Milestones in the development of human society

The history of the development of what became modern human society runs over some ten thousand or so years. I use the word 'history' to apply to that part of humanity's existence during which there were written records.

The understanding of human development before the historical period is much more speculative and vague.

This page attempts to list what I see as the more important steps along the way toward twenty-first century human civilisation and then a few steps that remain to be taken. While I've concentrated mainly on those steps that were positive, not all were (I could probably write a page on this point alone).

Of course any listing of humanity's milestones will be, to a large extent, a personal point of view. How could it be totally objective?

This page was started 2020/08/30, last edited 2023/12/16
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©
 




The rise of renewable/sustainable energy mostly in the early twenty-first century was a promising milestone.
North Brown Hill Wind Farm
Humanity could, and should, be changing from fossil fuels to clean sustainable energy with far more urgency than it is.
Photo taken by my Phantom 3 Advanced drone, 2017/09/15


Preamble and introduction

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. I have listed a few of what seemed to be the most important in the contents section, but the selection is arbitrary, as of course are all my points.

During the writing of this page I came to realise how important were the many milestones that weakened the grip that religious beliefs (that can only be called delusional) had on society. 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 power, and their determination to hold onto it, held advancement back. How true it is that "power corrupts"! Religion was, and is, a disaster for the development of a free, informed and rational human society.

In the prehistorical period a few of the biggest milestones were:

  • Development of spoken language;

  • Development of arts: painting, sculpture and music;
     

    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 (including the wrong turn that was religion);

  • The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals.
 

The main milestones in the development of human society in the historical period

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:
  1. 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;

  2. The development of written language made possible the beginning of the historical period. Writing probably began with the need to keep records that came with the development of formal government and the need to raise taxes to finance professional armies and other services. Wikipedia states that: "Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BCE), Egypt (around 3250 BCE), China (1200 BCE) and lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala (by 500 BCE)."

    Many human cultures did not develop a written language until coming into contact with others in modern times and adopting their written languages;

  3. 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.

  4. Curiously, while the arch was known in the second millennium BCE in Mesopotamia and even earlier to the Egyptians in the forth dynasty (2613 to 2494 BCE) the latter used stone lintels for their monumental buildings. Lintels could span a far smaller width than could arches; it seems likely that the Egyptians didn't want to have to factor in the lateral thrust of arches into their monumental architecture. Arches seem not to have been known to the Khmers of Cambodia in the twelfth century AD who did not use true arches in Angkor Wat (they did use corbel arches which are inferior from an architectural point of view). Arches were used by the ancient Greeks and widely by the Romans.

  5. Birth control was used in ancient Egypt at least by 1550 BCE, but it was (and still is?) claimed to be immoral by the Catholic Church and has been illegal in some countries at some times. The opposition to birth control has been a great problem in the world's coming to grips with overpopulation.

  6. 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;

  7. 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. Various religions, including Christianity had produced moral rules, but many of these made no rational sense;

     

    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. See the history of encyclopaedias in Wikipedia.
  8. 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.

    At least some of the Greeks of the Classical Period seem to have been the first people who were able to put aside religion while looking for explanations of natural phenomena. Also, importantly, the musings of these forward thinkers was recorded and valued enough to be protected and has come down to us.

    Further advancement toward modern science following the Greek Classical age didn't much happen until the Renaissance.

    I wonder how much of the creativity in the Greek Classical 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;
     

  9. 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 and Democracy and Secession.)

  10. Spread of civilisation through trade, conquest and the rise and fall of ancient empires: Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Athens, Alexander the Great, Carthage, Rome, China;

  11. The 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).

    Unfortunately, since the Golden Age, Islam has been more a dead weight slowing advancement than otherwise;

  12. The Age of exploration started by Prince Henry the Navigator early to mid 15th century is still continuing today. The Norse people discovered and settled Iceland and Greenland and set up short-lived settlements in North America several centuries earlier, but the knowledge of those explorations seems to have been confined to Scandinavia until relatively recently. 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
    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).

  13. The rise of science seems effectively to have started in the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, then spread through Western Europe. The adoption of science as a way of understanding the World was probably the greatest of all human achievements. It was probably the greatest single step toward making religious belief irrelevant;

  14. If there was a single event that most loosened the grip that the Christian Church had on Western thought it was Martin Luther's posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517. Earlier, in 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church had broken from Catholicism, but it didn't lead to more free thought, the launching of the Protestant Reformation with Luther did.

    England's King Henry VIII breaking away from the Catholic Church in 1534 was a further step toward freeing Western Europe from the straitjacket of religion.

  15. The 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 later the mathematician Johannes Kepler who used Brahe's observations and Copernicus' theory to devise the laws of planetary motion (between 1609 and 1619).

    It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Kepler's realisation that the movements of planets could be described by mathematical laws, and to work out what those laws might be.
     

  16. The scientific study of electricity seems to have started with William Gilbert in 1600. The practical application of electricity had to wait for the invention of the voltaic pile by Alessandro Volta in 1799 and Michael Faraday in the 1800s.

  17. The first telescope of the refracting type (reflecting telescopes came later) seems to have been invented in the Netherlands in 1608 by Hans Lippershey;

  18. Galileo Galilei greatly improved the refracting telescope and used it for astronomy starting from 1609. Importantly for the acceptance of the Copernican Revolution he demonstrated that there are mountains on the Moon, 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 and that everything else revolved around the Earth.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. According to Britannica the reflecting telescope was developed by 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. Until the development of compound 'achromatic' lenses, refracting telescopes suffered from the serious flaw of chromatic aberration, a problem that reflecting telescopes did not have. (Spherical aberration was an early problem in both telescope types.)

  22. The 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, 1642) 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. Newton's most famous book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, often abbreviated to Principia, was published in 1687;

     
  23. Vaccination; While some form of inoculation seems to have been practiced 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. Vaccination led to the eradication of smallpox, a disease that had killed some 300-500 million people in the twentieth century alone;

  24. 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;

  25. An age of fossil fuels started with the Industrial Revolution when humanity began using fossil fuels in large amounts rather than firewood and muscle power. Coal had been used for heating for thousands of years, but its heavy and widespread use started around this time. Petroleum too had been used for thousands of years; it's widespread use began in the nineteenth century.

    It was only centuries later that the size of the disaster that this would lead to was widely recognised with climate change;

  26. The mechanisation of agriculture started about 1700 but didn't get well underway until the 1830s;

  27. 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. A representation of the periodic table is provided on this page.

  28. A big step toward the recognition that all humans should have equal rights, that the class society was unjustifiable and morally wrong, was made with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1762 treatise, "The Social Contract". This provided considerable incentive for people to think for themselves about the rights of kings, the nobility and the people. It was followed a few years later by 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. Many humans, perhaps the majority, can very easily put aside ethical standards if it is to their own advantage to do so;

  29. Henry Cavendish measured the force of gravity in the late 1790s. This allowed for the later calculation of the gravitational constant, of enormous value in astrophysics.

     
  30. The screw propeller, now commonly used on both water and aircraft, seems to have been invented around the early 1800s. Who invented it seems to be contested. Leonardo da Vinci had a screw propeller of sorts on his drawing of a proposed helicopter. He died in 1519.

  31. John Dalton developed an atomic theory in or around 1814 based on evidence coming to light by that time. Democritus had theorised that all matter consisted of atoms in the fifth century BCE, but this was philosophical rather than scientifically based.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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 on headstone
    Lichen and autumn leaves on a 'granite' headstone in a Clare, South Australia cemetery.
    More images at Macrophotos.
  35. 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. The sensitivity of the cameras in mobile phones were developed to the point where hand-held photographs of a starry sky were possible (image stabilisation was another important development);

  36. 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 microscopic Brownian motion in which water molecules (each consisting of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms) knock suspended dust grains about. Also see John Dalton's atomic theory above;

  37. The practical application of electricity started when 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;

  38. 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);
     

    Animal rights

     
    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.
     

    Anthropocene epoch

    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."

  39. 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;

  40. 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;

  41. The beginning of the oil age (which could be placed in the mid nineteenth century) saw greater flexibility in the use of fossil fuels and added again to the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere;

  42. 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 and other creation mythologies.

  43. 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;

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. The recognition that radio waves, micro waves, infra-red, visible light, ultra-violet, X-rays and gamma rays were all a part of a great electromagnetic spectrum came over a long period, see Wikipedia;

  47. 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.

  48. 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;

  49. 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.

  50. 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;

  51. 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.

  52. Impulse and reaction turbines were invented around the end of the 1800s. Turbines are now used for a great many purposes and make use of a number of working fluids.

  53. 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;
     


  54. 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;

  55. Plastics, so ubiquitous, so useful, and so environmentally disastrous in the early twenty-first century, started with the invention of Baekelite in 1907;

  56. The industrial scale synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and ambient nitrogen using the Haber-Bosch process in 1908 led to a boom in agricultural production which had previously been held back by the limited amount of nitrogen available to plants. The greatly increased availability of nitrogen fertilisers led to increased population growth which ultimately had huge global consequences.

    The hydrogen used in the Haber-Bosch process usually comes from methane from natural gas;

     
    The possibility of Man causing climate change has been recognised
    for well over a century.
    Svante Arrhenius recognised the possibility of anthropogenic
    climate change in 1896.
    CC warning

  57. 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;

  58. 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;

  59. 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;

  60. 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;

  61. Capitalism has a long history. Communism's roots also go back a long time, but it became important in human affairs starting with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Environmentalism came to some sort of notice with the air pollution of the industrial revolution. Put simplistically, capitalism places profits and money above all, communism is about the rights and welfare of those at the bottom of the heap, the workers and peasants; environmentalism places our shared environment first. By the late twentieth century the dominance of capitalism, with its short-sighted pursuit of wealth, was destroying the world. (See my seperate page.)

  62. The first commercial radio broadcasts happened in The Netherlands in 1919;

  63. 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;

  64. 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;

  65. 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);

  66. Around the same time as the advances in astronomy above, 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;

  67. PFAS, chemicals related to the non-stick coating teflon, called 'forever chemicals' because they are not broken down by natural processes were developed in the 1930s. The long term outcome of the continuing production of such substances remains to be seen, but, I suspect, will be bad.

     
  68. Antibiotics had been used for millennia without knowledge of how they worked. Alexander Fleming noticed the antibacterial properties of the fungus Penicillium notatum. It was Howard Florey and Ernst Chain who went on to develop penicillin in 1941. Penicillin and other man-made antibiotics saved many million lives from then on.

  69. Development of nuclear power and weapons began 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 nuclear power plant was at Obninsk in the USSR in 1954 (5MWe) and the first full scale nuclear power station, Calder Hall in England, opened on October 17, 1956 (240MWe). As of the time of writing nuclear power could not compete economically with renewables such as wind and solar power.

  70. 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, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, etcetera;

  71. 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;

  72. The term Artificial intelligence was coined in 1956 by John McCarthy. By the 2020s AI was becoming ubiquitous. We use AI without knowing that we are using it. For example, whenever we search the Internet we are using AI.

  73. Space exploration by probes and humans started soon after World War II with balloons and rockets lifting instruments to high altitudes but the successful orbiting of the Russian Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 was a very important step. The Soviets also had the first probe to a body outside of the Earth with the Luna 1 flyby of the Moon. Unmanned probes have gone far further and helped humanity to learn far more about the solar system and the Universe than have manned flights;

  74. Microwave ovens became common household items starting around the 1970s and Induction cooktops more slowly from perhaps the 1990s. Both increased the energy efficiency and convenience of cooking. They tended to displace gas-fired cooking;

  75. 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." Memes evolve in much the same way as genes, organisms and viruses evolve;

  76. 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;

     

    Remarkable Wikipedia

    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.
  77. The Internet evolved from the 1960s onward. It became much more useful with the development of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. 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. Of course, while it spreads knowledge it also spreads nonsense and delusion; it is a two-edged sward.

  78. According to Wikipedia the first electric vehicles (EVs) were developed in the 1830s, but viable EVs that could compete with internal combustion engined (ICE) vehicles had to wait until the early twenty-first century.

  79. 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;

     
  80. 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.

     
    Solar power and heat
  81. 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. (I've written extensively on the development of wind power and the opposition to it in my country, Australia.) 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 had installed (1kW, 2006) and a considerably older solar water heater, both at my house in Crystal Brook.

  82. 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;

     

    Unwanted people

    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.

  83. 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 delays action on greenhouse gas emissions and slows the introduction of renewable energy. This 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, (1, 2) and the Trump administration in the USA, are a few who should be numbered among these criminals;

  84. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-2022, 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;

     
  85. 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 scooters have formed a part of the trend.

    Developments yet to come

  86. 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 and early twenty-first century but is still a long way from being available to all. Doctor Philip Nitschke with the organisation that he founded, Exit International, has been a great proponent of this right.

    Not only should society accept that we all have a right to die, but people making a rational choice to die should be assisted in having a peaceful and comfortable death.

  87. 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?

  88. The recognition of the rights of those who will come after us: Many people of the present are behaving as if they have no responsibility to leave a world in a liveable condition for future human generations and are giving no consideration for the future of the biosphere.

  89. The right of a people to choose their own government at the time of writing was still very limited. Consider the Chinese aim of forcing its rule on Taiwan and its take-over of Tibet and Hong Kong, the Spanish refusal to allow Catalonian independence and Indonesia's invasion of what was Portuguese Timor and cruel rule over West Papua. It continues to be very difficult for the people in a particular part of a nation to break away and have self-government.
I must have made a number of mistakes in the above. Have I missed any major milestones, my email address is recorded in the AboutMe page.


Periodic table

One of the great advances of science and human society was the recognition that the universe is composed of some 90 or so elements. (About 90 are classed as 'naturally occurring' on Earth, a number of other elements are very short lived. Several of the first 92 elements have no stable isotope. Uranium, number 92, is the highest numbered element that is at all plentiful in nature; it too has no stable isotopes but several are very long lived.)

In more recent years the likely origins of the elements has been added to the periodic table.
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

 





Related pages

Related pages on external sites...

Timeline of the Human Condition - Milestones in Evolution and History, University of Southampton, UK. A very thorough treatment listing many hundreds of items from the Big Bang to the present.

Boundmotor have a page on single-person electric vehicles.

Related pages on this site...

Absurdity of religion
Animal rights
Compassion, some thoughts
Contribution to society
Greatest crime in history
Ethics
Euthanasia and assisted suicide
Is God real? Let's look at it rationally
My 'religion'
Science, humanity's greatest discovery
Science, religion, delusion
Threatened disasters compared
Visitor's guide to the religions of planet Earth
What am I?
Wind power in Australia
 





Index

On this page...

The milestones


I'm sure that few of us would agree on exactly which of the milestones are the most important. I'd probably pick out different ones at different times. Those below seem to me to at least be among the most important milestones.