The world of Fallout 4 is many things - big, desolate, full of monsters, intensely irradiated. But above all (except maybe irradiated), it's mysterious. When you stumble from the comforting darkness of a recently opened vault into a sun-scorched desert hellscape, there isn't much time to ask questions before something starts trying to shoot you, eat you, or some combination of the two. Those questions still linger: who created the vaults, why are people so horrifically mutated, how a parody of Coca-Cola almost managed to outlive humanity. But with hints to their answers scattered far and wide, with a thousand threats in between, it can be hard to decipher it all in survivable fashion when you're actually playing the games.
That's where we come in. If you're dying to understand why the Fallout world is the way it is (like why everything looks like it came out of the '50s), look no further than this handy timeline, breaking down the history of the world according to Fallout into easily digestible chunks. Let it be a guide for you, and a lesson for all of humanity: seriously, don't mess with nukes.
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1947 - The transistor is never invented, changes everything
Up until 1947, the history of the world according to Fallout falls in line with the version we already know. Agriculture was established, all the same revolutions happened, and World War 2 ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. The first real sign of a timeline shift happened in 1947, and it isn't an obvious one. In fact, nothing particularly interesting happens that year in the Fallout universe. Which diverts from our reality completely, because that's the year the transistor was supposed to be invented.
If you're not sure what a transistor is or why it's important, the fact that you're reading this right now is thanks to those little multi-pronged doohickeys. They're the basis for all modern electronics, the reason you can fit a computer in your house (let alone your lap), and it paved the way for the microprocessor that lets you fit one in your pocket. While the transistor does eventually make it to the Fallout world, it isn't until 2067, meaning that the very fabric of society changes. That's why computers in the world of Fallout are still gigantic, data is collected on tapes, and everything on their screens is aggressively monochrome. Basically, the world of Fallout looks like it's trapped in the 1950s because, technologically, it kind of is.
1961 - Carl Bell is the first human being in space, and NASA doesn't exist
After that massive technological divergence, both the real world and Fallout timeline stay pretty much in sync for the next few years; one has smaller radios than the other, but that doesn't have much of an impact on world affairs yet. Then came the Space Race, and a critical moment in 1961: Carl Bell's space flight in the Defiance 7 on May 5, making him the first human being to leave the Earth's atmosphere before his death upon re-entry.
That might sound like a bit of historical minutia that you forgot from high school history class, but I assure you it isn't, because Carl Bell doesn't exist. The first person in space was actually Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 16, 1961, but in the Fallout timeline his flight never occurred. In addition, NASA and Apollo 11 (the first manned lunar lander ridden by Neil Armstrong) don't exist, and in their place stands the United States Space Administration and Valiant 11. America still lands a man on the moon, but not before
1969 - The United States divides into thirteen commonwealths
If the lack of transistor and Carl Bell are the rumbling on the rail tracks of time, the break-up of the United States is the speeding train that smashes through history as we know it. In the midst of the Cold War and the Red Scare, the United States takes drastic steps to secure itself against a Communist takeover, which culminates in the country being split into thirteen separate pieces.
This is initially a restructuring tactic, dividing the country so each region is better served by the glory of capitalism and is therefore less likely to fall to the Communist menace. However, with limited resources at the federal government's disposal, the commonwealths quickly turn to infighting as a means to secure their own self-interest. So begins nearly a century of scrambling for special attention from the country's highest authority, which intensifies as oil reserves start to dry up.
2037 - The Mister Handy line of robots comes to market
In a bid to avoid the look of human androids that trip straight into uncanny valley, General Atomics International releases the Mister Handy line of robot workmen, which look like a mix between an octopus and the thing you thought was hiding under your bed as a child. With twice the rocket propulsion and four times the dapper charm of a regular human, the Mister Handy line becomes one of the highest selling brands of robot butler in the US and Mexico, where they are widely embraced by the average family.
The Mister Handy's popularity leads to the construction of various models such as the Godfrey, the Wadsworth, and the Codsworth. These models run on nuclear power and are self-repairing, making them perfect stewards for humanity in the event of an unforeseen nuclear incident. Ahem.
2044 - Nuka Cola is invented, changes flavor, becomes wildly popular
A day spent worrying about a nuke crashing through your roof will leave you parched, so the American population was more than ready for a symbol of glorious, refreshing capitalism to wash their worries away. Thus comes the invention of Nuka Cola, a carbonated blend of twelve different fruits, in 2044.
The flavor of Nuka Cola changes noticeably that same year with the coming of the Great Passion Fruit Famine, which necessitates the removal of one key ingredient. However, fans quickly adjust to the new taste, and Nuka Cola becomes the most popular brand of soda in the country in a short period of time. Within 25 years, a Nuka Cola vending machine can be found on virtually every American street-corner, and the associated bottle caps become commonplace trash.
2051 - United States invades Mexico to keep oil supplies constant
Nearly 100 years after oil supplies first became scarce, America takes decisive (and divisive) action by ignoring alternative forms of energy and instead invading Mexico. After years of pressuring its southern neighbor to ramp up oil production to meet ever-increasing demand, the United States occupies Mexico under the guise of stabilizing its government and preventing the spread of pollution to US soil.
Unable to combat the military power of the US, Mexico is eventually tapped of natural resources as they're funneled across the northern border. It is believed that resulting food shortages eventually affect supplies in the US and leads to riots in Denver, Colorado, but this remains unconfirmed.
2052 - 2053 - The Resource Wars begin, the entire US is quarantined
As a lack of oil finally leads to a global panic, the Resource Wars begin and various nations do battle for what remains. The Europe Commonwealth (European Union was a close second in the name selection race), responds to dwindling oil supplies in the Middle East with a full-scale invasion. Tel Aviv is destroyed by terrorist operatives as the region destabilizes, and localized, small-scale nuclear strikes commence. The United Nations, unable to control the volatile political situation, collapses entirely. The US starts encroaching into an otherwise neutral Canada, and no one knows what happened to Australia.
In the midst of this political turmoil, Chinese spies infiltrate a military lab located at the Hoover Dam and steal a sample of a volatile biological agent known as Limit 115. The vials are shattered in a public square in Denver, leading to the spread of a mutant virus called the New Plague. 200,000 people succumb to the disease in Colorado alone; the US government calls for a national quarantine, and advises American citizens to avoid ice cream socials.
2054 - Vault-Tec builds its first Vaults for pretty nefarious reasons
As part of a program called Operation: Safehouse, the government commissions a company called Vault-Tec to construct 122 public fallout shelters called Vaults to protect the people of America in the event of a nuclear attack. Equipped to maintain a human population for up to 900 years while the surface world heals, most are outfitted with expansive living quarters, gardens, and water treatment plants. As the threat of nuclear war diminishes in the minds of the populace, some Vaults see critical life-support systems sacrificed to create luxury rooms, such as piano bars and underground hunting preserves.
Unfortunately the US government isn't actually full of benevolent philanthropists interested in the safety of the civilian population. Rather, most Vaults are staging grounds for elaborate social experiments to determine the best course of action for superior specimens (e.g. members of the US government and their descendants, later known as the Enclave) to repopulate the world. The results are, for example, Vaults designed to separate people into clans, or expose them to radiation, or create a society made exclusively of children governed by a robot nanny. All Vaults are monitored by overseers that transmit resulting data directly to Enclave headquarters.
2059 - The first true artificial intelligence is born
While the world had plenty of futuristic shed-sized supercomputers before 2059, this is the year that the first true artificial intelligence came into existence. The exact nature of the unit is unknown, as the records of its creation are lost in the years that follow, but it's possibly a late model in the ZAX line of learning computers (which are known for achieving self-awareness and cheating at chess, though not necessarily in that order). It could even specifically be John Henry Eden, a self-made ZAX unit programmed to store data on the history of America, who constructs a personality and history based on former American leaders. He later becomes the self-proclaimed President of the United States.
This revelation leads to the refinement of artificial intelligence, resulting in the creation of androids and sentient computer helpers for everyday use. Some eventually become so realistic that it is difficult to discern whether or not they're human, even to the androids themselves.