The Age of Synergies

Source: Interior of Edison’s Electric Lighting Station in New York in 1882, Date Unknown, Tekniska Museet via Europeana.

This article is the sixth of an ongoing series from EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on

Europe at Work brings stories of our personal working lives together with archive material on industrial and labour-related heritage. Looking at our working lives, we can show students and learners that the working world we inhabit today is rich and varied, and tells the story of technological and societal changes over time. In this series, we look at how EUROCLIO is using industrial heritage material to create learning resources for educators on their Historiana portal.

Source collection

The Historiana source collection The Age of Synergies consists of sources on the Second Industrial Revolution, which took place somewhere between 1870 and 1914. During this time the use of steam power and the use of electricity, both fuelled by fossil fuels, lead to significant changes in, for example, production, communication and transportation. Those changes, in turn, lead to demographic developments and a general process of increasing globalisation.

The source collection in total revolves around the concept of cumulative causation, a theory developed by the economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. The general idea is that there is not one cause that leads to one or more consequences, but that there is an interplay between several important causes that not only coincide, but accelerate and increase each other. This concept of cumulative causation is the general idea around which this e-Learning Activity is built. Students will orient themselves on the different developments during the Second Industrial Revolution via the source collection and delve into the interrelation between the different causes and consequences to come up with a coherent narrative of the synergies during Second Industrial Revolution.


The aims of this learning activity for the students are:

  • The student describes the changes that took place during the Second Industrial Revolution.
  • The student explains the concept of cumulative causation.
  • The student describes the different causes and consequences of the Second Industrial Revolution.
  • The student explains the interrelation between the different processes of development that took place during the Second Industrial Revolution.

E-Learning Activity builder

This e-Learning Activity makes use of both the sorting tool (two times) and prioritizing tool from the Historiana e-Learning Activity builder in three sub-activities.

The first sub-activity allows students to orient themselves on the different sources and has them look for more direct and more indirect connections between them. At the heart of the sorting are the Second Industrial Revolution and the use of electricity. Students need to put sources with a direct relation to those in the inner circle, while they place sources with an indirect relation in the outer circle. This generates an overview, albeit partly subjective, of interconnectedness between the sources.

The second sub-activity makes use of the prioritizing tool and lets the students decide the significance of certain developments compared to other developments in the same period. They think on the significance by increasing or decreasing the size of sources, depending on how significant the development was those sources represent.

The third sub-activity makes use of the sorting tool again. This time the sources from the previous sub-activities have been presented on a blank background, enabling students to freely click them and move them around the screen, putting them together or sorting them in whichever way they deem meaningful. The sorting tool is really just plays a supporting role here, providing a canvas for students to discuss the sources and their different interrelations.

Learning Activity

The central aim of this learning activity is to help students discover the complex multi-causal relationships between different developments in a certain period. In this specific activity they look for so-called cumulative causation in the period of the Second Industrial Revolution.

In the first part of the activity the students use the sorting tool to relate different sources (which represent developments in that time like the upcoming use of electricity and changes in transport, communication and population) by looking for more direct and more indirect connections. For example: electricity directly leads to the invention of the electric motor (direct), which in turn led to changes in transportation (indirect). Students are asked to summarize their findings in a short paragraph.

In the second part students again look at the sources, now using the prioritizing tool to think on the significance of each development in relation to the others. The more significant a development is, the larger they can make it. Of course each decision needs to be thoroughly explained.

In the third and final part the students use the sorting tool again to take another look at the sources. They will need to make the connections between the different developments so they form a coherent narrative of the cumulative causation that took place during the Second Industrial Revolution. As a teacher you could go ‘meta’ in this part of the learning activity as well, by discussing the complex and constructivist nature of history as a science.


The e-learning activity The Age of Synergies incorporates the Historiana source collection of the same name. Both the sorting tool and the prioritizing tool of the E-Learning Activity builder are used.

The main aim of the learning activity is to have students realise that history often consists of a complex interplay of different causes and consequences. In the learning activity students explore the Second Industrial Revolution (‘The Age of Synergies’), looking at the different developments, like the upcoming use of electricity and increases in communication and transportation. The theory of cumulative causation (Myrdal, 1956) takes central stage in the latter part of the activity, in which the students describe the interrelations between the developments in the Second Industrial Revolution.

On a side-note: while this is a stand-alone learning activity, it can be used in conjunction with both The Subterranean Forest learning activity and the Energy in the pre-industrial world activity. The activity is a direct chronological follow-up on The Subterranean Forest, that mainly focusses on the (First) Industrial Revolution. The Energy in the pre-industrial world activity precedes both other activities, so it would come first chronological. A major difference between The Age of Synergies and the other two is that this activity mainly focusses on cause and consequence and complexity in history, while the other put emphasis on the link between past, present and future. The activities The Subterranean Forest and Energy in the pre-industrial world are fully described in different blog-posts.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyond, and the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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