Brave new world

With the birth of airplanes, quantum physics, hamburgers, psychoanalysis, the mass media and the Labour Party, the 20th century took off like a rocket in its first few years. Is our new millennium showing the same sort of form?
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The Independent Online

It was a hell of a way to start a century. On 22 January 1901, Queen Victoria died. The longest-reigning monarch in British history, she had been on the throne for 63 years - for such a long time that, when Edward VII was crowned, nobody could be found to advise the court dignitaries as to the protocol of coronation. Nobody could remember back that far about the niceties of who walked where in the procession. They had to make it up as they went along. Victorianism was dead, along with the woman whose name had come to symbolise an era, a way of thinking, a value system, an imperial dream. The new world had arrived. As if to symbolise the kick-starting of a modern century, scientists discovered, that summer, how to manufacture adrenaline.

It was a hell of a way to start a century. On 22 January 1901, Queen Victoria died. The longest-reigning monarch in British history, she had been on the throne for 63 years - for such a long time that, when Edward VII was crowned, nobody could be found to advise the court dignitaries as to the protocol of coronation. Nobody could remember back that far about the niceties of who walked where in the procession. They had to make it up as they went along. Victorianism was dead, along with the woman whose name had come to symbolise an era, a way of thinking, a value system, an imperial dream. The new world had arrived. As if to symbolise the kick-starting of a modern century, scientists discovered, that summer, how to manufacture adrenaline.

The concept of a new century is a head-spinner. It suggests all kinds of metaphors: a vast, white canvas, a clean slate, a huge piece of paper on which a million events, catastrophes, marvels and novelties are to be inscribed. The first few days of a century seem like the teeniest, most inconsequential period - the first steps on a journey of a thousand miles. Nothing is going to happen, we just know, until a few years have passed. The 21st century will take ages to get born, to acquire some recognisable features, to sit up and walk. This, the start of a new 100 years, is just dead time, isn't it?

Not so. If you look at the world of a century ago, and look specifically at Britain, it's astonishing how much happened right at the start of the century. Looking back, it's possible to claim that most of the 20th century's crucial or defining features got under way in the first few years - more specifically, in a creative burst just 60 months long, from the spring of 1900 to the spring of 1905. Everything happened at once.

Quantum theory was first elaborated in 1900 by Max Planck, in an address to the Berlin Physical Society on 17 December. Five years later, a lowly clerk called Albert Einstein, working in the Bern Patent Office, Switzerland, published three papers - on Planck's theories, Brownian motion, and his own first theory of relativity, in 1905. "This was a big advance," commented Rebecca West drily in her book 1900, "which might be compared to the discovery by the sightless of the workings of the hot water or electricity supply, of which they had till then availed themselves in a state of ignorant, turn-on-the-tap enjoyment".

Between these landmarks came breakthrough work by Rutherford and Soddy on the theory of radioactivity in 1904, and the inventions of the microscope and the electroscope, both in 1903. Nice grouping, eh? The whole panoply of quantum mechanics, atomic theory, subatomic physics and their offshoots in nuclear weapons - it all came together in a giant intellectual synthesis in these 60 months.

Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (described by Jung as "epoch-shattering") was published in 1900, but was greeted by a mortified silence from the medical profession and the reviewing trade. Introducing the reading public to the existence of the Unconscious, the idea that repression and transference of guilt cause hysteria, to the symbolic presence of male and female genitalia in their nightly reveries, and the likelihood that all men secretly want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers, was, inevitably, an uphill struggle. In two years the first edition of 600 sold just 228 copies. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life came out in 1901, introducing the world to Freudian slips, and the reason why we go out of our way to avoid walking down streets whose names have disturbing associations. For all our airy usage today of "neurosis", "libido" and "defence mechanism", it took much time and controversy for the Viennese sage to wake up the world.

On a cold and windy morning on 17 December 1903, Orville Wright and his brother Wilbur took off in an air machine equipped with a petrol engine. It rose 9ft in the air and flew for about 30 seconds. They'd made it in the workshop where they made bicycles, and had jettisoned popular theories of manned flight: instead of having wings that flapped like a bird's, they elected to use fixed wings that would allow their machine to glide after take-off. Down at ground level, I can't, unfortunately, claim that motor cars got started in this heady five years: Gottlieb Daimler had invented an internal combustion engine and Karl Benz had built the first single-cylinder engine for a motor car back in 1885. But the first British motor-bike appeared in 1901, as did the first taxi, and Detroit started its iron rule as the world's Motor City in 1903. Oh, and Mr Rolls met Mr Royce a year later.

Nor can one plausibly slot the invention of the popular press into the 60-month mirabilis, since the Daily Mail was launched by Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, in 1896. But the twin phenomena of the tabloid battle and the meglomaniac, world-conquering media baron - those crucial elements of the late 20th century - have their first outings in its earliest years. The Daily Express first appeared on 24 May, 1900. Its founder, Arthur Pearson, a one-time friend of Harmsworth and editor of the populist Pearson's Weekly, envied the Mail's unprecedented daily circulation of a million copies and set out to grab some of the action, flagrantly copying its rival's size, price and shape, and most of all, its subject matter - small, sensationalist, scandalous little stories, written to be understood by the newly-literate lower middle classes. Northcliffe responded by bringing out the Daily Mirror two years later, aimed at the working classes, full of photographs rather than line drawings, and half the size of normal newspapers - the tabloid was born. Northcliffe later bought The Times and gave the distinguished old paper a mass readership by the simple stratagem of lowering the price. Sound familiar?

Magazines and journals were exploding in all directions, from the most trivial and footling (errand-boy's Comic Cuts and parlour-maid's Home Chat) to the newly dignified and academic. The Times Literary Supplement first came out in 1902. A liking for printed gossip and aristocratic tittle-tattle that came to characterise the whole Edwardian period made a success of Tatler, launched in 1901, and its hugely eccentric rival The Candid Friend, first published in May of the same year. The Friend's editor was Frank Harris, the notoriously scheming and mendacious skirt-chaser, who ran it as a peculiar hybrid of Private Eye, Hello! and The Lady.

Spare a thought - or perhaps a place in the lowest circle of hell - for Louis Lassen, an otherwise undistinguished caterer from New Haven, Connecticut who created a monster. He ran a small roadside café and, having lunch one day in 1900, he put a hamburger steak between two bits of bread and ate it. "Hamburger steaks" had been around since the early 19th century, brought to America by German sailors (presumably from Hamburg). As Hunter Davies shrewdly points out in Born 1900, the real hamburger explosion had to wait until the World Exposition in St Louis in 1904, where punters enjoyed for the first time the satisfaction of wandering about, watching the excitements, with a cooked meat snack steaming inside a sesame bun held in their fingers.

In domestic circles, a century of labour-saving devices was beginning with one of the most crucial - the vacuum cleaner. A man called Cecil Booth adapted a motor transport into a "vacuum lorry", which drove slowly down the street with long tubes and brass nozzles running from its flanks, and cleaned all the rooms in each house before moving on. Housewives had to wait seven years until one James M Spangler, the Dyson de ses jours, came up with the portable electric vacuum cleaner.

What else? Oh, a short-lived little political movement had its first meeting at Memorial Hall, Farringdon Street, London on 27 February, 1900. It was the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress. Tired of the Liberal Party's anaemic support of miners, railwaymen and other unionised workers, the met to discuss "labour representation" in Parliament, to establish a coherent political party that would link up with the Liberals in the Commons to overturn the infamous Taff Vale judgement, which effectively debarred unions from going on strike. Sidney and Beatrice Webb were there, and Bernard Shaw. The first secretary elected that evening by the newly-christened Labour Representation Committee was one Ramsay MacDonald. The meeting was a success ("I will swear, the most important event in 1900" - Rebecca West) and, after the General Election of 1906, the group changed its name to the Labour Party. The rest you know.

Elsewhere, George Moore was publishing Principia Ethica and providing a kind of moral blueprint by which the Bloomsbury Group and their descendants in Britain's liberal intelligentsia lived, or tried to live, their lives. Picasso was visiting Paris for the first time in 1900, aged 19, painting girls from the Montmartre music hall in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec and looking for a style of his own. In December 1901, an American couple called Mr and Mrs Disney gave birth to Walt. And one of the legacies of the Boer War was the arrival in Britain of a new phrase meaning the special corralling-off of significant prisoners: "concentration camp".

It's an awesome roll-call of modern-ness, this litany of inventions. Airplane flight; the Unconscious mind; the nature of atoms, light and energy; trades union muscle; the TLS; the mass media; motorbikes; vacuum-cleaners; hamburgers; popular culture; tabloid gossip and the People's Party, all busily getting under way between spring 1900 and spring 1905. The whole century, it seems, was available in miniature, a five-year maquette of flying, thinking, behaving, eating, discovering, reading, travelling, voting and being entertained. With the exception of television, the internet, space travel (but what is space travel but the Wright Brothers at greater altitude?), rock'n'roll, moving pictures (the Lumiÿre brothers invented the cinematograph in 1895) and the skateboard, I can't think of many 20th century activities not represented, at least implicitly, by these events. (And don't say "war". The last century didn't invent it. It just took its modus operandi to terribly logical conclusions.)

It might be happening again just under our noses. The whole 21st century might be no more than some massive elaborations of things getting started in the next couple of years. The future is being invented right now, as we sit here with our hangovers, worrying about it. Come in, Doctor Freud, Mr Einstein, Señor Picasso. What have you got for us today?

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