Top 10 Headlines of the Nineteenth Century


We tend to reflect less on the news of the 19th century, since newspapers were densely-packed walls of text, and TV, radio, and computers did not yet exist.But just as much incredible stuff happened in that century as the 20th and 21st. Here are some of the most note-worthy news stories that the 1800’s ever produced.

10. First Train Operates in England, February 1804


When English inventor Richard Trevithick ran his first, working steam engine along a set a tracks between the Pen-y-darren ironworks near Merthyr Tydfil to the nearby town of Abercynon in south Wales in February 1804, he probably had no idea of the impact his ungainly (and only marginally successful) machine would have. Within a few decades of that early test run, passenger trains would become the normal mode of travel for millions throughout century, and would revolutionize travel, industry, and society. Reaching their glory years in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the venerable train remains with us still, though it has long since shed its reputation as the smoke and steam belching monstrosity it once was, to become the diesel/electric monstrosity it is today.

9. Charles Darwin Articulates the Theory of Evolution, 1859


With the publication of Darwin’s naturalist treatise On the Origin of Species, the worlds of science and religion—which had up to then been largely allies—became bitter enemies. Darwin’s ideas that life evolved over immense periods of geological time was in such sharp contrast to Christianity’s teaching that the world that all life was divinely created about 6,000 years ago, that it not only shook the religious world to its core, but formed the basis for all modern earth science. Even though there are still many who continue to challenge Darwin’s theory to this day, it has been generally accepted by the scientific community as fact and, as such, has had a profound impact on everything from social engineering to medicine. This would make 1859, it would seem, the year when modern science first took flight.

8. Suez Canal Opens, November 1869


While most people may not see how the construction of a simple canal across the Suez Desert might be considered that big a deal, consider how the ability to sail from Europe directly to the Orient, without having to round Africa, would have impacted trade on a global scale a century and a half ago. The brainchild of French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, the 120-mile long canal dramatically shortened sailing times, and opened parts of the world to trade that had been mere backwaters beforehand. Unfortunately, it also left many formerly thriving African ports desolate, as ships bypassed the continent entirely, slowing coastal Africa’s development substantially. It wouldn’t be until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 that such a dramatic and far-reaching engineering feat would be equaled again, making the world a much smaller place than it had been previously.

7. Alexander Graham Bell Invents the Telephone, March 1876


In this age of cell phones and instant communication, it’s sometimes easy to forget it all started almost 140 years ago with the invention of the telephone, but this was the invention that has made our present age of instant communications possible. Of course, the telegraph had been around for awhile (and was every bit as important an invention) but with the telephone, the promise of instant voice communication around the world—and without the need for telegraph operators or the need to know Morse code—became not only possible, but inevitable.

Interestingly, Bell almost wasn’t the man who invented the telephone. It seems he had keen competition in one Elisha Gray, whom he beat to the patent office by a mere two hours.

6. Battleship Maine Sunk in Havana Harbor, February 1898


While the accidental sinking of an American warship would not seem to be that big a deal, when the battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor on the evening of February 15th, 1898, killing 274 men and officers, it started a chain of events that would culminate in the United States going to war with Spain and  becoming a colonial power as a result of that dominating win. The unfortunate thing about it is that most naval historians today agree that the vessel was more likely the victim of an accidental magazine explosion than a Spanish mine, the war being more a result of errant assumption and ardent nationalism on the part of the United States rather than an act of aggression by Spain (who had neither the resources nor the motive to want to see war with the States.)

5. Nelson Defeats French and Spanish Fleets at Trafalgar, October 1805


This massive naval engagement in the waters off Cadiz, Spain in October of 1805 ended French and Spanish domination of the seas, and paved the way for England to become the premier naval superpower of the nineteenth century (a title it would not relinquish until well into the twentieth century.) The battle also immortalized Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died during the battle and became one of England’s most legendary heroes. His flagship, HMS Victory, even survives to this day and serves as a museum in Portsmouth, England, where it takes in more than 350,000 visitors each year.

4. President Lincoln Assassinated, April 1865


What the JFK assassination was to twentieth century America, Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C. on the evening of April 14, 1865 was to nineteenth century America. Struck down at the height of his popularity, and only days after overseeing the end of America’s costliest war, the death of the President sent shockwaves throughout the country that were to have immense repercussions for decades to come.

Sine Lincoln had advocated a reconciliatory approach to a defeated South, his death opened the door for a more brutal approach to reconstruction, which did much to extend the bitter feelings in the Southern states throughout the balance of the century. Had Lincoln lived, it’s very likely reconstruction would have taken a very different direction, and the civil rights struggles of the last 150 years would have gone very differently.

3. Confederate Troops Fire Upon Fort Sumter, April 1861


In direct response to the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency, South Carolina secedes from the Union, and its troops open fire on the Union’s main fort off Charleston, Fort Sumter. Its surrender two days later not only led to the eventual secession of eleven southern states, but proved to be the opening shots in what was to become the bloodiest war in American history. Though there were no casualties on either side, it was one of the most seminal events in American history, one which would divide the nineteenth century into two very distinct parts: the antebellum pre-industrial first half, and the post-war, industrial second half.

2. Lee Suffers Major Defeat at Gettysburg, July 1863


In the key turning point of the Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee is defeated at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania by Union forces under General George Meade, effectively ending Lee’s summer offensive into Pennsylvania. Had it gone the other way, it’s quite possible Lee would have been able to threaten Washington D.C., and may have even been able to force the North to agree on terms of surrender. Thus, this is one of those rare pivotal moments in history where everything truly changed. As it was, the three-day battle marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, who was never again able to threaten the North, and was forced to play defense until  inevitable demise two years later.

1. Napoleon Defeated at Waterloo, June 1815


In one of the most decisive battles in the history of Europe, an Anglo-Dutch army led by the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian army led by Field-Marshal Blücher defeated Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo, Belgium. This finally brought an end to the French Emperor’s expansionist plans, and making Great Britain the premier power in Europe for the balance of the century. While it’s always fun to speculate what might had happened had Napoleon been the victor that day, it’s likely that had the emperor won, France would have been the super power in Europe for the remainder of the century, reshaping the political and social climate of Europe in profound ways as a result.

Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at Our Curious World.

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  1. The author couldn’t have been more wrong about number one. While Waterloo may be history’s most famous battle, it did NOT make a “top ten” level of historical impact. Even if Napoleon had won, it would have only postponed his final defeat by a couple of months as Russia and Austria were also preparing to join the conflict if needed. France was totally exhausted and all Bonaparte was hoping for at that point, was to retain power in France, get custody of his son back and establish his line.

    There was absolutely no chance that France would have been the dominant nation in Europe had Napoleon won at Waterloo.

  2. It’s difficult to comprehend how the Nineteenth Century changed things. Someone (dunno who) has said, “The century opened with the steam engine, and closed with the bicycle”.

    • Actually, the 19th century closed with the internal combustion engine. A fairly complete history of the 20th century could be written using the ic engine as a starting point. Environment, economy, warfare, social mobility and sexual habits, just to name a few.

  3. No telegraph, typewriter, sewing machine, cotton gin? Pasteur’s discoveries? Tsar Alexander’s II liberation of the serfs? Perry’s opening of Japan? X-rays?

    • Those are all important technological achievements and historical events, but if you are going by top ten, then they don’t compare to what is on this list, IMO. The telegraph compared to the telephone? Phone wins, hands down, and he explained why. No one cared how their cotton got made so it wasn’t a headline. Same goes for the sewing machine. The true impact of Pasteur’s discoveries weren’t felt really until much later. The liberation of the serfs? Important, yes, but that only impacted the serfs, not the world as a whole, where a lost of these events had world wide repercussions. Same goes for Perry opening Japan. To most people Japan was a curious backwater at he back of beyond full of barbarians that murdered sailors that washed up on their shores. X-rays? To most they were a curiosity.

  4. If we’re talking about the Napoleonic Wars, why is Trafalgar mentionned but Austerlitz or Jena-Auerstadt, battles which made Napoleonic France the master of Europe for a decade, changing it forever, not mentionned instead?

    • I think because the results of those battles were undone within a decade. If you look at these choices the repercussions were either felt well into the following century or like the sinking of the Maine now infamous because of the result of sensationalist journalism.

      • Agree. The US was a naval world power by the end of the 19th century. The Maine was just an excuse to use the fleet. If not that, something else. Essentially, war games with live ammo.