Did the modern world begin during World War I, in 1945, or perhaps with the steam engine in the 1700s? British historian Wilson (What Price Liberty!: How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lost, 2009, etc.) makes an engrossing case for the dozen years after 1850.
That year marked the onset of a boom triggered, according to the author, by the free market that followed Britain’s abandonment of mercantilism and tariffs in the 1840s. Wilson begins in 1851 London, where the Great Exhibition drew enraptured crowds to a dazzling display of world technology (“a day at the Exhibition meant sensory overload”). Although dominated by Britain, there were unexpected hits from the United States, as well—e.g., Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, vulcanized rubber, and the Colt six-shooter. After this initial introduction, Wilson delivers 15 largely unrelated chapters on great midcentury events. The telegraph and railroad, after two decades of modest growth, exploded across the world and under the oceans, beginning a revolution in high-speed transport and telecommunications that is still in progress. An avalanche of gold, more from Australia than California, greased economies. Against their wills, Japan and China joined the world market as Britain and Russia built Asian empires—but not without early versions of another modern phenomenon, genocide, in India and the Caucasus. The U.S. boomed as it dissolved into civil war, which barely interrupted its expansion. The 1860s saw the U.S. replacing Britain as the center of attention in a world that “has been utterly transformed by war, mass migration, economic boom, advancing trade, and the impact of new technologies.” In his epilogue on the 1873 depression, the worst in history, Wilson emphasizes that the 1850s jump-started the modern world, which is more convenient and prosperous than the old but no nicer.
An above-average addition to the when-the-modern-age-began genre.