Changes in the 20th century

Like previous centuries the 20th century was one of change, but this time, by standing on the shoulders of giants the change was to be extraordinary.

Social Change

The statistics tell some of the story:

Some statistics for the 20th century

Population [1]38.3 million59.0 million
Gross Domestic Product [2]£146.8 million£1,007,961 million
Life expectancy – male [3]4575
Life expectancy – female [4]4980
Houses [5]7 million22 million
Motor vehicles [6]Less than 10,00028.9 million
Manufacturing % of employment [7]2814
Agriculture % of employment [8]112
Female % of workforce [9]2946
Average full time weekly hours [10]5343.5
Average full time weekly earnings £ [11]1.40350

But, until the statistics are put into historical context, they don’t tell the whole story.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain had a population of 38 million but the British Empire had 367 million, the world total being 1.6 billion; by 2000 British population was 59 million, with a world total of 6.1 billion. In 1900 Britain had about 25% of world trade, in 2010, about 2%. In 1900 you could get about $5 for £1, in 2000 about $1.66.

In 1900 women did not have the vote; there were only 2 female architects and 212 female doctors.[12] By 1922 about 10,000 university degrees were awarded with 23% going to women; by 2000 there were about 90,000 degrees awarded with 45% going to women.[13] In 1900 the school leaving age was 12 but this was raised to 14 in 1918 and then to 15 in 1947, then raised again to 16 in 1972/73.

In the early years of the 20th century Liberal governments introduced the beginnings of a welfare state. The Probation Act 1907 established a probation service to provide supervision within the community for young offenders as an alternative to prison. In 1908, pensions were introduced for those over 70. In 1909 labour exchanges were set up in order to help unemployed people find work. Under the National Insurance Act 1911 compulsory health insurance was provided for workers earning less than £160 per year and provided sickness benefit entitlement, free medical treatment, maternity benefit as well as unemployment benefit. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote for the first time to all men over the age of 21 and to women over the age of 30. The Equal Franchise Act of 1928 granted equal voting rights to women and men who could vote at the age of 21.

After the Second World War the Family Allowance Act 1945, National Insurance Act 1946 and the National Assistance Act 1948 provided benefits to those who couldn’t work or had retired and also offered payments for maternity leave, funerals and widows’ pensions. The Health Service Act 1946 established a free health service for all.

In 1900 the ethnic diversity of the UK was very low; in 2014 some 13% of the population have an ethnic background from Africa, Arabia, Asia, or the Caribbean.[14]

Just these few facts start to show the scale of change that has gone on socially and politically without even touching on whole areas where change could be shown.

Wars and their effect on the World Order

In 1900 the UK was a major world power with an empire including Canada, much of Africa, India, the Far East and Australasia. Today, Britain has no empire, is the centre of a loosely defined Commonwealth, has membership of the NATO military alliance and is a member of the European Union, sharing political and economic sovereignty with other EU members.

Much of this change was forced by two world wars.

In the First World War the UK had about 885,000 military deaths and about 1,700,000 wounded and in the Second World War about 383,000 deaths and 369,000 wounded.[15]

Apart from this clear loss of life and limb the need to fight a “total war” led to the Defence of The Realm Act 1914 which gave the government unprecedented powers to intervene in people’s lives. They could take over any factory or workshop, introduce curfews and restrictions on movement and impose censorship. Changes such as British Summer Time, pub licensing and rationing occurred.

The impact on the social classes was immense. Before the First World War about 14% of married women worked by the end of it 40% did. Average working-class incomes doubled between 1914 and 1920. It has been estimated that 25% of land holdings in England were sold between 1917 and 1921 as the upper classes had to retrench and pay taxes and death duties.

Although Britain emerged from World War One with more imperial possessions, controlling and placating the various strands of empire became an increasingly difficult task. The expectations of Britain’s colonial subjects had been raised during the war, which the Empire and the Dominions had helped to fund.

The years between the wars were a time of turmoil – with the general strike in 1926 and the great depression of 1929 – 1933 when Britain’s world trade fell by half, armed rebellion in Ireland leading to partition in 1922, calls for independence from India and the King’s abdication in 1936. In 1931, the United Kingdom granted independence within the empire to Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and South Africa.

The Second World War saw the mass evacuation of 3 million people and by 1945 460,000 women were in the military, such as the ATS and WAAF, and over 6.5 million in civilian war work. Although the war was won by the Allies the British defeats in Europe and Asia between 1940 and 1942 destroyed its financial and economic independence.

The fact that Britain was deeply in debt and needed reconstruction led to strategic industries being nationalized. The Bank of England and civil aviation were nationalised in 1946, the coal industry, electricity industry and Cable & Wireless in 1947, railways and waterways in 1948 and gas, iron and steel in 1949. This had a major impact on politics and UK economic performance for many years.

The Second World War and Britain’s parlous state thereafter led to the start of the break up of Empire. In 1947 India and Pakistan became independent nations. In 1948 Sri Lanka and Burma became independent and, in 1949 the Irish Free State declared itself the independent Republic of Ireland. Since then despite politicians attempts to maintain a British presence worldwide the Empire has vanished as anti colonial and nationalist revolts led to exit from them all.

Meanwhile following Winston Churchill’s call for a United States of Europe in 1946,[16] and the founding of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation in 1948, the Council of Europe was created in 1949 to provide the framework for a European union which would transform Europe in a step by step process leading to unification. So in 1951 a new form of organisation called a supranational community was created with the European Coal and Steel Community of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands as the first step in this process. In 1957 this led to the Treaty of Rome signed by the same six countries and bringing the European Economic Community (EEC) into existence. Britain did not join until 1973.

Transport & Travel 

In 1900 transport was, except for the very wealthy, a public affair. People used horses, trains and trams at home and could only travel long distances across the world by sea.

Cars were a rarity until the 1920s as mass production started to take off. By 1930 there were 2 million motor vehicles on British roads, rising to 15 million in 1970 and 34 million by 2012.

In 1952, bus and coach travel accounted for the largest share of overall distance travelled, at 42%, while travel by car and van accounted for 27%. In 2007, bus and coach travel had declined to 6% while travel by car and van accounted for 84%. During this time the total distance travelled by people in Great Britain had risen from 218 billion passenger kilometres in 1952 to 817 billion passenger kilometres in 2007.

Rail travel increased from 38 billion to 59 billion passenger kilometres between 1952 and 2007, it has fallen from 17 per cent to 7 per cent as a proportion of the total distance travelled. In 1952, a total of 23 billion passenger kilometres were travelled by bicycle, accounting for 11 per cent of the total distance travelled during that year. By 2007, this had fallen to 4 billion passenger kilometres, accounting for 0.5 per cent of all travel. The distance travelled by motorcycle also declined over the same period, from 7 billion passenger kilometres in 1952 to 6 billion in 2007.[17]

Before 17th December 1903 air transport had been a dream. On that day at Kill Devil Hills, near Kittyhawk in North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made four successful flights. Of course it was war that developed the technology, but people’s imagination was captured by air travel and when Charles Lindbergh flew non stop across the Atlantic in 1927 the infant air services received a boost. Imperial Airways had started in 1924, but in 1931 Hillman’s Airways started, in 1933 Spartan Air Lines, in 1935 United Airways – all of which merged to form British Airways in 1935. In November 1939 British Airways and Imperial Airways merged to become the state owned British Overseas Airways Corporation.

In all this time air travel was a luxury but, after the Second World War, the use of ex-military aircraft to transport people and cargo led to even more expansion. The development of pressurized cabins and jets in the Second World War led to even better aircraft and much easier long distance commercial travel from 1952.

These aviation developments came together with entrepreneurs such as Vladimir Raitz (1922 – 2010) who founded Horizon Holidays in 1949. Then changes to allow charter planes, under the Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1954, meant the changes were self reinforcing as revolutionary aircraft like the Boeing 747 with seating for as many as 450 passengers led to cheaper flights.

In 1950 about 1 million UK residents went on overseas holidays. By 1994 27 million went and by 2004 43 million and 68 million by 2008 as low cost carriers also flourished.

Everything above has led to lifestyles that would be unrecognizable to anyone from 1900.

Science and Communication

In physics the understandable has become unusual. Theories such as special relativity (based on the relationship between space and time), general relativity (based on the geometric theory of gravitation) and quantum mechanics (dealing with physical phenomena at nanoscopic scales and fundamental interactions dealing with electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear forces) have taken over from classical Newtonian physics, which many of us at least felt we understood.

In biology genetics and DNA have allowed us to start to manipulate life itself.

Application of science and mass production have allowed consumer goods such as, inter alia, air conditioning, clothes dryers, computers, dishwashers, electric ovens, exercise machines, freezers, fridges, gas hobs, microwaves, mobile phones, radio,  refrigerators, television, vacuum cleaners and washing machines to be available to billions of people worldwide.

More recently the Internet and World Wide Web have started to transform the way we do almost everything whether it’s reading an ebook to shopping via ecommerce, to being entertained via downloads, to storing data in ‘the cloud’, to talking to people half a world away via Skype or similar services.

Once again everything above has led to lifestyles that would be unrecognizable to anyone from 1900.


In 1900 there were no mass immunisations nor were there antibiotics. Now smallpox, measles, diphtheria, pertussis, rabies, typhoid, cholera, polio and plague are preventable or rare whilst antibiotics and antimicrobials have helped to control tuberculosis, streptococcal and staphylococcal infections, gonorrhoea, syphilis, herpes, candidiasis, histoplasmosis and malaria. Major nutritional deficiencies such as rickets, goitre and pellagra have all but disappeared. The fluoridation of drinking water has improved dental health.

X-rays, CT and MRI scans and sonography have allowed better diagnosis. Blood typing and blood banking made blood transfusion safe and widely available. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy have been developed. Immunosuppressive drugs and tissue typing have made organ and tissue transplantation a clinical reality.

In 1900 birth control was in its infancy and the birth rate was 26 for every 1,000 in 1900; by 2000 it had halved to 13 for every 1,000. This has happened along with training of midwives because of the Midwives Act 1902 and use of health visitors due to the Notification of Births Act 1907 and Maternity and Child Welfare Act 1918.

Better housing was mandated by Town Planning Act 1909 and the Housing Acts 1919, 1930 and 1936.

All these changes have led to both improved quantity and improved quality of life that people from 1900 would have loved to have.


In 1911, the top 1% of the population owned as much as 70% of the wealth; in 2000 it was 23%.

The first half of the century involved a significant redistribution of wealth from the richest 1% to the upper middle classes. From 1950 to 1970s the considerable redistribution of wealth continued. Since around 1980, however, the trend has been halted and during the 1990s wealth inequalities actually increased. 

The pattern for the richest 10% follows a broadly similar trend. They held about 80% of UK wealth in the mid 1950s. This figure declined over the next few decades but began to rise again in 1992. The top 50% of the population own practically all the wealth leaving just 6% to the remaining 50% of the population.[18]

Some 20th century inventions, discoveries and applications

1901Ransom Olds – assembly line1951Charles Ginsburg – video tape
1902Willis Carrier – air conditioning1952Woodland & Silver – bar code
1903Wright brothers – aeroplanes1953David Warren – black box flight recorder
1904Christian Hülsmeyer – radar1954Buckminster Fuller – geodesic dome
1905Albert Einstein – relativity1955Jonas Salk – polio vaccine
1906Reginald Fessenden – radio broadcast1956Christopher Cockerell – hovercraft
1907Leo Baekeland – bakelite1957John Backus – FORTRAN
1908Jacques Brandenberger – cellophane1958Kilby & Noyce – integrated circuit
1909Ernst Alexanderson – alternator1959Wilson Greatbatch – pacemaker
1910Georges Claude – neon lights1960Fridrich & Wiley – halogen lamps
1911Ward Ireland – stenotype1961Thomas Fogarty – balloon catheter
1912O’Conor & Faber – Formica1962Philips Company – audio cassette
1913Henry Ford – mass production1963Doug Engelbart – computer mouse
1914John Hammond – radio remote control1964Kemeny & Kurtz – BASIC
1915Sullivan & Taylor – Pyrex1965Stephanie Kwolek – kevlar
1916Robert Ewing – incandescent gas lamp1966Kilby, Van Tassel & Merryman – calculator
1917Boyle & Wood – SONAR1967Robert Dennard – DRAM
1918Edwin Armstrong – super heterodyne1968Dr. Christiaan Barnard – heart transplant
1919Charles Strite – pop up toaster1969Advanced Research Projects Agency – arpanet
1920Earle Dickson – Band Aid1970Alan Shugart – floppy disk
1921John Larson – lie detector1971Faggin, Hoff & Mazor – microprocessor
1922Sir Frederick Banting – insulin1972Nolan Bushnell – pong video game
1923Garrett Morgan – traffic light1973Robert Metcalfe – ethernet
1924Clarence Birdseye – frozen food1974Fry & Silver – post it notes
1925John Logie Baird – mechanical TV1975Kodak – digital camera
1926Hans Geiger – Geiger counter1976Jobs & Wozniak – PC
1927Philo Farnsworth – electronic TV1977Raymond Damadian – MRI
1928Alexander Fleming – penicillin1978Bricklin & Frankston – spreadsheet
1929Lear & Wavering – car radio1979Sony – Walkman
1930Richard Drew – cellophane tape1980Sony & Philips – CD
1931Knoll & Ruska – electron microscope1981Binnig & Rohrer – scanning microscope
1932Karl Jansky – radio telescope1982Dr. William DeVries – artificial heart implant
1933Edwin Armstrong – fm radio1983Frenkiel and Engel – mobile phone
1934Percy Shaw – cat’s eyes1984Alec Jeffreys – DNA fingerprinting
1935Wallace Carothers – nylon1985Microsoft – Windows
1936Walt Disney – multiplane camera1986Gregory Gallico III – synthetic skin
1937Chester Carlson – xerography1987Eli Lilly & Co – Prozac
1938Ladislas & Georg Biro – ballpoint pen1988Christian Doppler – doppler radar
1939Igor Sikorsky – helicopter1989Sir Timothy Berners-Lee – www
1940Alan Turing – Turing machine1990Gilles Saint-Hilaire – quasiturbine
1942Enrico Fermi – nuclear reaction1991Dr. Kazuo Hashimoto – digital answering
1943Gagnan & Cousteau – aqualung1992Schentag & D’Andrea – smart pill
1944Willem Kolff – kidney dialysis1993Shuji Nakamura – LEDS
1945Percy Spencer – microwave oven1994Eric Fossum – CMOS semiconductor
1946Marion Donovan – disposable nappies1995Philips, Sony, Toshiba & Panasonic – DVD
1947Bardeen, Brattain, Shockley – transistor1996Diba & Zenith – web TV
1948George de Mestral – velcro1997IEEE standards – wifi
1949Ole Christiansen – Lego1998Brin and Page – Google
1950Ralph Schneider – Diners Club card1999Ericsson, Intel, Nokia, Toshiba, IBM – bluetooth