To the extent that we were taught any history at all, I suspect that many of us learned our world history in a fairly linear fashion: “First the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Dark Ages, then the Renaissance” or some causative narrative like that.
Although they’re easy to teach, these linear threads are 1) often misleading or outright taught wrong; and 2) miss out on the real point of history, which is how multi-threaded history really is.
The fun part of history is how, in any given year, so many things were happening all at the same time.
Tim Urban at Wait But Why had a little post about this several years back called Horizontal History, which pokes at how our sense of historical time is so poorly developed.
For the most part, and I fully count myself among this group, we don’t actually have a great sense of the relative timing or relative overlap of different major events and periods of history that happened to take place in different locations, or in different domains.
So, over the past week, I decided to have some fun on Twitter with it. I put out a series of polls, asking simple (but not necessarily easy!) questions about well-known historical events and when they happened.
Here are the results:
Just under 20% correct on our first question: the answer is Don Quixote. Volume 1 was published in 1605, with Volume 2 in 1615, in the time period of Habsburg Spain.
That would be twenty years before the Chinese Qing Dynasty was founded on the other side of the world, and a century before the Salem Witch Trials and the South Sea Bubble.
Next question was sort of a trick question, but you mostly fell for the trick:
If you answered any of Suleiman, Luther or Cortez, you get at least partial credit, because all of those events happened within 3 close years of one another. (The correct answer is Suleiman the Magnificent becomes Sultan of the Ottoman Empire).
But the one answer that’s definitely wrong is actually the one with the most votes – the Forbidden City in Beijing, which was built a whole century earlier.
Round three, a new kind of question:
No clear consensus from the audience here, but 31% of you got the answer right: The Nutcracker (1892) premiered 33 years later than the other three (1859).
The first modern oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, the French seized Saigon (and were subsequently besieged), and Darwin finally published The Origin of Species after sitting on it for many years.