50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04b1g3c
Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.


Introducing 13 Minutes to the Moon Season 2
Mar 9 • 3 min
Jump on-board a doomed mission to the Moon. Apollo 13: the extraordinary story, told by the people who flew it and saved it. Search for 13 Minutes to the Moon wherever you get your podcasts. #13MinutestotheMoon
Gutenberg press
Mar 1 • 10 min
Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press changed the course of human history. It created a new way of doing business, drastically reduced the cost and speed of making books, and enabled texts, ideas and arguments to spread further and faster than ever before.…
Slot machines
Feb 23 • 9 min
First developed by a toy company in the 1890s, slot machines have become one of the most profitable tools of the gambling trade - but many who play them say winning isn’t the point. So why can’t people pull themselves away? Tim Harford looks under the…
Chess algorithms
Feb 16 • 9 min
In 1997, Garry Kasparov, widely regarded as the world’s greatest chess player, was defeated by Deep Blue, a computer. But how much did that reveal about the ‘brainpower’ of machines? Tim Harford explains by delving into the history of algorithms. They’ve…
Auctions
Feb 9 • 9 min
Are things only worth what people are willing to pay for them? Tim Harford explains why a method of buying and selling that originated in ancient times has endured to the present day, and is now underpinning the success of some of the internet’s most…
Dams
Feb 2 • 9 min
From reliable water supplies to large-scale electricity generation, the benefits brought by dams can be huge. But so can the problems. Tim Harford explains how these massive structures have changed the world for many, but led to catastrophe for others.
Tulips
Jan 26 • 10 min
In the 1630s, the Netherlands experienced ‘tulip mania’ - a surge in demand for tulips from wealthy buyers, with some individual bulbs costing twenty times more than a carpenter’s annual salary. Then, in February 1637, the price suddenly crashed. It’s…
Sanitary towel
Jan 19 • 9 min
In the early 20th Century, makers of sanitary towels had to find a way to sell an item that some people found too embarrassing to mention. In some parts of the world, that stigma still hasn’t gone away. Tim Harford charts the controversial history of a…
Wardian case
Jan 12 • 9 min
Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s miniature greenhouses made it far easier to successfully transport plants, spreading them far beyond their native lands. But that led to major consequences that Ward hadn’t foreseen. Tim Harford tells the story of how glass boxes…
Fast food franchise
Jan 5 • 9 min
There are more than 36,000 McDonald’s restaurants around the world - but if the McDonald brothers had had their way, that might never have happened. Tim Harford tells the story of how milkshake-mixer salesman Ray Kroc turned their burger business into a…
CCTV
Dec 29, 2019 • 9 min
Surveillance cameras were invented so Nazi scientists could observe rocket launches from a safe distance. They’ve come a long way since then, and are gathering more data about us than ever before. But in a world where millions happily carry smartphones in…
Retirement
Dec 22, 2019 • 10 min
As populations age, pension systems around the world are coming under strain. Governments, employers and economists are searching for ways to alleviate the problem - but could traditional societies hold some valuable lessons?
Santa
Dec 15, 2019 • 16 min
Why does Father Christmas wear red and white? It’s not for the reason you may think. In an updated version of an episode from 2018, Tim Harford tells the story of Christmas and consumerism.
Sewing machine
Dec 8, 2019 • 9 min
Women’s lives were transformed by sewing machines, which made a “never-ending, ever-beginning task” far less arduous and time-consuming. But Isaac Singer, who made his fortune from these devices, was far from a champion of women’s rights. Tim Harford…
Hollerith punch card
Dec 1, 2019 • 9 min
Data is a hugely profitable commodity - if you know how to process it. Tim Harford tells the story of Herman Hollerith, and how his 19th-century machine for processing census data laid the foundations for some of the world’s most valuable companies.
Stock option
Nov 24, 2019 • 10 min
In theory, stock options should motivate executives to perform better by tying their pay to their company’s performance. So why do some argue the practice has just become a way for the highest earners to boost their salaries even further? Tim Harford…
Fundraising appeal
Nov 17, 2019 • 9 min
Tim Harford goes back to the 1900s to tell the story of how charity fundraising became big business. But in the social media age, what’s the most effective way to get people to give?
SWIFT
Nov 10, 2019 • 10 min
The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication - SWIFT - solved some big problems with international financial transfers, making them more secure and reliable than ever before. However, as Tim Harford explains, the global political…
Wedgwood
Nov 3, 2019 • 9 min
Josiah Wedgwood is arguably the best-known name in the history of pottery - but it’s not just his pots that made their mark on history. Tim Harford explains how a business model Wedgwood devised in the 18th Century still underpins the modern fashion…
Glasses
Oct 27, 2019 • 10 min
Spectacles have been around for centuries, and have a huge impact on many people’s quality of life. So why is it estimated that more than two billion people aren’t aware that they need them? Tim Harford considers the difference that seeing clearly makes…
Vickrey turnstile
Oct 20, 2019 • 9 min
In 1952, economist William Vickrey devised an innovative system of turnstiles to help solve a major problem on New York’s subway network. It never became a reality, but, as Tim Harford explains, the idea behind it has had a major influence on how…
GPS
Oct 13, 2019 • 9 min
How dependent is the world on GPS - and what would happen if it stopped working? Tim Harford explains why it’s not just our ability to navigate that would be affected.
Bonsack machine
Oct 6, 2019 • 9 min
In 1881, James Bonsack developed a machine that made it far easier to mass-produce cigarettes. But at the time, other tobacco products were much more popular – so manufacturers had to find new ways of getting people’s attention. Tim Harford explains why…
Prohibition
Sep 29, 2019 • 10 min
When the US outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, it inadvertently created one of the most successful black markets in the world. Tim Harford considers how much it costs to make something illegal, and what a failed law reveals about…
Interface Message Processor
Sep 22, 2019 • 10 min
Arpanet was a computer network developed in the 1960s that paved the way for today’s internet. At its heart was the Interface Message Processor: a massive, heavily armoured box containing the technology that made it possible. Tim Harford takes a look…
Canned food
Sep 15, 2019 • 9 min
Developed for the military, dodging bureaucracy and fuelled by venture capital: canned food blazed a trail many of today’s biggest tech innovations have followed. Tim Harford reveals the surprising lessons and cautionary tales lurking under the lid.
Interchangeable parts
Sep 8, 2019 • 10 min
Tim Harford tells the story of how Honoré Blanc, a gun-maker in 18th-century France, transformed the way the world manufactures things - but couldn’t benefit from his own innovations.
Oil
Sep 1, 2019 • 8 min
The price of oil is arguably the most important in the world economy. How did we become so dependent - and are we ever likely to wean ourselves off it?
Chatbot
Aug 25, 2019 • 10 min
It’s claimed that some computers can now pass the Turing test: convincing people that they are human. Tim Harford asks how important that distinction is, and what it means for the future of human interaction.
Solar PV
Aug 18, 2019 • 9 min
Solar power has been harnessed by civilisations since the days of the ancient Greeks, but it’s now on the verge of being more important than ever. Tim Harford examines how much of a challenge it poses to the energy establishment, and what that could mean…
Cassava
Aug 11, 2019 • 9 min
Despite being highly toxic, the roots of the cassava plant are a vital source of nutrition in many countries. They also shed light on the hidden social forces that support a modern economy.
Fire
Aug 4, 2019 • 9 min
Humanity’s taming of fire may be where the story of economics really begins, some argue. Tim Harford explores how fire has shaped our world and our minds, and why it’s still got some important lessons to teach us.
RFID: The tech you’ve never heard of – but use every day
Jul 28, 2019 • 10 min
Radio frequency identification - RFID - is the foundation on which many contactless technologies are built. But is it getting left behind amid the “internet of things”? Tim Harford argues its best days may still be to come.
Postage stamp
Jul 21, 2019 • 10 min
In the mid-19th Century, a man named Rowland Hill got fed up with how Britain’s postal service worked, and decided to come up with a new system of his own. It would go on to change the world.
Rubber
Jul 14, 2019 • 9 min
Rubber is an everyday substance with a controversial past. Tim Harford tells the story of the innovations that made it a hot property, and the surge in demand that led to turmoil and bloodshed in an African colony.
CubeSat
Jul 7, 2019 • 9 min
CubeSat started life as a student engineering challenge: build a satellite that can fit in a little toy box. But now, as Tim Harford explains, these tiny satellites are changing the way we use space – and economics.
Factory
Jun 28, 2019 • 8 min
Tim Harford charts the history of the factory, from “dark, Satanic mills” to the sprawling industrial parks where today’s consumer goods are assembled. Have factories made workers’ lives better - and what does their future look like?
Blockchain
Jun 23, 2019 • 10 min
Billions are being poured into startups working on blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin. Supporters say it could become as disruptive as the internet. But how can we tell if they’re right?
Pencil
Jun 16, 2019 • 10 min
Is the pencil underrated? Tim Harford examines the role pencils have played in developing our world, and finds out why some writers have called them a “miracle of the free market”. Do they have a point?
‘Like’ button
Jun 9, 2019 • 8 min
Facebook’s ‘like’ button is ubiquitous across the web. It’s how user data is collected, meaning adverts and newsfeeds can be targeted more effectively. Some say there’s nothing to worry about, but others point to the Cambridge Analytica scandal,…
Dwarf wheat
Jun 2, 2019 • 9 min
The Population Bomb, published by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968, predicted that populations would grow more quickly than food supplies, causing mass starvation. Ehrlich was wrong: food supplies kept pace. And that’s largely due to the years…
Pornography
May 26, 2019 • 8 min
Did pornography help develop the internet? And has the internet made it more difficult for porn producers to make money? From photography, to cable television, to the video cassette recorder, there’s a theory that pornography users are some of the…
Recycling
May 19, 2019 • 10 min
Could recycling to save money be the answer to saving the planet? For decades, wealthy countries have been shipping their waste to China for sorting and recycling. Now China is getting wealthier, it no longer wants to be a dumping ground. So could we take…
Spreadsheet
May 12, 2019 • 10 min
A grid on a computer screen took the world of accountancy by storm in the early 1980s, making many accounting tasks effortless. But should we consider this ‘robot accountant’ more carefully? As Tim Harford explains, the digital spreadsheet is a…
Brick
May 5, 2019 • 9 min
‘I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,’ Caesar Augustus apparently boasted. If so, he wasn’t the only person to dismiss the humble brick. They’ve housed us for tens of thousands of years. They are all rather similar – small enough to…
Mail order catalogue
Apr 28, 2019 • 8 min
Some say the Montgomery Ward shopping catalogue is one of the most influential books in US history. It transformed the middle-class way of life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Ward struggled to get people to understand mail order shopping. His…
Bicycle
Apr 21, 2019 • 8 min
The bicycle was to prove transformative. Cheaper than a horse, it freed women and young working class people to roam free. And the bike was the testing ground for countless improvements in manufacturing that would later lead to Henry Ford’s production…
QWERTY
Apr 14, 2019 • 8 min
The QWERTY keyboard layout has stood the test of time, from the clattering of early typewriters to the virtual keyboard on the screen of any smart-phone. Myths abound as to why keys are laid out this way – and whether there are much better alternatives…
Bonus 4: Woodpecker and black box
Apr 14, 2019 • 14 min
The last bonus episode of our new podcast. For more, search for 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter and subscribe. Or find it here: www.bbcworldservice.com/30animals This one is about a bird’s remarkable skull and the quest to protect aeroplane flight…
Gyroscope
Apr 7, 2019 • 9 min
When the HMS Victory sank in 1744, with it went an inventor named John Serson and a device he’d dreamed up. He called it the “whirling speculum”, but we now know the basic idea as a gyroscope. Serson thought it could help sailors to navigate when they…
Bonus 3: Mosquito and surgical needle
Apr 7, 2019 • 15 min
Episode 3 of our new podcast: the story of the blood-sucking pest and a pain-free surgical needle. Scientists have been studying the mosquito’s mouthparts. Could the dreaded ‘prick’ of a needle soon be a thing of the past? With Patrick Aryee. Find it…
Cellophane
Mar 31, 2019 • 9 min
Plastic food packaging often seems obviously wasteful. But when Jacques Brandenberger invented cellophane, consumers loved it. It helped supermarkets go self-service, and it was so popular Cole Porter put it in a song lyric. Nowadays, people worry that…
Bonus 2: Octopus and camouflage
Mar 31, 2019 • 13 min
Episode 2 of our new podcast, 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter. This one is about the eight-limbed master of disguise and surveillance technology. The colour and texture-changing abilities of the octopus are helping researchers with developments in…
Langstroth Hive
Mar 24, 2019 • 11 min
Humans have valued bees for their honey for thousands of years – and economists have long admired bees for their cooperative work ethic, too. But few of us, whether economists, honey-lovers, or both, have quite appreciated just how much the honey bee has…
Bonus: 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter
Mar 24, 2019 • 15 min
Introducing our new podcast about innovation, technology and the animal kingdom. This is the whole of the first episode about how the kingfisher inspired the design of a train. The 500 series Shinkansen, also known as bullet train, is one of the fastest…
Coming soon: Season two
Mar 17, 2019 • 1 min
Fifty more things are on their way! Including the pencil, blockchain, bicycle, credit ratings and gambling. Tim Harford will return with season two on 25 March 2019. #50Things
Index Fund
Jan 16, 2019 • 9 min
Warren Buffett is the world’s most successful investor. In a letter he wrote to his wife, advising her how to invest after he dies, he offers some clear advice: put almost everything into “a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund”. Index funds passively track…
Special Bonus: Santa Claus
Dec 17, 2018 • 10 min
Why does Father Christmas wear red and white? It is not for the reason you may think. The story of Christmas and consumerism, with Tim Harford. And we’ll be back with season two of 50 Things in March 2019. Producer: Ben Crighton
Number 51
Oct 27, 2017 • 9 min
Revealed – the winning 51st Thing! What won the vote to be added to our list of 50? We asked for ideas for an extra “thing” that made the modern economy. We received hundreds of suggestions. Thousands of votes were cast on our shortlist of six. Now we…
The Plough
Oct 20, 2017 • 9 min
The plough was a simple yet transformative technology. It was the plough that kick-started civilisation in the first place – that, ultimately, made our modern economy possible. But the plough did more than create the underpinning of civilisation – with…
Cold Chain
Oct 13, 2017 • 9 min
The global supply chain that keeps perishable goods at controlled temperatures has revolutionised the food industry. It widened our choice of food and improved our nutrition. It enabled the rise of the supermarket. And that, in turn, transformed the…
Welfare State
Oct 6, 2017 • 9 min
The same basic idea links every welfare state: that the ultimate responsibility for ensuring people don’t starve on the street should lie not with family, or charity, or private insurers, but with government. This idea is not without its enemies. It is…
Property Register
Sep 29, 2017 • 10 min
Ensuring property rights for the world’s poor could unlock trillions in ‘dead capital’. According to Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, the value of extralegal property globally exceeds 10 trillion dollars. Nobody has ever disputed that property rights…
Searching for 51
Sep 22, 2017 • 9 min
The extra “thing” – what should it be? Shortlist: the credit card, glass, GPS, irrigation, the pencil and the spreadsheet. Voting for the 51st Thing has now closed. The winning “thing” will be revealed on Saturday 28 October 2017. Producer: Ben Crighton…
Management Consulting
Sep 15, 2017 • 10 min
Managers often have a bad reputation. What should we make of the people who tell managers how to manage? That question has often been raised over the years, with a sceptical tone. The management consultancy industry battles a stereotype of charging…
Double-entry Bookkeeping
Sep 8, 2017 • 9 min
Luca Pacioli was a renaissance man – he was a conjuror, a master of chess, a lover of puzzles, a Franciscan Friar, and a professor of mathematics. But today he’s celebrated as the most famous accountant who ever lived, the father of double-entry…
S-Bend
Sep 1, 2017 • 10 min
If you live in a city with modern sanitation, it’s hard to imagine daily life being permeated with the suffocating stench of human excrement. For that, we have a number of people to thank – not least a London watchmaker called Alexander Cumming. Cumming’s…
Radar
Aug 25, 2017 • 10 min
How the high-tech ‘death ray’ led to the invention of radar. The story begins in the 1930s, when British Air Ministry officials were worried about falling behind Nazi Germany in the technological arms race. They correctly predicted that the next war would…
Market Research
Aug 18, 2017 • 10 min
US car makers had it good. As quickly as they could manufacture cars, people bought them. By 1914, that was changing. In higher price brackets, especially, purchasers and dealerships were becoming choosier. One commentator warned that the retailers could…
Plastic
Aug 11, 2017 • 9 min
A couple of decades after Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic – Bakelite – plastics were pouring out of labs around the world. There was polystyrene, often used for packaging; nylon, popularised by stockings; polyethylene, the stuff…
Seller Feedback
Aug 4, 2017 • 9 min
Why should we get into a stranger’s car – or buy a stranger’s laser pointer? In 1997, eBay introduced a feature that helped solve the problem: Seller Feedback. Jim Griffith was eBay’s first customer service representative; at the time, he says “no-one had…
Paper Money
Jul 28, 2017 • 9 min
A young Venetian merchant named Marco Polo wrote a remarkable book chronicling his travels in China around 750 years ago. The Book of the Marvels of the World was full of strange foreign customs Marco claimed to have seen. One, in particular, was so…
Limited Liability Company
Jul 21, 2017 • 9 min
Nicholas Murray Butler was one of the great thinkers of his age: philosopher; Nobel Peace Prize-winner; president of Columbia University. When in 1911 Butler was asked to name the most important innovation of the industrial era, his answer was somewhat…
Dynamo
Jul 14, 2017 • 9 min
You might think electricity had an immediate and transformative impact on economic productivity. But you would be wrong. Thirty years after the invention of the useable light bulb, almost all American factories still relied on steam. Factory owners simply…
Leaded Petrol
Jul 7, 2017 • 9 min
In the 1920s lead was added to petrol. It made cars more powerful and was, according to its advocates, a “gift”. But lead is a gift which poisons people; something figured out as long ago as Roman times. There’s some evidence that as countries get richer,…
Department Store
Jun 30, 2017 • 9 min
Flamboyant American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge introduced Londoners to a whole new shopping experience, one honed in the department stores of late-19th century America. He swept away previous shopkeepers’ customs of keeping shopper and merchandise…
Barbed Wire
Jun 23, 2017 • 9 min
In 1876 John Warne Gates described the new product he hoped to sell as “lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust”. We simply call it barbed wire. The advertisements of the time touted it this fence as “The Greatest Discovery Of The Age”.…
Tax Havens
Jun 16, 2017 • 9 min
The economist Gabriel Zucman is the inventor of an ingenious way to estimate the amount of wealth hidden in the offshore banking system. In theory, if you add up the assets and liabilities reported by every global financial centre, the books should…
Infant Formula
Jun 9, 2017 • 9 min
Not every baby has a mother who can breastfeed. Indeed, not every baby has a mother. In the early 1800s, only two in three babies who weren’t breastfed lived to see their first birthday. Many were given “pap”, a bread-and-water mush, from hard-to-clean…
Tally Stick
May 26, 2017 • 9 min
Tally sticks were made from willow harvested along the banks of the Thames in London. The stick would contain a record of the debt. It might say, for example, “9£ 4s 4p from Fulk Basset for the farm of Wycombe”. Fulk Basset, by the way, might sound like a…
Passports
May 22, 2017 • 9 min
How much might global economic output rise if anyone could work anywhere? Some economists have calculated it would double. By the turn of the 20th century only a handful of countries were still insisting on passports to enter or leave. Today, migrant…
Intellectual Property
May 12, 2017 • 9 min
When the great novelist Charles Dickens arrived in America in 1842, he was hoping to put an end to pirated copies of his work in the US. They circulated there with impunity because the United States granted no copyright protection to non-citizens. Patents…
Video Games
May 5, 2017 • 9 min
From Spacewar to Pokemon Go, video games – aside from becoming a large industry in their own right – have influenced the modern economy in some surprising ways. Here’s one. In 2016, four economists presented research into a puzzling fact about the US…
Cuneiform
Apr 28, 2017 • 9 min
The Egyptians thought literacy was divine; a benefaction which came from the baboon-faced god Thoth. In fact the earliest known script – “cuneiform” – came from Uruk, a Mesopotamian settlement on the banks of the Euphrates in what is now Iraq. What did it…
Air Conditioning
Apr 22, 2017 • 9 min
Tim Harford tells the surprising story of air conditioning which was invented in 1902 to counter the effects of humidity on the printing process. Over the following decades “aircon” found its way into our homes, cars and offices. But air conditioning is…
Elevator
Apr 14, 2017 • 9 min
In 1853 Elisha Otis climbed onto a platform which was then hoisted high above a large crowd of onlookers, nervy with anticipation. A man with an axe cut the cable, the crowd gasped, and Otis’s platform shuddered – but it did not plunge. “All safe,…
Contraceptive Pill
Apr 7, 2017 • 9 min
The contraceptive pill had profound social consequences. Everyone agrees with that. But – as Tim Harford explains – the pill wasn’t just socially revolutionary. It also sparked an economic revolution, perhaps the most significant of the late twentieth…
TV Dinner
Mar 31, 2017 • 9 min
The way educated women spend their time in the United States and other rich countries has changed radically over the past half a century. Women in the US now spend around 45 minutes per day in total on cooking and cleaning up; that is still much more than…
Gramophone
Mar 25, 2017 • 8 min
“Superstar” economics – how the gramophone led to a winner-take-all dynamic in the performing industry. Elizabeth Billington was a British soprano in the 18th century. She was so famous, London’s two leading opera houses scrambled desperately to secure…
Battery
Mar 18, 2017 • 9 min
Murderers in early 19th century London feared surviving their executions. That’s because their bodies were often handed to scientists for strange anatomical experiments. If George Foster, executed in 1803, had woken up on the lab table, it would have been…
Public Key Cryptography
Mar 11, 2017 • 9 min
Take a very large prime number – one that is not divisible by anything other than itself. Then take another. Multiply them together. That is simple enough, and it gives you a very, very large “semi-prime” number. That is a number that is divisible only by…
Robot
Mar 4, 2017 • 9 min
Robots threaten the human workforce, but their ubiquity and growing competence make them crucial to the modern economy. In 1961 General Motors installed the first Unimate at one of its plants. It was a one-armed robot resembling a small tank that was used…
Disposable Razor
Feb 25, 2017 • 9 min
King Camp Gillette came up with an idea which has helped shape the modern economy. He invented the disposable razor blade. But, perhaps more significantly, he invented the two-part pricing model which works by imposing what economists call “switching…
Clock
Feb 18, 2017 • 9 min
There’s no such thing as “the correct time”. Like the value of money, it’s a convention that derives its usefulness from the widespread acceptance of others. But there is such a thing as accurate timekeeping. That dates from 1656, and a Dutchman named…
Google
Feb 11, 2017 • 9 min
The words ‘clever’ and ‘death’ crop up less often than ‘Google’ in conversation. That’s according to researchers at the University of Lancaster in the UK. It took just two decades for Google to reach this cultural ubiquity. Larry Page and Sergey Brin –…
Insurance
Feb 4, 2017 • 9 min
Legally and culturally, there’s a clear distinction between gambling and insurance. Economically, the difference is not so easy to see. Both the gambler and the insurer agree that money will change hands depending on what transpires in some unknowable…
Paper
Jan 28, 2017 • 8 min
The Gutenberg printing press is widely considered to be one of humanity’s defining inventions. Actually, you can quibble with Gutenberg’s place in history. He wasn’t the first to invent a movable type press – it was originally developed in China. Still…
Antibiotics
Jan 20, 2017 • 8 min
In 1928 a young bacteriologist named Alexander Fleming failed to tidy up his petri dishes before going home to Scotland on holiday. On his return, he famously noticed that one dish had become mouldy in his absence, and the mould was killing the bacteria…
Billy Bookcase
Jan 14, 2017 • 8 min
Low cost, functional and brilliantly efficient, an Ikea Billy bookcase rolls off the production line every three seconds. There are thought to be over 60 million of them already in service. Few could find the Billy bookcase beautiful. They are successful…
Compiler
Jan 7, 2017 • 8 min
Installing Windows might take 5,000 years without the compiler, a remarkable innovation which made modern computing possible. Tim Harford tells a compelling story which has at its heart a pioneering woman called Grace Hopper who – along the way –…
M-Pesa
Dec 31, 2016 • 8 min
Transferring money by text message is far safer and more convenient than cash. M-Pesa, as it is known, first took off in Kenya. The idea was to make it easier for small businesses to repay micro-finance loans. But, almost immediately, M-Pesa exploded into…
Lightbulb
Dec 24, 2016 • 8 min
Once too precious to use, now too cheap to notice – the significance of the lightbulb is profound. Imagine a hard week’s work gathering and chopping wood, ten hours a day for six days. Those 60 hours of work would produce light equivalent to one modern…
Banking
Dec 17, 2016 • 8 min
Warrior monks, crusaders and the mysterious origins of modern banking. You might think banks are so central to every economy that they have always existed. And they have, sort of. But the true story of the origins of modern banking is – as Tim Harford…
Barcode
Dec 10, 2016 • 8 min
How vast mega-stores emerged with the help of a design originally drawn in the sand in 1948 by Joseph Woodland as he sat on a Florida beach, observing the furrows left behind, an idea came to him which would – eventually – become the barcode. This now…
iPhone
Dec 3, 2016 • 8 min
Surprisingly, Uncle Sam played an essential role in the creation and development of the iPhone - of course, much has been written about the late Steve Jobs and other leading figures at Apple and their role in making the modern icon, and its subsequent…
Concrete
Nov 26, 2016 • 8 min
It’s improved health, school attendance, agricultural productivity and farm worker wages, but concrete has a poor reputation. It takes a lot of energy to produce and releases a great deal of CO2 in the process. However, architects appreciate its…
Shipping Container
Nov 19, 2016 • 8 min
The boom in global trade was caused by a simple steel box. Shipping goods around the world was – for many centuries – expensive, risky and time-consuming. But, as Tim Harford explains, 60 years ago the trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean changed all that…
Haber-Bosch Process
Nov 14, 2016 • 8 min
Saving lives with thin air - by taking nitrogen from the air to make fertiliser, the Haber-Bosch Process has been called the greatest invention of the 20th Century – and without it almost half the world’s population would not be alive today. Tim Harford…
Diesel Engine
Nov 5, 2016 • 8 min
Rudolf Diesel died in mysterious circumstances before he was able to capitalise on his extraordinary invention: the eponymous engine that powers much of the world today. Before Diesel invented his engine in 1892, as Tim Harford explains, the industrial…