In 1900 the world at the beginning of the 20th century was largely an imperial one, with major European powers and the United States benefitting from the industrialisation of the 19th century. Nationalism and industrial forces for change would play a major part in shaping the world in the next hundred years. This writeup will explore the empires and industrial technology of 1900.
The world of the early 20th century was dominated by several large empires. The empires of China and the Ottomans had a history stretching back many centuries. The Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese colonial empires dated back to the 16th century, while Britain, France, Germany and Italy had empires which had grown largest in the preceding fifty years. The Americas had formerly been part of those European empires, and shared their languages and culture. Europe, too, had its own empires, notably those of the Austrian Habsburgs and the Russian Romanovs.
Most of the Pacific islands and Africa had been colonised since the 1870s, and Britain would win the Boer War in 1902, placing much of southern Africa under British rule. The British Empire was the largest in the world, including Canada, Australia, and the jewel in the crown, India.
Europeans were confident that they were bringing progress and civilisation to the world, and exported their languages, Christian religion, and many of their people. Empires, however, were not destined to dominate the world of the twentieth century. European expansion was a factor in the decline of Ottoman Turkey and Manchu China, and European social and political forces such as nationalism, social change, democracy, and socialism would all contribute to the downfall of empire and the rise of the nation state.
Industrial growth and technological change would prove to have a major impact on the economies of the world. Germany, the United States, and Japan had modernised considerably in the latter years of the 19th century, and grown in industrial power as a result. The European nations had also benefitted from technological advances, and used them to help their political expansion.
In 1900 Britain and Germany produced two-thirds of Europe's steel output, which itself totalled 17 million tons. Britain also produced more coal and textiles than the rest of Europe in total. Much of the rest of Europe was still agricultural, however, and outside Europe, only the United States was fully industrialised. Indeed even at this stage, the US was the world's leading manufacturing nation. Outside Europe, industrialisation was mainly limited to food processing and mineral extraction.
By 1900, Britain was at the heart of international commerce, with London as centre for mercantile loans, shipping, insurance, and commodity brokers. World trade had expanded over the preceding century, and some individuals had grown very wealthy, although the majority of the population were far less opulent. Iron, coal, and railways had transformed 19th century industry, and by 1900 new technology was emerging based on chemicals, electricity, and the internal combustion engine. 1900 can therefore be seen as a time when the seeds for a vibrant new century were already in place.
History of the 20th Century, ed. Richard Overy, Times Books, 2003