Invention for beginners

In a rash moment, and in the interest of parental involvement, I volunteered to do a short talk for year 4 at my children’s school, about innovators in computing over the years.  Although I teach people aged 18 and over as part of my job, I found the prospect of teaching 8-9 year olds quite daunting: fortunately I had a very enthusiastic and attentive audience.  My approach was to take a series of inventions and innovations which were British to some extent (not out of any sense of patriotism – the brief for this session was to do something to do with the UK), and then ask the children to work in groups and come up with their own ideas.  So the innovations and inventions that I chose were:

  • Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace: the difference engine in the 19th century
  • Alan Turing: the Colossus and wartime codebreaking (one boy in the class picked up on this and asked whether the Germans had used machines to put messages into code)
  • The LEO computer, supporting Lyons cafés and bakeries in the 1950s
  • Packet switching and the scrapbook system at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, paving the way for the Internet
  • Tim Berners-Lee, and the development of the world-wide web at CERN
  • Jonathan Ive, and Apple products from the first i-mac onwards.

And the children came up with some brilliant ideas.  Several of them wanted to build time machines – which prompted a discussion of how people like Babbage and Turing had stuck with things which might have seemed technically impossible when they first started looking at them.  But there were also really interesting ideas about innovations which depended on attention to detail, and thoughts about usability, like the waterproof glow-in-the-dark touch-screen computer (maybe I’ve already said too much about this one and I’ll see it copied by an entrepreneur), or the neat  lightweight £350 laptop.   It was a really interesting, and encouraging, experience.

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