Summary: What do turning points of history look like? To see those in the future, let’s look at those in the past. Here’s a quick look at big events of history that were not, and some that were.
The Atlantic asks “What was the worst year in history?” It’s a powerful question, offering a deeper understanding of history. Most of the answers fell into three categories.
- Inevitable events: the Chicxulub asteroid impact 65 million years ago (disastrous, but cleared the planet for the rise of mammals), the invention of firearms.
- Lots of people dying early: pandemics (e.g., smallpox in 1918, plague in 1347. These people were all going to die eventually.
- One of humanity’s countless wars: Sack of Antwerp in 1576, King Philip’s War in 1675, US Civil War, WWI, WWII.
These are the normal events of history. The occurrence of these individual events was chance, but as a group they are the rhythms of life. Shifting the dates and details of these events might change history, but probably not significantly alter the course of humanity’s evolution. Consider a different and more useful perspective on this question.
What events changed the course of history for the worse?
(1) The lost computer revolution of the 19th century
My favorite candidate is 1832 — when Charles Babbage halted construction of his difference engine (a mechanical calculator) due to a dispute with his engineer, Joseph Clement. This resulted from Babbage’s great creativity and lack of focus. In 1842 the British government ended support for the project. Swedish academic and inventor Martin Wiberg build a working version in 1875, but lacked government sponsorship and was unable to sell it. Mechanical calculators became commercially available only after 1900.
Imagine a contrafactual, an alternative world in which Babbage finished his calculator and printer by 1840. His design was sound; both were built from his plans and successfully run in 2000 using tools and materials available to Babbage.
That’s the small news. With that success Babbage might have built his analytical engine — a programmable analog computer and its software (several assembly languages). He had designed most of it by his death in 1871. Better funding and more encouragement — powered by a 1842 success of his difference engine — might have produced a working model by 1871. If not, his son, Henry Prevost Babbage, might have done so (he did continue his father’s work, and produced a working component). IBM built the first modern version in 1944.
Imagine a working calculator in 1840-1850 and working computer in 1870. How might that have accelerated science and technology? How might that have boosted the theoretic revolutions in science during 1870-1940? For example, what might the engineers in Thomas Edison’s Menlo Part laboratory have done with computers (it opened in 1876, the first large scale R&D shop)?
With the push from calculators and computers we might have fulfilled the dreams of the late Victorian era — and their limitless confidence in the hope and promise of human potential and ingenuity.
Without that additional push, major science breakthroughs slowed after 1940 — leading to the great slowdown after 1970 and the secular stagnation of our time.
(2) The lost genetic revolution of 1866
Gregor Mendel published his revolutionary insights about genetics in 1866. His work was duplicated in 1900. Might their acceptance three decades earlier have made a substantial difference to the development of agriculture and biological sciences. Might we have had the 1960s green revolution in the 1930s?
(3) The failure of Apollo
The manned space program is one of America’s greatest non-military capital investments. Other than a spectacle, it accomplished little of consequence. Too much attention to the engineering, too little attention to the vision — what does the “conquest of space” mean (landing on the moon is a means to accomplish something). For details see Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere.
It was a false start, like Babbage and Mendel. Imagine if we had pushed a bit harder in the 1960s to generate value from space exploration. Building a space station to give a foothold in space, rather than disposable self-contained craft. Putting engineers and scientists in space instead of just pilots. The progress of the 1960s might not have flamed out in the 1970s. Who knows where we might be now?
As with computers and genetics, eventually we will decisively move into space. Here’s the reason why.
(4) When are individual deaths forks in history?
One exception to the unimportance of people dying early as drivers of history are the untimely (often violent) deaths of leaders. Although most affect only regional history, and often trivially; some change history. History is contingent on these kinds of random events.
- Pericles, the “the first citizen of Athens”, guided Athens through the first three years of the Peloponnesian War. An epidemic in 430-429 devastated Athens, with the death of Pericles among its worst effects. In the next 25 years his successors led Athens — and Greece — to ruin. If he had lived and led the War to better conclusion — a negotiated peace — then the wonderful Classical world would have lasted longer, and the West would had a different history.
- Julius Caesar was one of the great men of history, living during the pivotal years in which the Republic became the Empire. If not killed in March 44, might he have built the Empire on a more rational and stronger foundation?
- Czar Alexander II of Russia (“the Liberator”) was one of the greatest reformers in Russian history. His assassination in 1881 at age 60 not only ended his work, but also convinced his heir that conservatism was the better policy. This put Russia on course for a revolution in 1917. If he had lived, Russia might have avoided the horrors of the next century, and made a more positive contribution to western civilization (other than as a bad example).
- JFK’s history changed US history by putting LBJ into the White House. Only LBJ could have passed the epochal civil rights legislation in 1964-65. But the tapes and records of the JFK years suggest that he might have avoided the Vietnam War. The war helped break America’s post-WWII optimism, and shattered the social consensus that had worked so well. Who knows what path America would have taken if JFK lived?
- On the other hand, Martin Luther King Jr. was spent as a political force when shot in 1968. Too radical for Whites. Too tame for Black Americans.
People matter. Some matter more than most. We all matter when we work together.
For More Information
- Is the American Republic dying, as in the last days of the Roman Republic?
- For America to prosper it must first burn.
- Scary lessons for America from pre-revolutionary France.
- America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.
- Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.