1914 vs. 1776: Charting History's Biggest Turning-Point Years

How It Works
Jan. 6 2014 2:30 PM

What Are History’s Biggest Turning-Point Years?

1389036137
First time as tragedy.

Wikimedia commons

This year, we’re likely to see quite a bit of public commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and a slew of new 1914 books already hit shelves toward the end of last year.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

1914 is obviously one of those big years, like 1776, 1848, 1945, or 1989, that serves as shorthand for major historical events or transformations. (Quick plug for the very good books Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by my former colleague Christian Caryl and 1959: The Year Everything Changed by my current colleague Fred Kaplan.)

Advertisement

But which year was the biggest transformational year of them all? Northeastern University historian Ben Schmidt plotted out the years used in the titles of dissertation tracked by the American Historical Association for the last 120 years, and came up with the graph below:

1389036316

1945 is clearly the all-time champ. But as you can see, the results are a little skewed by the fact historians really like years divisible by 10 and 5.  To remove that effect, Schmidt ran an algorithm that weighted years’ distance from multiples of 5, 10, 50, and 100. The chart below shows the years that most exceed expectations, the ones that are famous for the events that happened during them rather than simply because they began a decade or century:

1389036387

Unexpectedly for me, 1763, the year the Seven Years’ War ended and also a key date in the run-up to the American Revolution, turns out to be the year that most exceeds expectations. Next up are the more obvious dates of 1914, 1789, 1848, and 1776.

What about more modern dates? The Berlin Wall/Tiananmen year of 1989 has already joined the pantheon. 2001 will surely eventually make the cut for 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terrorism. The beginning of the Arab Spring protests may make 2011 a candidate.

Will the year we’re just beginning make the cut? As a lot of the discussion of 1914-2014 parallels this week has made clear, turning point years aren’t necessarily ones you want to live through.   

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.