During the writing of this page I came to realise how important were the many milestones that discredited accepted religious beliefs
(that can only be called delusional
). For centuries or even millennia the advancement of human discovery and learning was held back by accepted religious dogma; anyone questioning the officially accepted story could be accused of heresy and even burned as punishment for having an open mind. Many of the advances I have listed took place in the West, which was predominantly Christian
. Certainly Christian dogma and the church hierarchy's love of, and determination to hold onto, power held advancement back. How true it is that "power corrupts"!
When I started on this project in August 2020 I thought that I might pick out about ten of the most important milestones. After a couple of day's work the list had reached 40 and by June 2021 it had reached 68 - and I'm coming to think that it will never be finished. It occurred to me to do a short list of about the ten most important, but the selection would have to be arbitrary and would be difficult.
In the prehistorical period a few of the biggest milestones were:
- Development of spoken language;
Ages defined by materials used
Stone Age (early [Palaeolithic], middle [Mesolithic], late [Neolithic]), Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Steel Age.
- Tool making;
- Use of fire at will;
- Attempting to explain the observed world (which would include the development of
- The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals.
What were the main milestones in the development of human society during the historical period as we see it in 2021? In approximate chronological order:
- Development of civilisation (different times in different places, starting about 5000 BCE).
With civilisation came the advancement of specialties, including arts and crafts; talented people could be spared from more mundane work.
The dominant males, who would have had more power than others in primitive societies for millions of years, used the larger communities to build their power. Alpha males evolved into chiefs then into kings, dictators and tyrants;
- The development of written language made possible the beginning of the historical period.
Wikipedia states that: "Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BC), Egypt (around 3250 BC), China (1200 BC) and lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala (by 500 BC)."
(Did written language have to wait until people developed a level of civilisation? With civilisation would come the need for keeping records.)
Many human cultures did not develop a written language until coming into contact with others in modern times and adopting their written languages;
- Community water supply and sanitation started at least as early as the Indus Valley civilisation in the third millennium BCE. The Roman Empire made great advances in water supply and sanitation. The advent of widespread flush toilets and centralised sewage systems had to wait until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
- Lenses were invented at least as early as the 7th century BCE. Early lenses may have been used as burning glasses, magnifying glasses and for correcting eyesight;
- The systematic study of ethics (moral philosophy) and indeed the whole of philosophy made great steps forward in Ancient Greece particularly with Socrates in the fifth century BCE;
Recording of knowledge
Attempts to record what was known
, or what was thought to be known, started with people like Herodotus in ancient Greece and Marcus Terentius Varro in Rome.
history of encyclopaedias
- The developing realisation that things that happened in the world did so for reasons that could be understood and the gradual application of rational thought to explain the world were long and faltering processes. The beginning of the displacement of religion and other delusions with reason, philosophy and observation came largely about the sixth century BCE with people like Pythagorus, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many others in Greece, but further advancement following the Greek Classical age didn't much happen until the Renaissance.
I wonder how much of the creativity in the Greek Golden Age came about simply because free thinking was tolerated (more accurately, it was to some extent tolerated; of course Socrates was condemned to death 'for corrupting the youth of Athens'). How much free thought was allowed in the ancient world outside of Greece?
Before Classical Greece it seems to have typically been taken that everything that happened without an obvious cause was controlled by supernatural forces;
- There were, no doubt, many cases of tribes run along democratic lines earlier, but the rise of Athenian democracy in the sixth century BCE seems to have been the first time it was applied on the scale of a city state. (It still was not a true democracy, slaves and women had no standing). What legitimacy can any government claim if the people governed have no say in the appointment or running of that government? (See
A word on China.)
- Spread of civilisation through trade, conquest and the rise and fall of ancient empires: Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Athens, Alexander the Great, Carthage, Rome, China;
Golden Age of Islam (8th century to 14th century) the bridge that allowed the knowledge of the ancient world to reach Renaissance Europe following the Dark Ages in that continent (The Dark Ages seem to have largely been caused by barbarian invasions and lawlessness, but I strongly suspect that the straitjacket of Christian "revealed truth" also played a part?);
- Age of exploration started by
Prince Henry the Navigator, early to mid 15th century, and continuing to the present. While the desire for trade and profit played a big part in exploration, the desire to learn about the world was also important (and much more admirable;
Faith–the greatest enemy of reason
How very true John. It could equally well be said that faith – the holding of beliefs without supporting evidence, or even in contradiction of the evidence – is the greatest enemy of reason.
The forgotten and overlooked
In the main text on this page I have listed many famous people. There have always been many who worked in the background, many who made smaller discoveries, and perhaps many who have been forgotten while deserving to be remembered.
An example of one who deserves more recognition seems to be Thomas Harriot (who I hadn't heard of until I read this article).
- The rise of science; Perhaps first in the Renaissance, 15th and 16th centuries, starting in Italy then spreading through Western Europe. The adoption of science as a way of understanding the World was probably the greatest of all human achievements. It was the greatest step toward the irrelevance of religious belief;
Copernican revolution started with Nicolaus Copernicus himself, especially with his publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543. Other important participants were the Danish (naked eye - there were no telescopes at the time) astronomical observer Tycho Brahe and the mathematician Johannes Kepler who used Brahe's observations and Copernicus' theory to devise the laws of planetary motion.
- The refracting telescope seems to have been invented in the Netherlands in 1608 by Hans Lippershey;
- Galileo Galilei developed the refracting telescope for astronomical use starting from 1609. Importantly for the acceptance of the Copernican Revolution he demonstrated that Venus passes through phases and that Jupiter has its own moons. The work of Kepler and Galileo demonstrated the fallacy of the 'official' church-supported theory that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe.
- Empiricism is the philosophical theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. Empiricism emphasises the role of empirical evidence in the formation of ideas, rather than innate ideas or traditions. The recognition of the importance of empiricism was a big step forward. Francis Bacon has been called the father of empiricism.
- Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was the great pioneer of microscopy and has been called "the Father of Microbiology" for his study and description of microbial life forms and microscopic plant and animal parts.
One of his most remarkable discoveries was bacteria, considering his very simple and primitive microscope.
Galileo and Leeuwenhoek seem to have been the first to use instruments to aid the human senses in the development of science.
- According to Britannica the reflecting telescope was developed John Gregory (1663) and Isaac Newton (1668). Cassegrain introduced another variation of the reflector in 1672.
The reflecting telescope became the main type used in astronomy, while the refracting telescope was dominant in terrestrial uses;
Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the realisation that the Universe was amenable to reason went further than the steps taken in Ancient Greece. This was another step in the displacement of religion by rational thought.
Isaac Newton (born in the year of Galileo's death) was a hugely important figure in the Age of Enlightenment especially with his laws of motion, law of gravitation and studies on the nature of light;
- Vaccination; While some form of inoculation seems to have occurred in China much earlier,
vaccination was used against smallpox in China in the 16th century. It was much later, 1796, when Edward Jenner developed a safe vaccine for smallpox based on a related disease, cowpox;
- The Industrial revolution (from about 1760 to 1830) started in England and then spread through Europe and the world.
Steam power was intimately connected with the Industrial Revolution. It started with steam-powered pumps used in mining in 1700 but didn't get fully underway until the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Steam locomotives on railway lines came in the early years of the 19th century as did
steam for the propulsion of ships;
- The Industrial Revolution could be considered to be the beginning of the coal age when humanity started to use fossil fuels in large amounts rather than natural fuels and muscle power. Coal had been used for heating for thousands of years, but its heavy and widespread use started around this time.
- The mechanisation of agriculture started about 1700 but didn't get well underway until the 1830s;
- The realisation that the world and the Universe is made up of chemical elements, and the recognition of what those elements were, was a long, faltering and slow process. One of the milestones along that journey was Lavoisier's Elementary Treatise on Chemistry published in 1789. Lavoisier listed 33 'elements', 23 of those are recognised as elements today. The periodic table of the elements came out of the work of a number of people.
In more recent years the likely origins of the elements has been added to the periodic table.
Science has not only allowed the discovery of the elements that make up the solar system, but it has uncovered where they came from and how they formed.
I ask the reader to, just for a minute, ponder on what an amazing achievement this is.
Image source Science Blog from the SDSS; Origin of the Elements in the Solar System
- A big step toward the recognition that all humans should have equal rights, that the class society was unjustifiable and morally wrong, came with the French Revolution beginning in 1789. The abolition of slavery and serfdom came at various times in various places. The ruling classes of Britain and many other European nations clung to a class system as long as they could and forced it onto all because it was to their advantage. The somewhat similar cast system is still strong in India. Humans can very easily put aside ethical standards if it is to their own advantage to do so;
- William Smith's geological map of England and Wales, published in 1815, was the first ever map of the geology of a large area. It was a huge step forward for the fundamentally important science of geology.
- The recognition that fossils are the remains of dead organisms has a curious history. The ancients, including the Greeks and Romans, were well aware of fossils, but seem to have had very mixed explanations for them, varying from mythologies to more rationally connecting them to species since disappeared from the earth.
In the period of the rise of science and decline of the blind acceptance of Biblical explanations, around the 19th century, as with so many advances in science, learning the truth about fossils was held back because it did not accord with Church dogma, especially Biblical creation and the Noachian Flood myth.
- Widespread gas lighting, using coal gas for both street and domestic lighting, began in the early 1800s.
Its use in enclosed spaces came with the problems of smoke, grime and fumes from the burned gas and the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning (coal-gas, AKA producer-gas, contained a high percentage of carbon monoxide which is odourless and highly toxic);
Modern cheap pocket digital cameras are capable of telephotography and macrophotography.
Lichen and autumn leaves on a 'granite' headstone in a Clare, South Australia cemetery.
More images at Macrophotos
- Photography started in the mid 1820s using light sensitive chemical coatings.
The box camera, which became popular in the late 19th century, made photography available to the general public.
Digital cameras revolutionised photography starting in the 1990s (charge-couple-devices [CCDs] had been used in astronomy and some other fields before that);
Photography continued to advance in the early 2020s with cheap pocket digital cameras capable of telephotography and macrophotography;
- It seems that the atom (or the atomic nature of matter) was not discovered at a particular time, but one of the steps toward its discovery was Robert Brown's 1827 description of Brownian motion in which water molecules (each consisting of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms) knock suspended dust grains about;
- Michael Faraday discovered the operating principle of electromagnetic generators in 1831 to 1832 but the first practical generator had to wait until the 1870s when Z. T. Gramme developed the Gramme machine.
The first commutator DC electric motor capable of turning machinery was invented by the British scientist William Sturgeon in 1832 but electric motors that were fully practical didn't come until the 1880s;
- The Telegraph, that could transmit messages over a copper wire using Morse code was developed in the 1830s and 40s. Before this messages had to be delivered by hand or, in special cases, by signal flags; it typically took weeks or months to get a message across an ocean.
The first transatlantic telegraphic cable was laid in 1858. Australia was linked to the rest of the world in 1872.
The telephone was patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 (its invention is disputed);
The recognition that
animals should have rights
, just as humans have rights, is of fundamental importance, but it is very difficult to say that it came at a particular time.
The Anthropocene is defined by Wikipedia
as "a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, including, but by no means limited to, anthropogenic climate change."
- Successful anaesthesia for surgery was first demonstrated in 1846. It made surgery far more practical (and of course less painful) in part because operations did not have to be rushed to minimise pain;
- Hygiene as a fundamentally important part of disease control started to be recognised in 1848 with Ignaz Semmelweis discovering that doctors washing their hands before delivering babies avoided a great many mothers' deaths from puerperal fever. The Guardian has more on the subject.
Hygiene, together with Vaccination and Antibiotics, was fundamentally important in increasing average human life expectancy from about 32 years to 70 years or more;
- The beginning of the oil age (about 1850) saw greater flexibility in the use of fossil fuels and added again to the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere;
- Charles Darwin published his first and probably most important work on organic evolution,
On the Origin of Species, in 1859. Alfred Wallace shares the credit with Darwin. Organic evolution made nonsense of the
Biblical story of creation.
- Gregor Mendel conducted experiments between 1856 and 1863 that established many of the rules of heredity, now referred to as the laws of Mendelian inheritance. Darwin was unaware of Mendel's work, the importance of which was not recognised until the turn of the 20th century;
- The germ theory of disease had a very long history.
Ignaz Semmelweis showed that hand washing prior to the delivery of babies reduced puerperal fever (Wikipedia). John Snow connected a cholera outbreak in London with a particular source of contaminated water. Joseph Lister did important work in aseptic surgery.
But the germ theory became widely accepted gradually following, in particular, the work of Louis Pasteur in the late 1850s.
- Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of Radio waves in the late 1880s.
The development of anything resembling what we would recognise as modern radio communication took several more decades.
- Refrigeration, using heat pumps, started to become widespread commercially in the late 1800s.
Domestic refrigerators did not become common until the mid 1900s, refrigerated air-conditioning in the late 1900s. Evaporative air-conditioning can be more energy-efficient than refrigerated for home cooling in drier areas.
Reverse cycle air-conditioning, that can both heat and cool, also came into common use in the late 1900s.
- The safety bicycle was invented in the 1880s. Derailleur gears were developed between 1900 and 1910, but seem to have not become common until the mid-late twentieth century.
The modern geared bicycle provides by far the most energy efficient way for a human to move himself from place to place where roads are available.
By 2020 battery-electric assisted bicycles were becoming common;
- Practical electric lighting started in 1882 when Thomas Edison opened the world's first steam-powered electricity generating station at Holborn Viaduct in London.
More widespread electric lighting came in the early 1900s, about a century after gas lighting.
For a long while tungsten filament light bulbs were dominant; they were very effective but also very inefficient, converting only about 10% of the electricity into light.
Fluorescent lighting (mid 1900s) was a big step forward in efficiency.
Light-Emitting-Diodes (LEDs), as highly efficient and long-lasting lights, became common in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
LEDs have the advantage over fluorescent of coming on at the full brightness immediately; the older large tube fluorescents flickered for a few seconds before coming on, the later compact fluorescents came on a little dimly immediately and reached full brightness after a couple of minutes.
- Discovery of viruses. In 1892 Dmitri Ivanovsky used a very fine filter to show that sap from a diseased tobacco plant remained infectious to healthy tobacco plants despite having passed through a filter fine enough to remove bacteria. Martinus Beijerinck called the filtered, infectious substance a "virus". This discovery is considered to be the beginning of virology;
- The discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Rontgen in 1895 was the important first step toward the use of X-rays in medicine, astronomy crystallography and other sciences.
- The recognition that women should have
equal rights to men was a long, slow and faltering process. Some progress was made in the French Revolution, but the movement didn't progress far until the 19th and 20th centuries;
- The rise of the internal combustion engined (ICE) motor vehicle came mostly in the early twentieth century. It began adding significantly to the greenhouse carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;
Plastics, so ubiquitous, so useful, and so environmentally disastrous in the early twenty-first century, started with the invention of Baekelite in 1907;
- The recognition that dumping billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year could eventually have disastrous consequences to the Earth's climate came at least as early as 1912 as shown in the newspaper article on the right.
(Human-caused climate change is named anthropogenic climate change; climate change caused by humanity.)
The almost universal failure of governments to act with sufficient urgency and effectiveness in the late 20th and early 21st century has to be one of the
greatest crimes in the history of humanity and is condemning future generations to life in a very damaged environment;
- The recognition of the importance of vitamins in the diet was slow and faltering. It began in the early nineteenth century but was not understood until the early to mid twentieth century. Of similar importance was the recognition that a number of minerals are essential to human health. Typically the vitamins and minerals that have caused serious disease are needed in very small amounts and increasing the dose beyond the low levels required gives no advantage and can be toxic;
- The chlorination of municipal water supplies, as a way of destroying disease-causing organisms in drinking, washing and cooking water occurred in the early twentieth century.
Recognition of the value of fluoridation of drinking water, a very effective way or making teeth less susceptible to decay, began in the late 19th century;
- Albert Einstein published his theories of
relativity in 1905 (special relativity) and 1916 (general relativity). Another of his hugely important discoveries was the equivalence of matter and energy (E=MC2). His work lead to great advances in the understanding of how the Universe works and opened the possibility of nuclear power and bombs. General Relativity implied that gravitation waves would pervade the Universe and could, in theory, be detected, but that detection didn't come for about a hundred years. Einstein received the Nobel Prize in 1922 "for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect." This discovery eventually led to solar photovoltaic power;
- Quantum mechanics allowed humanity to get a far better understanding of the very small, atoms and sub-atomic particles and their interactions. It started in the mid-1920s with work by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and others;
- Almost all life on Earth depends on the Sun. What the Sun was, and later, what powered the Sun, was long a mystery. The mystery only became deeper when the sciences of geology and astronomy discovered that the Sun and other stars must be many millions of year old. Around the 1920s and 1930s it was discovered that the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to form helium was the power source of the Sun and that nuclear fusion more generally powers the Universe;
- A great advance in observational astronomy came when people learned to produce devices and techniques that could use other wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum than the very small visible part. First came radio astronomy (with Karl Jansky's work in the 1930s), X-ray, Gamma-ray, infra-red and ultra-violet astronomy came later. Many of these required the lifting of instruments above the Earth's atmosphere (and space exploration);
- Around the same time microscopy made similar advances by using electrons instead of visible light, with electron microscopes (Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska at the Berlin Technische Hochschule in 1931). Scanning tunnelling electron microscopes came in 1981;
had been used for millennia without knowledge of how they worked. Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial properties of the fungus Penicillium notatum. It was
Howard Florey and Ernst Chain who went on to develop penicillin in 1941.
- Nuclear power and weapons physically started in December 1942 with the first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago’s football stadium under the direction of Enrico Fermi. Other nuclear milestones were the first nuclear bomb in the Trinity test explosion (July 1945), the
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 6th and 9th 1945) and the first fusion bomb test on November 1952.
The world's first full scale
nuclear power station, Calder Hall in England, opened on October 17, 1956.
As of the time of writing nuclear power cannot compete economically with renewables such as wind and solar power.
- Development of electronics started with the invention of the
vacuum tube (electronic valve in British or Australian usage) in 1904.
But the modern explosive development in electronics had to wait until the invention of the transistor in 1947, moving on to integrated circuits and computers, digital cameras, mobile phones, drones, autonomous vehicles, etcetera;
- The discovery of the genetic basis for life and its roll in evolution took place over a long period and many people were involved, but the recognition of DNA's fundamental place in genetics, inheritance and evolution by James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin in 1951 was a very important step;
- Space exploration by humans and probes started soon after World War II with rockets lifting instruments to high altitudes but the successful orbiting of the Russian
Sputnik 1 in 1957 was a very important step;
- Others might disagree, but in my opinion the development of concept of the meme was a minor milestone in the development of human society. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976.
Wikipedia defines it as "an idea, behaviour, or style" that "acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals."
Very importantly memes evolve in much the same way as organisms or
- The suicide of humanity got well underway in the second half of the twentieth century with the widespread destruction of the natural world and failure to act on climate change and many other environmental problems;
The English language edition of Wikipedia had more than six million articles in 2020. The most amazing fact about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit an article, yet, in my experience, it is highly reliable.
- The Internet evolved from the 1960s onward.
Perhaps it might be said that the Internet fully came of age around the time of the development of Wikipedia in 2001 and Google Earth at around the same time.
The Internet allows everyone on Earth to interact with everyone else. I would not have been able to write this page and you would not be able to read it without the Internet.
- According to
Wikipedia the first electric vehicles (EVs) were developed in the 1830s, but viable EVs that could compete with modern internal combustion engined (ICE) vehicles had to wait until the early twenty-first century.
- The recognition that certain gasses that were being released into the atmosphere was causing ozone depletion happened in the late 1970s. Action was swiftly taken to reduce the production and release of the problem gasses. That similar prompt and decisive action was not taken on greenhouse gasses is both remarkable and deplorable;
- GPS: the Global Positioning System became available around 1990. Until 2000 full accuracy was only provided to the US military, after that it became available to everyone. By the time of writing GPS is largely taken for granted; we, and our mobile phones, know where we are, and often where our friends and family are, any time we choose to look.
- The rise of the modern version of large-scale wind and
solar sustainable energy got fully under way in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Wind power had been used for thousands of years for things like pumping water and grinding wheat, but its use for generating electricity didn't happen on a large scale until the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Solar photovoltaic power became a major contributor to human society in the early twenty-first century.
By 2020 solar PV and wind power had become cheaper than any form of fossil fuel electricity generation.
Sustainable energy will help to bring about the end of coal and other fossil fuel use for energy production, but it can't happen soon enough to avoid huge and lasting damage from climate change and related problems.
The image on the right is of a part of the first solar power system I installed (1kW, 2006) and a considerably older solar water heater, both at my house in Crystal Brook.
- Einstein predicted gravity waves in the early twentieth century but they were not detected until 2016. This discovery allowed humanity to observe events in the Universe in a new and totally different way. Previously observations were limited to the electromagnetic spectrum, sub-atomic particles, meteorites and space exploration;
There have probably always been refugees
, but in the past there were usually places for them to find refuge. In the late twentieth century, and continuing today, there are probably more refugees than ever (and climate change and associated problems will produce ever more) but there is nowhere for them to find refuge except in huge camps. No nation wants them. My nation, Australia, has 'solved' its refugee problem by locking away indefinitely anyone who comes without the right permits.
This sad state of affairs is an unspoken recognition that there are
too many people in the world.
- The greatest crimes in history have been committed during the last few decades and continue to be committed as I write. The deliberate lying by people in positions of power in order to support the fossil fuel industry, delay action on greenhouse gas emissions and slow the introduction of renewable energy is condemning future generations and all life on Earth to a badly damaged environment.
The leaders of two recent federal governments of my nation, Australia,
2) and the
Trump administration in the USA, are a few who should be numbered among these criminals;
- The COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-2021, is no worse than the flu pandemic of the early twentieth century, but understandably is much more in the minds of modern people. There is a paradox in that COVID-19 is
far less a threat to humanity than is climate change, and no threat at all to the biosphere, yet the response of governments to the pandemic is far greater than to climate change;
- Single-person electric vehicles, including bicycles, scooters and skateboards were becoming steadily more noticeable in city paths and streets in the years leading up to 2021. Perhaps reluctance to use mass public transport where people are forced into close proximity (busses, trains and trams) in countries where COVID has been widespread has encouraged more people to take up single-person transport. Pay by the hour pick-up-and-drop-off-anywhere vehicles have formed a part of the trend.
- Right to die: The recognition that humans should have the right to choose their own time of dying instead of leaving it to chance and natural processes has received increasing support in late 20th century but has not yet been achieved.
Doctor Philip Nitschke has been a great proponent of this right.
- The end of the religion delusion; started, perhaps, with the rise of reasoning in ancient Greece, certainly has not been achieved yet. Will it ever be achieved?
I must have made a number of mistakes in the above. Have I missed any major milestones, my email address is recorded in the