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1879 (MDCCCLXXIX) was a common year starting on Wednesday of the Gregorian calendar and a common year starting on Monday of the Julian calendar, the 1879th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 879th year of the 2nd millennium, the 79th year of the 19th century, and the 10th and last year of the 1870s decade. As of the start of 1879, the Gregorian calendar was 12 days ahead of the Julian calendar, which remained in localized use until 1923.
- January – The current constitution of the State of California in the United States is ratified.
- January 1 – The Specie Resumption Act takes effect. The United States Note is valued the same as gold, for the first time since the American Civil War.
- January 11 – The Anglo-Zulu War begins.
- January 22 – Anglo-Zulu War – Battle of Isandlwana: A force of 1,200 British soldiers is wiped out by over 20,000 Zulu warriors.
- January 23 – Anglo-Zulu War – Battle of Rorke's Drift: Following the previous day's defeat, a smaller British force of 140 successfully repels an attack by 4,000 Zulus.
- February 8 – At a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute, engineer and inventor Sandford Fleming first proposes the global adoption of standard time.
- March 11 – The Ryukyu Domain is incorporated into the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, and the last ruler, Shō Tai, is exiled to Tokyo.
- March 28 – Anglo-Zulu War – Battle of Hlobane: British forces suffer a defeat.
- March 29 – Anglo-Zulu War – Battle of Kambula: British forces defeat 20,000 Zulus.
- April – Postman Ferdinand Cheval begins to build his Palais Idéal at Hauterives in France.
- April 5 – War of the Pacific: Chile formally declares war on Bolivia and Peru.
- April 12 – Mary Baker Eddy founds the Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts.
- April 26 – The National Park, later renamed the Royal National Park, is declared in New South Wales, Australia, the world's second oldest purposed national park.
- May 2 – The Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) is founded clandestinely at the Casa Labra Tavern in Madrid, by printer Pablo Iglesias.
- May 10 – The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is formed.
- May 12 – English Catholic convert John Henry Newman is elevated to Cardinal.
- May 14 – The first group of 463 Indian indentured labourers arrive in Fiji, aboard the Leonidas.
- May 26 – Russia and the United Kingdom sign the Treaty of Gandamak, establishing an Afghan state.
- May 30 – New York City's Gilmore's Garden is renamed Madison Square Garden by William Henry Vanderbilt, and is opened to the public at 26th Street and Madison Avenue.
- June 1 – Anglo-Zulu War: Napoléon, Prince Imperial (Napoléon IV), great-nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, Bonapartist pretender to the French throne, is killed in Africa while attached to the British Army.
- June 4 – Yasukuni Shrine is officially renamed, from Tokyo Shokonsha Shrine in Japan.
- June 6 – William Denny and Brothers launch the world's first ocean-going steamer to be built of mild steel, the SS Rotomahana, on the River Clyde in Scotland. On October 2 they launch the first transatlantic steamer of the same material, the SS Buenos Ayrean; on December 1 she makes her maiden voyage out of Glasgow, bound for South America.
- June 14 – Sidney Faithorn Green, a priest in the Church of England, is tried and convicted for using Ritualist practices.
- June 21 – German company Linde is founded by Carl von Linde.
- July 1 – American Christian Restorationist Charles Taze Russell publishes the first issue of the monthly Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence which, as The Watchtower, will become the most widely circulated magazine in the world.
- July 4 – Anglo-Zulu War – Battle of Ulundi: A British victory effectively ends the war.
- July 8 – Led by George W. De Long, the ill-fated United States Jeannette Expedition departs San Francisco, in an attempt to reach the North Pole, by pioneering a route through the Bering Strait.
- August 16 – Fulham F.C. is founded in London as a church soccer team.
- August 21 – Claimed apparition to local people at Knock, County Mayo, Ireland of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist and Jesus Christ (as the Lamb of God).
- September – Henry George self-publishes his major work Progress and Poverty.
- September 8 – A fire in The Octagon, Dunedin (New Zealand) claims 12 victims.
- September 19 – The Blackpool Illuminations are switched on for the first time.
- September 25 – A fire in Deadwood, South Dakota leaves 2,000 people homeless and 300 buildings destroyed; total loss of property is estimated at $3 million.
- September 29 – Meeker Massacre: Nathan Meeker and others are killed in an uprising, at the White River Ute Indian reservation in Colorado.
October 22 – Using a filament of carbonized thread, Thomas Edison tests the first practical electric light bulb
- October 2 – Qing dynasty China signs the Treaty of Livadia with the Russian Empire on terms so unfavorable to China that its emissary is threatened with execution.
- October 7 – The Dual Alliance is formed by Germany and Austria-Hungary.
- October 8 – War of the Pacific: Battle of Angamos – The Chilean Navy defeats Peruvian naval forces.
- October 13 – The first female students are admitted to study for degrees of the University of Oxford in England, at the new Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville Hall, and with the Society of Oxford Home-Students.
- October 17 – Sunderland Association Football Club is formed by a group of schoolteachers in northeast England.
- October 22 – Using a filament of carbonized thread, Thomas Edison tests the first practical electric light bulb (it lasts 13½ hours before burning out).
- October 28 – The Hall effect is discovered by Edwin Hall at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
- November 4 – Thomas Edison applies for the patent for his invention, the incandescent light bulb (U.S. Patent 223,898 will be granted on January 27, 1880).
- November 10 – The Bell Telephone Company and Western Union reach an agreement in the United States, in which the former agrees to stay out of telegraphy, and the latter to keep out of the telephone business.
- December 21 – Henrik Ibsen's controversial drama A Doll's House premières at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen (having been first published on December 4 in the city).
- December 28 – Tay Bridge disaster: The central part of the Tay Rail Bridge at Dundee, Scotland, collapses in a storm as a train passes over it, killing 75.
- December 31