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Great Dates in History

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Historical dates on old parchment.

Okay, so there's Christmas - 25 December - to commemorate the birth of Christ, and 4 July to commemorate American independence from British rule. Scotland's greatest poet is remembered on 25 January each year, and over in France, the third Thursday in November sees the Fête des vins primeurs - or Beaujolais Day. And almost every day of the year has at least one Saint attributed to it, but these tend to be ascribed according to available slots rather than specific ties to the past.

We asked the h2g2 Community to supply some great dates in history and the following entry is the result! By no means comprehensive, this marvellous entry still provides a curious snapshot of history from the point of view of our Researchers' collective perspective. (Make sure you read the threads if you want to find out more of what was said.)

65,000,000 BC

We're not quite sure of the precise date (we might be out by a decade or so) but around this time an asteroid is alleged to have hit the planet and wiped out a lot of its earthly life. With the dinosaurs unceremoniously smashed to smithereens, small shrews and their ilk (over a period of millions of years) survived, evolved, climbed ladders and graduated to become all sorts of things including dolphins and human beings. (The latter group providing the protagonists in this our great dates in history entry.)

4004 BC

Using Biblical evidence, Archbishop Ussher calculated that the beginning of the world occurred in 4004 BC, on 23 October - a Sunday. (By contrast, the Jewish calendar regards the year of creation as 3761 BC, and denotes this as 'AM' - Anno Mundi.)

4 September, 476 AD

Since for some time Rome was the Western world, it's worth remembering the day it left the scene. 4 September, 476 AD was the day on which Romulus Augustus, arguably the last emperor of the unified Roman Empire, was forced to abdicate by Odoacer, one of his father Orestes' own commanders who was leading a rebellion against him. A chunk of Rome in the East continued for a while but unified Rome was no more.

622 AD

The year 622 is the date of the Hegira, the flight of the prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. This is the most important date in the history of Islam, and is used as the beginning of the Islamic Calendar, similar to 0 AD in the Christian Calendar. Note that the 622 year gap between Christian and Islamic calendars hasn't remained constant because the Islamic calendar is lunar, and each year is 354/355 days long. For example, a Moroccan banknote gives the year 1987 AD as 1407 AH.

27 November, 1095

If there was ever a day justified to live in infamy, it was 27 November, 1095 - the day Pope Urban II delivered his sermon at Clermont calling upon Christians to march upon the Holy Land and 'exterminate' the invading Turks. Urban claimed his message had come directly from God; He who would forgive all volunteers of their sins. No sin was unpardonable and all who died would become martyrs.

And thus, the very first crusade began and all warriors were left in no doubt of the depravity of those they were being sent to fight. The Turks were described as evil, demonic, despicable and degenerate; a dangerous precedent of prejudice which contributed towards a horrifying conclusion: ethnic cleansing and genocide. The reconquering of Jerusalem resulted in the indiscriminate slaughter of Muslim and Jewish civilians; the bodies of whom were heaped 'as high as houses' in the Holy City.

Although not a great day in the sense of achievement, this landmark event sent shockwaves through every century to the present day. Pope Urban II's sermon on that day has served the ethnic cleansing interests of nations and tyrants, regardless of religious background, ever since.

15 June, 1215

The Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede, England.

Friday 13 October, 1307

The simultaneous arrests of the Knights Templar across France on the order of King Phillip IV (called 'the Fair') of France which led to the torture of many knights to force confessions, the eventual burning of 54 Templars as relapsed heretics near Paris in 1310, and the execution of James of Molay and Geoffrey of Charney in 1314. The Order was suppressed in 1312.

Why was this done? Basically for property and financial reasons. Similar arrests followed in other countries, with or without the torture and cruel imprisonment and the consequences depending on the country and monarch at the time. In the UK there was resistance by Edward II who said he couldn't give credence to Phillip's accusations of the Order. But he too came under Papal pressure. Oh, and 'Friday the 13th' lives on in superstition to this day as being an unlucky day.

Excellent academic books about the Knights Templar include The Trial of the Templars by Malcolm Barber, and The New Knighthood by the same author.

The arrest of the Templars maybe didn't have a huge long-term effect upon history, other than a chance for conspiracy theorists and people wanting to find some link to the Masons, etc. You know what I mean, the Templars have been much maligned over time. Chuck enough mud and some of it sticks, and people just tend to prefer to believe the bad and bizarre rather than the mundane truth.
However, they did have a big impact upon society. They had a lot to do with the British legal system, and the exchequer. They are also credited with the invention of the cheque! Pilgrims would pay their money into the Templars, who would issue them with chits to use to buy food, etc, along their road to the Holy Land. So the date is significant for the end of an order that caused a lot of subtle changes in society, or at the very least made a major contribution to it.

24 June, 1314

24 June, 1314, saw the defeat of the English by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn. In many ways, the Battle of Bannockburn was lost by English lack of cavalry discipline and won by Robert the Bruce's generalship and the superior training of his forces. Bruce chose boggy ground where the heavy mounted knights were at a disadvantage and organised his men into 'schiltrons' or circles of pikemen which were difficult to defeat by archery and almost impossible to break by cavalry.

The English knights had a philosophy of individual warriorship - a bit like Arthur's knights, each with a quest. Their appearing together on the battlefield was more of a geographical statement than an enrolment into a disciplined and leadable force. The mindset of De Bohun with his individual attack on Bruce is an example of this. Were his plan to work - great. If not - disaster.

Disaster it proved. The schiltrons held and the disorganised heavy horses were killed or forced into the mud and dismounted. On foot they were heavy and unmanoeuvrable, no match for the lightly armed but fleet of foot and numerous Scots.

12 October, 1492

Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America, even if it was a little island and he thought it was China and he called the local boys Indians and the land was eventually to be named after Vespucci instead of him. This was the latest in a series of such discoveries, and was the most effective in terms of organised and disorganised genocide.

Yeah, I know the inhabitants felt that a million square miles of land could be lived in and squabbled over just like everyone else, but the new boys brought gunpowder and flu and VD and measles and enabled both New World continents soon to be much more free of people than they started off, thus officially empty, thus needing the poor huddled masses to come and make something of it. And so Truth, Justice and Mom's Apple Pie were invented. The date was a major turning point in world history during the Second Millennium.


1534 saw Henry VIII create the Anglican Church in England. Although Henry's motives for the split were entirely personal, the creation of the Church of England changed the way the English (and later the British and all their descendant nations) looked at the world. The removal of 'superstition' and ceremony forced people to reconsider their patterns of thinking, starting with the way they approached God.

Although the current Church of England now contains many aspects that the Tudors would have considered 'Papist' – altars, stained glass, etc - the removal of many of Roman Catholic traditions and cycles changed the way the British lived forever. They lost their saints' days, their societies, their decorations – creating a more secular way of life (if not of thought). To understand how different our society was before the Reformation, take a look at The Voices of Morebath by Eamon Duffy.

This initial change of doctrine opened the floodgates of change in all ideas, not just religious. It was the change of emphasis – moving away from tradition that allowed for greater independence of thought - which would eventually allow for the Enlightenment, Charles Darwin and the secular society. It also lead to the creation of the King James Bible, which along with Shakespeare helped enrich the English language.

And all because Henry's first wife happened to have very powerful relatives. The Pope's advisors had got as far as drawing up the annulment/divorce papers for Henry (they are in the Papal archives) – all they needed was the Pope's signature. But Katherine of Aragon's nephew (Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor) took possession of Rome and therefore the Pope. Since there was no way that Charles was letting his aunt be humiliated, Henry was forced to create his own church to get what he wanted. And in doing so he changed the way we thought about the world and our place in it. All this from one man's failure to create enough Y-chromosomes!


1564 was the year the great bard, William Shakespeare, was born. The playwright Christopher Marlowe was also born in this year.

23 April, 1616

Both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on 23 April, 1616.

1665 - 1666

1666 saw the Great Fire of London, but it was in the year 1665 that the terrible infestation of rats and instances of plague were at their peak. The fire, for better or worse, wiped them out.


JS Bach was born this year, so too Handel and Scarlatti


The date that divides Ireland. It was in this year that the Protestant King William of Orange (later William III of Great Britain) defeated the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne. The rest, as they say, is history and the event is celebrated on 12 July every year by the Loyalist communities ever since.

5 April, 1799

The date anyone on a decent salary in the United Kingdom, (say, over £60 a year) started paying income tax, then set at 10%.

21 October, 1805

21 October, 1805, saw the Battle of Trafalgar, where Admiral Lord Nelson led the Royal Navy in brilliant victory over the French and Spanish fleets during the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately, it was also the death of him.

November 1859

This is when Charles Darwin published The Origin Of Species, the most important book in biology.

14 April, 1865

Five days after the surrender of the Confederacy that ended the American Civil War, on April 14 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater in Washington DC by a Confederate sympathiser, John Wilkes Booth, and died early the next morning. Booth himself was killed ten days later by troops attempting to capture him.

Assassinations rarely have a radical effect on the course of history. The evolution of human society has its own tides and movements, not independent of individual leaders but not solely governed by them either. For example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 supposedly triggered World War One, but in retrospect we can see that it was 'a war waiting to happen' and would inevitably have occurred under some pretext or another at around the same time. However...

I believe that Lincoln's assassination was one of the few that actually changed the course of history - although in ways not necessarily predicted by his assassin. By most accounts Booth was motivated purely by a desire to avenge the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, and had thought little about the long-term consequences of his act.
Lincoln, although a somewhat slow and reluctant convert to the cause of emancipation, was firmly committed to it by the end of the Civil War. He was aware of the need for radical changes in the social structure of the American South - the 'Reconstruction' - that would make emancipation a reality for the former slaves rather than a technicality. I think it likely that, had he lived, he would have applied his considerable energy and political skill to the Reconstruction, and made effective and lasting changes to the South.

May 1893

The Chicago World's Fair - also known as the Columbian Exposition - opened to the public, and included lectures and demonstrations of the burgeoning science of electricity. Thanks to a young Serbian inventor named Nikola Tesla, the fair opened to a dazzling show of thousands of electric lights all over the fairground. It was the first commercial electrical lighting to utilise Alternating Current, the forerunner of the very systems we use in society today. Thanks to this first display of the possibilities of AC electricity, Westinghouse Electric Company (Tesla's backers) begin getting orders in for electrical service, and won a contract to build an electrical plant at Niagara Falls.

14 - 15 April, 1912

14 - 15 April - the days that the unsinkable ship, the Titanic sunk. They hit the iceberg just before midnight and began sinking. By midnight, it was apparent that the ship wouldn't last very long. By about 2:00am, all of the lifeboats had been sent off, and about 700 are saved by a nearby ship, the Carpathia. It is not known how many died. Incidentally, the cost to build the Titanic was $7.5-million. The cost to make Titanic, the movie (1997), $200-million-plus

28 June, 1914

The day when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, which was the trigger for World War I. Without this war, Lenin and Hitler and the things to follow would have been given significantly less chance.

Given the state of Europe at the time and the two competing power blocs on the continent, would WWI still have happened without the assassination of the Archduke?

Given the state of alliances at the time, practically anything could have started it. We were well down the queue and still joined in. The main result was the application of modern weapons of war on old tactics and, of course, the nations' soldiers. We all know the result.

11 November, 1918

The 11th Hour, the 11th Day, the 11th Month, 1918; this exact date marked The Armistice, the end of that horrific carnage known as 'The Great War' or 'The War to End all Wars' or the 'First World War' (being but the first instalment in the tragic conflict of the 20th Century). It was the beginning of a new age.
Remember those that gave their lives.

10 February, 1920

The following Researcher is from the southern part of Denmark known as Sønderjylland (Northern Slesvig). To people in this area, 10 February, 1920, is an important date.

From the time of the Vikings the south border has moved many times and many battles have been fought over it. In the first part of 19th Century the King of Denmark also ruled the two provinces Holstein and Slesvig (today northern Germany and Sønderjylland). In 1864 the Danes were heavily defeated by Germany in war. A lot of Denmark was occupied. When peace was negotiated both provinces were transferred to German government. However they left a note in the peace treaty promising to let the population in the affected areas vote on the issue some day - no date set. This meant that now the border was situated halfway up in Jylland (Jutland) - a fair bit further to the north than today.
The two provinces had always been a border area meaning that there was a mix of people with Danish and German language and culture. Closest to Denmark, the majority spoke Danish, and in the areas closest to Germany German was the preferred language. After 1864 German became the language of schools and government of every kind. Naturally, not everybody was happy with this arrangement. After World War I the Danish government demanded that the vote promised in the peace treaty was held and this happened finally on the 10th of February 1920. An international committee was made to draw the final border between Denmark and Germany according to how the vote went. There was even a Japanese member. The border as it is today is a direct result of the vote held in 1920. It is not disputed by anyone. There is of course a minority on both sides of the border but there are no hostility.
A lot of people have family on the other side of the border. The date is still celebrated - at least in the area I come from - and I think it is good to remember it because it symbolizes the end of centuries of battles and disputes over the area and this was achieved through democratic means. It is a sunlit part of history.

7 May, 1928

The Equal Franchise Bill was given a third unopposed reading in the House of Commons, giving all women over the age of 21 the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This finally made the UK a near-democracy, with full adult suffrage. Full- or near-democracy (depending on your preferred definition) in the UK is thus now just under 75 years old, a fact almost certainly not appreciated by the majority of the population.

Before 1918 only about 67 percent of men were entitled to vote, and no women at all, until virtually all adult males, and women over 30, were granted the right to vote in that year.

The fact that one of the two Houses still comprises unelected members will be taken by some as indicating that the UK is still not entirely a democracy, while others may point to the fact that a substantial percentage of the total vote may be represented by a very small percentage of the members of the House of Commons.

Anyone who believes that democracy in any real sense of the word has been in existence in England/Britain for centuries is sadly misinformed.

3 September, 1939

How about the 3 September, 1939? The start of the largest war in human history, killing over 60 million people in Asia, Africa and Europe.

6 June, 1944

The English Channel was enveloped in fog. The Second World War had been going on for almost five years and the Allied combined navy and paratroopers embarked on the Liberation of Europe. Operation Overload had begun and D-Day had arrived.

6 August, 1945

Hiroshima in Japan was destroyed by the first atomic bomb dropped on a city and on all of its inhabitants. It may have helped to end WWII but that one action set wheels into motion that forever changed the way the world acts. Cold wars and nervousness have since ensued, all stemming from one of the meanest moments in history. Three days later the United States dropped yet another bomb on Nagasaki. This day should probably be remembered just because of all of the nonsense that followed.

It's a canard1 that the Nagasaki bomb was dropped 'to see if it worked'. This is untrue. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki was of the same 'Fat Man' design as the device used in the Trinity test in the Almagordo Desert that July. While more complex than the 'Little Boy' used at Hiroshima, the Fat Man used significantly less fissile material.

21 June, 1948

On this day, Tom Kilburn ran the 'Kilburn Highest Factor Routine' on a machine called the Small Scale Experimental Machine (or the 'Baby') in Manchester University. This date marks the first successful execution of a computer program in history, and the birth of the computer era. To elaborate, simple programs had been written for punchcard-computers before this, and computers with dedicated programs have existed (at least, on paper) since Charles Babbage developed the Analytical Engine in 1837.

However, the Baby was the first ever computer of the 'modern' style, with a memory that stores both instructions and data, and this date really was the start of the 'computer era'. Amazingly, this was a Random Access Memory (the technique used in most computers today) despite many different memory access techniques being proposed and implemented between then and now.

In fact, the Baby would eventually evolve into the Ferranti Mark 1, the world's first commercial computer, developed by Manchester engineering company Ferranti, whose computer section would eventually become so successful that a multinational corporation, ICL, was spawned from it.

11 March, 1952

Douglas Adams, much loved author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was born!

6 May, 1954

Good news for once. Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile.


1960 is touted by various medical authorities as the year the contraceptive pill was 'born'.

There are some adverse health risks from the pill, although over the years those risks have decreased; but the main benefit of the pill, according to advocates of the pill, has been to free women from the dominance of their own bodies.

I was born in 1968 and took the pill from the age of 18, on and off, for many years. I am so very glad I was not born in my mother's generation - where a woman's sexual morals and life choices were almost totally dictated by the strong possibility that you might get pregnant. I am grateful that I cannot really imagine how constrictive such a life would have been. The pill gave half of the population the freedom they had never had before, and accordingly changed their own view of themselves.

12 April, 1961

The day the first human being (Yuri Gagarin) travelled into space.

October, 1962

Petra was born, the first Blue Peter dog. For those of you that don't already know, Blue Peter is a very successful, long-running BBC children's programme.

I was 10. I watched her for years, and in 1977 my wife was puzzled that I was more upset with the newspaper announcement of her death than with any of the other stories, because they hadn't given her the headline. There were a lot of us like that, no wonder they erected a bronze statue to her.
I know there was other stuff going on in October 1962, like the US threatening the USSR with all-out atomic war over Cuba, and that if it had gone ahead, while the Americans were turning Moscow into a sheet of glass and the Russians were doing the same to New York, America's largest aircraft carrier, the United Kingdom, would not have been ignored, nuclear winter for all except those lucky people who heard the four-minute warning and sat under tables, but anyway I was in Ireland and we were neutral, and (like I said) I was only ten and Petra mattered a lot more to me.

Get your priorities right, why don't you!

4 April, 1968

Inspiring civil rights campaigner, Martin Luther King, was shot dead in Memphis on 4 April, 1968.


In the summer of 1969 man landed on the Moon. This year also witnessed the Woodstock Music Festival, the hippies' last hurrah:

Don't know much about it 'cos I wasn't born at the time, but I'd say it was pretty influential, and you could say it was the swingin' 60's going out with a bang.

16 October, 1987

On 16 October, 1987, 'The Great Storm' struck the United Kingdom - that which weatherman Michael Fish, the night before, said wasn't going to happen. Oh dear...

9 November, 1989

The Berlin Wall is pulled down, ending nearly 30 years of a divided Berlin; a real symbol of the fall of the old communist Eastern Bloc.

5 April, 1994

The day that the MTV generation lost the man that accidentally started the 'grunge' movement. Kurt Cobain, singer/guitar player for Nirvana, was a man who was hailed as 'this generation's John Lennon'. In 1991, the band's album Nevermind catapulted Kurt, drummer Dave Grohl (later of the Foo Fighters) and bass player Kris Novosolic to international fame. Over the next three years, Nirvana became one of the most talked about bands on the planet, during which Kurt always claimed that Nirvana was just a normal band, that the lyrics weren't meant to be read into and mused over. In the end, Kurt became increasingly frustrated with the level of fame he had reached and took his own life with a shotgun to escape it all.

April 28, 1999

h2g2 was created!

Who could have thought that this monumental day would presage a 'newspaper' of such international credibility. Genius!

1 January, 2000

Do you remember the Millennium Bug? The following Researcher does and was thoroughly unimpressed:

If you're going to start a book of dates, I think that 1 January 2000 should make it into the book as the day that the world's largest predicted disaster failed to happen. Not to mention a case of one of the largest worldwide panic attacks to date - namely, fear of the Millennium Bug. I mean, for about two years people were panicking like nobody's business about the year 2000 because they realised that thanks to a lack of foresight, they'd made things dd-mm-yy, and so on 1 January, 2000, all the computers in the world would fail because they'd get confused.
Remember? They were going on and on about how all the computers and appliances and traffic lights would fail and power stations would cease to function, and chaos would descend upon the world like some hell plague. Heck, they even had computer games and movies portraying the horrors of this roll-over thingy. And then everybody everywhere was doing really severe upgrading and re-programming. And when the 'Millennium' came, there was actually a morning 'after'. Oh, and my digital watch still works fine.

However, it is worth pointing out that a lot of important work (sadly costing zillions in every currency) was done fixing things in advance so that stuff wouldn't fail on 1 January. And they didn't.

1 June, 2001

This was the day that Nepal's Royal Family (including King, Queen, Crown Prince, Princess, Prince and a whole lot more) got massacred. All fingers pointed at Crown Prince Dipendra. It was a strange tale of how a prince supposedly murdered his whole family to marry a girl and then die himself. Nepalese mourn this day. On 2 June, 2001, the semi-living Dipendra gets crowned King, only for one day; possibly the shortest time anyone has been King.

11 September, 2001

Perhaps better known as 9/11. They day the world stood still as evil struck America.

I have always remembered September 11, 2001 as 'The Day the World Stood Still.' Because - let's face it - everyone stopped in their tracks when they heard the news. And I daresay that, as with JFK's assassination, everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. I still remember being touched (in a strange way) to see world leaders quickly pledge their support and grief in the wake of this tragedy. When Fidel Castro - leader of Cuba, and for all intents and purposes an enemy of the United States - delivers a message to side with the US, you know that it is a profound moment.
How the history books will record the event remains to be seen. I would hope that it does not get perverted in the cause of some political agenda or other. But in some ways, this has already happened.

14 September, 2002

And finally, in the spirit of h2g2, we end on a truly earth-shattering note, brought to us by one clearly obsessed Researcher. The event?

The first time in half a decade that Leeds United managed to beat Manchester United in the English Premiership football league. Harry Kewell scored; 1-0 the result. Fantastic!
1 A canard is an unfounded rumour or story.

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