The 20th century is one of the most significant times in history.


The 20th century is one of the most significant times in history. This is the century in which both World War I and World War II were fought. The association between science and war came close in the same century with the transformation from the chemist in the World War I to the physicist war in the World War II. During this period, science was able to reshape warfare and it enabled the human to have the power to destroy the entire world. There was also reciprocal association too because the warfare also influenced the direction of science (Bowles, 2012). Comparing the two World Wars, a significant difference could be noticed. The first war was more about chemical warfare whereas the second war implemented laws and principles of physics.

World War I was famous for various reasons including the new technologies. It was a period in history where combat fought in trenches was met with the new weapons that were destructive, like the dynamites and machine guns. Many men suffered, froze, and starved in the dug trenches, hardly surviving the situations. When they left the trenches they often met the machine gun fire. The machine gun was able to destroy the opposing force. Admiralty Winston Churchill admitted that in order to overcome a mechanical danger one has to use mechanical remedy (Bowles, 2012). Thus the Entente forces established that the remedy was to utilize tanks. Even though the tank was a response to the potential of the machine gun, the commanders utilized it less efficiently during World War I compared to the way they used it years later in World War II.

World War I was shaped by the scientific weapons to the extent that it was referred to as the chemist war, since the professionals conquered the scientific specialists with their capability to establish explosive devices and weaponized gases. The first country to make gas weapons in significant amounts was Germany, to utilize in the chemical warfare whereas the U.S Navy and Army projects used over 40 different universities and colleges in the US in the support of the new weapons which assured a military lead. A lot of people perished from the poison gas attacks with the first happening in France in the year 1915. In a substantial way the inventory compromised with the home technologies which played a significant role in the battle of chemicals during the World War I—for instance, the establishment of the gas masks. Garrett Morgan was the most notable person in the development of science and was recognized for creation of the first stop-light in the Cleveland. However, the gas masks that he made never completely overcame the chemist gas attacks threat but presented significant security counter measure.

The advancement of the technology during the First World War transformed the way the battle was fought because of new inventions like the aircraft, chemical weapons and tanks changed strategy and tactics. The continued industrialization and the expansion of trade, most of the changes of the century were indirectly or directly technological or economical in nature. The inventions like the automobile, light bulb and the telephone was followed by airliners, supertankers, radio, television, motorways, computers, and antibiotics affected the quality of life of people in the developed world. The scientific research, technological development and engineering professionalization led to changes in everyday lives.

One of the dangerous inventions by the scientist in the World War I was the gas cloud. This was a devastating cloud that was established by the physicists that defined the horrors of the World War II which was known as the physicist war. The gas cloud was the result of the remarkable knowledge concerning of the atom structure. The fact that all the matter is made from discrete particles known as atoms lead to the in discoveries in science history. By the year 1890, the scientists considered atoms as the billiard balls which were irreducible elements and the fundamental nature building blocks, but the whole subatomic creation was approaching discovery.

A French chemist and physicist, Marie Curie, identified radioactivity and also named it. She discovered new elements that emitted radiation just like uranium. They were named radium and polonium. Alongside with the radioactivity, scientists started learning more concerning the inner structure of atoms. In the year 1887, a British physicist made discovery of the electron existence. Ernest Rutherford was able to identify different types of rays in the uranium radiation and created an overall theory of the radiation indicating that it was caused by the atoms disintegration. Rutherford studied further the atoms and learnt that there was mass inside it that was referred to as nuclear.

The modern atomic model emerged out of his work and astonishingly it appeared to mirror the way that planets revolve around a sun. The negatively charged electrons revolved around the positively charged nucleus, which contained nearly all the mass of the atom in its protons and electrons. This was Rutherford’s model of the atom, called the solar-system model (Bowles, 2012). There was one more vital atomic particle yet to be discovered, and the power to manipulate it fundamentally changed the world, the Neutron.

The discovery of the neutron is now considered one of the most significant scientific findings of the 20th century. In 1920, Rutherford argued that there was another particle inside the atom that shared space with the protons, and though he called them neutrons, no one could experimentally prove that they existed. In 1932 Marie Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1900–1958), provided key evidence that led scientists to prove the existence of the neutron. In 1935, Irène and Frédéric won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, thus making Marie and Irène the first mother and daughter to win their own Nobel Prizes.

Leo Szilard (1898–1964) was among the first to envision a new use for neutrons. He conceptualized the possibility of releasing atomic energy through a chain reaction that began with the bombardment of neutrons. He further speculated that a devastating bomb could be made from this process. One year later he fled Nazi persecution in Berlin and immigrated to Britain, where in 1934 he applied for and received a patent on an atomic bomb. In 1937 he moved to the United States where he took a central place in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Through Szilard’s work an important transformation had taken place. Theoretical subatomic physics was ready for practical applications. The nucleus of an atom held a tremendous energy reserve, which would be released if the atom could be split (Bowles, 2012).

Atomic politics reached critical mass the day that German physicists Otto Hahn (1879–1968), Lise Meitner (1878–1968), and Fritz Strassman (1902–1980) at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry designed a tabletop device that split a uranium atom. In 1938, on the eve of World War II in which the German army led by Hitler began a conquest of Europe, their achievement led many physicists worldwide to begin exploring the implications of this phenomenon, one of which was a nuclear bomb (Kevles, 2001).

When the uranium atom split, not only were large amounts of energy created but also neutrons were released. Scientists like Szilard speculated that if the conditions were set up and controlled correctly, a chain reaction could occur with the expelled neutrons from the first split atom causing other nearby uranium atoms to do the same. This process could perpetuate itself, and if left unchecked, would unleash a terribly destructive power.

As Hitler’s armies continued to subdue European resistance, many elite German scientists fled to the United States to escape the horrors of Nazi anti-Semitism. These included Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) and Eugene Wigner (1902–1995). By this time Einstein was already living in the United States, having left Europe in 1933, and with his Jewish roots, he had no intention of returning. Once in the United States, physicists like these began a campaign to beat the Germans to the development of a nuclear bomb. After Japan surprised America with a December 7, 1941, attack on U.S. naval bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the pace of nuclear experimentation intensified, and efforts to develop a nuclear bomb became known as the Manhattan Project.

During World Wars (both one and two), science gave humans power to wage war and change regimes on a whole new level. The use of military and ultimately space technological advancement and the Cold War which was the battle fought by the democrats and the communists, that is, the capitalist United States and The Soviet Union. Space became yet another significant technological advancement as the late 1950s began. The two competitors tried to prove their prowess in military and political systems.

Cold War between Soviet and the U.S. became persistent in the mid-1950s. It was a way of life for both countries characterized by threats of nuclear weapons, wide array of espionage from one country and counter from the other. Tensions increased in both states propagated by media propagandas, The Korean war and events like the Berlin Wall construction, the war outbreak in the Southeast Asia and the missile that occurred in Cuba in 1962.

Exploration of space resulted into a significant impact in the Cold War fight. In the early 20th century, Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945) conducted various experiments on rocketry followed by his interest in achieving higher altitudes than air balloons. His publication known as A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes is a mathematical analysis of what is termed today as the meteorological sounding rocket (, n.d.).

The rocket called V-2 (A-4 in German) was smaller compared to today’s and achieved greater thrust as it burned a mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen and had the ability to lob a warhead one-ton in weight in a range of 50 mile up and 100 miles down. It was composed of a metal easy to collapse and easily flammable when fuel is introduced in the tank. V-2 was a destructive weapon once launched.

In the 4th of October, 1957, Sputnik (‘traveler” in Russian), a Soviet R-7 ballistic missile was launched. This was the first ever artificial object placed in the orbit of the earth. This hit America by surprise. The U.S followed suit in the following frontier. It was therefore important for the U.S. to gather the Soviet’s Military intelligence.

The United States then launched a satellite of its own known as Explore I, designed by The United States army and led by a renounced rocket scientist called Wernher von Braun. On the same year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created by president Dwight Eisenhower who in additional created two space programs specifically made for security purposes to work hand in hand with NASA’s program.

The first one was put in the hands of the United States Air force and its work was to exploit the potential of military in space. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Reconnaissance Office (which was classified until the beginning of 1990s),whose code name was Corona and the Air Force were put in charge of the second space program that uses satellites orbiting the earth to acquire intelligence regarding the Soviet together with allied countries.

Luna 2, launched in the year 1959 by the space program belonging to the Soviet was the first to hit the moon. Yuri Gagarin in April of 1961 became first human to orbit the Earth; he was travelling in a spacecraft called Vostok 1 that was in the form of a capsule. The U.S. on the other hand came up with Project Mercury, a project whose endeavors was to send a man into the space.

Engineers from NASA designed a spacecraft that was smaller and lighter as compared to Vostok. After conducting tests with chimpanzees; they held their first flight test in the March of 1961 after which the Soviet launched Gagarin. Alan Shepard was renounced the first American to travel in space.

John F. Kennedy, the U.S. president at the time, made a public claim that America will take a man to the surface of the moon before the decade ended. Project Apollo, a lunar landing project from NASA was established.

Following the establishment of Apollo, there was approximately 500 % increase in the budget of NASA and a total of 34,000 employees from NASA and 375,000 university personnel and industrial employees were involved in the lunar landing program. In the year 1967, 3 astronauts died due to fire outbreak in the course of launching simulations of Apollo. The Soviet’s program for lunar landing was slowed down following the death of Sergey Korolyov that occurred in Jan 1966. He was the chief Soviet space program engineer.

Apollo 8 was launched in Dec 1968 from a huge launch station for NASA located on Merit Island near Florida a place called Cape Canaveral. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin aboard Apollo 11 in 16th July 1969 set off on a mission to space. The lunar landing was a success on 20th July the same year and Armstrong was named the first human to set foot on the surface of the moon (History, 2010).

It is clear that the 20th century had the most significant impact in the history of science. There were major changes and significant achievements in the field of science and technology. The U.S won when it came to space technology that had started with Sputnik’s of the Soviet Union. The Soviet failed several times in the attempt to launch a lunar landing.


Bowles, M., & Kaplan, B. (2012). War and Space in the 20th Century. In Science and Culture throughout History.

Cassidy, D, C. (2013). A Short History of Physics in the American Century. EBSCO Publishing: eBook Collection (EBSCOhost)

Kevles, D. J. (2001). The physicists: The history of a scientific community in modern America, Revised Edition. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: Harvard Univ. Press.

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