10 things readers want in a history of the world

history composite #2

Andrew Marr's History of the World is attempting to tell the story of civilisation in eight hour-long episodes. Last week he spoke of the difficulty of choosing what to include, and what to leave out.

Charlemagne didn't make the cut. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb did. And there had to be a host of other difficult omissions.

We asked for your suggestions for often overlooked moments in world history. Here are 10.

1. Industrial ammonia


"The work of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in 1909 is particularly important. They paved the way for a worldwide expansion in mechanised agriculture." Ade Jones, Lydney, Glos

In 1909 Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch created a way of producing huge amounts of fertiliser by artificially synthesising ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen.

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

The fertiliser increased crop yields which allowed more food to be produced for a growing population. The process was described as conjuring "bread from air".

Without the Haber-Bosch process, about 40% of people - nearly three billion - would not be alive today because we could not produce the amount of food we need, says environmental expert Professor Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba.

"We have to eat and drink, everything else is optional. In that sense it's the most important scientific discovery. Organic agriculture would not provide enough food to feed the world."

But Haber's contribution to agriculture is often overshadowed by his work developing chemical weapons. During World War I, he developed the use of gas for warfare and his work was later used by the Nazis to poison Jews in the gas chambers.

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Of Jewish descent but "pardoned" because of his patriotic efforts in World War I, Haber was expelled from Germany after he refused to fire Jewish workers. He died of a heart attack one year later in 1934.

"We should remember his peaceful efforts before the Great War and recognise his contributions to science, useful for the whole of humanity to stave off possible famine," says Haber's godson, the historian Fritz Stern.

"He was a prime example of the complexities and contradictions of a scientist in wartime."

2. Andreas Hofer, rebel Austrian leader

"The story of Andreas Hofer deserves to be much more widely told." Dr Andrew Bellenkes, Pinswang, Austria

Napoleon and Austria

Arc de Triophe
  • Two of Napoleon's most famous victories fought against the Austrians - at Ulm and Austerlitz
  • Arc de Triomphe in Paris built to commemorate Austerlitz victory
  • Treaty of Vienna (1814) carved up Europe after Napoleon's defeat, and was a diplomatic triumph for the Austrian statesman Metternich

In 1809 Andreas Hofer led a rural rebel army to fight against Napoleon's troops to try and claim back Tyrol, a region of Austria that had been given to the German state of Bavaria.

An innkeeper in the countryside, his army was made up mostly of peasant workers and farmers. They only had improvised weapons and primitive military tactics.

For a short period in 1809 he ruled the land, announced new laws and made his own coins. But his success was short lived, and less than a year later, in exile, he was betrayed and executed.

Today he is celebrated as a hero. He has museums, books, streets and hotels named after him, but not many outside of Austria know who he is.

"If you look to Europe during the Napoleonic era, Tyrol was not of economic importance, it was just keeping the traffic routes between the North and South open," says historian and director of the Tiroler Landesmuseen, Wolfgang Meighoerner.

3. Alhazen and his work on optics

"The great Arabic scientific work of the 10th Century, and in particular the life of men such as Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen)." James, Bristol

Father of scientific method

  • Al-Haytham proved that we see because light enters our eyes
  • Many of his scientific discoveries were made while under a 10-year house arrest

Ibn al-Haytham was born in about 965 in what is now Iraq, and is regarded by some by some as the real father of the scientific method, predating Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes in the 17th Century.

Al-Haytham was the first to disprove the theory that we see objects by rays of light emitted from our eyes, realising instead that we see because light enters our eyes.

No other scientist before him had used maths to prove this process, says Prof Jim Al-Khalili from the University of Surrey.

"When the great scientific revolution took place in Europe, science had advanced so much that people forgot it was built on previous knowledge."

Al-Haytham was part of the golden age of Arabic science, and while Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages, he filled the gap, says Al-Khalili.

4. Danube script

The Neolithic civilisation of central Europe (6000-3,500BC) and the enigmatic Danube script, which possibly influenced the first true writing." Jeremy Glover, Leighton Buzzard

The Danube script is a controversial subject among archaeologists, some of whom claim it is the earliest known form of writing in the world.

The early signs are found on Neolithic artefacts such as pottery and spindle whorls, concentrated in the Balkans and associated with the Vinca culture.

Some think tablets from Tartaria, in Romania, are exceptional as they "really look like 'writing'", notes James Mallory, professor of prehistoric archaeology at Queen's University in Belfast.

But he says no-one can tell for sure whether they are random symbols, a system of select magical symbols, or possibly some form of early writing.

There has also been a debate about whether they actually date to the Vinca period or were later insertions into the mound, he says.

5. Double-entry book-keeping

"Double-entry book-keeping, which revolutionised commerce first in Europe and then the world over." Philippa Sutton, Newcastle

Luca Pacioli, father of accounting

  • Born around 1447 in Tuscany, this Franciscan friar was friend of Leonardo da Vinci
  • His masterwork Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita set out principles of double-entry accounting
  • His motto: "No person should go to bed until the debits equal the credits"

Double-entry book-keeping, which is widely believed to have been introduced to Europe in the early 16th Century by the monk Luca Pacioli, is a financial accounting system. It recognises that all transactions have two aspects, a credit and a debit, and in a properly constituted set of books, the two sets of figures always balance.

Prof Christopher Napier from the Royal Holloway, University of London, says the system provided a standard structure for businesses and individuals to record transactions, and it helped entrepreneurs and investors to measure their capital, and the profits of their business.

Some people argue that double-entry prompted a shift in culture, Napier says, from a time when the goal was simply to earn a good living, to a culture where the goal was to maximise one's capital. But there are some historians of accounting who argue it's possible to overstate the influence of double-entry, Napier says.

6. Seven Years' War

"The Seven Years War was truly the first WORLD war and is overlooked in history." Cleggy, Northfleet, Kent

The Seven Years' War (1756-1763) involved all the great powers of Europe and saw France, Austria, Russia and Sweden on one side, and Britain, Prussia and Hanover on the other.

The Death of Wolfe

The Death of Wolfe
  • Benjamin West's 1770 painting is probably most famous image of Seven Years' War
  • James Wolfe died from his injuries while leading British troops in Battle of Quebec

Michael Ball, curator of Britain's National Army Museum, says the Seven Years' war could arguably be seen as the first world war, "not in the sense of the 20th Century wars, which saw entire nations mobilised for war, but in terms of geography".

"The battles affected North America, India, the Caribbean, the Philippines and large parts of central Europe," he says.

Prof Mark Knights, of the University of Warwick, says the Seven Years' War could also be seen as the first world war due to its "shockingly high" casualties.

"Estimates vary but it is likely that more than a million people died," he says.

The result of the fighting, which saw Britain acquire Canada from the French and control all of North America east of the Mississippi, was also "very significant", according to Ball, and ultimately led to the American war of Independence.

It also saw Britain become, arguably, the first world power, he says.

7. The Kingdom of Axum

"Civilisations are neglected. What about Axum?" Berhanu Tessema, Addis Ababa

The Kingdom of Axum (or Aksum) rose to prominence as a trading nation in the 1st Century, and at its height became the greatest market of north-eastern Africa.

Its most renowned surviving monuments are a group of memorial obelisks, or stelae.

There are many reasons for including Axum in any world history, says James Burns, author of A History of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The kingdom represents a significant and highly innovative urban civilisation.

"Its economy was based on the cultivation of crops grown exclusively in the Ethiopian highlands, supplemented with cereals and technologies imported from Asia. It was one of Rome's great trading partners, and they rose and fell in close parallel," he says.

The kingdom was one of the earliest regions of Christian conversion in Africa. "The image of an isolated Christian kingdom captured the imagination of Christians in Europe throughout the Middle Ages", he says.

8. The law code of Hammurabi

Hammurabi's code

"The law code of Hammurabi ought to be in too - the first time a ruler laid down a coherent set of laws which all his people must live by." Ben Gate, Pontypridd

A basalt stele (slab) protrudes into Paris' Louvre like a thumb. On it is the earliest truly extensive documented set of laws of the ancient world, written in Akkadian.

It is commonly referred to as the Law Code of Hammurabi, but some experts argue it's not really a law code at all. It does however provide an incomparable insight into life and justice during King Hammurabi's reign (1792-1750BC) as first ruler of the Babylonian Empire.

The stele sets out the famous principle of "an eye for an eye". But also included are familiar concepts of evidence-based justice and giving testimony under oath - even provisions for the maintenance of divorced wives.

There were precursors to Hammurabi's laws, explains Dr Frances Reynolds, Assyriology expert at Oxford University, but the stele and 130,000 clay tablet documents from the period establish the king as a "fantastic administrator".

It perhaps explains why he adorns the wall of the American Supreme Court, suggests Reynolds.

9. Rise of the Khmer empire and creation of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

"The Khmer Empire reaching its peak in the 12th Century and its influence on south-east Asia." Paul McShane, Edinburgh

Thousands of backpackers and awed holidaymakers have stood and gazed at the massive temple complex of Angkor Wat deep inside the Cambodian jungle.

The Angkor temples are legacies of the Khmer Empire, which dominated south-east Asia from the 9th Century.

"One of the first and certainly the most important classical civilisation of southeast Asia, it set the standards by which kingdoms and societies that came after measured themselves", says Dr Charney, an expert from SOAS.

Angkor became the "largest pre-industrial urban complex in the world", says Cambridge PhD student Mary Beth Day, featuring the "most sophisticated hydraulic engineering and water management system". The Khmer could collect and store water across 1,000 square km, channelling it directly to rice paddies.

Yet the empire's demise remains a "contentious issue", says Day, with many details shrouded in mystery.

10. The life of Simon Bolivar

Mural of Simon Bolivar

"Simon Bolivar's liberation of five countries from the Spanish yoke." Luis Rodriguez, Leigh-on-Sea

Inspired by European enlightenment philosophy, Caracas-born Simon Bolivar helped liberate his people from the Spanish Empire, gaining independence for the modern-day nations of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

Simon Bolivar

  • Born 1783 in Caracas, New Granada (now Venezuela), died 1830
  • Soldier and statesman who led revolutions against Spanish rule in Latin America
  • Bolivia named after him

His political rule was less successful. Unable to fend off factional enemies and increasingly dictatorial, Bolivar died awaiting exile in 1830, "disillusioned that he was unable to maintain the ideals of freedom, liberty and equality", says Dr Matthew Brown, a Latin America expert at Bristol University.

Bolivar's impact was nevertheless vast.

The "most significant figure" to emerge from Latin America, he was even "more important than [US President George] Washington", says Anthony McFarlane, emeritus professor at Warwick University.

He played a critical role in the decline of the Spanish Empire, which in turn marked a huge shift in global imperial relations. Bolivar's leadership also served as a "model" for later anti-colonialist movements, adds McFarlane.

Reporting by Tom Heyden, Vanessa Barford and Melissa Hogenboom


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  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    helen of troy- it makes sense that there isant much mention of women in history, until the 18th/19th century most women in history where royalty and look at those women they clearly left their mark just like theyre male counter parts. but you shouldent look at it as there where no women there after all they say behind every great man there is a great woman.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Thin, dumbed down, nice and global with all the usual, we're all related twaddle. The masters want the masses to consume this.

    My advive...read "stephen oppenheimer" 'Out of Eden' or 'The Origins of the British'. Genetically and scientifically spot on, non political and shocking. The truth of our ansestory is not quite how Mr Marr potrays it, nor are we as homogenous as the BBC would like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    The initial cultivation of the potato and its transportation to the Old World is probably one of the most significant, and overlooked, events in man's history. It permitted huge population expansion and year-round war in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    The Industrial Revolution, which led directly to our modern world, should really have a mention. Without it we quite simply would not have the level of technology we currently possess, or the levels or rights and education we enjoy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I'm sorry but I've heard the "religion decreases and the population becomes immoral" argument before, and it's absolutely ridiculous.

    Personal ethics and religion are in no way tied together, as religion is more a set dogmatic or interpretive rules and guidelines that in no way are shaped for any unique person or particular lifestyle.

    I have my doubts that is commentator is 'non religious'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    So long as it contains facts and not interpretations it's fine by me as a summary.

    It's impossible to write a complete history of the world. Everyone who has ever lived has played a part in it and without writing the life story of everyone you're only ever going to catch the highlights, which highlights, depend on the audience.

    For example, Americans don't notice history before the 1700s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Never forget that heroine, Rosa Parks, a hard-working seamstress who refused at the end of a working day to give up her bus seat to a white man. She bravely said 'no' and the civil rights movement was begun.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    @ littlelionman

    I don't think they have got to Jesus Yet, I am Agnostic, yet i still believe Jesus existed, as well as Mohammed. And that Christianity has as well as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc, etc have contributed not only good to the world, but bad as well. Including the crusades, Romans of Christians, Martin Luther (not King) with the Jews in the 1500's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    that has been cracked, mate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    49.Maria Ashot

    "Your very premise is laughable because it assigns prominence to mass murderers, rather than Mozart & Cervantes."

    Cervantes wasn't all goodness and light. He fought in numerous wars and was proud of his military service. Plus his most famous novels are two boring, repetitive 'comedies' about a mentally ill man and his idiot companion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    The historically illiterate comments many of which are motivated by modern political views are truely laughable. I am passionate about history and it saddens me that people here are more interested in point scoring and postuing than truth. You will never understand anything if you start out from wrong assumptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Maybe including the British who helped gain independance for South America (Such as Thomas Cochrane)

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    How does a history of the "world" equals the story of civilization? The "world" existed long before there were even humans. If you take everything into perspective the last 2000 or so years can be summarized as "homo sapiens completely changed the look of planet earth." Single wars and inventions matter little, it's the end result that counts in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    I'm still curious as to whether the chicken came first or the egg

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    No surprise that Al-Haytham is 10th century. It would have been more impressive to hear about Arab science from much earlier periods predating 570.
    No more agitprop from you know who!

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    If humans didn't invent fire they certainly found out how to create and control it. Invention number 1?

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Vo Nguyen Giap
    A very astute leader of the military in the liberation of Vietnam from colonial rule and the complete independence of Vietnam after 40 years of war. Ended 3 world powers ideas of supremacy, Japan, France and the United States. Not bad for a farmers son.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    128 can't say that for sure. There are so many factors in play. Tactics would have been different, different people would have died in different ways in different locations casuing a completely different outcome. Butterfly effect stuff!

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    @64. I think we should include the Arabic trade in black gold ie Black African slaves. They also sailed north to enslave peoples from the western coasts of Europe. how did the traingular trade operate without the assistance of people in West Africa? And where did most of them go? Brazil. And there's the German Georges sending Jacobites as slaves to the Cabbibean. All should be better known.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    If there had been no Born-Haber process the Germans would not have been able to make explosives at a fast enough rate. This would have shortened drastically the World War 1.


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