined by Italy and Romania) emerged victorious over the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). In addition to annexing many of the colonial possessions of the vanquished states, the Triple Entente exacted punitive restitution payments from them, plunging Germany in particular into economic depression. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were dismantled at the war's conclusion. The Russian Revolution resulted in the overthrow of the Tsarist regime of Nicholas II and the onset of the Russian Civil War. The victorious Bolsheviks then established the Soviet Union, the world's first communist state.

Fascism, a movement which grew out of post-war angst and which accelerated during the Great Depression of the 1930s, gained momentum in Italy, Germany, and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in World War II, sparked by Nazi Germany's aggressive expansion at the expense of its neighbors. Meanwhile, Japan had rapidly transformed itself into a technologically advanced industrial power and, along with Germany and Italy, formed the Axis powers. Japan's military expansionism in East Asia and the Pacific Ocean brought it into conflict with the United States, culminating in a surprise attack which drew the US into World War II.

After some years of dramatic military success, Germany was defeated in 1945, having been invaded by the Soviet Union and Poland from the East and by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France from the West. After the victory of the Allies in Europe, the war in Asia ended with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan by the US, the first nation to develop nuclear weapons and the only one to use them in warfare. In total, World War II left some 60 million people dead.

The mushroom cloud of the detonation of Little Boy, the first nuclear attack in history, on 6 August 1945 over Hiroshima, igniting the nuclear age with the international security dominating thread of mutual assured destruction in the latter half of the 20th century.

Following World War II, the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations, was established as an international forum in which the world's nations could discuss issues diplomatically. It enacted resolutions on such topics as the conduct of warfare, environmental protection, international sovereignty, and human rights. Peacekeeping forces consisting of troops provided by various countries, with various United Nations and other aid agencies, helped to relieve famine, disease, and poverty, and to suppress some local armed conflicts. Europe slowly united, economically and, in some ways, politically, to form the European Union, which consisted of 15 European countries by the end of the 20th century.

After the war, Germany was occupied and divided between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe became Soviet puppet states under communist rule. Western Europe was rebuilt with the aid of the American Marshall Plan, resulting in a major post-war economic boom, and many of the affected nations became close allies of the United States.

With the Axis defeated and Britain and France rebuilding, the United States and the Soviet Union were left standing as the world's only superpowers. Allies during the war, they soon became hostile to one another as their competing ideologies of communism and democratic capitalism proliferated in Europe, which became divided by the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. They formed competing military alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) which engaged in a decades-long standoff known as the Cold War. The period was marked by a new arms race as the USSR became the second nation to develop nuclear weapons, which were produced by both sides in sufficient numbers to end most human life on the planet had a large-scale nuclear exchange ever occurred. Mutually assured destruction is credited by many historians as having prevented such an exchange, each side being unable to strike first at the other without ensuring an equally devastating retaliatory strike. Unable to engage one another directly, the conflict played out in a series of proxy wars around the world—particularly in China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and Afghanistan—as the USSR sought to export communism while the US attempted to contain it. The technological competition between the two sides led to substantial investment in research and development which produced innovations that reached far beyond the battlefield, such as space exploration and the Internet.

The international community grew in the second half of the century significantly due to a new wave of decolonization, particularly in Africa. Most of the newly independent states, were grouped together with many other so called developing countries. Developing countries gained attention, particularly due to rapid population growth, leading to a record world population of nearly 7 billion people by the end of the century.

In the latter half of the century, most of the European-colonized world in Africa and Asia gained independence in a process of decolonization. Meanwhile, globalization opened the door for several nations to exert a strong influence over many world affairs. The US's global military presence spread American culture around the world with the advent of the Hollywood motion picture industry and Broadway, jazz, rock music, and pop music, fast food and hippy counterculture, hip-hop, house music, and disco, as well as street style, all of which came to be identified with the concepts of popular culture and youth culture.[8][9][10] After the Soviet Union collapsed under internal pressure in 1991, most of the communist governments it had supported around the world were dismantled—with the notable exceptions of China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos—followed by awkward transitions into market economies.

Nature of innovation and change


Due to continuing industrialization and expanding trade, many significant changes of the century were, directly or indirectly, economic and technological in nature. Inventions such as the light bulb, the automobile, mechanical computers, and the telephone in the late 19th century, followed by supertankers; airliners; motorways; radio communication and broadcasting; television; digital computers; air conditioning; antibiotics; nuclear power; frozen food; microcomputers; the Internet and the World Wide Web; and mobile telephones affected people's quality of life across the developed world. The quantity of goods consumed by the average person expanded massively. Scientific research, engineering professionalization and technological development—much of it motivated by the Cold War arms race—drove changes in everyday life.

Social change

Martin Luther King Jr., an African American civil rights movement leader (Washington, August 1963)

Starting from the century, strong discrimination based on race and sex was significant in most societies. Although the Atlantic slave trade had ended in the 19th century, movements for equality for non-white people in the white-dominated societies of North America, Europe, and South Africa continued. By the end of the 20th century, in many parts of the world, women had the same legal rights as men, and racism had come to be seen as unacceptable, a sentiment often backed up by legislation.[11] When the Republic of India was constituted, the disadvantaged classes of the caste system in India became entitled to affirmative action benefits in education, employment and government.

Attitudes toward pre-marital sex changed rapidly in many societies during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Attitudes towards homosexuality also began to change in the later part of the century.[12][13]

Trauma brought on by events like World War I and World War II, with their military death tolls alone at bare minimum being 29,697,963, and the Spanish Flu, whose death count alone exceeded that, helped make society in many countries more egalitarian and less neglectful of the poor.[14]

Earth at the end of the 20th century

The Blue Marble, Earth as seen from Apollo 17 in December 1972. The photograph was taken by LMP Harrison Schmitt. The second half of the 20th century saw humanity's first space exploration.

Economic growth and technological progress had radically altered daily lives. Europe appeared to be at a sustainable peace for the first time in recorded history[citation needed]. The people of the Indian subcontinent, a sixth of the world population at the end of the 20th century, had attained an indigenous independence for the first time in centuries. China, an ancient nation comprising a fifth of the world population, was finally open to the world, creating a new state after the near-complete destruction of the old cultural order. With the end of colonialism and the Cold War, nearly a billion people in Africa were left in new nation states.

The world was undergoing its second major period of globalization; the first, which started in the 18th century, having been terminated by World War I. Since the US was in a dominant position, a major part of the process was Americanization. The influence of China and India was also rising, as the world's largest populations were rapidly integrating with the world economy.

Terrorism, dictatorship, and the spread of nuclear weapons were pressing global issues. The world was still blighted by small-scale wars and other violent conflicts, fueled by competition over resources and by ethnic conflicts.

Disease threatened to destabilize many regions of the world. New viruses such as the West Nile virus continued to spread. Malaria and other diseases affected large populations. Millions were infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. The virus was becoming an epidemic in southern Africa.

Based on research done by climate scientists, the majority of the scientific community consider that in the long term environmental problems pose a serious threat.[15] One argument is that of global warming occurring due to human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels.[16] This prompted many nations to negotiate and sign the Kyoto treaty, which set mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

World population increased from about 1.6 billion people in 1901 to 6.1 billion at the century's end.[17][18]

Wars and politics

Map of territorial changes in Europe after World War I (as of 1923).

The number of people killed during the century by government actions was in the hundreds of millions. This includes deaths caused by wars, genocide, politicide and mass murders. The deaths from acts of war during the two world wars alone have been estimated at between 50 and 80 million.[citation needed] Political scientist Rudolph Rummel estimated 262,000,000 deaths caused by democide, which excludes those killed in war battles, civilians unintentionally killed in war and killings of rioting mobs.[19] According to Charles Tilly, "Altogether, about 100 million people died as a direct result of action by organized military units backed by one government or another over the course of the century. Most likely a comparable number of civilians died of war-induced disease and other indirect effects."[20] It is estimated that approximately 70 million Europeans died through war, violence and famine between 1914 and 1945.[21]

Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev aboard the USS Sequoia, June 19, 1973
Hong Kong, under British administration from 1842 to 1997, is one of the original Four Asian Tigers.

Culture and entertainment

I and the Village, 1911, by Marc Chagall, a modern painter
  • As the century began, Paris was the artistic capital of the world, where both French and foreign writers, composers and visual artists gathered. By the middle of the century New York City had become the artistic capital of the world.
  • Theater, films, music and the media had a major influence on fashion and trends in all aspects of life. As many films and much music originate from the United States, American culture spread rapidly over the world.
  • 1953 saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an iconic figure of the century.
  • Visual culture became more dominant not only in films but in comics and television as well. During the century a new skilled understanding of narrativist imagery was developed.
  • Computer games and internet surfing became new and popular form of entertainment during the last 25 years of the century.
  • In literature, science fiction, fantasy (with well-developed fictional worlds, rich in detail), and alternative history fiction gained popularity. Detective fiction gained popularity in the interwar period. In the United States in 1961 Grove Press published Tropic of Cancer a novel by Henry Miller redefining pornography and censorship in publishing in America.


Elvis Presley in 1956, a leading figure of rock and roll and rockabilly.

The invention of music recording technologies such as the phonograph record, and dissemination technologies such as radio broadcasting, massively expanded the audience for music. Prior to the 20th century, music was generally only experienced in live performances. Many new genres of music were established during the 20th century.

Film, television and theatre

Charlie Chaplin in his 1921 film The Kid, with Jackie Coogan.

Film as an artistic medium was created in the 20th century. The first modern movie theatre was established in Pittsburgh in 1905.[37] Hollywood developed as the center of American film production. While the first films were in black and white, technicolor was developed in the 1920s to allow for color films. Sound films were developed, with the first full-length feature film, The Jazz Singer, released in 1927. The Academy Awards were established in 1929. Animation was also developed in the 1920s, with the first full-length cel animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937. Computer-generated imagery was developed in the 1980s, with the first full-length CGI-animated film Toy Story released in 1995.

Video games

Ralph Baer's Magnavox Odyssey, the first video game console, released in 1972.

Video games—due to the great technological steps forward in computing since the second post-war period—are one of the new forms of entertainment that emerged in the 20th century alongside films.

Art and architecture

The Empire State Building is an iconic building of the 1930s.


  • The popularity of sport increased considerably—both as an activity for all and as entertainment, particularly on television.
  • The modern Olympic Games, first held in 1896, grew to include tens of thousands of athletes in dozens of sports.
  • The FIFA World Cup was first held in 1930 and was held every four years after World War II.
  • American League Baseball was formed in 1900 and in 1903, both National and American agreed to play in the first World Series with over 100,000 in attendance.[41]
  • Boxing, also known as "Prize Fighting" became popular over this decade although bare-knuckle fighting was still popular.




The pioneer of computer science, Alan Turing

Multiple new fields of mathematics were developed in the 20th century. In the first part of the 20th century, measure theory, functional analysis, and topology were established, and significant developments were made in fields such as abstract algebra and probability. The development of set theory and formal logic led to Gödel's incompleteness theorems.

Later in the 20th century, the development of computers led to the establishment of a theory of computation.[42] Computationally-intense results include the study of fractals[43] and a proof of the four color theorem in 1976.[44]




  • A much better understanding of the evolution of the universe was achieved, its age (about 13.8 billion years) was determined, and the Big Bang theory on its origin was proposed and generally accepted.
  • The age of the Solar System, including Earth, was determined, and it turned out to be much older than believed earlier: more than 4 billion years, rather than the 20 million years suggested by Lord Kelvin in 1862.[45]
  • The planets of the Solar System and their moons were closely observed via numerous space probes. Pluto was discovered in 1930 on the edge of the Solar System, although in the early 21st century, it was reclassified as a dwarf planet instead of a planet proper, leaving eight planets.
  • No trace of life was discovered on any of the other planets orbiting the Sun (or elsewhere in the universe), although it remained undetermined whether some forms of primitive life might exist, or might have existed, somewhere in the Solar System. Extrasolar planets were observed for the first time.


Wheat yields greatly increased from the Green Revolution in the world's least developed countries.
  • Norman Borlaug fathered the Green Revolution, the set of research technology transfer initiatives occurring between 1950 and the late 1960s that increased agricultural production in parts of the world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s, and is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.




A stamp commemorating Alexander Fleming. His discovery of penicillin changed the world of medicine by introducing the age of antibiotics.

Notable diseases


Energy and the environment

Oil field in California, 1938. The first modern oil well was drilled in 1848 by Russian engineer F.N. Semyonov, on the Apsheron Peninsula north-east of Baku.
  • Fossil fuels and nuclear power were the dominant forms of energy sources.
  • Widespread use of petroleum in industry—both as a chemical precursor to plastics and as a fuel for the automobile and airplane—led to the geopolitical importance of petroleum resources. The Middle East, home to many of the world's oil deposits, became a center of geopolitical and military tension throughout the latter half of the century. (For example, oil was a factor in Japan's decision to go to war against the United States in 1941, and the oil cartel, OPEC, used an oil embargo of sorts in the wake of the Yom Kippur War in the 1970s).
  • The increase in fossil fuel consumption also fueled a major scientific controversy over its effect on air pollution, global warming, and global climate change.
  • Pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals accumulated in the environment, including in the bodies of humans and other animals.
  • Population growth and worldwide deforestation diminished the quality of the environment.
  • In the last third of the century, concern about humankind's impact on the Earth's environment made environmentalism popular. In many countries, especially in Europe, the movement was channeled into politics through Green parties. Increasing awareness of global warming began in the 1980s, commencing decades of social and political debate.

Engineering and technology

First flight of the Wright brothers' Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; Orville piloting with Wilbur running at wingtip.

One of the prominent traits of the 20th century was the dramatic growth of technology. Organized research and practice of science led to advancement in the fields of communication, electronics, engineering, travel, medicine, and war.

  • Basic home appliances including washing machines, clothes dryers, furnaces, exercise machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, freezers, electric stoves and vacuum cleaners became popular from the 1920s through the 1950s. Radios were popularized as a form of entertainment during the 1920s, followed by television during the 1950s.
  • The first airplane, the Wright Flyer, was flown in 1903. With the engineering of the faster jet engine in the 1940s, mass air travel became commercially viable.
  • The assembly line made mass production of the automobile viable. By the end of the 20th century, billions of people had automobiles for personal transportation. The combination of the automobile, motor boats and air travel allowed for unprecedented personal mobility. In western nations, motor vehicle accidents became the greatest cause of death for young people. However, expansion of divided highways reduced the death rate.
  • The triode tube was invented.
  • Air conditioning of buildings became common
  • New materials, most notably stainless steel, Velcro, silicone, teflon, and plastics such as polystyrene, PVC, polyethylene, and nylon came into widespread use for many various applications. These materials typically have tremendous performance gains in strength, temperature, chemical resistance, or mechanical properties over those known prior to the 20th century.
  • Aluminum became an inexpensive metal and became second only to iron in use.
  • Thousands of chemicals were developed for industrial processing and home use.
  • Digital computers came into use

Space exploration

Photo of American astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the first moonwalk in 1969, taken by Neil Armstrong. The relatively young aerospace engineering industries rapidly grew in the 66 years after the Wright brothers' first flight.
  • The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union gave a peaceful outlet to the political and military tensions of the Cold War, leading to the first human spaceflight with the Soviet Union's Vostok 1 mission in 1961, and man's first landing on another world—the Moon—with America's Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Later, the first space station was launched by the Soviet space program. The United States developed the first reusable spacecraft system with the Space Shuttle program, first launched in 1981. As the century ended, a permanent crewed presence in space was being founded with the ongoing construction of the International Space Station.
  • In addition to human spaceflight, uncrewed space probes became a practical and relatively inexpensive form of exploration. The first orbiting space probe, Sputnik 1, was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Over time, a massive system of artificial satellites was placed into orbit around Earth. These satellites greatly advanced navigation, communications, military intelligence, geology, climate, and numerous other fields. Also, by the end of the 20th century, uncrewed probes had visited or flown by the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and various asteroids and comets, with Voyager 1 being the farthest manufactured object from Earth at 23,5 billion kilometers away from Earth as of 6 September 2022, and together with Voyager 2 both carrying The Voyager Golden Record containing sounds, music and greetings in 55 languages as well as 116 images of nature, human advancement, space and society.
  • The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, greatly expanded our understanding of the Universe and brought brilliant images to TV and computer screens around the world.
  • The Global Positioning System, a series of satellites that allow land-based receivers to determine their exact location, was developed and deployed.[49]





See also



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Further reading

  • Brower, Daniel R. and Thomas Sanders. The World in the Twentieth Century (7th Ed, 2013)
  • CBS News. People of the century. Simon and Schuster, 1999. ISBN 0-684-87093-2
  • Grenville, J. A. S. A History of the World in the Twentieth Century (1994). online free
  • Hallock, Stephanie A. The World in the 20th Century: A Thematic Approach (2012)
  • Langer, William. An Encyclopedia of World History (5th ed. 1973); highly detailed outline of events online free
  • Morris, Richard B. and Graham W. Irwin, eds. Harper Encyclopedia of the Modern World: A Concise Reference History from 1760 to the Present (1970) online
  • Pindyck, Robert S. "What we know and don't know about climate change, and implications for policy." Environmental and Energy Policy and the Economy 2.1 (2021): 4–43. online
  • Pollard, Sidney, ed. Wealth and Poverty: an Economic History of the 20th Century (1990), 260 pp; global perspective online free
  • Stearns, Peter, ed. The Encyclopedia of World History (2001)
  • UNESCO (February 28, 2008). "The Twentieth Century". History of Humanity. Vol. VII. Routledge. p. 600. ISBN 978-0-415-09311-8.