5 Amazing Concepts That Were Only Invented in the Last 500 Years
We know that the lives of people half a millennium ago were utterly different to our own: a time when most people never travelled more than a few miles from home, more than half of children died before their fifth birthday, only the best educated could read, and what we would now consider to be a minor infection could easily be fatal. So many of the inventions that affect our daily lives were either invented or became commonplace in the past five hundred years, from computers to combustion engines, aeroplanes to organ transplants, refrigerators to novels.
But it isn’t just technologies that have been invented in the past 500 years. Less obvious – but just as influential – have been the concepts and ideas that have been developed in that time. And while we can imagine a world without trains or televisions, it can be much harder to imagine a world without the concepts that we take for granted in our everyday lives. Concepts like these:
1. Standardised time
Until 1825, there was no such thing as standardised time. Reliable mechanical clocks have existed since the 1300s, and telling the time ever since prehistoric humans noticed that the way the sun moved across the sky wasn’t random. But travel between towns and cities took a long time, even with fast horses and sophisticated networks of stagecoaches, so it didn’t much matter if people in London had their watches set at 9.45 while everyone in Birmingham agreed that it was 10.16.
That all changed in 1825 with the first ever passenger railway – the Stockton and Darlington Railway, in north-east England. Early passenger trains travelled at 20-25 miles an hour, compared with 8 miles per hour for the stagecoaches they replaced. If it took you a couple of days to travel between cities, then losing half an hour because the cities were effectively in different (and unpredictable) timezones didn’t matter so much. But if you were creating the first railway timetable, you had a train leaving Stockton at 8.20 and arriving in Darlington half an hour later, it was highly inconvenient for you and your passengers if the time in Darlington was 9.13 (or disconcerting if it was 8.33).
That’s not to say that standardised time was developed as soon as the first railways appeared. After what was presumably 15 years of confusion, it was first instituted in 1840 on the Great Western Railway – on which all clocks were standardised to London time – and by 1847 most other railways had followed suit. Public clocks soon followed, with some eccentricities: the clock on Tom Tower in Christ Church, Oxford, had two minute hands, one for London time and one for Oxford time. By 1880, time standardised to GMT had become the law. Its implications were far-reaching, for instance in allowing the creation of the formal working day where everyone arrived in a factory or office at the same time and left at the same time too; compare this with agricultural work, where work started roughly at dawn and ended at sunset, regardless of the time on the clock. The concept of lateness became stricter, and the world a more regulated place.
Cleanliness has been a human preoccupation since humans first existed; most animals show a desire to be clean, from cats washing themselves to hamsters needing sand-baths and the instinct among chimps to groom each other for social bonding. We have also long been frightened of disease, and undertaken all manner of strategies to try to prevent it. Soap dates back at least five thousand years, and many ancient religions place cleanliness at the centre of their requirements and rituals. Teeth cleaning similarly dates back millennia, and societies such as the Romans developed advanced technological solutions for getting clean water into their cities and taking waste out.
What was missing for most of human existence, though, is an understanding of what causes disease – and what doesn’t. Human societies have believed that disease represents the disfavour of the gods, a curse or possession by devils, that it’s caused by bad smells or bad air (which is a reasonable guess given that places that smell bad are typically unhygienic), or assorted other mistaken ideas. At various points in history bathing has been promoted; but at others, it’s been thought that excessive bathing (which could be as little as one bath per week) was unhealthy.
A key breakthrough was made in the 1840s by Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis, who was then director of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria. He noticed high levels of childbed fever among women who had recently given birth – which could easily be fatal. He monitored the activities of the doctors and medical students there, and through analysing the results, realised that women were becoming ill when they were attended by those doctors and students who had attended them after performing autopsies, without washing their hands in between. He required them to start washing their hands, and the maternal mortality rate at the hospital plummeted. But the idea took a long time to catch on; doctors resented the implication that they were unclean. Florence Nightingale similarly promoted the idea when nursing in the Crimean War, but with similarly little wider impact. It took until the development of germ theory, and the promotion of hygiene by public health bodies around the world, for these basic lifesaving activities to become the norm.
3. The free market
From the 16th to the 18th century, the dominant theory in economics was the belief in mercantilism. It’s a theory that treats trade as a zero-sum game; that if one person or country is getting a good deal, then another must necessarily be getting a bad one. If you were importing goods from overseas, that necessarily suggested that the money for those goods was leaving the country, rather than if goods were produced within the country, so that the money spent on them could continue circulating domestically. Importing goods should therefore be discouraged wherever possible, in order to promote the domestic market.
Mercantilism has few supporters these days (although some of its tenets can be seen in Donald Trump’s rhetoric). That’s because it was replaced by the concept of the free market – its near opposite, and yet, as the remarkable growth in global wealth in the past 200 years has shown, a much more effective approach.
Free trade, promoted in the late 18th century by writers like Adam Smith, holds that trade is not a zero-sum game, but instead, a transaction from which both parties benefit. For instance, if Country A has an abundance of forests but very little coastline, and Country B has an abundance of coastline but very few trees, it stands to reason that Country A will be able to produce wardrobes more cheaply than Country B, and Country B will be able to produce smoked fish more cheaply than Country A. If Country A exports wardrobes to Country B, and Country B exports fish to Country A, then both countries should make a profit relative to what they would have earned from similarly producing their smoked fish and their wardrobes domestically.
This is a tremendous simplification, and free trade produces losers too (for instance, the wardrobe manufacturers of Country B might well be unhappy at the market being flooded with goods from Country A). But while free trade can increase inequality, it also undoubtedly serves to increase overall wealth, and the twentieth century in particular was defined by formerly closed-off, protectionist countries moving towards free trade (such as the USA and China) and seeing their economies boom as a result.
4. The freedom to have any religion or none
The right to religious freedom has ebbed and flowed in different societies throughout history. Polytheistic societies have often incorporated additional gods into their pantheon as culture and politics required; in many ancient polytheistic societies, you were free to worship whichever gods you liked, provided that you also showed appropriate respect to the most important gods in the pantheon (which meant not denying their existence).
It was for this reason that monotheistic religions were a threat to ancient polytheistic religions, because they denied the existence of all other gods but their own, and therefore could not easily be incorporated into the de facto state religion. That was particularly problematic when it came to religions like Christianity, which not only believed in a single God, denying the existence of all others, but unlike Judaism, actively sought further converts – hence the frantic Roman persecution of early Christians, and tolerance of most other religions that they encountered.
The Middle Ages, especially in Europe, were a much less tolerant period. Jews and Muslims faced persecution in many European Christian countries, most notably in Spain through the mechanism of the Spanish Inquisition (usually painted as a force against non-conforming Christians, the Inquisition in fact usually targeted those Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity to avoid being expelled from Spain). Where countries were more tolerant, they usually permitted different religious faiths; but the idea of atheism was seen as much more dangerous. Religious believers could be relied upon to behave well or risk the judgment of their gods or the loss of karma, but there was no such guarantee for atheists.
Yet from the Enlightenment onwards, atheism began to gain traction as the once all-important role of religion in day-to-day life receded (for instance, education, once provided almost exclusively by the Church, became increasingly a secular affair). From the late 1700s, atheists were not uncommon in intellectual circles, though religious faith remained a requirement for public office until the mid-1800s. While the countries of the world that have had an atheist head of government remain in the minority, the Victorian Age proved to be the tipping point in the UK, where religion went from being a public affair to being a private matter of conscience.
5. Universal suffrage
The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK occurred recently, but what was largely ignored is that it wasn’t solely the anniversary of women’s suffrage, but also suffrage for the majority of men in the UK. Prior to 1918, the vote was restricted to male landowners with income above a certain level. The percentage of the population able to vote climbed steadily throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, from one in seven men (and no women) in 1832, to all men over 21 and 40% of women in 1918, to all men and women aged over 21 in 1928.
Modern democracies take universal suffrage for granted, though as the row in the UK over votes at 16 demonstrates, the question of exactly who qualifies for universal suffrage and who doesn’t hasn’t been entirely settled. But the idea that every adult should have an equal voice in their country is a very recent one. During the battle for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, there were plenty of women arguing against their own suffrage as well as those arguing in favour; they claimed that women were too emotional to vote, or that it was better for women to exercise influence over their fathers, brothers and husbands, rather than casting votes for themselves. Many would not have regarded this as support for inequality; instead, they would have argued that it was an expression of how men and women could play different but equal roles in society – for instance, arguing that women exercised disproportionate influence in raising children, to balance the greater political influence exercised by men.
But even this argument represented a significant change in thinking from 500 years ago; it rests, after all, on some principle of equality, even if it’s one that we would see as misapplied today. A medieval Englishman would have agreed that we are all equal before God, but that human life on Earth was and should be distinctly hierarchical, with the king at the top and everyone else in a pyramid below. An ancient Roman might have quibbled the details, but agreed with the principle. Yet now a belief in equality is held by more or less everyone in the Western world.
Images: clock; hand-washing; container ship; Martyrs’ Memorial; suffragist; historical London.