The Observer: 80 Moments which shaped the World

Agree or disagree, scratching your head at a few of the names or delighted to see some unsung heroes, it’s undeniably a list that is as diverse in opinion as it is unifying in themes.

Eighty key moments that shaped the world have been chosen by a multicultural group of scientists, writers, artists, academics and diplomats to reflect the most momentous events of the planet’s past eight decades.

The unique poll asked the panel of 25 to name their own key 80 landmark global moments, which were then ranked in turn by 10,000 adults in Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the United States.

The ambitious survey – conducted by YouGov and commissioned by the British Council to mark its 80th anniversary year as an international cultural organisation – is an eclectic mix of the expected big events of the 20th and 21st centuries – such as the start of the second world war, which was judged to be No 18 – and, perhaps, more left-field thoughts such as the invention of the instant noodle in 1958, which comes in at No 63.

But while the experts may have chosen a few unique moments from their specialised fields for a few of the top 80 – like the work of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa coming in at No 67, and the landmark protest anthem We Shall Overcome, popularised by Pete Seeger, ranked at 72 – there was an undisputed winner that brought people around the world together.

In first place, judged to be the single most significant moment in world history since 1934, was the invention of the world wide web in 1989 by British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Twice as many people voted for this as the most important single moment than did for the discovery of a method to mass-produce penicillin in 1943, which came second. The widespread availability of home computers was judged to be third.

Thanks to the diversity of the nominating panel, the list reflects a broad spread of events, and there were cultural differences in how significant they were deemed to be. For example, older people were more likely to think that internet-based developments have been influential. Digital technology – home computers, satellites and mobile phones – all featured highly, as did the invention of the nuclear bomb (No 9) and nuclear energy (No 19). Women were twice as likely as men to select the rise in global awareness of the importance of environmental protection and conservation.

John Worne, British Council director of strategy, said “We wanted to see how the world sees itself and its history – 80 years is a lifetime’s worth of moments, but an international panel and almost 10,000 people from around the world have selected a fascinating range of 80 that have changed our world in very different ways since 1934. The fact there was a clear winner though, the invention of the world wide web is judged to have changed the world more than anything else, tells us just how much being connected matters to us all.”

For many people 80 years is more than a lifetime, which explains perhaps why so many of the moments chosen come from the later part of the period. The devastating Boxing Day tsunami in south-east Asia in 2004, for example, was still fresh in many minds, which took it to No 46, and the 9/11 attacks in the US stood at No 5.

Russians were especially keen on voting for the web and, unsurprisingly, for the breakup of the Soviet Union. More oddly, votes for the Band Aid concert 30 years ago came from Egypt, which along with India cast no votes for the importance of the second world war. Votes for the importance of Michael Jackson’s life and music (No 49) were highest in Japan, while feelings for Nelson Mandela’s legacy (No 7) were strongest not only in South Africa but also in South America.

Mandela was the first individual to appear on the list for his life’s achievements, followed by the Chinese “open door” leader Deng Xiaoping at No 17, Albert Einstein at 21, Yuri Gagarin at 23, and Mahatma Gandhi at 29. Walt Disney made it in at 53.

The personal achievements of four women made it on to the list against that of 19 men. Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1991, was at No 61, German dancer Pina Bausch at 80, the artist Jeanne-Claude, who with her collaborator and husband, Christo, wrapped the Reichstag in fabric in 1995, was at No 79, and Norwegian athlete Grete Waitz was placed at 73.

The British Council will be sharing its publication, 80 Moments, around the world, through social media (which was itself voted in at No 12) with the hashtag #80Moments.

“These moments cover every aspect of human life over the last 80 years, from the discovery of DNA to the development of the instant noodle. I think the overarching finding is the world has got better when we have shared knowledge and ideals and opened up to each other’s cultures,” said Worne. “That was the founding idea of the British Council in 1934 – and it is as true of today’s world as it was then.”

The full list is at


1 The invention of the world wide web, 1989.

2 Discovery of a method to mass produce penicillin, 1943.

3 The widespread availability of home computers, 1980s

4 The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

5 The attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York and Washington DC and the emergence of terrorism as a major international phenomenon.

6 The rise in global awareness of the importance of environmental conservation.

7 The influence of Nelson Mandela on South African and international politics and society, 1918 – 2013.

8 The breakup of the Soviet Union, 1991.

9 The invention and explosion of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945.

10 Greater equality for women in many parts of the world.

11 The spread of English as a global language.

12 The growth of social media.

13 Satellite technology and its impact.

14 The Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe, 1941-45.

15 The development and widespread adoption of the mobile phone.

16 Completion of the Human Genome Project, which mapped the genetic structure of the human body, 2001.

17 Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” policy, which started the economic transformation of China in 1978.

18 Hitler’s invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of the second world war, 1939.

19 The development of nuclear energy.

20 The work and influence of the physicist Albert Einstein, 1879 – 1955.

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