Twentieth century

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Centuries: 19th century - 20th century - 21st century
Decades: 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s

The 20th century lasted from 1901 to 2000 in the Gregorian calendar. Common usage sometimes regards it as lasting from 1900 to 1999. The 20th century is also sometimes known as the nineteen hundreds (1900s).

However, a number of arguments have been used to justify the common usage. One advanced by Stephen Jay Gould is that the first decade had only nine years, thus contradicting the definition of decade equaled 10 years. Another argument is that the astronomical year numbering system for years does have a year zero, the year normally known as 1 BC. In 2000 the International Organization for Standardization clarified ISO 8601 to use the astronomical year numbering system, which could be interpreted as retrospectively endorsing all the people who had celebrated the new century a few months earlier. Also, decades are almost always considered as starting with the "0" year and named accordingly ("1960s", etc.).

The term is also used to describe various periods that overlap with the calendar definition, most notably the Short twentieth century, which claims that the 20th Century spanned from 1914 to 1989, rendering the pre-WWI 1900s into the 19th Century and putting the 1990s at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Indeed, the part of the 20th Century before World War I is quite identical to the late 1800s culturally and technologically and the 1990s decade pointed in many ways (such as the rise of the Internet) to the 21st Century and is seen by some as not being truly a part of the 20th Century.


The twentieth century saw a remarkable shift in the way that vast numbers of people lived, as a result of technological, medical, social, ideological, and political innovations. Terms like ideology, world war, genocide, and nuclear war entered common usage and became an influence on the lives of everyday people. War reached an unprecedented scale and level of sophistication; in the Second World War (1939-1945) alone, approximately 57 million people died, mainly due to massive improvements in weaponry. The trends of mechanization of goods and services and networks of global communication, which were begun in the 19th century, continued at an ever-increasing pace in the 20th. In spite of the terror and chaos, the 20th century saw many attempts at world peace. As the 35th President of the United States John F. Kennedy said:

What kind of peace do we seek? I am talking about a genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living. Not merely peace in our time, but peace in all time. Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future, and we are all mortal.

Virtually every aspect of life in virtually every human society changed in some fundamental way or another during the twentieth century and for the first time, any individual could influence the course of history no matter their background. Arguably, the 20th century re-shaped the face of the planet in more ways than any previous century.

Scientific discoveries such as relativity and quantum physics radically changed the worldview of scientists, causing them to realize that the universe was much more complex than they had previously believed, and dashing the hopes at the end of the preceding century that the last few details of knowledge were about to be filled in.

For a more coherent overview of the historical events of the century, see The 20th century in review.

The 20th century has sometimes been called, both within and outside the United States, the American Century, though this is a controversial term.

Important developments, events and achievements

Science and technology

Wars and politics

Culture and entertainment

  • Movies, music and the media had a major influence on fashion and trends in all aspects of life. As many movies and music originate from the United States, American culture spread rapidly over the world.
  • After gaining political rights in the United States and much of Europe in the first part of the century, and with the advent of new birth control techniques women became more independent throughout the century.
  • Rock and Roll and Jazz styles of music are developed in the United States, and quickly become the dominant forms of popular music in America, and later, the world. The Beatles, a 1960s British Rock and Roll band, becomes one of the most successful acts of all time, and is credited, in their experimental later albums, with permanently changing what was thought possible in popular music.
  • Modern art developed new styles such as expressionism, cubism, and surrealism.
  • The automobile provided vastly increased transportation capabilities for the average member of Western societies in the early to mid-century, spreading even further later on. City design throughout most of the West became focused on transport via car. The car became a leading symbol of modern society, with styles of car suited to and symbolic of particular lifestyles.
  • Sports became an important part of society, becoming an activity not only for the privileged. Watching sports, later also on television, became a popular activity.

Disease and medicine

Natural resources and the environment

  • The widespread use of petroleum in industry -- both as a chemical precursor to plastics and as a fuel for the automobile and airplane -- led to the vital geopolitical importance of petroleum resources. The Middle East, home to many of the world's oil deposits, became a center of geopolitical and military tension throughout the latter half of the century. (For example, oil was a factor in Japan's decision to go to war against the United States in 1941, and the oil cartel, OPEC, used an oil embargo of sorts in the wake of the Yom Kippur War in the 1970s).
  • A vast increase in fossil fuel consumption leads to depletion of natural resources, while air pollution has led to the develoment of an ozone hole and, many believe, global warming and both local and global climate change. The problem is increased by world-wide deforestation, also causing a loss of biodiversity. The problem of a depletion of natural resources is decreased by advances in drilling technology which led to a net increase in the amount of fossil fuel that is readily obtainable at the end of the century, as compared with the amount considered obtainable at the beginning of the century.

Significant people

World leaders


Biology and Anthropology
Computer Science
Medicine and Pharmacy
Physics and Astronomy



Aerospace pioneers

Military leaders

Spiritual figures




Writers and poets

Sports figures

American Football
George Halas
Jim Brown
Joe Montana
Red Grange
Vince Lombardi
Walter Payton
Steve Young
John Elway
Dan Marino
Emmitt Smith
Jerry Rice
Al Oerter
Betty Cuthbert
Bob Beamon
Emil Zatopek
Fanny Blankers-Koen
Jim Thorpe
Paavo Nurmi
Steve Ovett
Seb Coe
Jesse Owens
Carl Lewis
Michael Johnson
Babe Ruth
Jackie Robinson
Roberto Clemente
Ted Williams
Wilt Chamberlain
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Larry Bird
Magic Johnson
Michael Jordan
Karl Malone
John Stockton
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Jack Dempsey
Joe Louis
Muhammad Ali
Larry Holmes
Rocky Marciano
Brian Lara
Sir Don Bradman
Douglas Jardine
Sir Gary Sobers
George Headley
Herbert Sutcliffe
Sir Jack Hobbs
Len Hutton
Malcolm Marshall
Ray Lindwall
Richard Hadlee
Shane Warne
Steve Waugh
Sunil Gavaskar
Victor Trumper
Sir Vivian Richards
Wasim Akram
Wilfred Rhodes
Eddy Merckx
Fausto Coppi
Lance Armstrong
Mark Todd
Football (soccer)
Michel Platini
Alfredo di Stefano
Giuseppe Meazza
Bill Shankly
Bobby Moore
Denis Law
Diego Maradona
Ferenc Puskas
Franz Beckenbauer
Gordon Banks
George Best
Johann Cruyff
Kenny Dalglish
Lev Yashin
Mokhtar Dahari
Obdulio Varela
Sir Stanley Matthews
Arnold Palmer
Bobby Jones
Gary Player
Jack Nicklaus
Severiano Ballesteros
Tiger Woods
Ice Hockey
Wayne Gretzky
Bobby Orr
Gordie Howe
Mario Lemieux
Maurice Richard
Martial Arts
Bruce Lee
Motor Sport
Ayrton Senna
Jim Clark (racing driver)
Juan Manuel Fangio
Michael Schumacher
Sir Edmund Hillary
Tenzing Norgay
Lester Piggott
Tony McCoy
Rugby Football
Colin Meads
Gareth Edwards
Wally Lewis
Jean-Claude Killy
Franz Klammer
Ingemar Stenmark
Jahangir Khan
Jansher Khan
Dawn Fraser
Mark Spitz
Martin Strel
Martina Navratilova
Arthur Ashe
Rod Laver
Fred Perry
Pete Sampras
Bill Tilden
Steffi Graf
John McEnroe
Bjorn Borg
Boris Becker
Venus Williams
Serena Williams

Decades and years




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