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Late Modern Period | History, Timeline & Significant Events

Instructor: Cheryl Roberts

Cheryl Roberts has master's degrees in English and history and taught taught college composition, literature, and history for over 20 years.

Learn about the Late Modern period. Discover a Late Modern period timeline. Explore significant late modern historical events, innovations, and people. Updated: 03/12/2023

The Late Modern Period

History can be more easily understood by dividing it into time periods. While this requires a certain amount of generalization and simplification, it makes it possible to group events and see major trends as they evolved. The term "modern" is frequently used to imply current. It is possible, however, to narrow down the term and apply it to historical time periods. The Early Modern period in world history generally refers to the 15th to 19th centuries when the foundation was laid for major changes that would follow. The Late Modern period traditionally begins with one of those important changes: the French Revolution of 1789. While the period is sometimes used to describe events until the present, it usually is seen as continuing through World War I and ending in 1945 with the conclusion of World War II. The period beginning with the end of World War II and continuing today is sometimes called the Contemporary period.

The worlds of 1789 and 1945 were vastly different. In 1800, the world's population was around one billion, around 90% of whom lived in rural areas. The political, social, and technological landscape had changed relatively little in the preceding 300 years. The pace and nature of change increased in the 19th century. The population surged to two billion by 1928. By 1945, changes had occurred to make the world almost unrecognizable. In 1950, much of the population had shifted to live in urban areas. A number of events occurred to bring about these changes, many of which will be discussed.

Late Modern Period Timeline

Below is a timeline of important events of the Late Modern period.

  • The French Revolution: 1789
  • The United States Constitution: 1788
  • World War I: 1914 to 1918
  • Russian Revolution: 1917
  • Great Depression: 1929 to c. 1939
  • World War II: 1939 to 1945

Significant Events of the Late Modern Period

Just as it is easier to look at history in terms of time periods, it is also easier to look at it in terms of types of changes. Political events changed the global landscape during the Late Modern period.

  • United States Constitution: The ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 created a form of democratic government based on a set of established laws that would spread across the world.
  • French Revolution: In 1789, the people of France overthrew a centuries-old monarchy and set up a republic. The revolution showed that the people could successfully remove an autocratic government and establish rule by the people.
  • Revolution and unification in Europe: The 19th century in Europe saw a series of revolutions inspired by the French Revolution. While most of these were unsuccessful, they led to the rise of nationalism and the unification of small states into larger, more powerful countries such as Germany and Italy.
  • Colonialism: During the 19th century, European countries continued and expanded their policies of seizing small countries and creating colonies. The colonies were then exploited for financial gain by the governing country. The desire of colonial peoples to obtain their freedom would be an ongoing political issue through the mid-20th century.
  • World War I: The war, which began in 1914 and lasted until 1918, was the largest conflict ever seen at that time. It pitted Germany and its allies against western European nations and the United States. It was the first truly mechanized war, and over 16 million combatants and civilians died. The war marked the establishment of the United States as a major world power.
  • Russian Revolution: In 1917, the centuries-old Romanov ruling dynasty in Russia was overthrown. Vladimir Lenin led the establishment of the Bolshevik communist government in Russia. This rise of communism would lead to decades of worldwide tension.
  • Great Depression: The largest economic depression ever seen gripped the world from 1929 to approximately 1939. The US and Europe were hit particularly hard. The depression led to massive changes in economic and social policies.
  • World War II: World War II changed the world once again. The Allies, led by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, defeated Germany and its allies Italy and Japan. Japan and Germany's aggression led to some of the most horrific and murderous actions the world had ever seen, including the Holocaust, a systematic effort to eradicate Jewish people. By the end of the war, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two world superpowers, setting the stage for the Cold War to follow.

World War I trench warfare

photo of soldier in muddy trench surrounded by equipment and a body

Social and Economic Issues

At the same time that political events were reshaping the world, changes were occurring in other spheres.

  • Capitalism: Capitalism became the preeminent economic system in the world. Capitalism relies on the free exchange of goods and services by private entities. Individuals and companies are free to sell their products or services for whatever price they can get. Capitalism led to the growth of the stock exchange, which allows for investment in companies hoping to receive profits as stock prices rise.
  • Democracy: Democracy means "rule by the people." While direct democracy had been practiced in Greece and Rome during the Classical period, the Late Modern period saw the first large-scale attempts at forming democratic governments based on systems of representative government. The US Constitution set a pattern for democratic government that would be copied by many countries during and beyond the Late Modern period.
  • Communism: Communism is a form of government in which capitalism and private ownership of property are replaced by communal ownership and public control of major means of production. In practice, it removes the checks and balances inherent in democracy and capitalism and allows for control by the few.
  • Urbanization: The Late Modern period saw increasing movement of the population from rural areas to the cities. The Industrial Revolution, with the creation of factories that needed employees and improvements in transportation that made it easier for people to move around, accelerated the process of urbanization. Large numbers of people living together in small areas created new social and economic problems that governments would continue to wrestle with throughout and beyond the Late Modern period.
  • Slavery: Slavery, in which one person is owned by another, existed throughout the world almost from the beginning of civilization. It fostered economic growth for owners and complete loss of all liberties for enslaved persons. Slavery also fostered racism on a large scale. By the late 19th century, slavery had been legally abolished in the Western world, but its after-effects would be felt for decades to come. Issues of racism continued to permeate society.
  • Literacy: In 1800, approximately 85% of the world's population was illiterate. By 1945, that percentage had declined to approximately 50%. The increasing numbers of people who could read during the Late Modern period inevitably affected their ability to think independently, a situation that affected both governmental and religious dominance in society.
  • Labor movements: Industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of capitalism created a large segment of the population who worked for employers rather than for themselves. As their numbers increased, they united to push for protection from owners who exploited their workers. This led to laws governing working conditions throughout the industrialized world.
  • Women's rights: In 1800, opportunities for women were basically confined to the domestic sphere. They could not own property or work outside the home, and they were generally controlled by their husbands. In the US, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 gave women the right to vote. During the World Wars, many women entered the workforce for the first time to fill jobs vacated by men going to fight.

Late Modern Innovations

Scientific and technological changes occurring in the Late Modern period helped make possible other important global changes.

  • Mechanization: The Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of labor. The period saw the invention of machines that quickly accomplished tasks that had been done by human labor for centuries. The steam engine greatly increased the power available to drive production in everything from transportation to the textile industry. Mechanization also sped up production and decreased the number of people required to accomplish tasks. People flocked to the cities to work in new factories.
  • Transportation: In the early 1800s, steam engines that could transport people and goods on railway lines revolutionized travel. People could travel faster and for less money than by horse-drawn vehicles. When mass production of automobiles appeared in the early 20th century, the ability of every individual to move about on their own resulted in increased mobility. Commercialization of air flight made travel even faster.
  • Electricity: Electric light first appeared in people's homes and in public spaces in the late 19th century. While the ability to provide light on demand seemed to many to be the most important aspect of the use of electricity, that would soon change as nearly all production processes experienced the benefit of electrical power.
  • Communication: In 1800, people could only communicate in person or through written letters. The electric telegraph, which made instantaneous communication over long distances possible, appeared in the mid-1800s. Then, the appearance of the telephone made voice communication over long distances possible. The rise of the radio in the 1920s changed society once again, making it possible for many people to access the same information simultaneously and heralding the beginning of global mass media.

Telephone operators at an early telephone exchange

image of women wearing headphones sitting in front of a board with wires

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