What was the most important event of the 19th century?

According to Richard Feynman, the most important event of the 19th century was the discovery of the laws of electricity and magnetism.

From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.

From The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 2.

Related post: Grand unified theory of 19th century math

7 thoughts on “What was the most important event of the 19th century?

  1. I’ll brag, when I saw the headline I guessed electricity before seeing your answer. 😉

    Maybe the biggest discovery of the last 1000 years?

  2. Probably true. The understanding of electricity and magnetism has certainly had outsized returns. Electric lighting, heating, cooking, electric systems in automobiles, refrigeration. The enormous efficiency and capacity advantages of electrified factories and the downstream advantages of that. Radio, radar, the telegraph and telephone, television, electronic computers, the internet, etc. So much of what makes our modern world modern is made possible by understanding Maxwell’s equations.

  3. There is a difference between electricity as a technology and Maxwell’s laws, the same way there is a difference between thermodynamics and engines, or a difference between computers and Computer Science.

  4. Completely unrelated, but I don’t have a twitter account with which to reply to @AnalysisFact. Recently you posted, “The dual space of a Banach space X is the space X^* of continuous linear functions from X to R;” it may be an oddity of the book we used for Functional Analysis (Folland’s “Real Analysis, Modern Techniques and Their Applications”), but I though they were from X to C instead. Or, more formally, for a Banach space over base field K, X^* is the space of continuous linear functions from X to K.
    Apologies for posting this here!

  5. How about the germ theory of disease? I’d argue that that is far more important than even electrodynamics. From that came an understanding of vaccines and the development of many of them, the understanding of the cause of malaria, the importance of clean drinking water which I’ve heard made a bigger contribution to increased life expectancy than any medical advance of the 20th century, and so on.

    And if you take a broader view of events and history, who knows? Maybe Napoleon was the most important, because the consequences of his actions will lead to a war which will exterminate humankind, or because they prevented or will prevent such a war.

    I read an interesting argument that the most important contribution of the Roman Empire to modern civilization was … the discovery of concrete.

  6. Manoel Galdino

    The counterfactual is really hard here. Marxism? It lead to Socialism!
    And The Evolution Theory by Darwin?

    Actually I think these scientific lasw would be discovered soon or later. However, political events can have influence on how society organize themselves and, in turn, how science is produced. So, political events are probabily more important…

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