A brief history of turning points

What makes an event a turning point? Analyses, thoughts and examples from the ancient discovery of fire to the current pandemic.

by Ornella Sinigaglia

Culture 06 March 2023

In life, we all experience specific, significant moments when something begins to change. For many of us, they coincide with school graduation, becoming a parent or getting the first “real” job. Sometimes, they happen out of our control, will or expectation—think of a family loss, sickness, wars. And yes, pandemics. Some of us knew one would happen sooner than later.  After all, the plague slashed one-quarter of Europe’s population in 1347, and the Spanish flu infected about 500 million people, about a third of the world population at that time. Both events are turning points in human history. And when, in a few years, the current pandemic will be just a memory, we will remember it for the fast and sharp changes it brought to our work and human interactions (among other things, of course).

In simple terms, a turning point is one at which motion in one direction ceases and that in another or contrary direction begins. For example, in math, it’s where a graph changes from increasing to decreasing, or vice versa. But things (and definitions) get a little more complicated when it comes to human history. A turning point in history needs context, and that’s why historians have very different takes on what they are, mean and represent. Turning points are all about assigning significance to past events, and they are exceptionally slippery and characteristic to the individuals giving that significance. Think of Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon with his army in 49 BCE. Many, argued historian Carl R. Becker in his seminal paper What Are Historical Facts, crossed the Rubicon at other times, yet they are unremembered. But Julius Caesar’s action prompted the end of the Roman Republic, as Pompey, the consuls, and a large part of the senate fled Rome. According to Suetonius, Caesar uttered the famous phrase alea iacta est (“the die is cast”) upon crossing the Rubicon, signifying that his action was irreversible. Julius Caesar was well aware of the implications of his actions. But not all circumstances lead to clear turning points in history. Today, we all agree the world changed after 1492. For those living in the Americas, contact with Europeans meant the beginning of genocides. For Europeans, it expanded the world’s boundaries—with all the geographical, scientific and religious implications that stemmed from there. That’s why historians mark the end of the Middle Ages with Christopher Columbus’s accidental landing in the Bahamas. 

From a North American perspective, 1929 and 1941 represent two key turning points in the last century’s history. One marked the beginning of the Great Depression; the other, the United States’ involvement in World War II. So both Black Tuesday and the attack on Pearl Harbor define lasting changes in the climate of the times. People at the time might well not recognize a turning point as such—just like Christopher Columbus or those that lost their jobs overnight in 1929 did. So a turning point is ultimately a construct of historical reflection, a historical unit of analysis that needs to be considered in relation to the web of its interconnections. Some events that are incredibly disruptive at the time of occurrence may not turn into… turning points. At least, not on the human history scale. Think of 9/11. Many of us remember what we were doing when we heard about the attacks on the Twin Towers. The view of planes crashing into one of New York City’s symbols was terrifying yet spectacular. In less than a week, George W. Bush called a war: the War on Terror. But what has changed after that? If, for a moment, we look past the death toll of the attacks and the conflicts that torn Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries, has 9/11 represented a moment of change for humanity? Can we compare that to the Hammurabi code, a collection of 282 rules establishing the standards for commercial interactions and fines and punishments to meet the requirement of justice? Or to Gutenberg’s print revolution in 1455? Or the discovery of penicillin in 1928?

Historian Philip Scranton suggested that there might be multiple framings of historical turning points. We need to consider an event from the perspective of contemporary actors. Think of what the Sputnik represents for the Space Age. Yes, Sputnik was a significant breakthrough for those working at the end of the 1950s, but not so big of a deal fifty years later. From a sociological perspective, a turning point represents a lasting shift in the zeitgeist or “spirit of the age.” To make an event a turning point, the shock to the system of civilization must be profound and measurable. According to sociologist Ted Goertzel, one of the most reliable indicators is the response of the financial markets. They are one of the most sensitive indicators of a country’s mood. When governed by panic, markets move quickly after a shock and can spiral out of control. Political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones use punctuated equilibrium analysis to define turning points. According to them, the policy process is comprised of long periods of stability then interrupted by predictable periods of instability, which lead to major policy changes. In times of peace, most people don’t even focus on making changes. A stable political structure leaves little room to change, as people are relatively content with the current situation. Only in times of unique crisis and instability enough members of society rise to undertake fundamental change, often from a perceived threat or dramatic event. Therefore, a turning point results from punctuation in the equilibrium of everyday life. 

In the broadest terms of human history, very few events have brought as much change as the discovery of fire, the switch from hunting/ gathering to farming (around 8000 BCE), the invention of writing or the wheel (both dated to at least 5000 BCE). Human expansion experienced a second burst with the beginning of the iron age (1000 BCE), with iron tools ensuring effective cultivation; iron weapons and armour replaced the older metals, making it easier to dominate weaker neighbours. The turning points that followed these (sometimes random and unplanned) discoveries helped shape our societies into what they are today. History seems to have picked up a faster pace since the fifteenth century when Chinese admiral Zheng He led a fleet of 317 ships holding almost 28,000 men to South East Asia, India, Arabia, and the Horn of Africa. Half a century later, the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople and changed its name to Istanbul, which coincided with the beginning of Reinassance and the invention of the printing press. Columbus’s discovery of the West Indies quickly led to the establishment of the Spanish empire in the Americas (1520s); less than a century later, Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in North America.

The American Revolution (1776), the French Revolution (1789), and the Mexican Independence (1810) all marked, in retrospect, significant changes to the social and political equilibrium. They coincided with the Industrial revolution led by British innovators and business people. And while that was a turning point in history, it happened over an extended period that historians are still debating. Whose invention and ingenuity kickstarted it is still up for grabs. Opium wars (1839-1860) symbolized some of the worst downsides of globalization. There was tremendous demand in Europe for Chinese tea, silks, and porcelain pottery, but there was correspondingly little demand in China for Europe’s manufactured goods and other trade items. To overcome the chronic trade imbalance with China, Britain and other European countries undertook the opium trade, which created a steady demand among Chinese addicts for opium imported by the West. One of the second Opium War outcomes was the loss of Hong Kong, which became a British colony. The second half of the nineteenth century marks Darwin’s theory of evolution and the granting of voting rights to women in New Zealand in 1893, which initiated gender equality movements. After that, the twentieth century is a steady and swift succession of turning points. So much so that context plays an even more crucial role. 

There are turning points in the scientific field (Einstein’s relativity theory published in 1915, the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1953); in the political realm (the end of the last Chinese dynasty in 1911, the birth of the Soviet Union in 1917 and its collapse started in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall); and technological fields (from Wright’s first flight in 1903 to the men walking on the moon in 1969 and the creation of the Internet in 1968). As significant as many are, accepting all these events as turning points demonstrates the controversial nature of the term. The probability that any individual would witness more than a handful of them during their lifetime is small. The appeal and the impact they will have on our lives, on the other hand, make them a fascination that punctuates our existence, making us feel part of something bigger.