Ideas that changed the world

Ideas that have influenced and changed the world. This includes political ideas, such as democracy, nationalism and socialism; it also includes technological, religious, and scientific ideas and movements.

Political ideas


Akropolis by Leo_von_Klenze In early history, most societies were governed by a small clique of oligarchs or just one powerful king / ruler. Democracy has been a revolutionary idea that everybody in society should have a say in how they are governed, who governs them, and also gives everybody an opportunity to participate. The evolution of democracy has been a gradual process. Ancient Greece had some of the earliest experiments in participatory democracy, with writers like Aristotle sharing democratic ideas. In 1215 the King of England was forced to sign the Magna Carta – based on the important principle that the power of a king wasn’t absolute, but subject to approval by (at least some of) his subjects. It is only in the Twentieth Century that we have seen the widespread adoption of universal democracies with all adults able to vote and take part in the political system. See: People who helped shape the growth of democracy)

Independence Movements (1776)

United_States_Declaration_of_Independence In the Eighteenth Century the idea of empire building was well established. Major European powers took it as a natural right to increase their wealth through expanding their Empires overseas. The American Independence movement was one of the first major breaks from a colonial power. American colonies (which had previously thought themselves as British) sought independence and the right to govern themselves. Throughout the 19th and 20th Century, independence movements have been some of the most powerful political forces in the world. For example Simon Bolivar leading many Latin American countries to independence. In 1947, India gained independence from the UK, which marked the ending of the British Empire.


Womens_suffrage_demonstration_in_Paris_on_5_July_1914_-_Le_Figaro Through most of human history, power was largely exercised by men, with the lives of women limited to narrow spheres. It was widely believed that women were not suited to certain jobs, voting or taking part in politics. In the Nineteenth Century, the women’s suffrage movement campaigned for the right of women to have the vote. There were similar attempts for women to move into previously men only fields. For example, in the Nineteenth Century we see the first registered female doctors, lawyers and engineers. Gradually over the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries we have seen women gain increased rights and opportunities, which were previously denied. (see: Women’s rights activists)

Communism (19th and 20th Century)

russian-communist-poster Against the backdrop of Victorian Capitalism, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto, which called for a revolution to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a Communist society based on equality. The political and economic philosophy was an important feature in the Russian revolution. Communism led to a polarising of politics during the Twentieth Century, and was supported by many counties seeking liberation from colonial rule. Communism as a political force largely died out with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. (See: Famous Socialists)

League of Nations / United Nations

United_Nations In the aftermath of the First World War, US President Woodrow Wilson wanted to create a new world order which would prevent such a devastating war in the future. Among his 14 points, he advocated the creation of a League of Nations, which would be an international forum trying to help defuse conflict and offer diplomatic solutions. The League of Nations proved very limited in influence, but after the Second World War, a second attempt was made with the creation of a United Nations. This included all major powers and has often played a leading role in global affairs.

Human Rights (1948)

Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen_in_1789 Throughout history, many states have ignored basic human rights. The universal declaration of human rights made an attempt to formalise these basic human rights. – “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)

European Union

European_Parliament_Strasbourg_Hemicycle_-_Diliff Up to 1945, European countries were frequently at war, often with devastating consequences. In the post-war period there was a desire to create a European organisation which would promote harmony, co-operation and an end to national rivalries.  The EEC was created in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome. The EEC has evolved into the European Union (EU) and now includes 28 European countries and, with the exception of the Yugoslavian civil war, has helped promote a new era of stability and peace.


Scientific ideas

Scientific Method

newton In the Middle Ages / Renaissance there was a growing use of the scientific method. Rather than relying on past texts, previous beliefs and even mythology – scientific method sought to understand scientific truths through observation of the natural world. It also involved creating hypothesis and testing them against observable results. It was a critical aspect of the scientific revolution of the Renaissance period. Early pioneers of the scientific method include the Muslim scholar Ibn al-Haytham, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon.


Heliocentric In the medieval ages, it was believed that the earth was the centre of the earth. Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, was the first to challenge this theory with his revolutionary De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543). Copernicus used mathematics and astronomical observations to formulate a theory that the earth revolved around the sun. It was revolutionary for challenging the orthodoxy of Aristotleian philosophy and the view of the Catholic Church. 60 years later Galileo Galilee published a work supporting this Copernican view; it led to Galileo’s arrest for heresy and his book was banned, but ultimately, the heliocentric view became accepted, marking the start of a new Scientific era.

Gravity (1687)

apple-tree Sir Isaac Newton published Principia Mathematica in 1687 – it explained laws of motion, the universal theory of gravity and developed concepts of calculus. It revolutionised how we viewed the world – for example, understanding that the moon revolved around the earth because the earth had a greater mass and therefore greater gravitational pull. Newton was the founding father of modern physics and his work provided a template for future physicians and mathematicians for the next couple of centuries.

Free market economics (1776)

wealth-of-nations At the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith wrote the classic text ‘Wealth of Nations’ – it expressed principles which could help increase economic well-being. Smith expressed the benefits of the invisible hand of the free market and the benefits of free trade. Smith was not uncritical of free markets, for example, pointing out problems of monopoly. But, his theory formed the basis of classical economic theory. Although economists differ on the extent to which governments should intervene to overcome problems of the free market, most economists agree the importance of free market principles in certain aspects of economics.

Evolution (1859)

Ape_skeletons In the mid Nineteenth Century, many believed that the Bible was the literal word of God. This included a belief that the world was only 6,000 years old, and that God created the first humans, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eve. Darwin’s theory of evolution radically altered how we viewed the creation of life. Darwin showed that man had gradually evolved through a process of natural selection. Evolution radically altered our view of biology, history and showed the limitations of a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Relativity / Quantum Theory (1920)

Einstein_1921_by_F_Schmutzer_-_restoration Albert Einstein developed a theory of relativity – the idea that time and space were not uniform but could vary depending on circumstances; it allowed for a universe of infinite possibilities and greater unpredictability. Quantum theory was important for the development of both atomic power and nuclear bombs. It has also been used in new technology such as GPS.

The unconscious

Freud_and_other_psychoanalysts_1922 Sigmund Freud was a pioneering psychoanalyst who placed much greater importance on dreams and the subconscious. It led to the development of psycho-analysis and an attempt to understand the sub-conscious mind. Even if many have rejected Freud and is theories of the Oedipus Complex, it has opened up new fields of research and interest that were previously not considered.

Technological ideas


Tomb_of_Nakht_(2) Early man was a hunter-gather – frequently on the move, seeking to find his next meal. In these very primitive societies, there was very little opportunity for developing stability, culture and more advanced forms of civilisation. The adoption of farming methods, such as growing early forms of wheat, oats and barley allowed humans to settle in particular locations, building up more cohesive societies and embryonic city states. Farming also enabled a better diet, and gave man more free time to pursue activities other than gathering food. It is farming that enabled the development of human civilisation more than anything.

Electricity (1832)

electricity In the Nineteenth Century, great strides were made in harnessing the power of electricity and enabling it to be used in modern society. In particular, Michael Faraday invented an electric motor in 1821. Later scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison helped make electricity to become a practical tool of modern life, enabling electric light, TVs and a whole range of modern appliances which have saved time for households, enabling more leisure and productivity.

World Wide Web

www From the late 1960s, computer engineers devised methods of connecting computers through networks which could share data. However, it was the creation of the world wide web by Tim Berners Lee in 1990 that helped to unlock the power of the internet. Over the next two decades, use of the internet mushroomed, radically changing the availability of data and knowledge across the world. The World Wide Web has had an enormous impact on society, changing the way we shop, interact and share information.


Religious / spiritual ideas


buddha_sun Many different religious traditions have stressed the importance of striving for spiritual enlightenment rather than worldly success. For example, the Buddha taught that man could overcome the inevitable suffering of life through meditation – controlling the mind, letting go of desire and entering the universal consciousness of nirvana. Other religions have used different language, but the main idea is that the real goal of life is spiritual attainment, and this has  inspired many to prioritise the spiritual life – over worldly accomplishments.

The Golden Rule

St-Patrick “Do unto others, what you would have done to you.” Act towards others how you would like to be treated. If we look upon everyone as our self or dearest relative, we would not hate, deceive or injure, but would behave only with love and compassion. If people followed the golden rule it would transform the world. The Golden Rule can be found, in some form, in all major religious and spiritual traditions.

Religious Tolerance

promote-religious-tolerance Often, adherents of religions have felt that only their religion is the right one. To assert their supremacy they have sought to downplay other religions. This has even led to religious persecution and religious conflict. However, in recent decades there has been a growing awareness of religious tolerance and religious unity. The idea that all religions can offer different ways to the same goal. In 1893 at the inaugural World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda made an influential case for religious tolerance and the underlying unity of different religions. This Parliament is often considered the beginning of the global inter-faith community.


Citation : Pettinger, Tejvan. “Ideas that changed the world”, Oxford, 5 April, 2015.


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