When Did Things Happen?

To the extent that we were taught any history at all, I suspect that many of us learned our world history in a fairly linear fashion: “First the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Dark Ages, then the Renaissance” or some causative narrative like that. Although they’re easy to teach, these linear threads are 1) often misleading or outright taught wrong; and 2) miss out on the real point of history, which is how multi-threaded history really is. The fun part of history is how, in any given year, so many things were happening all at the same time.

Tim Urban at Wait But Why had a little post about this several years back called Horizontal History, which pokes at how our sense of historical time is so poorly developed. For the most part, and I fully count myself among this group, we don’t actually have a great sense of the relative timing or relative overlap of different major events and periods of history that happened to take place in different locations, or in different domains.

So, over the past week, I decided to have some fun on Twitter with it. I put out a series of polls, asking simple (but not necessarily easy!) questions about well-known historical events and when they happened.

Here are the results:

Just under 20% correct on our first question: the answer is Don Quixote. Volume 1 was published in 1605, with Volume 2 in 1615, in the time period of Habsburg Spain. That would be twenty years before the Chinese Qing Dynasty was founded on the other side of the world, and a century before the Salem Witch Trials and the South Sea Bubble.

Next question was sort of a trick question, but you mostly fell for the trick:

If you answered any of Suleiman, Luther or Cortez, you get at least partial credit, because all of those events happened within 3 close years of one another. (The correct answer is Suleiman the Magnificent becomes Sultan of the Ottoman Empire). But the one answer that’s definitely wrong is actually the one with the most votes – the Forbidden City in Beijing, which was built a whole century earlier.

Round three, a new kind of question:

No clear consensus from the audience here, but 31% of you got the answer right: The Nutcracker (1892) premiered 33 years later than the other three (1859). The first modern oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, the French seized Saigon (and were subsequently besieged), and Darwin finally published The Origin of Species after sitting on it for many years.

Round four:

Unlike the other questions so far, three out of these four events actually are somewhat sequential: they all have to do with Napoleon. The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, as he was rising to power. And Beethoven’s 9th symphony (1824) was written sort-of-about the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which culminated at Waterloo (1815).

So at the very least, out of the three Napoleon-related questions, you all voted in the right order (barely, though) – but a lot more people voted outside the Napoleon box and went for the Fall of the Shogun & restoration of imperial rule in Japan under Emperor Meiji (1868), which happened a good while later.

Next question, in another new format:

Congrats everyone! This is the first one we got right. The correct answer is indeed Simón Bolívar’s life, who helped liberate South America from Spanish colonial rule a whole generation before the other three periods.

Next up:

We also go this one right; almost by outright majority. Close!

1492 was a busy year: Columbus set sail from Spain on his famous voyage, Da Vinci was busy being a Renaissance Man (the Vitruvian Man is this drawing you’ve certainly seen before; its completion is sometimes dated to 1490 and sometimes to 1492, but I’m going with the latter here), and the Stiegl Brewery – still beloved today for their famous Radlers, among other things – was established.

St Peter’s Basilica, on the other hand, was started 14 years later in 1506 but was not actually completed until over a century later, in 1626. Churches take a long time to build.

Our winning streak is about to end, though:

Yeah we got this one really wrong. Exactly wrong, in fact.

First of all, one of our recurring themes is back: churches took a long time to build! Notre Dame construction started in 1163; so yeah, over 850 years ago. Before Genghis Khan, before the freaking Magna Carta which is what I for sure would have guessed was first. The Incas, on the other hand, were a lot more modern than most people think! The Aztecs and Incas were both contemporary to the European conquests, and the Incas (although they had begun to exist sometime in the late 1200s) only really became an empire in a meaningful sense in the 15th century.

Here’s a surprising one (it surprised me, anyway):

So, we got this one right, collectively. But I’m willing to bet that more than a few of the people who voted for the Prophet Muhammad’s life as the odd one out (the correct choice) thought that his life predated the other three. Nope! I especially would never have guessed that Saint Patrick came so early in history – I had filed him in my mind as a, like, 900-1000 AD type figure in history.

Next up, significantly more recently:

A third of you got this one right: it’s Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccine, 50 years before the other ones – monumental events in immigration, feminism, and religion in the 19th century.

Finally, let’s head to the 20th century and see if we’re any better at historical order.

This one would’ve surprised me; I for sure would have guessed the Fresno Drop as happening last, as did a plurality of you. But the correct answer is Yuri Gagarin going to space. Elvis’s pelvic censorship, Brown vs. Board of Education, and mythical the founding moment of Credit Cards all came before the first human in orbit.

(If you don’t know what the Fresno Drop was, by the way, please go look it up. You won’t be disappointed. However, I’m willing to bet that my newsletter readers are more familiar with what happened that day than your average slice of the population.)

Another 20th century question:

I think this is the first question where an outright majority of us got the question right. Kudos! Erwin Schrodinger proposed his riddle of the cat being both alive and dead at the same time, which went down in history as the most famous Quantum Physics thought experiment, back in 1935 – significantly before the other three events, which all took place in 1959.

And finally, here’s our last one:

Admittedly, I fudged this one a little bit – as you could pick a couple of different starting points for the patents on SRAM and DRAM, invented a couple years apart and patented over a multi-year process. But even so, the clear outlier is Malcolm X, who died earlier than I’d realized – in 1965. I was also surprised that I’d like to Buy the World a Coke, one of the most famous advertising campaigns of all time, didn’t actually begin until 1971.

That’s all folks! I hope you enjoyed this, and thanks to everyone who voted in the polls.

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