The 20th century was an exciting, innovative, and sometimes tragic period in modern history. It began with the first human-powered airplane taking flight and ended with global access to the worldwide web. There were incredible advances in technology, science, and aviation—Thomas Edison showcased the world's first talking motion picture, Albert Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity, and Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Yet it was also a violent century that saw two world wars and numerous cases of mass genocide. Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s; the Khmer Rouge terrorized Cambodia in the 1970s; and the Hutu massacred millions of Rwandan Tutsis in the 1990s.
Beyond war and military coups, the century was full of newsworthy events in the world of global politics—Israel was declared a state; the Berlin Wall came down; India was partitioned. In the United States, people witnessed things like the women's suffrage movement, prohibition, the Great Depression, the ongoing fight for civil rights, the Watergate scandal, and the Iran-Contra affair. Worldwide, 20th-century headlines ranged from the sinking of the RMS Titanic to the Chernobyl disaster, the AIDS pandemic, the Hindenburg disaster, and the abolition of apartheid. All told, it was a captivating century with no shortage of events to occupy the history books.
Yet while many of these major events are well-known, there's also a slew of lesser-known facts and interesting trivia that don't get as much attention. For example, everyone knows the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but how many people can tell you where its pieces ended up? It's common knowledge that the United States and South Vietnam fought together in the Vietnam War, but what other allies supplied forces? There also are lots of strange or offbeat stories from the century that you might not know about. Do you know, for example, what the “Repository for Germinal Choice” is? How about the Princeton Cat Experiment?
To test your 20th-century knowledge, Stacker has put together a quiz full of fun facts and trivia about the past 100 years. Read on to see how your history competency stacks up.
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What competitions did the Olympics feature besides athletics from 1912 to 1948?
Kicking off at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, and lasting through the 1948 Olympics in London, fine arts medals were handed out in the categories of literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, and music composition. A total of 151 awards were earned during this period, although few people know this. “Everyone that I've ever spoken to about it has been surprised,” Richard Stanton, author of “The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions,” told The Smithsonian magazine. “I first found out about it reading a history book, when I came across a little comment about Olympic art competitions, and I just said, ‘What competitions?'”
What year did the last Japanese soldier surrender after World War II?
Although Word War II ended in 1945, it continued for almost three more decades for Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier sent on a mission to Lubang Island in the Philippines. After Maj. Yoshimi Taniguchi told him and three other men on the island that they were not to surrender under any circumstances (“It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we'll come back for you,” the major reportedly said), Onoda stayed in hiding for 29 years. At one point, he allegedly found a leaflet that said, “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!” but he thought it was a hoax. The three other men eventually left, but Onoda stayed until 1974 when Taniguchi, by then a bookseller, returned to the island to personally confirm that the war was over and that Onodo could leave.
What South African leader inspired scientists to name a nuclear particle after him?
South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years for his civil rights activism, inspired people throughout the world. When scientists discovered a new fragment of matter in 1973, they named it the “Mandela Particle” in honor of the leader. Unfortunately, the discovery was later deemed an error. In addition to the nuclear particle, Mandela has a species of spider, a prehistoric woodpecker, and hundreds of street signs and boulevards named after him.
What did the U.S. government do to its supply of industrial alcohol during the Prohibition era to prevent people from stealing it?
When alcohol was prohibited in the United States from 1920 to 1933, many desperate Americans began drinking industrial alcohol (the kind used to treat wounds) to get their fix. In an effort to make the substance “undrinkable,” the U.S government began adding poisons, such as kerosene, gasoline, iodine, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, quinine, and acetone to make it lethal if consumed. By the time alcohol prohibition was lifted in 1933, the poisoned alcohol had killed almost 10,000 people.
What was Adolf Hitler's nationality?
Although many people think the Nazi leader was German, Adolf Hitler was born in Austria. He became fascinated with German nationalist ideas under the instruction of his history teacher, Leopold Poetsch, and moved to Munich in 1913. A year later, he joined the Bavarian Army, and renounced his Austrian citizenship nine years later. In 1932, he officially became a German citizen.
What famous pieces of history did Neil Armstrong carry aboard Apollo 11 in 1969?
In 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. During the lunar mission, he reportedly brought aboard Apollo 11 pieces of the Wright Brothers aircraft from their 1903 airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., the first ever recorded flight. The souvenirs were meant to symbolize how far aviation had come since then.
Who challenged longtime Mexican President Porfirio Díaz in 1910, leading to his ouster and launching the Mexican Revolution?
When people think of the Mexican Revolution, it's often revolutionaries like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata who come to mind. However, it was Francisco Madero, an affluent Mexican landowner, who originally challenged President Porfirio Díaz in 1910. The brazen reformist saw through Díaz's rigged elections and called for revolution, prompting Villa, Zapata, and Pascual Orozco to launch a peasant uprising that would become the Mexican Revolution. Madero was elected president in 1911, but was assassinated two years later.
What colony was returned to China in 1997 after being ruled by Britain for more than 150 years?
After 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 following a 13-year transition period. The transfer of autonomy was the result of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, signed by the two governments in Beijing in 1984. Under the agreement, China pledged that Hong Kong could maintain its current Western-influenced economic system while mainland China remained socialist under the "one country, two systems" principle.
A piece of what famous wall currently stands in the bathroom of the Main Street Station Casino in Las Vegas?
In 1990, officials began tearing down the Berlin Wall (although people had begun chipping off pieces of it in November 1989). As the demolition continued, more than 40,000 sections of wall were recycled and used for building projects in Germany. Hundreds of others were auctioned off and spread all over the world. In addition to the piece in the Las Vegas bathroom, there are sections of the wall in the Vatican Gardens and NATO headquarters.
What astral feature officially became a planet in 1930?
Although Pluto was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet” in 2006, it enjoyed a 75-year run as the ninth full-sized planet from the sun from 1930 to 2005. The original designation came courtesy of Clyde W. Tombaugh, a young research assistant at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., who located the dwarf planet sitting in a ring of celestial bodies past Neptune called the Kuiper belt. The discovery, which occurred when Tombaugh was in his early 20s, came after his predecessor, Percival Lowell, spent more than 20 years unsuccessfully trying to locate the planet under a project titled “Planet X.”
What did sperm donors have to be to participate in eugenicist Robert Klark Graham's controversial “Repository for Germinal Choice” of the 1980s and ‘90s?
In 1980, Robert Klark Graham, an entrepreneur and controversial eugenicist who invented shatterproof plastic, launched the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank aimed at producing genius children to create a more intelligent human species. When it first began, only Nobel Prize recipients were allowed to donate; the bank eventually opened up the pool to anyone with an IQ of 130 or higher. The repository closed in 1999 after contributing to the births of 218 children.
What was the nickname of the shanty towns that many displaced Americans lived in during the Great Depression?
Herbert Hoover was president during the first part of the Great Depression and many people blamed him for the poverty and homelessness Americans were experiencing. As hundreds of shanty towns popped up across the country, people began referring to them as “Hoovervilles.” The dilapidated towns weren't the only Depression-era nicknames the president inspired. “Hoover Stew” was the soup handed out at food kitchens, and “Hoover Hogs” were the rabbits some Americans ate to survive.
What famous world leader was associated with “holy mangoes?”
In 1968, Pakistan's foreign minister visited China's Communist leader Mao Zedong and brought about 40 mangos as a gift. Zedong, however, didn't like mangos and reportedly sent them to a group of workers as a thank you for a protest they'd helped stifle. At that stage in the Chinese Revolution, Zedong had acquired cult-like status and the workers decided to preserve the fruit which they immediately deemed holy. The mangoes were placed in formaldehyde, or sealed in wax, or placed on altars, or boiled in water, the latter of which the workers would consume to receive the “spirit of Mao.” After that, mangoes began appearing on T-shirts and mugs, forever associating the leader with the fruit.
The Silent Sentinels protested in front of the U.S. White House from 1917 to 1919 in support of what?
In 1917, a group of women led by suffragist Alice Paul began protesting outside the White House, urging President Woodrow Wilson to support legislation granting women the right to vote. They held signs bearing slogans such as “How long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” On Jan. 9, 1918, one year into their protest, Wilson announced his support for the women's suffrage amendment; however, it would be two years later before Congress got on board and ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920.
What country saw the deaths of more than 1 million people due to a famine in 1984?
In 1984, lack of rainfall in the Northern highlands of Ethiopia ravaged the country, particularly in the Tigray province, leading to the deaths of 1.2 million people and the displacement of another 2.5 million. The tragedy, which prompted the USA for Africa recording, “We Are the World” with a number of artists, was further complicated by the country's civil war. “My overwhelming memory is of parched countryside, bare hills—and weary and weakened men,” BBC correspondent Mike Wooldridge recalled. “...Thousands were dying every week, the impact of drought compounded by the Marxist regime being in denial about the famine's severity...An aid official described it as ‘Hell on Earth.' It didn't seem an exaggeration.”
Which family member of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also was assassinated?
Most people know about the assassination of American Civil Rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Fewer people, however, are aware that six years later his mother, Alberta Williams King, also was assassinated while playing the “The Lord's Prayer" on the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. She was shot by Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr., a 23-year-old African-American man who said he was “on a mission” to kill black ministers who he believed were a menace to black people.
What did Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen use to create a makeshift chisel after being buried in an avalanche in 1926?
In a remarkable display of determination, Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen used his own frozen feces to create a shiv to free himself from a snow cave after being trapped in an avalanche. He later amputated several of his toes that had frozen while he chipped away at the ice. Freuchen described the harrowing events in his 1953 book, “Vagrant Viking.”
What famous Communist was originally hailed as a hero by the U.S. media before becoming known as an enemy?
While the United States and Cuba spent the latter half of the 20th century viewing each other as enemies, things didn't start out that way. In fact, in the early stages of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro was hailed as a hero by the U.S. media after he helped topple President Fulgencio Batista's regime. American variety show host Ed Sullivan traveled to Cuba to interview Castro and his cohorts, whom he called “a wonderful group of revolutionary youngsters.” Castro also garnered friendly receptions on “Face the Nation,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Meet the Press.”
What was cancelled on board the RMS Titanic the day the famous ship struck the iceberg?
On the morning of April 14, 1912, a lifeboat drill had been planned aboard the RMS Titanic; however, Capt. Edward John Smith cancelled the safety exercise. There are conflicting accounts of why he made this decision, but the prevailing theory is that he wanted to allow passengers to attend a church service that he presided over in the first-class dining saloon. Historians have speculated that more lives might have been saved had the drill taken place. Several years before the ship sank, Smith said: “Shipbuilding is such a perfect art nowadays that absolute disaster involving passengers is inconceivable. Whatever happens, there will be time enough before the vessel sinks to save the life of every person on board.”
What U.S. president was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992?
While most discussions of Abraham Lincoln focus on the abolition of slavery, history buffs know that the 16th U.S. president also was a champion wrestler before he got into politics. Some have even claimed that as a young man he participated in more than 300 matches and only lost one, though the fact-checking website Snopes has noted that there's no official record for all his matches, “making it impossible to say how many he won, lost, or even participated in.” Still, the U.S. president was inducted into the Outstanding American wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.
What improbable piece of kitchenware has been featured in all British tanks since the end of World War II?
Six days after Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944, the British 22nd Armored Brigade was attacked by German fighters en route to Caen when they stepped outside their tanks to brew their morning tea. The attack resulted in the loss of 14 tanks, nine half-tracks, and an assortment of weapons. Two years later, the British Medical Research Council published a survey of armored unit casualties and found that 37% of deaths occurred when soldiers were outside their vehicles. The discovery prompted creation of the British Army boiling vessel, which provided a built-in kettle for tanks and armored vehicles.
What instrument did notorious gangster Al Capone play in the prison band at Alcatraz?
Al Capone, aka “Scarface,” was a notorious Chicago gangster who served time in Alcatraz for tax evasion from 1934 to 1939. Although the crime boss had an ultra-tough image on the outside, inmates and prison guards claimed he wasn't equipped for life on the inside, particularly once he learned he wouldn't be able to bribe authorities like he had at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Declaring that Alcatraz “had him licked,” he started testing good behavior instead and eventually formed the prison band, the Rock Islanders, with whom he played the banjo regularly on Sunday evenings.
Who created a huge stir when she visited Australia for the first time in 1954?
In February 1954, a crowd of roughly 1 million people turned out to see Queen Elizabeth II, then only 27, arrive in Sydney harbor for a two-month tour of the country, marking the first time a reigning British monarch had ever set foot in Australia. Along with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, the queen managed to visit 57 towns during her 58 days in the country, traveling by plane, train, ship, and automobile.
What famous U.S. figure died on the same day as C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and Anthony Burgess?
On Nov. 22, 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas while riding in the presidential limousine with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, gripping the entire world with news of the tragedy. Yet while everyone focused on the president, on the same day three other prominent men died, all of whom were writers: C.S. Lewis was the author of the “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, while Aldous Huxley and Anthony Burgess each wrote dystopian novels—"Brave New World” and “A Clockwork Orange,” respectively.
What did researchers at Princeton successfully turn a cat into in 1929?
In 1929, in an effort to study how the auditory nerve perceives sound, Princeton researchers Ernest Wever and Charles Bray removed the skull and a large part of the brain of a sedated cat and attached its auditory nerve to a telephone wire that stretched into another room. From the other room, one researcher spoke into the telephone receiver while the other remained with the cat, speaking into its ear. The researchers could hear one another, which seemed to indicate that the sound had been converted into an electrical signal and transmitted. Some experts say the experiment may have inspired research on the cochlear implant, which “converts sound into electrical signals that stimulate the auditory nerve to create a sense of hearing in deaf individuals.”
Aside from U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, what nation supplied the greatest number of anti-Communist forces during the Vietnam War?
Although anti-communist forces in the Vietnam War are typically thought of as troops from the United States and South Vietnam, there was also a significant cohort of South Korean fighters, which numbered over 300,000. There were more troops, in fact, from South Korea than from Australia or New Zealand, two other countries associated with the Vietnam War. The war has been attributed in the past as having had a positive impact on the South Korean economy.
What famous world leader of the 20th century wrote six operas?
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-iI, who ruled from 1994 to 2011, was known for his cruel leadership and countless crimes against humanity, including executions, mass starvation, and forced labor. Yet the iron-fisted leader also had an alleged soft spot for classical music, composing six operas and writing a book, “The Art of Opera.” According to Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Columbia University, the leader's education involved a great deal of theater, film, and music. “He always seemed to have a strong interest in the arts,” Armstrong told New York Public Radio. “He argued that culture was key to maintaining the regime and keeping people's loyalty.”
What drug was first shipped from the Bahamas in the early 1980s?
In 1983, the Bahamas experienced a crack cocaine outbreak that was serious enough to prompt the head of the Bahamian National Drug Council to warn other countries about the spread of the new and highly addictive drug. “What we have is the world's first free-basing epidemic," David Allen wrote in The Atlanta Journal. “(It) could be preceding an epidemic in the industrialized states." Although the first record of crack cocaine being shipped from the Bahamas was recorded in Los Angeles as early as 1981, it didn't become an epidemic until the mid-1980s.
How old was the designer of the current pattern on the U.S. flag?
In 1958, before the country had 50 states, 17-year-old high school student Robert G. Heft of Lancaster, Ohio, designed a 50-star flag as part of a class project, predicting that Alaska and Hawaii would become states. After his teacher gave him as B-minus, he sent 21 letters to the White House in an attempt to improve his grade. Two years later, President Dwight Eisenhower called him to tell him that the country would be adopting his design.
What did American activist Margaret Sanger establish in 1916 that got her thrown in jail for 30 days?
American activist and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger opened a facility in 1916 called the Brownsville Clinic, which offered women information about birth control for 10 cents a visit. At the time, it was virtually impossible to get accurate information anywhere else. The following year, a court ruled that she’d violated the Comstock Act, which prohibited the distribution, advertisement, or sales of materials about contraception. Sanger served one month in jail before getting out and launching an appeal.