The 19th century was a time of significant scientific and technological discoveries. In particular, two advances in medicine – anesthesia and the discovery of the bacterial causes of many diseases – radically transformed medical thought and treatment by the end of the 19th century. Typhoid fever was identified as a distinct disease in 1829 and a vaccine was developed by 1896. The diphtheria bacillus was identified in 1883 and an antitoxin was available by 1891. As a result of these and other advances there was a dramatic reduction in mortality from cholera, tuberculosis, small-pox, typhus, and typhoid fever. As a result, the world population increased more rapidly than in any previous century from approximately 900 million to over 1600 million.

At the beginning of the 19th century, close to 80% of the world’s population was engaged in farming using instruments (especially the plow and sickle) that had not changed for centuries. The same could be said of modes of transportation over land. While innovations in shipbuilding had greatly increased the speed by which one could travel by sea so that, in good weather, it was possible to travel as many as 120 miles in a day, very little had changed when it came to the manner in which human beings traveled over land. Armies, for example, at the beginning of the 19th century traveled at about the same speed as Caesar’s army did in the 1st century BCE (a maximum of about 30 miles in 24 hours). However, by the end of the century, revolutions in transportation, especially through the invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1880s, greatly impacted the speed and reliability of land travel so that it began to play a major role in the spread of both ideas and commerce.

During the 19th century, urbanized, industrialized societies supplanted older agricultural communities. The old cultures of wood and charcoal became civilizations of coal. Reliance on fossil fuels is one key development that had great consequences both for human beings and for the environment.

A final theme of the 19th century is the increased control exercised by both Europeans and Americans over many of the world’s peoples. After about 1840, the military dominance of European nations over the rest of the world became very apparent. Late in the century Japan emerged as a military power in Asia. The 19th century is thus known as the “Age of Imperialism.”

Our study begins by looking at the various regions of the world in the 19th century. The initial “global overview” discusses important rulers, cultural trends, and developments that impacted the lives of people. The last section of this chapter focuses on a more complete explanation of Imperialism and its impact on peoples living in various regions throughout the world.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about European Imperialism and its impact on people living in the Americas, Africa, and Asia by watching Crash Course in European History, #28.



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