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 50 inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.
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…
Index Fund
Jun 2, 2017 • 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…
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…