A depiction of a caravan on the Silk Road from the Catalan Atlas.

Abraham Cresques via Gallica Digital Library

Silk Road Connects East and West

The Silk Road—a series of trade routes connecting China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—allowed for the spread of international trade and commerce, religion, culture, technology, and even disease. To name a few famous exchanges: Buddhism and Christianity reached China from India; later, innovations such as paper-making spread from the East to the Islamic world; and in the Middle Ages, around 1346, the bubonic plague spread from Central Asia to Europe. Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who traveled the Silk Road in the thirteenth century and wrote extensively about his travels, became an embodiment of this famous route, transferring knowledge from two previously unconnected parts of the world, and inspiring other explorers to set off for places unknown.

An engraving shows the arrival of a Dutch slave ship with a group of African slaves for sale in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.

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Atlantic Slave Trade Begins, Transforming Global Economy and Demography

The arrival of Portuguese traders in Africa marked the onset of the Atlantic Slave Trade, a system through which mainly European countries profited from the forced displacement and enslavement of at least twelve million Africans over three centuries. European powers gained wealth and expanded their empires in part by leveraging the profits generated through enslaved labor, laying the foundation for new economies throughout the Americas and the Caribbean while instituting societal hierarchies based on race. Meanwhile this system shaped the demographic and economic trajectory of countries across Africa for centuries to come.

A painting of Gutenberg with his invention, the printing press.

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First Printed Book Marks the Beginning of Mobile Information

The publication of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be produced on Johannes Gutenberg’s newly invented printing press, signified a seismic shift in how people accessed news and knowledge, making the dissemination of ideas faster, cheaper, and easier than ever before. Beyond creating the first global news network, the invention of the printing press cranked the Renaissance into high gear, as rediscovered ancient Greek and Roman works could be easily copied and distributed, enabling radical scientific developments. Nicolaus Copernicus, for example, used printed astrological information to inform his theory that the earth rotates around the sun.

A depiction of Christopher Columbus landing on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and meeting the natives in 1492.

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First Voyage of Columbus Kicks Off Columbian Exchange

Christopher Columbus began an era of European exploration that led to the colonization of the Americas. Columbus’s arrival also kicked off the eponymous Columbian Exchange, a transfer of goods, people, and ideas between previously unconnected parts of the world, changing the trajectory of the world economy and radically reshaping both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the process. From the Old World, travelers brought livestock, people, and plants to the Americas—along with diseases like smallpox, which decimated indigenous populations. From the New World, commodities like tobacco and chocolate and new foods like potatoes found their way to Europe, enabling its populations and economies to rapidly expand, but also fortifying a system of trade predicated on the labor of enslaved people.

Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, better known as the Mona Lisa.

Musée du Louvre

“Renaissance Man” Leonardo da Vinci Begins to Paint the Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting is an iconic symbol of the Renaissance, a period of scientific, artistic, and philosophical exploration in Europe that began in the fourteenth century. Important advances like the development of perspective in art are characteristic of this period of great artistic and intellectual output. Coinciding with the Age of Exploration, the Renaissance changed the world forever, both expanding it as new continents and cultures were discovered and shrinking it by bringing distant places and ideas closer than ever before. Often called a “Renaissance Man,” da Vinci—whose interests spanned art, science, nature, and beyond—epitomized the period and its focus on humanism.

A painting of Dutch ships returning to Amsterdam from the Indies in 1599.

Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom via Rijksmuseum

Dutch East India Company Is Born, Giving Rise to Era of Exploration, Trade, and Colonialism

In 1602, the Dutch government gave the newly incorporated Dutch East India Company a monopoly on Dutch trade in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This wide-reaching arrangement also gave the private company the ability to wage war, enforce legal rulings, and create colonial settlements throughout Asia. Guided by the economic theory of mercantilism, which equated control of trade with power, ventures like the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company grew into enormous multinational corporations. They went abroad in search of raw materials, which they transformed into finished goods back in Europe and sold to finance imperial expansion, a system that would come to define Europe's relationship with much of the world for centuries.

A painting of Galileo showing his telescope to the Doge Leonardo Donato.

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Galileo’s Discoveries Help Launch Age of Scientific, Fact-Based Discovery

In the early 1600s, Galileo Galilei perfected his telescope. The astronomical observations it allowed lent support to Copernicus’s earlier theories, which claimed the earth revolves around the sun. Called the “father of modern science” and the “father of scientific method,” Galileo’s contributions, which were based on evidence he observed, were controversial during his time; in fact, he was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church. But ultimately, his findings led to a world in which scientific discoveries follow universal processes of trial and confirmation.

A painting of the swearing of the oath of ratification of the Treaty of Münster, part of the Peace of Westphalia, on October 24, 1648.

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Peace of Westphalia Leads to the Nation-State System

The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, helped lead to a new understanding of sovereignty based on the idea that countries should not interfere within other countries’ borders and have the right to control what happens within their own borders. The Peace of Westphalia was an important step toward building today’s world, divided into countries whose borders are recognized internationally.

A painting of Polish and Turkish fighters on a battlefield.

Józef Brandt via National Museum in Krakow

Battle of Vienna Marks Beginning of Ottoman Empire Decline

The Ottoman Empire peaked in the 1500s, when it spanned large chunks of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Its many contributions, from mathematical advances to early surgical practices, shaped the world for centuries. But in the 1600s, its economic and military dominance began to wane as European powers strengthened, posing a formidable counterweight. The Battle of Vienna, a matchup between Ottoman forces and the Holy Roman Empire, is generally recognized as the beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire’s geopolitical influence and marks the start of Christian Europe’s rise to prominence.

An engraving of Jean Jacques Rousseau, a French Enlightenment philosopher, reaching to the light and speaking to his wife just before his death in 1778.

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Enlightenment Ushers in New Ideas About Freedom

An intellectual movement originating in Europe that promoted individualism and rational thought, the Enlightenment marked a profound shift in the way people thought about politics, religion, science, and life in general. In the most basic terms, people began looking to fellow human beings instead of God for solutions, undermining the authority previously afforded to the Catholic Church and European monarchies. Big ideas about human rights, the nature of freedom, and the role of government were born during the Enlightenment. And although these ideas would go on to inspire political, religious, and societal revolutions, the lived experience of many would continue to fall short of the Enlightenment’s ideals regarding equality and freedom.

A depiction of the Battle of Prague on May 6, 1757, during the Seven Years' War.

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Seven Years’ War, First Global Conflict, Begins

Referred to as the first “world war” by Winston Churchill, this wide-ranging conflict was the first to spread all over the globe, with fighting taking place across Europe, North America, the Indian subcontinent, West Africa, and the Philippines. Fought mainly between France and Great Britain, each supported by a constellation of allies, the war had several important geopolitical implications: it completely reconfigured Europe’s balance of power by weakening France and strengthening Great Britain, scrambled territorial claims in the Americas (Britain gained control of Florida, Spain gained Louisiana, and the French were expelled from Canada), and left both France and Great Britain deep in debt, setting the stage for the American and French Revolutions several decades later.

The steam hammer, invented by the Scottish engineer and inventor James Nasmyth, erected in his foundry near Manchester in 1832.

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Industrial Revolution Powers Innovation and Modern Production

Between 1750 and the 1900s, countries around the world industrialized, transitioning from agrarian economies to economies based on machine manufacturing. Known as the Industrial Revolution, this transformative period of history coincided with an agricultural revolution that made possible the production of larger quantities of food for urban dwellers; urbanization and the birth of the middle class soon followed, as the demand for workers in city factories increased. Industrialization also changed the ways wars were fought. In addition, it coincided with increased international trade and innovation: new technologies like the steam engine, railroad, internal combustion engine, and telegraph revolutionized economies and lives around the world.

A portrait of Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian politician and general, who lead the revolt in 1791.

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Wave of Democratic Revolutions Redraws World Map

After winning their independence from the British during the Revolutionary War, the thirteen American colonies embarked on creating a government "of the people, by the people, for the people"—though, at that time, “people” generally meant white male property owners. One of the important documents informing the values of this new government was the Declaration of Independence, which established Enlightenment ideals as central to the creation of a democratic republic. In 1789, a similarly inspired revolution upended France, as the people overthrew their monarchy in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Two years later, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Haitians began demanding these same Enlightenment-inspired rights, leading to the world’s first Black-led republic in 1804.

A depiction of a smallpox vaccination in a French public school on the front page of the French newspaper Le Petit Journal Illustre on May 12, 1929.

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Vaccine Science Advances, Extending Global Life Expectancy

In 1800, global life expectancy was estimated to be just twenty-nine years, with infectious diseases the major source of premature death. But humanity’s centuries-long quest for disease immunity got a crucial boost in 1796 when a British doctor used cowpox to stop a child from contracting the deadly smallpox virus. This innovation—which came to be called vaccination—has become standard health-care practice and eventually led to the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s. It represents one of a handful of medical advances, including the acceptance of germ theory and modern innovations in surgery, that revolutionized health care and led global life expectancies to soar.

A depiction of the Congress of Vienna.

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Congress of Vienna Establishes Diplomatic Rules for Europe

Following the destruction and instability wrought by the Napoleonic Wars, representatives of several European powers met in Vienna to settle the international disturbances brought about by Napoleon’s rise to power. The meetings that followed, which led to a new international arrangement referred to as the Concert of Europe, helped lay the foundation for relative peace among the big forces in Europe—a peace that lasted until the outbreak of the First World War. It also created a diplomatic template to follow for future international institutions such as the League of Nations and the United Nations.

The East India steamer "Nemesis" and other boats destroying Chinese war junks in Anson's Bay on January 7, 1841 during the First Opium War.

Thomas Allom via British Library

First Opium War Begins China’s Century of Humiliation

Great Britain’s victory in the First Opium War (1839–42) granted Britain special trading rights in China and led to Hong Kong becoming a British colony. This defeat marked the beginning of a period referred to in China as the country's “century of humiliation,” when foreign powers forcibly opened Chinese ports for trade, extracted reparations, and took possession of Chinese territory following military defeats. Though Mao Zedong declared the end of this period with the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it continues to motivate Chinese behavior on the world stage, from the deflection of international criticism of China’s domestic human rights abuses to its territorial ambitions.

A undated photo of Karl Marx, the German political philosopher.

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Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Publish The Communist Manifesto

Intended as a critique of capitalist society and inspired by the lack of workers' rights during the Industrial Revolution, this seminal political treatise put forth the idea that all of history is defined by class struggles and posited that the solution was for the working class to rise up and revolt. Marx called for communist revolutions around the world and believed that the victory of the proletariat, or working-class people, would be the death knell for class-based societies. These ideas would prove electrifying for millions of people and usher in a new era characterized by the clash between communist and capitalist ideologies.

A depiction of the the Tokyo terminus of the Tokyo-Yokohama railway, built in 1872, during the Meiji era.

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Japan Rapidly Industrializes as Meiji Restoration Gets Underway

After initially welcoming Portuguese and Dutch traders and missionaries, Japan cut off all ties with the Western world for two hundred years, worried that Western influence was diluting traditional Japanese culture. This period of isolation ended abruptly in 1853, when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan, demanding trading rights and setting off a period of modernization and industrialization in Japan known as the Meiji Restoration. This period saw the end of feudalism, introduced a constitutional monarchy and military conscription, built critical infrastructure, and instituted government subsidization of industry. The Meiji Restoration unfolded during a period of history when many of the world’s biggest powers rapidly industrialized, changing global power dynamics forever. 

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck proclaiming German unification in Versailles on January 18, 1871, as depicted in an advertisement for Liebig's Meat Extract, published in 1899.

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Unification of Germany Heralds the Rise of German Nationalism

Germany was not always a unified nation. It only became one in 1871 under Prince Otto Von Bismarck, who combined the ideas of realpolitik—or political considerations based on pragmatism rather than ideological or religious underpinnings—with a growing sense of German national identity to consolidate ethnic Germans into one state. German nationalism would continue to grow in Germany from its founding in 1871, developing into a root cause for both world wars that came to define the beginning half of the twentieth century.

French political cartoon depicts German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck slicing up cake labeled "Africa" at the Berlin Conference in 1884.

L'Illustration

Berlin Conference Initiates Scramble for Africa

The ongoing Industrial Revolution left the world’s imperial powers scrambling for natural resources—especially in Africa. Motivated by a desire to avoid a power struggle among themselves, representatives from fourteen countries met in Berlin to draw up colonial boundaries in Africa and decide on matters ranging from trade rights to control over major rivers, all without a single African representative present. Although many Africans resisted the ensuing colonization of their region, Europeans moved quickly to exploit existing political divisions among the continent’s kingdoms and leveraged a powerful advantage: ready access to guns. By 1914, with World War I on the horizon, 
European powers controlled almost 90 percent of the African continent.

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