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Modern era

Copper halfpenny token issued by the Carmarthen Iron Works

The modern era emerged from the profound changes caused by the industrial revolution. This began in England in the late eighteenth century where, in Birmingham, James Watt and Matthew Boulton invented the steam engine, the first source of power independent of human or animal exertion.

This was the first of many inventions and breakthroughs in metals, chemicals, medicine and communications, and of the discovery of new sources of power, including electricity, the internal combustion engine and eventually nuclear fission. This process continues with the advances in computers, satellite communication and the Internet, which are affecting all aspects of life.

These developments and the constant fall in the costs of production led to unprecedented prosperity, and made those countries in Europe and North America that pioneered the growth, immensely powerful. The competition that this caused between them led to a colonisation of much of the rest of the world by the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it resulted in two World Wars of appalling destructiveness.

Most of the European colonies gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, but the processes of closer international linkage and globalisation have continued.

As more and more countries have industrialised and accumulated wealth, and as agricultural and medical advances have resulted in huge increases in population, the ill effects on the climate and environment have become increasingly apparent. The success or failure in controlling these will define the next era in human history.

The late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries are represented in the British Museum collection by a wide range of art, contemporary design, medals and other objects.

Image caption: Copper halfpenny token issued by the Carmarthen Iron Works
Carmarthen, south Wales, AD 1790s