Highlights of the ’90s
The 1990s made up the last decade of the 20th century. This naturally made it a historical transition, to the modern age of our 21st century. Learn more about how the world changed at that time with this list of the highlights of the ’90s.
- The ’90s marked the last decade of the second millennium of the Common Era (CE) calendar.
- According to the United Nations (UN), the world’s population grew by 1.6 billion people, or 30%, during the 1990s.
- Worldwide economic growth varied between 1.5% from 1990 to 1994 and 2.5% from 1995 to 1999.
- The ’90s set a world record for a decade’s worth of damage from natural disasters, at $608 billion.
- The USA, in particular, saw the worst flooding in its history since the 19th century.
- The Unification of Yemen finally took place in 1990.
- The World Wide Web opened for public use in 1991.
- Japan formally apologized for forcing Korean women into prostitution during WWII in 1992.
- The UN designated the year 1993 as the International Year for Indigenous People.
- Russia and the USA agreed in the 1994 Kremlin Accords to stop preprogramming nuclear missiles at each other.
- The Internet became completely privatized in 1995.
- France conducted its last nuclear weapons test in 1996.
- US President Bill Clinton banned federal funding for cloning research and development in 1997.
- Europe later joined the ban on cloning research and development in 1998.
- A worldwide ban against the use of landmines began in 1999.
- Multiculturalism became a global phenomenon in the ’90s.
- The ’90s saw personal computer ownership in the USA alone rise from 15% to 35%.
- Vehicle designs in the ’90s adopted a rounded and streamlined appearance.
- World leaders began to take a serious interest in the environment in the ’90s.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from the list of recognized diseases and disorders in the ’90s.
The Fall of the Soviet Union marked the biggest event of the ’90s.
Economic stagnation, caused by various factors, in the 1980s set the stage for the Soviet collapse. These factors included overspending on the military, overdependence on heavy industry, low investment in consumer and service industries, and lack of free-market mechanisms. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of toleration and openness to nationalist and dissident sentiments also helped fracture the Union. Lithuania became the first Soviet member state to leave the Union in August 1991, with Latvia and Estonia following in September.
Other member states followed in the following months, with Gorbachev formally recognizing the end of the Union in December 1991. Ironically, the Central Asian Republics became the last to leave the Union, only once it had become clear that nothing could stop its collapse. The Fall of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War, with western writers like Francis Fukuyama calling it proof that liberal democracy, and not Communism, showed the way for humanity’s future.
The resulting question over German reunification became a major issue in the West.
Communism fell in East Germany in May 1990, with the newly-elected government pushing for union with West Germany. West Germany proved receptive, but only if its allies and the Soviet Union agreed to allow reunification. The USA gave its support, but Britain, France, and the Soviet Union all proved reluctant to do likewise. They feared that a reunified Germany would dominate Europe, and maybe even start WWIII. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even called reunifying Germany an insult to everyone who died to defeat Germany in WWII.
Eventually, the Soviet Union gave way, as they couldn’t afford to send troops to keep Germany separate. Britain and France only gave way after the USA threatened to leave NATO and form a separate alliance with Germany. Even then, Thatcher tried to pressure France to stop reunification and even offered to pay the Soviets to keep troops in East Germany. German reunification took place on October 3 of 1990, a date which remains celebrated as a holiday in Germany today.
NASA launched the Hubble Telescope in 1990.
Arguably the most famous telescope, NASA named its space telescope after American astronomer Edwin Hubble. By putting Hubble in space, NASA hoped it would get clearer pictures without the atmosphere distorting light from deep space. Ironically, a faulty mirror kept Hubble from coming online until 1993, when astronomers finally replaced it. Ever since then, Hubble has taken an estimated 1 million pictures, of events ranging from the birth and death of stars to galaxies billions of light-years away.
Hubble helped scientists calculate the age of the universe, which is around 13.7 billion years old. Hubble even showed scientists how the universe expanded faster and faster every year that passed. Despite now measuring over 30 years old, NASA feels no need to rush to replace Hubble, instead they continue to maintain and upgrade the telescope with new equipment. In fact, they predict they can keep Hubble going until 2040.
The Gulf War erupted in 1990.
Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and immediately faced massive international condemnation. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein claimed that Kuwait used slant drilling to steal Iraqi oil, which he tried to use as an excuse for his invasion. However, world leaders instead believed he simply wanted to remove competition for the Iraqi oil industry. The UN immediately imposed economic sanctions, while the USA launched Operation Desert Shield. This involved a buildup of US and Allied troops in Saudi Arabia until January 1991, when they launched Operation Desert Storm.
Desert Storm saw the liberation of Kuwait, and the Iraqi Army was forced to retreat in defeat. Once the Iraqi Army had fallen back to its homeland, the Allies quickly offered a ceasefire. Much like the Fall of the Soviet Union, western scholars saw the quick Allied victory in the Gulf War as proof of liberal democracy’s inevitable triumph.
An oil spill devastated the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War.
The Iraqis deliberately caused the oil spill in January 1991, intending to use it to keep the Allies from making any landings along the Gulf coast. The USA eventually had to launch airstrikes to knock out Iraqi pipelines feeding oil into the sea. By then, the Iraqis had spilled an estimated 4 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf. Covering an estimated area of 11,000 km² with a thickness of 13 cm, the oil slick remains the biggest in world history. Although the following months saw large-scale recovery efforts, those same efforts found themselves delayed by a lack of funding.
Critics also targeted the focus on recovering oil over cleaning up the surrounding beaches, with over 600 km of coastline covered in oil. Scientists have also argued that despite over 30 years having passed, the long-term effect of the oil spill continues to affect the region. In particular, crustacean life in the Persian Gulf has shown poorer health, which they attribute to the oil spill.
Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991.
The second-largest eruption in the 20th century started on June 12, 1991, and ended on June 15 of the same year. It proved so powerful that the upper part of the volcano collapsed into a caldera 2.5 km across after the eruption. An estimated 800 people died from the eruption, while another 10,000 people found themselves left homeless. The eruption also left Central Luzon covered with ash, made worse by the simultaneous impact of Typhoon Yunya. The rain brought by the typhoon mixed with the ash to form mudflows with the consistency of wet cement, which hardened to something similar to concrete.
In addition to ash, the eruption also released an estimated 17 megatons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. This caused a drop of 0.5 degrees Celsius until 1993. The eruption also affected the US Air Force’s Clark Air Base, with lava flows stopping just short of the base. Once the largest US Air Force base outside the continental USA, the expected cost of repairs proved so great that the USA simply decided to abandon the base in the aftermath.
The Philippines also saw the Vizconde Murders take place in 1991.
It gained notoriety in the country for the sheer violence of the murders, with Estrellita Vizconde dying from no less than 13 stab wounds. Her daughters died similarly, the elder daughter Maria dying from 19 stab wounds and the younger daughter Anne dying from 17 stab wounds. Evidence also pointed to the culprits raping Maria before finally stabbing her to death.
The prime suspect’s identity also added to the case’s notoriety, specifically Hubert Webb, son of then-Philippine Congressman Freddie Webb. The investigation and court cases dragged on until 2010 when the Philippine Supreme Court acquitted all suspects of the prosecution’s inability to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This, in turn, caused a massive outcry across the Philippines.
CERN in Switzerland started the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1991.
Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at CERN, actually developed all its components in 1990. These included HTTP, HTML, as well as the very idea of browsers and servers which we all now consider commonplace. He finally put them together as the WWW in 1991 and created the Internet in the process. Originally, he developed it as a way for him and his fellow scientists to easily and quickly communicate with each other.
R.L. Stine began the Goosebumps franchise in 1992.
A series of children’s horror stories, Goosebumps has since become the second-best-selling book series in history. An estimated 400 million books of the series’ various entries have sold around the world and in 32 different languages. R.L. Stine admitted that he drew inspiration from the similar Tales from the Crypt children’s horror comics he grew up with.
That said, he made sure to truly make the stories his own, writing them with a mix of horror and comedy that allows children to enjoy themselves without getting overwhelmed. He’s also maintained classic themes of the triumph of good against evil, as well as of protagonists using smarts over brawn to win.
The 1992 Olympics took place in Barcelona, Spain.
Officially called the Games of XXV Olympiad, it also went by the contraction Barcelona ‘92. It took place between July 25 and August 9 and remains the only Olympic Games ever hosted by Spain. Highlights include unorthodox lighting of the Olympic Torch, with paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo using a burning arrow to light it instead of an athlete running up to light the torch in person.
Other highlights include the former member states of the Soviet Union sending only a single team to the Olympics between them. Calling themselves the Unified Team, they dominated the Olympics, winning 45 gold medals, 38 silver medals, and 29 bronze medals. In contrast, Team USA lagged in second place, winning 37 gold medals, 34 silver medals, and 37 bronze medals.
Kim Jong-il succeeded Kim Il-sung in 1994.
Kim Il-Sung had led North Korea since its founding in 1948 before and after the Korean War. He even developed his form of Communist ideology, Juche. He also founded a cult of personality around himself, one reinforced by Kim Jong-il after he succeeded his father. This led him to title his father “Eternal President” of North Korea. Ironically, by succeeding his father purely based on father-son inheritance, Kim Jong-il practically turned North Korea into a monarchy.
This, even though Communist thought considers monarchism as its oldest rival ideology. Under Kim Jong-il, the Kim family maintained its hold over North Korea, while preserving its Communist and authoritarian system. North Korea’s continued existence despite Western sanctions became the first warning that despite Western hopes, liberal democracy’s victory wasn’t as complete as they thought.
Britain and France jointly opened the Channel Tunnel in 1994.
The tunnel takes its name from the fact that it runs under the seabed of the English Channel between Britain and France. With a length of 40 km, the Channel Tunnel allows a train to connect Folkestone in Britain with Coquelles in France. This also makes it the third-longest train tunnel in the world, and also the longest underwater tunnel in the world. With a maximum speed of 160 kph, the trains complete a one-way journey in either direction in around 35 minutes.
Proposals for the tunnel actually go back to the 19th century, but neither Britain nor France had the technology to make it work at the time. Even in the late 20th century, questions about cost delayed actual work, with construction only beginning in 1988. Today, an estimated 60,000 people use the Channel Tunnel every day, while an estimated 2 million tons of cargo pass through it every year.
The Yugoslav Wars took place between 1991 and 1995.
Various factors lay behind the war, such as resentment over Serbian dominance in the federal government. Nationalist ambitions by various minorities such as Bosnians and Croatians make up another factor. These ambitions became further stoked by the Fall of the Soviet Union, which saw many new countries become independent. The war finally erupted as Yugoslavia’s states seceded one after the other. Desertions of non-Serbs from the Yugoslavian military also accompanied the secessions, leaving the military a completely Serbian force.
This led to a change in thinking among Yugoslavia’s former leaders, who no longer aimed to preserve Yugoslavia but to create a Greater Serbia. They found themselves opposed by NATO, which recognized the independence of the new nations. The various wars of independence and NATO interventions lasted until 1995 when all sides officially agreed to end hostilities. However, insurgencies and black-ops operations continued until 2001.
Ethnic cleansing and genocide marked the Yugoslav Wars.
So much so that historians consider the Yugoslav Wars as the bloodiest wars Europe has seen since WWII. Official estimates place the death toll between 130,000 and 140,000, with another 4 million people forced to leave their homes by the fighting. The war also deliberate acts of genocide, particularly by Serbs and Montenegrins against Bosnians. Serbs and Montenegrins attempted to cement Serbia’s claim on disputed border territories by wiping entire towns and villages. They also ethnically cleansed Muslims, driving an estimated 700,000 people out of Kosovo to secure their hold on the region. The Croats also committed ethnic cleansing, similarly expelling Serbs from Croatia with the goal of a purely Croat state.
This led the UN to form a special war crimes tribunal to bring the perpetrators to justice, a task that continues to this day. But while the tribunal has largely succeeded, it also faced resentment from the countries involved, who argue that the tribunal operates on Western bias without regard for local perspectives. This proved especially the case in the suicide of Croatian General Slobodan Praljak in 2017, in defiance of the tribunal’s guilty verdict. Western media reported it as the general denying his victims justice. However, both Croatians and even Praljak’s former enemies in Serbia saw him as a hero for standing up to the tribunal.
The Rwandan Genocide took place in 1994.
It took place as part of the Rwandan Civil War, between April 7 and July 15 of that year. Following the failure of peace talks between the Rwandan government and the Tutsi rebels, the government-aligned militia began slaughtering Tutsis across the country. Although the UN had a peacekeeping force in the area, they found themselves unable to act without approval from the UN. This resulted from France’s refusal to support a proposal in the UN to authorize the peacekeepers from taking action.
France feared that doing so would increase American influence in Africa at French expense. In the end, up to 800,000 civilians died in the single biggest act of mass murder since WWII. It also led to criticism against France for enabling genocide to preserve its national interests.
It led to major scandals and criticism of the UN.
Although French politicking served as the cause for the UN’s indecisiveness, the UN still found itself heavily criticized for its inaction in the face of genocide. This led to the UN withdrawing UNAMIR, the previously failed peacekeeping force from Rwanda. UNAMIR’s withdrawal led to a rebel victory in Rwanda, with rebel leader Paul Kagame becoming the new President of Rwanda. In fact, he continues to lead the country to this day.
To regain legitimacy in Rwanda, the UN organized a new peacekeeping force, UNAMIR II. UNAMIR II largely focused on humanitarian efforts, as well as supervising new elections. UNAMIR II remained active in Rwanda until 1996 when the UN ended its mandate and disbanded the peacekeeping force.
Apartheid ended in 1994.
Apartheid refers to the official government policy in South Africa which began in 1948. It set strict guidelines over which jobs blacks, whites, Asians, and other colored people could have. It also decided where they could live, which public utilities they could use, and what services they could get. The policy faced opposition from the black majority, namely the African National Congress (ANC), led by Nelson Mandela. It also led to South Africa becoming ostracized by both the Free World and the Communist Bloc. By 1990, economic difficulties and international condemnation finally led the apartheid government to begin negotiating with the ANC.
This, in turn, led to violence erupting between extremists on both sides. The ANC gained the right to stand for election in 1994 and won a majority in the South African Parliament. Mandela himself became elected as the first black President of South Africa. With control of the government, the ANC ended apartheid on April 27, 1994. The date is still celebrated today as Freedom Day.
O.J. Simpson went on trial for murder in 1995.
A famous American football player and actor, OJ Simpson found himself arrested in 1994 over the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Simpson tried to avoid the arrest, leading to a police chase covered live by the media and witnessed across the USA. The trial itself did not take place until a year later, but Simpson’s fame and the attention drawn by his police chase meant it also gained nationwide attention. So much so, that the media called it the trial of the century. Simpson’s defense managed to prove reasonable doubt existed despite DNA evidence.
They also branded the LAPD of racial bias over Simpson’s arrest and subsequent treatment. This led the court to acquit Simpson of the murder charges, which led to mixed reactions. White and Hispanics felt that the court had failed to deliver justice, and should have convicted Simpson. In contrast, African-Americans felt vindicated, and that Simpson had rightly proven himself innocent.
Pixar released Toy Story in 1995.
It became the first all-CGI film to ever appear in cinemas, setting a new milestone for the animation industry. It also marked Pixar’s entry onto the big stage, as Toy Story was their first-ever feature film. Earning over $373 million worldwide, it became 1995’s second-highest-grossing film. Critics and audiences all gave the film excellent reviews, with the film even having a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The US Congress would later declare the film aesthetically, culturally, and historically significant, receiving a place in the National Film Registry. It also started a franchise of its own, with Toy Story 4 released in 2019 being the latest.
The First Congo War took place in Africa from 1996 to 1997.
Various factors lay behind the war, but the most important of them all involved the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu had ruled Zaire ever since 1965, but in that time he had gained a cruel reputation by even the standards of African warlords. In particular, Mobutu openly amassed wealth and lived in luxury as Zaire’s economy collapsed and his people lived in poverty.
This finally led to the outbreak of revolt in October 1996, backed by Zaire’s neighbors like Rwanda and Uganda. Mobutu had hoped for US support, but while the USA had previously supported him in exchange for an anti-Communist policy on his part, the end of the Cold War prompted the USA to not support him any longer. This led to Mobutu’s defeat and exile to Morocco in May 1997, but the new regime soon proved no better. This later led to the outbreak of the Second Congo War in 1999 and which lasted until 2003.
The 1996 Olympics took place in Atlanta, USA.
Officially called the Games of XXVI Olympiad, and informally called Atlanta 1996, it marked the fourth Olympic Games hosted by the USA. It also marked the 100th Anniversary of the modern Olympic Games, which started in Athens in 1896. Highlights of the games include the first time former member states of the Soviet Union participated as independent nations.
It also marked the first time since 1984 that the USA won the most medals out of any participating country. Specifically, 44 gold medals, 32 silver medals, and 25 bronze medals for a total of 101 medals. Behind the USA came Russia, winning 26 gold medals, 21 silver medals, and 16 bronze medals for a total of 63 medals.
Scientists cloned Dolly the Sheep in 1997.
Despite popular belief, Dolly wasn’t the first animal ever cloned, but the first mammal ever cloned. Born at Roslin Institute in Scotland, Dolly also had the distinction of the first clone produced from cells taken from an adult animal. Previously, scientists could only produce clones from embryonic cells. The achievement that Dolly represented marked a major triumph for cloning science. However, it also caused enemies of the field to respond with alarm and caused fresh controversy over the ethics of cloning.
In particular, they asked that since other mammals could become clones, could humans be too? That Dolly died at the age of only six became an issue as well, as enemies of cloning issues argued her death resulted from flaws in the cloning process. Scientists rejected this notion, as four other clones born of the same process which produced Dolly lived normal lives. Today, the debate over cloning continues both inside and outside the scientific community.
The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 marked a major milestone for the environmental movement.
The agreement takes its name from the city of Kyoto in Japan, where representatives from 11 countries met to draft and sign the agreement. In the Kyoto Protocol, the signatories agreed to work to reduce the production of various gasses and with them the effects of human civilization on Earth’s atmosphere. Additional countries joined over the following years, with 36 countries having signed the protocol in 2008. By 2020, that number had increased to 144 countries.
However, of the original signatories, Canada dropped the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, while the US Congress refused to ratify it. Both countries argued that the Kyoto Protocol failed to take into account economic realities. They also accused the Kyoto Protocol of unfair bias against North American and West European countries and favored the Third World.
James Cameron’s Titanic opened in cinemas in 1997.
A romantic dramatization of the Titanic’s disastrous 1912 attempted crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, Titanic became the first film to ever earn over $1 billion. This also made it the highest-grossing film of all time, a title it held until 2010 when it lost the title to Avatar, which James Cameron also directed. Titanic was also the most expensive film ever made at the time, with a budget of over $200 million.
Cameron later admitted his inspiration for the film came after diving down to see the ship’s wreckage. Critics and audiences reacted positively to the film, believing it treated the historical event it is based on with sensitivity. Others also praised the technical accuracy made in the film, though they criticized the romance plot as being weak. The US Congress later designated the film as aesthetically, culturally, and historically significant.
J.K. Rowling started the Harry Potter franchise in 1997.
Specifically, with the novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with six other novels over the next 10 years. Today, the franchise has sold over 500 million copies worldwide, in over 80 languages, making Harry Potter the best-selling book series in history. Each novel has had a film adaption by Warners Brothers and has received a stage play sequel, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Overall, the franchise currently has a value of $25 billion, making it one of the highest-grossing in the world. That said, it has received criticism, with many scholars accusing the series of overdependence on cliches and derivatives. Other critics have accused the series of pandering to a conservative and even British nationalist message.
Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash in 1997.
It took place in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris, France, on the night of August 31, 1997. Diana and her romantic partner, Dodi Fayed, had left Hotel Ritz Paris discreetly and quickly to avoid the media gathered around the building. Their driver later lost control of the car while passing through the tunnel, causing it to slam into a pillar at over 100 kph. The investigators later discovered the driver suffered from both alcohol intoxication and drug-induced euphoria at the time of the crash.
They also discovered that both Diana and Fayed had failed to fasten their seatbelts. Only their bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, survived the crash. Diana received a public funeral in Britain, with the widespread public mourning causing some journalists to describe it as a form of mass hysteria. Despite the official report on the causes of the crash, many have blamed the media for their obsessive behavior towards Diana as having contributed to her death.
Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998 caused the LGBT Rights Movement to go into high gear.
A gay student from the University of Wyoming, Shepard was kidnapped and tortured on the night of October 6, 1998. His kidnappers later left him to die outside Laramie City, but bystanders found and brought Shepard to a hospital. Shepard died six days later from head injuries received during his ordeal. Police later arrested Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on murder and assault charges. During their trial, McKinney’s girlfriend revealed that McKinney had homophobic opinions, which may have contributed to his attack on Shepard.
The court found both McKinney and Henderson guilty and sentenced them to life in prison. Shepard’s murder drew attention to the fact that hate crimes occurred not only because of racial bias but also because of sexual bias. This later led to the passing of the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009, which expanded the federal government’s authority to prosecute hate crimes.
The Second Congo War began in 1998 and lasted until 2003.
It erupted over the domestic perception of the post-Mobutu regime as a puppet of Congo’s neighbors. This led to revolts in August 1998, followed by armed interventions by Congo’s neighbors within a month. Attempts by the UN to mediate a peaceful solution failed, in particular, the assassination of President Laurent-Desire Kabila. In the end, it took exhaustion from the constant fighting and death to convince all sides in the war to end it.
By then, an estimated 5.4 million people had died, making the Second Congo War the deadliest after WWII. It also saw another 2 million people forced to leave their homes for safer locales in other countries. And while the days of armies marching to fight in open battle have ended, insurgencies continue to rage in Congo today, particularly in the east of the country.
US President Bill Clinton became mired in the Lewinsky Scandal in 1998.
The scandal broke in January of that year, alleging that Clinton had had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton immediately denied the allegation in a televised speech, while Lewinsky signed an affidavit also denying the affair. However, she later reversed her position after recordings emerged that pointed to the affair’s existence. The evidence she provided forced Clinton to face a grand jury, where the President admitted he’d had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.
However, he continued to deny he’d had an affair with her, leading to his conviction on perjury charges. This led to the US Congress trying to impeach him, only for the Senate to acquit him of the impeachment charge. Regardless, Clinton’s home state of Arkansas first suspended his law license, before finally stripping it away entirely.
Construction on the International Space Station (ISS) began in 1998.
Plans for the station go back to the 1980s, which was named “Freedom” as a response to the Soviet Mir space station. With the end of the Cold War, though, NASA decided to rename its planned space station to reflect the new post-war order. In addition, they decided to allow the Russians to join the Europeans and the Japanese to participate in the program. While the first modules of the ISS went to space in 1998, it only became suitable for human habitation in 2000.
The ISS has steadily expanded with new modules over the following decades, with Russia adding the latest Prichal module in 2021. The USA hoped to keep the ISS functioning until 2030, but Russia has announced it will end support for the program in 2025. This has left the ISS’ future uncertain, as the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011 has made the ISS dependent on the Russian Soyuz for transport purposes.
The European Union (EU) adopted the Euro as its single currency in 1999.
At the time, both Britain and Denmark received special exemptions to continue using their own national currencies. The EU allowed this compromise to keep public opinion in both countries. Other EU countries had until 2002 to finally complete the transition from their national currencies to Euro.
As the EU expanded over the following decades, other member states have also adopted the Euro. That said, of the EU’s current 27 members, only 18 use the Euro, with Denmark, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary still refusing to adopt it. Regardless, today the Euro comes second to the US Dollar as the world’s most traded currency.
Malaysia completed the Petronas Towers in 1999.
With a height of 452 meters, the Petronas Towers became the tallest buildings in the world at the time of their completion. They held that title until 2004 when Taipei 101 beat the record. The Petronas Towers, however, remain the tallest twin towers in the world.
Plans for the towers go back to 1992, with the excavation of the site beginning in 1993 and construction on the buildings propelling in 1994. Both buildings technically finished in 1996, but furnishing took longer to finish, with Petronas bringing the towers online in 1997. The official opening of the towers took place on August 31, 1999.
The ’90s saw large-scale economic prosperity in North America and some Asian countries.
For instance, the USA saw incomes double in 1990 alone, while inflation dropped from 5.39% in that year to 1.55% in 1995. Similarly, Wall Street enjoyed a historic high from 1999 to 2001, when the Dow Jones Average never dropped below the 10,500 mark. The USA also signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico in 1994.
This led the three countries to drop tariff barriers and fully adopt free trade with each other. This, in turn, caused the prices of goods to drop and increased market competition. In Asia, Malaysia and Vietnam saw economic growth, with Malaysia in particular described as a tiger economy of its growing economy and improving lifestyle standards.
Computer technology greatly advanced through the ’90s.
In fact, historians consider the 1990s as the beginning of the 21st century’s obsession with electronics. In particular, they point to the birth of the Internet and the widespread growth of personal computers as having laid the foundation of the digital age. The rapid growth of their consumer base in the 1990s saw electronics companies making huge advances.
For instance, RAM sizes in 1990 managed only 512 KB at most, but by the end of the decade, had grown to a maximum of 1 GB. Other advances at this time include emails, instant messaging, the MP3 format, as well as CD-ROM and DVD. Cell phones also quickly replaced pagers popular in the 1980s from 1995 onwards.
Feminism also saw major achievements in the ’90s.
In particular, the sexual conduct of public figures first became a major topic in the 1990s. US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas almost lost his nomination thanks to testimony by Anita Hill and other women on his alleged sexual misconduct. Joe Biden, who later became President of the USA, also drafted the Violence Against Women Act which the US Congress passed in 1994.
First Lady Hillary Clinton became the most influential First Lady of the USA in history with her position in the State Department during her husband’s term in office. Similarly, Madeline Albright became the first female State Secretary in the USA during President Clinton’s term in office. Outside the USA, Turkey saw its first female Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, who held office between 1993 and 1996.
Sitcoms became very popular in the USA during the ’90s.
These include series like Friends, which first aired in 1994 and remained on the air until 2004. Its series finale had an audience of 52.5 million people in the USA alone, making it the fifth most-watched TV ending in history. Other popular sitcoms in the 1990s included The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring Will Smith which first aired in 1990.
It not only marked Smith’s debut as an actor, but the success of the series also allowed him to quickly transition to film. The popularity of comedy sitcoms also led to the success of other TV comedies, such as Saturday Night Live.
In particular, Seinfeld became the most iconic TV comedy of the ’90s.
Ironically, it first aired in 1989 but made its hit as the most successful sitcom of all time in the 1990s. Starring comedian Jerry Seinfeld as himself, the series revolved around the personal lives of his fictional counterpart and his friends. In this way, it combined comedy with slice-of-life themes, with its focus on day-to-day leading some to describe the series as “a show about nothing”.
That said, Seinfeld’s success primarily took place among English-speaking audiences, with the show losing some of its impact on other audiences. Critics attribute this to many humorous plot points getting lost in translation, as well as enduring cultural barriers between people and countries.
Medical dramas also made their TV debut in the ’90s.
The show ER particularly proved iconic during the 1990s and continued airing until 2009. This made it the second-longest-running medical drama show in US history, second only to Grey’s Anatomy, which continues to air to this day.
ER also became George Clooney’s rise to superstar status, thanks to his role as Doctor Doug Ross. Another popular medical drama that launched in the 1990s, Chicago Hope, continued airing until 2000. The year 1993 also saw the launch of Diagnosis Murder, which blends medical drama with crime and mystery themes.
Disney released some of its most iconic films in the ’90s.
These included Beauty and the Beast, released in 1991, Aladdin, released in 1992, and The Lion King, released in 1994. The success of these led to what is now called the Disney Renaissance, referencing the company’s rise from its cinematic slump that lasted from 1977 to 1991. Film experts attribute this decline to the departure of veteran animator Don Bluth in 1981, which also directly contributed to the delayed release of 1981’s The Fox and the Hound.
Disney’s recovery continued after 1994, with films like Pocahontas in 1995, as well as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. Hercules suffered from lower earnings, leading to fears that Disney might slump again, but the success of Mulan in 1998 and Tarzan in 1999 proved this wrong. And while the Disney Renaissance has ended, it was noted to have ended on a high note.
Japanese anime also produced various iconic films in the ’90s.
Studio Ghibli continued to dominate Japanese entries in the animated film industry. These include titles such as Porco Rosso and Princess Mononoke, with the latter becoming the highest-grossing film at the time.
Other iconic Japanese animated films of the 1990s include Ghost in the Shell in 1995, an adaptation of the cyberpunk manga of the same name. It brought the franchise to international attention, where it would influence future Western works in the genre. In fact, the Wachowski Sisters who later directed the Matrix franchise admitted that they took inspiration from Ghost in the Shell for their own work.
Japan fell into major economic troubles in the 1990s.
Ironically, this resulted from the same causes that led Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy in the 1980s. Companies simply made too many risky investments, while Japanese consumers spent too little. This led to what economists call an economic bubble, where the economy grows but not enough to support it. To add to the irony, the Japanese banking industry realized the danger and cut investments in 1989.
This caused the bubble economy to collapse in 1991, beginning what Japanese historians call the Lost Decades, with the Japanese economy remaining slow to this day. In fact, Japanese economic growth over the last 30 years barely averages 1% per year, far lower than other First World countries. This eventually led to China replacing Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010.
Various European countries also suffered economic troubles at the time.
In fact, most of Eastern Europe’s economies all but collapsed after the Fall of the Soviet Union. One cause involves the opening of the regional economy to Western imports, which outcompeted local goods. This, in turn, caused widespread bankruptcies among local businesses and business owners. As local businesses failed, the value of local currencies fell, leading to hyperinflation, and making them almost worthless. Russia alone, for example, saw almost half its population fall into poverty.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervened, which prevented a complete collapse, but this soon led to another problem. The introduction of western free market systems led to the formation of a small, closed group of businessmen called oligarchs, who monopolized wealth and economic control between them. This contributed to disenchantment with the West in Russia towards the end of the decade. As one Russian saying went, “Everything the Capitalists told us about Communism was true. Unfortunately, everything the Communists told us about Capitalism was also true.”
Various terrorist attacks took place during the ’90s.
Historians even consider these attacks as early warnings that went ignored for the War on Terror in the early 21st century. In fact, Muslim terrorists belonging to Al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center as early as 1993, eight years before 9/11. Five years later in 1998, Al-Qaeda bombed the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These would see the first retaliatory attacks of what would become the War on Terror, with cruise missile strikes against Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda also tried to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1993, only to fail at the last minute. Elsewhere, anti-Semitic terrorists bombed a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) also bombed Manchester, England, in 1996.
The Spratly Islands also became a major international issue in the ’90s.
China and Vietnam clashed over the islands in the 1980s, but the issue of the islands became a major issue when the Philippines pressed its claim in 1999. The Philippine Marines even set up a military base at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. American support for the Philippine claim, as well as their general alliance with the Philippines, has inflamed the issue further.
Meanwhile, on the Chinese side, Taiwan also claims the Spratly Islands, which has angered China. In particular, they see Taiwan’s claim as part of pro-independence sentiments on Taiwan’s part. This, in turn, goes against the One China Policy which considers Taiwan a rogue Chinese province.
Boris Yeltsin’s Presidency in Russia proved a mixed affair.
Yeltsin led the pro-democratic movement in Russia which led to the Fall of the Soviet Union. He also led the country afterward as the first President of the Russian Federation. However, this also meant many Russians blamed him for their economic problems during the 1990s. Yeltsin’s alcoholism also made things worse, as he frequently appeared in media reports and attended cabinet meetings drunk. Many affairs even ended up canceled because the President proved too drunk to attend.
Ironically, one thing the Russians remember fondly about Yeltsin involves his actions to maintain Russian influence in the Caucasus region of Asia. In contrast, westerners see this aspect of Yeltsin’s administration negatively. They argue it stifled democratic aspirations in the region and enabled human rights violations. However, this has only strengthened positive Russian opinions on Yeltsin’s Caucasus policy.
The end of the ’90s saw the beginning of disenchantment with globalization and multiculturalism.
This resulted from a general belief that the decade had failed to deliver the promises it started with. Hopes of lasting peace and prosperity from the 1990s onward became dashed by events over the years. These include war and genocide in Africa and Southern Europe and economic problems in Eastern Europe. Communist China also endured past the Fall of the Soviet Union and steadily increased in power to compete with the USA.
Terrorist attacks also increased in scale over the decade, with one US analyst describing it concerning the end of the Cold War as “We slew the dragon but unleashed the hydra in the process.” That the West prospered in the decade worked with all these factors to tarnish the appeal of multiculturalism and globalism. In particular, this led people across the Third World to start seeing both concepts as ways for the West to mask its continued imperialist exploitation.
The end of the decade also saw widespread fear of the Year 2000 Problem.
Also called the Millennium Bug, it referred to widespread fear among computer programmers in the 1990s. In particular, they feared that computers couldn’t handle the transition between 1999 and 2000, resulting in widespread crashes around the world. In fact, some people predicted damages of up to $600 billion from the computer collapse. Others took it further and predicted a global apocalypse which led to a surge in hoarding activities towards the end of 1999.
As it turned out, only a few crashes occurred during the transition, thanks to unnoticed hard work on the part of computer programmers. They preemptively adjusted the computer programs to allow them to handle the transition. US President Clinton even publicly thanked them for their historic role in resolving the first issue of the 21st century before it could even happen.
The ’90s left a legacy of its own in the fashion world.
In contrast to the 1980s, fashion in the 1990s favored subtle colors with minimal contrasts, dominated by earthy tones. This shifted to darker tones and shinier colors as the decade approached its end, in futuristic anticipation of the 21st century. At the same time, rebellious themes include grunge and hip-hop anti-fashion, marked by slouchy, over casual styles of clothing. Popular hairstyles among women in the 1990s included The Rachel, named after Jennifer Aniston’s character in the TV sitcom Friends.
Similarly, the Curtained Haircut became popular among teenage boys and young men thanks to the character John Connor in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Many teenage girls also adopted retro styles, specifically denim hot pants as well as long, straight hair, first popularized back in the 1970s. Push-up plunge bras also became popular among women worldwide thanks to the 1992 introduction of the 1300 Wonderbra in Europe.
Many actors became popular in the 1990s.
Johnny Depp, for one, played the main character for the first time in the 1990 comedy Cry-Baby, which later became a cult classic despite its average performance at the box office. In that same year, Depp starred in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, which became Depp’s big break. Other films he starred in during the 1990s include Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Jodie Foster also made her debut in adult roles in the 1990s, having previously succeeded as a child actor. Major films starring Foster include 1991’s Silence of the Lambs and 1997’s Contact. However, her biggest role in the 1990s took place in 1999, when she starred alongside Chow Yun-Fat in Anna and the King.
The ’90s also had its own distinct musical styles.
Genres that made it big in the 1990s include gangsta rap, grunge, R&B, and teen pop. Rapper Snoop Dog, in particular, made his debut in the 1990s with gangsta rap. Punk rock also made a comeback in the 1990s, which had declined after the 1970s, thanks to the band Green Day. The band would later move on from punk rock, evolving into new genres like pop-punk and alternative rock.
U2 also became popular in the 1990s, with the band’s 1992 Zoo TV and 1995 PopMart tours becoming the biggest musical events of those years. Other successful bands of the decade include Creed, Nickelback, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Mariah Carey, in particular, became the most iconic musical artist of the ’90s.
Although she started her career in the 1980s, Carey made her big break in 1993, during her debut Music Box Tour. In particular, her second single of the tour, “Hero”, would become recognized as her signature song. Her rendition of “Without You” also made number one on music charts in Britain, Germany, and Sweden.
Today, the Music Box Tour remains Carey’s best-seller, with 28 million copies of the album sold worldwide. In 1994, Carey released her Merry Christmas album, which remains the best-selling Christmas album of all time. Its lead single, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, has even become a standard for Christmas-themed songs worldwide.
The Spice Girls is one of the musical icons of the ’90s.
A British girl group formed in 1994, they made their debut in 1996, with the song “Wannabe”. They later released the album Spice in that same year, which has become the best-selling album of any female group in history, with over 23 million copies sold worldwide. Their 1997 album Spiceworld enjoyed similar success, selling over 14 million copies worldwide. However, the group began to break apart in 1998 thanks to creative differences, with the departure of Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell.
The rest of the group went on their Spiceworld Tour in that same year, which saw an audience of 2.1 million. This remains the biggest audience ever achieved by any female group in history thus far. Afterward, The Spice Girls’ fortunes declined, with the ground disbanding in the early 2000s. They later reunited in 2007, and again in 2019, each time winning the Billboard Live Music Awards, cementing their status as pop icons from the 1990s.
J-Pop also gained widespread popularity in the latter part of the ’90s.
Top charting artists of this time included Namie Amuro, Ayumi Hamasaki, and Hikaru Utada. Utada stands out in particular, with her 1999 single Automatic, despite only having aged 16 at the time.
The year 1999 also saw the Japanese band DA PUMP releasing their hit “Crazy Beat Goes On!” In fact, that song even earned a place on the official soundtrack of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, released in that same year. DA PUMP shows one reason behind the success of J-Pop: the inclusion of English lyrics in songs. Some successful J-Pop artists and bands, however, did not follow this trend, such as Kiroro from Hokkaido.
Various video games also appeared in the ’90s.
A factor behind this involves the large number of new consoles released during the decade. These include the PlayStation, the Game Boy Color, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast. Among the games of the decade, Super Mario World became the most popular console game. However, Pokemon Red and Blue beat it to become the most popular portable console game of the 1990s.
The widespread adoption of personal computers also led game developers to produce games for PCs. In particular, the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre saw its beginning at this time. Westwood released Command and Conquer, later renamed Tiberium Dawn, in 1995. Blizzard later released Starcraft in 1998, which would become the second best-selling video game of all time. Development of arcade games also continued in this decade, with Street Fighter II becoming the most popular arcade game of the 1990s.
Michael Jordan became a global basketball icon in the ’90s.
Part of this success came from his deals with companies like Gatorade, Hanes, McDonald’s, and of course, Nike. His advertising role with those companies made Michael Jordan a regular figure in the eyes of various audiences. It also helped that he proved himself as one of the most successful basketball players of all time.
His NBA team, the Chicago Bulls, won the NBA championships six times in the 1990s. They won three years in a row from 1991 to 1993, and again from 1996 to 1999. He also played as part of the USA’s Dream Team in the basketball section of the 1992 Olympics. Jordan is also remembered for playing himself alongside Looney Tunes characters in the 1996 film, Space Jam.