Cover art for podcast 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

110 EpisodesProduced by BBC World ServiceWebsite

Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.

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Introducing: Season 2 of 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter

July 22nd, 2021

18:04

How animals make us smarter – we thought you might like to hear our brand new episode. It’s about a robotic arm inspired by an elephant’s trunk.

For more, search for 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter wherever you get your …

Introducing 13 Minutes to the Moon Season 2

March 9th, 2020

3:53

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 …

Gutenberg press

March 2nd, 2020

10:10

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 …

Slot machines

February 24th, 2020

9:34

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 …

Chess algorithms

February 17th, 2020

9:55

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 …

Auctions

February 10th, 2020

9:51

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 …

Dams

February 3rd, 2020

9:51

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, …

Tulips

January 27th, 2020

10:01

In the 1630s, the Netherlands experienced 'tulip mania' - a surge in demand for tulips from wealthy buyers, with some individual bulbs costing twenty …

Sanitary towel

January 20th, 2020

9:46

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 …

Wardian case

January 13th, 2020

9:58

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward's miniature greenhouses made it far easier to successfully transport plants, spreading them far beyond their native lands. But …

Fast food franchise

January 6th, 2020

9:51

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 …

CCTV

December 30th, 2019

9:51

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 …

Retirement

December 23rd, 2019

10:32

As populations age, pension systems around the world are coming under strain. Governments, employers and economists are searching for ways to …

Santa

December 16th, 2019

16:07

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

December 9th, 2019

9:37

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 …

Hollerith punch card

December 2nd, 2019

9:53

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 …

Stock option

November 25th, 2019

10:05

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 …

Fundraising appeal

November 18th, 2019

9:53

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

November 11th, 2019

10:05

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication - SWIFT - solved some big problems with international financial transfers, making …

Wedgwood

November 4th, 2019

9:38

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 …

Glasses

October 28th, 2019

10:27

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 …

Vickrey turnstile

October 21st, 2019

9:44

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 …

GPS

October 14th, 2019

9:58

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 …

Bonsack machine

October 7th, 2019

9:35

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 …

Prohibition

September 30th, 2019

10:07

When the US outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, it inadvertently created one of the most successful black markets in the world. …

Interface Message Processor

September 23rd, 2019

10:20

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 …

Canned food

September 16th, 2019

9:57

Developed for the military, dodging bureaucracy and fuelled by venture capital: canned food blazed a trail many of today's biggest tech innovations …

Interchangeable parts

September 9th, 2019

10:30

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 …

Oil

September 2nd, 2019

8:59

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

August 26th, 2019

10:03

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

August 19th, 2019

9:49

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. …

Cassava

August 12th, 2019

9:54

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

August 5th, 2019

9:51

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

July 29th, 2019

10:01

Radio frequency identification - RFID - is the foundation on which many contactless technologies are built. But is it getting left behind amid the …

Postage stamp

July 22nd, 2019

10:07

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 …

Rubber

July 15th, 2019

9:59

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 …

CubeSat

July 8th, 2019

9:56

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

June 29th, 2019

8:59

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 …

Blockchain

June 24th, 2019

10:32

Billions are being poured into startups working on blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin. Supporters say it could become as disruptive as the …

Pencil

June 17th, 2019

10:25

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 …

'Like' button

June 10th, 2019

8:59

Facebook’s 'like' button is ubiquitous across the web. It’s how user data is collected, meaning adverts and newsfeeds can be targeted more …

Dwarf wheat

June 3rd, 2019

9:00

The Population Bomb, published by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968, predicted that populations would grow more quickly than food supplies, …

Pornography

May 27th, 2019

8:57

Did pornography help develop the internet? And has the internet made it more difficult for porn producers to make money? From photography, to cable …

Recycling

May 20th, 2019

10:34

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 …

Spreadsheet

May 13th, 2019

10:31

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 …

Brick

May 6th, 2019

9:52

'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 …

Mail order catalogue

April 29th, 2019

8:58

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 …

Bicycle

April 22nd, 2019

8:59

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 …

QWERTY

April 15th, 2019

8:59

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 …

Bonus 4: Woodpecker and black box

April 15th, 2019

14:57

The last bonus episode of our new podcast. For more, search for 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter and subscribe. Or find it here:

Gyroscope

April 8th, 2019

9:00

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 …

Bonus 3: Mosquito and surgical needle

April 8th, 2019

15:11

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 …

Cellophane

April 1st, 2019

9:26

Plastic food packaging often seems obviously wasteful. But when Jacques Brandenberger invented cellophane, consumers loved it. It helped supermarkets …

Bonus 2: Octopus and camouflage

April 1st, 2019

13:15

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 …

Langstroth Hive

March 25th, 2019

11:00

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 …

Bonus: 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter

March 25th, 2019

15:28

Introducing our new podcast about innovation, technology and the animal kingdom. This is the whole of the first episode about how the kingfisher …

Coming soon: Season two

March 17th, 2019

1:28

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

January 17th, 2019

9:43

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 …

Special Bonus: Santa Claus

December 17th, 2018

10:09

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 …

Number 51

October 28th, 2017

9:39

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 …

The Plough

October 21st, 2017

9:59

The plough was a simple yet transformative technology. It was the plough that kick-started civilisation in the first place – that, ultimately, made …

Cold Chain

October 14th, 2017

9:23

The global supply chain that keeps perishable goods at controlled temperatures has revolutionised the food industry. It widened our choice of food …

Welfare State

October 7th, 2017

9:47

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 …

Property Register

September 30th, 2017

10:01

Ensuring property rights for the world's poor could unlock trillions in ‘dead capital’. According to Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, the value …

Searching for 51

September 23rd, 2017

9:09

The extra “thing” – what should it be? Shortlist: the credit card, glass, GPS, irrigation, the pencil and the spreadsheet. Voting for the 51st Thing …

Management Consulting

September 16th, 2017

10:33

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 …

Double-entry Bookkeeping

September 9th, 2017

9:18

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. …

S-Bend

September 2nd, 2017

10:15

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 …

Radar

August 26th, 2017

10:33

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 …

Market Research

August 19th, 2017

10:38

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, …

Plastic

August 12th, 2017

9:14

A couple of decades after Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic – Bakelite – plastics were pouring out of labs around the world. …

Seller Feedback

August 5th, 2017

9:08

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 …

Paper Money

July 29th, 2017

9:13

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 …

Limited Liability Company

July 22nd, 2017

9:08

Nicholas Murray Butler was one of the great thinkers of his age: philosopher; Nobel Peace Prize-winner; president of Columbia University. When in …

Dynamo

July 15th, 2017

9:08

You might think electricity had an immediate and transformative impact on economic productivity. But you would be wrong. Thirty years after the …

Leaded Petrol

July 8th, 2017

9:12

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 …

Department Store

July 1st, 2017

9:08

Flamboyant American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge introduced Londoners to a whole new shopping experience, one honed in the department stores of …

Barbed Wire

June 24th, 2017

9:13

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 …

Tax Havens

June 17th, 2017

9:13

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 …

Infant Formula

June 10th, 2017

9:09

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 …

Tally Stick

May 27th, 2017

9:12

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 …

Passports

May 22nd, 2017

9:13

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 …

Intellectual Property

May 13th, 2017

9:10

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 …

Video Games

May 6th, 2017

9:11

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 …

Cuneiform

April 29th, 2017

9:09

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 …

Air Conditioning

April 22nd, 2017

9:08

Tim Harford tells the surprising story of air conditioning which was invented in 1902 to counter the effects of humidity on the printing process. …

Elevator

April 15th, 2017

9:14

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 …

Contraceptive Pill

April 8th, 2017

9:14

The contraceptive pill had profound social consequences. Everyone agrees with that. But – as Tim Harford explains – the pill wasn’t just socially …

TV Dinner

April 1st, 2017

9:08

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 …

Gramophone

March 25th, 2017

8:57

“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 …

Battery

March 18th, 2017

9:13

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 …

Public Key Cryptography

March 11th, 2017

9:13

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 …

Robot

March 4th, 2017

9:12

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 …

Disposable Razor

February 25th, 2017

9:12

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 …

Clock

February 18th, 2017

9:09

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 …

Google

February 11th, 2017

9:14

The words 'clever' and 'death' crop up less often than 'Google' in conversation. That’s according to researchers at the University of Lancaster in …

Insurance

February 4th, 2017

9:11

Legally and culturally, there’s a clear distinction between gambling and insurance. Economically, the difference is not so easy to see. Both the …

Paper

January 28th, 2017

8:58

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 …

Antibiotics

January 20th, 2017

8:59

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 …

Billy Bookcase

January 14th, 2017

8:58

Low cost, functional and brilliantly efficient, an Ikea Billy bookcase rolls off the production line every three seconds. There are thought to be …

Compiler

January 7th, 2017

8:58

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 …

M-Pesa

December 31st, 2016

8:58

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, …

Lightbulb

December 24th, 2016

8:58

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 …

Banking

December 17th, 2016

8:58

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 …

Barcode

December 10th, 2016

8:58

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, …

iPhone

December 3rd, 2016

8:58

Surprisingly, Uncle Sam played an essential role in the creation and development of the iPhone - of course, much has been written about the late …

Concrete

November 26th, 2016

8:57

It's improved health, school attendance, agricultural productivity and farm worker wages, but concrete has a poor reputation. It takes a lot of …

Shipping Container

November 19th, 2016

8:58

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 …

Haber-Bosch Process

November 14th, 2016

8:58

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 …

Diesel Engine

November 5th, 2016

8:58

Rudolf Diesel died in mysterious circumstances before he was able to capitalise on his extraordinary invention: the eponymous engine that powers much …

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