The Long Twentieth Century
Everything that can be invented has been invented
In his history works, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm refers1 to the “short twentieth century”, roughly the period from 1914 to 1991. The period before World War I is considered as part of his long 19th century. One could presume that, to a Marxist, the period after the demise of the Soviet bloc is too depressing to consider; in this case his book on the topic was written in 1994 and he did not have the luxury to consider it at all.
If you consider the main story of the 1900s to be the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, perhaps this perspective makes sense. We do not feel that way. The main story of the geopolitics of the 1900s is, without question, the United States of America. In 1897, the United States was largely irrelevant to the affairs of Europe and Asia; by the year 2000 it was arguably at the peak2 of its power, the unquestioned global hegemon.
But it is a categorical error to consider only geopolitics when writing history. Was Julius Caesar more important than Jesus of Nazareth? Was Rodrigo Borgia more important than Dante Alighieri? Was Queen Victoria more important than Charles Darwin?3
The “main story” of the 20th century is that of technology, and that is how we will define the period. Inventions such as the telegraph and the London Underground are part of the 19th century, but certain inventions that began in the 1880s and 1890s we must consider part of the Long Twentieth Century; three examples being the automobile, the skyscraper, and the phonograph record. On the more recent end, the cell phone and the Internet are of the Long Twentieth Century, though many of their applications were demonstrated from 2000 to 2015.
It is a non-trivial question to ask if the Long Twentieth Century is over. If we reject September 11, 2001 as the end of the 20th century, there is not another obvious date to choose. You could point to COVID and March 2020, but I think that the historical period ended substantially before that.
And what is left, anyhow? If your answer involves “AI” or “robots” or “eliminating aging”, we leave those discussions to the 21st century; our concern for now is more narrowly “what is there left to invent based on 20th century technology”. You could have built Snapchat many years earlier and had it run on late-90s PDAs; there was merely not the distribution (or societal understanding) of handheld computers to support the product then4. As another example, we consider Uber part of the Long Twentieth Century; “using your phone to get a cab” is a distinctly 20th century technology, as is “using your phone to order food for delivery”.
Our thesis is that the technological developments of the Long Twentieth Century were extraordinary, and cannot be surpassed in breadth. To highlight merely some of the most important inventions:
Vehicle technologies: the automobile, mechanized farm equipment (tractors), mechanized construction equipment, tanks, airplanes, and rockets.
Advanced agriculture: improved fertilizers, improved strains of crops, industrial animal confines, and so on.
Electric appliances: air conditioning, washing machines, refrigerators, microwave ovens, and so on.
Medical technologies: organ transplants, the elimination of many infectious diseases, hormonal birth control, insulin, hearing aids, etc.
Communications technologies: the phonograph record, audio CDs, radio, television, and so on.
Computer technologies: computer mainframes, desktop microcomputers, cell phones, the Internet, and their various applications.
Synthetic materials5: plastics, polyesters, and so on.
Nuclear technologies: nuclear weapons and nuclear-fission power plants.
Structural technologies: skyscrapers, long bridges and viaducts, highways.
This leaves out a good number of things that might be considered social institutions rather than technologies; the United Nations was invented in the 20th century but we leave that off our list. We were unable to fit LSD on the list either. And many dozens of other things were invented and re-invented as well.
In 1900, 40% of the USA’s population lived on farms, at the end of the century that number is 1%. How can the number be decreased to -30%? It cannot. The best method of recording audio has gone from sheet music to ubiquitous recording devices. Child mortality has dropped from 25% to 1%. A thousand rare and exotic goods are only a 10 minute drive away at a grocery store or general merchandise retailer.
Our thesis is simple: how can the 21st century (the short 21st century, I suppose) possibly surpass that? I am not sure it would be possible in a hundred centuries. If you posit cars flying to Mars in a day and nanobots, I will question your understanding of physics. If you posit something regarding השם, I will note that is a spiritual matter, and a completely different topic. And if you posit a cure for a dozen medical ailments, fusion power plants, and transformative HCI interfaces … I will reiterate that you have not come close to surpassing the Long Twentieth Century.
PS: Regarding the quote “Everything that can be invented has been invented” - it is commonly attributed to US Commissioner of Patents Charles Holland Duell. Wikipedia notes that he never said that, and in 1902 actually said “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness.” Forsooth!
We use the present tense, though Mr. Hobsbawm is as-of 2012 sadly deceased. This seemingly pedantic note will be discussed further with the New Riddle of Induction.
It is too soon to say for certain, but I would not be surprised if future historians point to the year between Bush v. Gore and 9/11 as the climax of the American Empire.
We need not concern ourselves with “Epic Rap Battles of History” style debate. We note that “important” is too difficult to define to make this question interesting for research, and move on.
There is also an argument that the server infrastructure costs would have been overwhelming in 1999. Moore’s Law suggests a 50-fold decrease in costs by the time Snapchat was started in 2011. Regardless, the package of technology to enable Snapchat is included in the Long Twentieth Century.
We are thoroughly unhappy with Wikipedia’s current coverage of “synthetic materials” as a topic area. There are low-quality articles on minor topics such as Synthetic fence, incomplete articles such as [[Dye]] and/or [[Dyeing]] that should be improved or merged, and [[Artificial material]] is just a redirect to [[Chemical substance]]. Perhaps we should use a more generic term here instead of “synthetic”; it is hard to tell for sure.