11 Events in the 19th Century that Changed the World

The 19th century was a time of revolution and change when the entire world witnessed important events that would alter the course of the future.

Jan 8, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
19th century events changed world

 

The 19th century was a time of great change. Imperial powers battled for control of the world as Napoleon’s army marched through Europe. South American countries fought wars for their independence. China put down rebellions, and Japan shifted its entire culture.

 

Colonial powers reaped the benefits of their possessions, while in the United States, a bloody civil war would unfold to determine the country’s future, with an outcome that would impact the entire world.

 

Trains and automobiles revolutionized transport, while revolvers changed warfare.

 

From canned food to computers, from Napoleon to the mass production of diapers, the 19th century brought outstanding achievements to human civilization. Here are 10 of them.

 

1. October 21, 1805: The Battle of Trafalgar

tom freeman the nelson touch
The Nelson Touch by Tom Freeman, via Tom Freeman Official Website

 

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The Battle of Trafalgar is usually cited by the British as the most important naval engagement of the Napoleonic Wars and sometimes in all of history. This is because victory in the Battle of Trafalgar saved Britain from being invaded by the French.

 

In reality, Napoleon had already abandoned his plans to invade Britain. This does not mean, however, that the Battle of Trafalgar wasn’t immensely important.

 

On October 21, 1805, facing a larger fleet of French and Spanish ships, the British, under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson, challenged their enemy and won a stunning victory, scuppering Napoleon’s plans for dominating the world’s oceans.

 

The victory established British naval dominance for the next century, which was the foundation of the power of the British Empire.

 

Had the French won, Napoleon would likely have revived his plans to invade Britain, and cet article aurait pu être écrit en français !

 

2. The Abolition of Slavery

william wilberforce portrait
British parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who led the fight to end slavery throughout the British Empire, via British Heritage

 

The attempt to abolish slavery within the British Empire hearkens back to the end of the 18th century, but it wasn’t until 1807 that the first major victory was scored. The movement, spearheaded by William Wilberforce, was only partially successful at this time, managing to put an end to slavery only in the British Isles and not in the colonies.

 

Successive bills and legal reforms finally ended slavery in the British Empire by 1838.

 

In France, the revolutionary government abolished slavery in 1795, but it was reinstated by Napoleon.

 

As anti-slavery sentiment spread across the world, the British led the fight against enslavers operating off the West African coast and forcefully put an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

 

In the United States, the movement would end up culminating in one of the primary reasons for the American Civil War.

 

3. June 18, 1815: The Battle of Waterloo

robert alexander hillingford wellington at waterloo
Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford, via Meister Drucke

 

One of the most famous battles of all time, the Battle of Waterloo cemented Napoleon’s final defeat, thus ending the Napoleonic Wars once and for all.

 

Although being defeated in his invasion of Russia and being pushed all the way back to Paris by the Russians, Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba was not the end. He escaped and marched back into France, gathering a huge army as supporters flocked to his cause.

 

paul de la roche napoleon at fontainebleau
Napoleon I at Fontainebleau by Paul Delaroche, via Musée de l’Armée Paris, RMN-Grand Palais

 

An allied army of British, Dutch, Prussian, Hanoverian, Nassauer, and Brunswicker troops put a final end to Napoleon’s plans for world domination. The commander of the British forces, the Duke of Wellington, widely regarded as one of the best generals in history, went on to become the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

 

4. South American Independence

simon bolivar portrait
Simón Bolivar by Francis Martin Drexel (1792-1863), via Art-UK

 

At the beginning of the 19th century, revolution and independence movements swept through the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of Latin America. With the Iberian countries weakened and at the end of their imperial dominance, they could not hold on to their colonies so far away from home.

 

From 1811 to 1828, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay all won their independence.

 

These independence movements fought desperate struggles against loyalist forces, but the tide of independence was inevitable. Latin America was full of charismatic leaders such as Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico, José de San Martin in the southern portion of South America, and the famous Simón Bolivar who won independence for Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru.

 

5. Railways and Steam

george stephenson locomotion
Replica of George Stephenson’s Locomotion, via mirrorpix / Chronicle Live

 

Credited as the “Father of Railways,” George Stephenson created the first steam locomotive that ran on rails. His ideas were picked up by investors, and throughout the 1820s and 1830s, many miles of railways were built and experimented upon with great success.

 

Railways would revolutionize travel, trade, and transport, ushering in a new era for humankind, as thousands of miles of rail were laid across the world, linking cities and towns across vast distances and reducing travel time considerably. They also opened the opportunity for travel to poorer people who could not afford the slow and expensive forms of travel that existed before rail.

 

6. The End of Japanese Isolationism

meiji restoration woodblock print
Emperor Meiji and followers by Utigawa Yoshitora, via The Japan Times / Edo-Tokyo Museum

 

Japan’s policy of isolationism, known as Sakoku, protected the country from foreign interests. Those trying to enter or leave were often faced with the penalty of death. This all came to an end in 1854 when a fleet of American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry entered the waters of Japan and negotiated the opening of a port for supply and refueling. A treaty of friendship was signed, and over the next few years, Japanese resistance to foreign trade could not be maintained. The treaty of friendship was later ratified when a Japanese diplomatic mission was sent to the United States in 1860.

 

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought an end to the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the Edo period came to an end. Japan opened itself to the world and set the foundation for an empire that would reverberate throughout the world in the decades to come.

 

7. The Invention of the Lightbulb

thomas edison lightbulb
Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, via DKfindout!

 

Although credited with the invention of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison wasn’t the originator of the idea. The history of the lightbulb goes back decades before Edison patented his version in 1879.

 

The story begins in 1800 with Alessandro Volta, who invented the voltaic pile, the first method of generating electricity. In the process, he also was the first human to intentionally generate electrical incandescence through an invention.

 

In 1802, the Englishman Humphry Davy connected charcoal electrodes to voltaic piles and invented the electric arc lamp. In the following decades, many attempts were made to improve existing designs. The most notable of these designs was by Englishman Joseph Swan, who invented the lightbulb, patenting it in 1878 and demonstrating his invention in February 1879. Sadly for Swan, his lightbulb was inefficient and didn’t last long enough to be practical.

 

Thomas Edison quickly adapted Swan’s invention, replacing the filament with one of his own designs. He patented it, took all the credit for inventing the lightbulb, and then sued Joseph Swan for patent infringement. Fortunately for Swan, Edison lost the case, and the two men actually went into business together.

 

The invention of the lightbulb signified a major change in the world. It ended the reliance on oil for lighting purposes and introduced electricity to the populace, setting the foundation for all the electrical appliances that would arrive in the 20th century.

 

8. 1861–1865: The American Civil War

mort kuenstler picketts charge
Pickett’s Charge by Mort Künstler, 2012, via Heritage Auctions

 

Without a doubt, one of the most devastating events of the 19th century was the American Civil War. It claimed the lives of between 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers and even more civilians. As a result, however, four million slaves were freed, and greater steps were taken for further emancipation.

 

There is no doubt it shaped the future of the United States, and since the US went on to have a great influence on the world in the following century, it could be argued that the American Civil War was one of the most important events in world history.

 

Despite the fact that racism still exists in the United States, deeply ingrained on a societal level, the Union victory in the US Civil War laid the groundwork for the United States to focus on freedom and equality.

 

9. The Telephone

alexander graham bell
Alexander Graham Bell, via the Daily Citizen

 

Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1875 was a huge milestone in the history of inventions. It allowed people to communicate instantly over extreme distances. Before then, what could now be done in seconds, could take days, weeks, or even months.

 

Like most inventions of this sort, Alexander Graham Bell cannot take all the credit. He wasn’t the only one to have the idea of communicating vocal sounds telegraphically. Italian Antonio Meucci started working on his idea as early as 1849, but financial troubles forced him to abandon his project.

 

Bell’s invention was built on the ideas and inventions of others, and eventually patented on the same day that American engineer Elisha Gray applied for a patent on his telephone. Bell’s lawyer got to the patent office before Gray’s did!

 

10. The Scramble for Africa

berlin conference map
Africa after the Berlin Conference, via Creative Commons / Black Mail Blog

 

Although the age of colonialism began around 1500 after the discovery of the New World, the 19th century marked a new, very powerful, and very brutal chapter in colonial efforts. The main target for these colonial enterprises was the continent of Africa.

 

Without a thought for the local inhabitants and the established borders between groups of African peoples, Europeans carved up the African continent during the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, which was set up to decide which European powers could lay claim to which parts of Africa. The partition of Africa started with the Berlin Conference and lasted until 1914 when the borders were finalized.

 

The years following the Berlin Conference saw the mass exploitation of African colonies, along with incredibly vicious atrocities and many genocides.

 

Today, the African continent is still split along much the same borders that were drawn over a century ago. Ex-colonial powers still hold economic dominance due to their exploitation of their colonies, and the ex-colonies are still kept poor as their resources are sold to European powers at cheap prices.

 

The African continent still bears the unhealed wounds of European colonialism.

 

11. The Invention of the Radio

alexander popov radio
Alexander Popov, via Russia Beyond

 

For most people, the name Guglielmo Marconi is associated with the invention of the radio. If you ask anybody in Russia, however, they’ll tell you it was invented by Alexander Stepanovich Popov. In fact, May 7 is celebrated in the Russian Federation as “Radio Day” to commemorate Popov’s invention back in 1895, the same year that Marconi unveiled his own invention.

 

In reality, all the discoveries necessary to create and improve the radio involve a long list of names, and definitions of what exactly constitutes a radio can cause arguments over who is really responsible for its invention.

 

Nevertheless, the radio revolutionized communication and changed the course of history in the process. Communication via radio waves has been an integral part of human civilization ever since, and wars have been won and lost due to the effectiveness of radio communication.

 

marie curie portrait
Marie Curie, via the Embassy of France in the United States

 

There are many events and inventions that can lay claim to changing the course of history. Had the War of 1812 gone differently, the United States may have been consigned to a supporting role in history. Had Carl Benz not produced the first automobile in 1885, who knows what the world of transport would look like today? Had Marie Curie not studied in her field, our understanding of radioactivity would be decades behind. (Being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first and only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields certainly deserves to be mentioned!)

 

Nevertheless, the events that happened in the 19th century and shaped the course of history are legion. The 19th century was a busy time!

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.