80 moments that shaped the world

The British Council is celebrating its 80th anniversary

Originally called the ‘British Committee for Relations with Other Countries’, the British Council was founded in 1934. Our first overseas offices opened in 1938.

To mark 80 years of cultural relations, we have taken the opportunity to look back and consider significant changes that have taken place during the period of our organisation’s existence.

We asked a panel of 25 eminent scientists, technologists, academics, artists, writers, broadcasters and world leaders to choose their most significant moments of the past 80 years. We then asked 10,000 people around the world to vote to rank the final list.

The result? A list of 80 thought-provoking moments that provide a snapshot of trends, people and innovations that have shaped the world we live in today.

Discover the full list and join us in the debate:


The British Council's Allied Centre in Liverpool, c. 1941. © British Council

The British Council's Allied Centre in Liverpool, c. 1941.

Moments 80 - 61


The work and influence of the German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, 1940-2009


The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the German parliament building (the Reichstag) in fabric in 1995


The continuing influence throughout the 20th century of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen


Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, first staged in 1953


The influence of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) group of French filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s


The founding and lasting influence of Amnesty International

Now the world’s largest grass-roots human rights organisation with over three million members, Amnesty International exposes abuses around the world and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.


The work and influence of the American artist Andy Warhol, 1928-1987


The achievements and influence of Norwegian athlete Grete Waitz, who won nine consecutive New York Marathons between 1978-88


The protest song ‘We Shall Overcome’, popularised by the American folksinger Pete Seeger in 1963

An anthem of the African-American civil rights movement with strong emotional appeal and simple dignity, the song has been sung at rallies and protests worldwide.


The work and influence of the artist Pablo Picasso,1881-1973


The achievements and influence of the champion boxer Muhammad Ali, born 1942


The development of the shipping container

Few items of vast importance are given as little attention as the shipping container. Yet a lot of the things we own and use — from the TV in the living room to fresh flowers on the table — have spent time in one. Find out how this humble box made it to number 69.


The achievements of the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming


The work and influence of the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa,1910-1998


The black American athlete Jesse Owens, who won 4 gold medals at the1936 Olympics in Berlin


Discovery of the fossil ‘Australopithecus sediba’ in 2008 in South Africa – a human species thought to be 2 million years old

The six skeletons of Australopithecus sediba give clues to our earliest origins. Dated to two million years old, scientists say they are immediate ancestors of Homo Erectus, from which modern humans evolved.


The adoption of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the international community


The invention of the instant noodle, produced and first marketed in 1958

Dreamt up by Taiwan-born Momofuku Ando in Japan in 1958, the instant noodle created a cheap and speedy new food culture. In 2013, 105 billion packets were sold.


Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who became an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991

61. The creation in 1970 of the Open University in the UK, the world’s first successful 'distance teaching' university

Image caption: open @ night. © Brian Kelly

Moments 60 - 41


The first successful cloning of a mammal from an adult sheep's cell, in 1996


George Orwell’s novel 1984, published in 1949


The establishment of the Paralympic Games, first held in Rome in 1960

The second biggest sporting event in the world, the Paralympic Games inspire millions with the achievements of the world’s top disabled athletes.


The designation of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, which began in 1972


The growth of low-cost air travel


The impact of South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995


The Gulf War, 1990-91, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait


The influence of Walt Disney (1901-1966) on cinema and popular culture


The move towards greater equality in many parts of the world for gay and lesbian people

The gay rights movement of the 1970s paved the way for anti discrimination efforts in the workplace, same-sex marriage, and a new era of gay visibility and pride. Even so, homosexuality remains illegal in many countries.


The ‘Bretton Woods Agreement’ of 1944 which led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the system of floating foreign exchange rates


The Live Aid Concerts in 1985 and 2005 for famine relief and action against poverty

Held in London and Philadelphia in 1985, the Live Aid concert was the most ambitious international satellite television venture ever attempted. A global audience of 1.9 billion watched live and raised £150 million to relieve famine in Ethiopia.


The influence of the life and music of the American singer Michael Jackson, 1958-2009


The assassination of US President Kennedy in 1963


The creation of Wikipedia in 2001

For many people, this online reference source is now synonymous with ‘encyclopaedia’. Lyn Robinson, from the Centre for Information Science at City University London, reflects on the impact of this internet phenomenon.


The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean which brought devastation to many countries in Southeast Asia and beyond


The global popularity of football and the football World Cup

Football transcends national, cultural, religious and gender boundaries. More people watch the World Cup than any other sporting event: over one billion people watched the 2014 final between Germany and Argentina.


The creation of the European Union and the process of integration which followed


The Long March (October 1934-October 1935) which began the ascent to power of Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Communist Party


The invention of the digital camera


The invasion of Iraq in 2003 which deposed the government of Saddam Hussein

Moments 40 to 21

40. China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics

Image caption: 2008 Summer Olympics - Opening Ceremony - Beijing, China 同一个世界 同一个梦想 - U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program - FMWRC. © US Army on Flickr under Creative Commons licence


The invention of the CT scanner, 1972


The development of open source software and open licensing, where computer source code is made available to the public with relaxed or non-existent copyright restrictions


The Cold War, from the 1940s to the 1990s


The independence of countries that were colonies of European powers

The unravelling of empires and the creation of new countries forever altered the global balance of power. In 1946, the United Nations had 35 member states. By 1970, as former colonies achieved self-determination and joined as newly independent nations, there were 127.


The invention of the laser in 1960 and its influence on technology


The invention of the credit card in 1950


The series of popular protests and uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, beginning in 2010, known as the ‘Arab Spring’


The eradication of smallpox in 1980


The emergence of HIV/ AIDS in the early 1980s

Since it was first identified in 1981, AIDS has caused some 36 million deaths, and a similar number live with HIV globally. The development of antiretroviral drugs has helped sufferers manage the condition, but not everyone can access them.


The US civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I have a dream…’ of August 1963


The influence and achievements of Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence and inspired civil rights movements across the world, 1869-1948


The creation of the state of Israel, 1948


The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, leading to the reunification of Germany in 1990


The invention and widespread use of email

From spam to email etiquette, discover how email has changed the way we live our lives today.


The development of nanotechnology


The first public television service in 1936


Space exploration including the achievements of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space (1961) and the Apollo 11 moon landing (1969)

Humans have dreamt of spaceflight since antiquity, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that technological advances allowed us to reach the final frontier.


The invention of the birth control pill

21. The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953

Image caption: Bootstrap DNA by Charles Jencks, 2003, Kew Gardens. © mira66 on Flickr, under Creative Commons licence

Moments 20 - 1


The work and influence of the physicist Albert Einstein, 1879-1955


The development of nuclear energy


The invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, marking the beginning of World War Two (WWII)


Deng Xiaoping and his ‘Open Door’ policy which from 1978 onwards started the economic transformation of China


The Human Genome Project, completed in 2001, which mapped the genetic structure of the human body


The development and widespread adoption of the mobile phone


The Holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe


Satellite technology and its impact on the way many people live globally


The growth and influence of social media


The spread of English as a global language


The move towards greater equality for women in many parts of the world

Women’s equality was still a new concept 80 years ago. The British Council’s Fiona Pape looks back at how far we’ve come.


The invention of the atomic bomb and the explosion of atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August)


The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991


The influence of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) on South African and international politics and society


The rise in global awareness of the importance of environmental protection/conservation

The work of scientists and engagement of the wider public in the last 40 years have variously raised the issue of environmental degradation and the role of humans in causing it, putting pressure on political leaders to take collective action. No legally binding or universal agreement has yet transpired but the UN Convention of Climate Change in Paris in December 2015 represents another opportunity for world leaders to agree on action.


The terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 on New York (the World Trade Center) and Washington DC; and the emergence of terrorism as a major international phenomenon


The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948


The widespread availability of home computers


The discovery of a method of mass production of penicillin, 1943

1. The invention of the World Wide Web

The fastest-growing communications medium of all time, the internet has changed the shape of modern life forever. We can connect with each other instantly, all over the world.

Image caption: Bette daydreams on the internet. © Lino Boga-Rios

What is your view?

Which moment, trend or innovation is missing from the list?

Who do you think should or shouldn’t be in the list and why?

We want to know.

Join us in the debate at


Find out more

The British Council's history

Read the full report for a fascinating look at how and why each moment has its place in the Top 80

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