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4 Great British inventions that changed the world

Monday, 16 October 2017
4 Great British inventions that changed the world Image designed by Jannoon028 - Freepik

From the invention of television to the world wide web, British inventors have been at the forefront of innovation. Read more in this advanced level reading comprehension with questions and answers.

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Reading comprehension - Advanced level

When these 4 items were first invented, many people did not grasp their significance. However, the following great British inventions have nevertheless made a huge impact on our lives since their first conception in the twentieth century. In fact, we cannot imagine life without them.

The Television - John Logie Baird 1925

Many inventors toyed with the concept of a basic TV.  However, it was the Scotsman Baird who deserves to be honoured as the man who first transmitted moving images via a box.

In the early days of his career, Baird used tea chests, hatboxes, sewing needles and various other household objects to construct his designs.  Although primitive, Baird's idea, based on the Nipkow disk (a previous invention by the German Paul Nipkow), utilised two spinning cardboard discs punched with holes, not dissimilar to a child's flicker book. A tiny Maltese cross was the first transmitted image and office boy William Taynton was the first person to appear on TV in 1925. It is said that the young man was rather overawed by the experience and became too frightened to move, so he had to  be persuaded to move around in order to to convince audiences that he was real!

Baird went on to develop his idea further, but his inventions faltered as more advances with electronic transmission came into play.  However, without his pioneering attempts, just think of the time we could have saved by not watching Xfactor or Game of Thrones!

The Mini car - Alec Issigonis 1959

While the Americans were still driving their oversized Cadillacs, Britain famously went in the opposite direction and came up with a compact car that would soon become the epitome of cool the world over.

Alec Issigonis, A British citizen of Greek descent, was responsible for the dinky design and carved a niche for himself in both motoring and cultural history with the launch of the Mini in 1959 for the British Motor Corporation.  The car did not achieve overnight success (many people thought it 'odd') but it soon began a love affair with the British people that has never abated, aided by the fact that celebrities adored it.  Many top models, famous footballers and international film stars drove one, as did all four members of the Beatles. There was also the memorable game 'How many people can you fit into a Mini?' (In the case of the Mini Classic, the answer was an incredible 25 people!)

The Mini became a symbol of the 'Swinging Sixties' and it is one of Britain's biggest-selling cars, with new upmarket versions becoming available in recent years.

The Bagless Vacuum Cleaner - James Dyson 1979

Sometimes there are things we are not even aware we need until someone invents them.  The bagless vacuum cleaner was one such invention. James Dyson was inspired to create this convenient household appliance after purchasing an existing cleaner that simply pushed dirt around from one location to another. On inspection, the bag of this old-style cleaner was clogged with dust, restricting suction.

Many would have been resigned to using this machine, thinking it was better than the manual methods of cleaning floors and carpets.  However, Dyson went on to change the basic principle of a vacuum cleaner - an idea that had not been challenged for 100 years - by designing a dual-cyclone sucking system that removed the necessity of the bag for good.  His final version took five years of research and no less than 5,127 prototypes.  He is known for saying that he doesn't mind failure!

Early on, when Dyson first approached manufacturers with his idea, he was unable to interest them.  Yet he persevered and in 1993 set up his own factory in rural Wiltshire in the South of England to produce them himself.  The rest is history. Two years later, Dyson products were outselling the competition and now, over 20 years on, Dyson's latest design is still the industry's only cleaner with no bags, no loss of suction and no filter.  Due to the difficulties he experienced in first bringing his product to market, Dyson campaigns for fair patenting laws for new inventors.

The World Wide Web - Tim Berners-Lee 1989

Could Tim Berners-Lee have imagined the impact his invention would have when he handed over the World Wide Web to the universe for free on 6th August 1991? This is unlikely, yet it is one of the few inventions that divides life into two distinct periods - before it was invented and after.

Berners-Lee was a fellow at the well-known Swiss research company CERN in 1984 when he was working on hypertext and how it could be linked to the Internet - originally to allow scientists to exchange ideas.  Prototype software was developed and the concept of the 'www' was born, with the first website being launched in 1991. Berners-Lee was known for modesty, saying that his innovation was simply the next logical step for computers.  Later he also said that the slash sign (//) in a web address was unnecessary, but 'seemed a good idea at the time'.  His gift has brought him many British awards, including an OBE, a knighthood and the Order of Merit (which is limited to only 24 living recipients).  During the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, viewers saw Berners-Lee tweeting live 'This is for everyone'.  As everyday users, we surely have to agree with him!


Marriott, E 2015, I should Know That: Great Britain.  Michael O'Mara Books Limited, Great Britain

Reader's Digest 2017, 7 Great British Inventions that Changed the World.  Available from: http://readersdigest.co.uk/technology/gadgets/7-great-british-inventions-changed-world. [1 October 2017]

BBC News 2017 First man on television speaks.  Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk-scotland-38765578/first-man-on-television-speaks [2 October 2017]


4 Great British inventions that changed the world - Comprehension questions

1. Why was it important for William Taynton to move around during his television appearance?

2. Explain why the Mini became much-loved by the British.

3. How has James Dyson used his eventual success with the bagless vacuum cleaner to aid the process of invention?

4. In the first instance, for what purpose was the creation of the world wide web designed?

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published in Graded Reading 2017
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Last modified on Wednesday, 14 February 2018 11:45

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