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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

BBC World Service

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Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of 50 inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.
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09:08 | Aug 5th, 2017

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-on...Show More

08:58 | Nov 19th, 2016

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...Show More
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08:59 | Sep 2nd

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?

10:03 | Aug 26th

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.

09:49 | Aug 19th

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 ...Show More

09:54 | Aug 12th

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.

09:51 | Aug 5th

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.

10:01 | Jul 29th

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.

10:07 | Jul 22nd

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.

09:59 | Jul 15th

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.

09:56 | Jul 8th

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.

08:59 | Jun 29th

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?

10:32 | Jun 24th

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?

10:25 | Jun 17th

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?

08:59 | Jun 10th

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, sugg...Show More

09:00 | Jun 3rd

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...Show More

08:59 | May 27th

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 ea...Show More

10:34 | May 20th

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...Show More

10:31 | May 13th

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 Hartford explains, the digital spreadsheet is a 40-y...Show More

09:52 | May 6th

'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 enou...Show More

08:58 | Apr 29th

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....Show More

08:59 | Apr 22nd

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 productio...Show More

08:59 | Apr 15th

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 alternativ...Show More

14:57 | Apr 15th

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 r...Show More

09:00 | Apr 8th

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 the...Show More

15:11 | Apr 8th

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 i...Show More

09:26 | Apr 1st

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 th...Show More

13:15 | Apr 1st

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 ca...Show More

11:00 | Mar 25th

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...Show More

15:28 | Mar 25th

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 fast...Show More

01:28 | Mar 17th

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

09:43 | Jan 17th

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 tr...Show More

10:09 | Dec 17th, 2018

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
ARCHIVED: The podcast creator has made this episode no longer available for listening.

09:23 | Jan 15th, 2018

From More or Less: This is an episode from another show presented by Tim Harford. How a forgotten French mathematician scooped economists by half a century. Louis Bachelier anticipated both Einstein's theories and the application of maths to the st...Show More

09:39 | Oct 28th, 2017

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 w...Show More

09:59 | Oct 21st, 2017

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 – wi...Show More

09:23 | Oct 14th, 2017

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 ...Show More

09:47 | Oct 7th, 2017

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 ...Show More

10:01 | Sep 30th, 2017

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 ri...Show More

09:09 | Sep 23rd, 2017

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 Cr...Show More

10:33 | Sep 16th, 2017

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 e...Show More

09:18 | Sep 9th, 2017

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 book...Show More

10:15 | Sep 2nd, 2017

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. Cumm...Show More

10:33 | Aug 26th, 2017

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 ...Show More

10:38 | Aug 19th, 2017

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 c...Show More

09:14 | Aug 12th, 2017

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 st...Show More

09:13 | Jul 29th, 2017

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 ...Show More

09:08 | Jul 22nd, 2017

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 somew...Show More

09:08 | Jul 15th, 2017

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 s...Show More

09:12 | Jul 8th, 2017

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 ri...Show More

09:08 | Jul 1st, 2017

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 merchandi...Show More

09:13 | Jun 24th, 2017

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 ...Show More

09:13 | Jun 17th, 2017

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 b...Show More

09:09 | Jun 10th, 2017

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-cle...Show More

09:12 | May 27th, 2017

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 l...Show More

09:13 | May 22nd, 2017

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...Show More

09:10 | May 13th, 2017

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. Pa...Show More

09:11 | May 6th, 2017

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...Show More

09:09 | Apr 29th, 2017

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 d...Show More

09:08 | Apr 22nd, 2017

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...Show More

09:14 | Apr 15th, 2017

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, ge...Show More

09:14 | Apr 8th, 2017

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 twentiet...Show More

09:08 | Apr 1st, 2017

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...Show More

08:57 | Mar 25th, 2017

“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 secu...Show More

09:13 | Mar 18th, 2017

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...Show More

09:13 | Mar 11th, 2017

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 on...Show More

09:12 | Mar 4th, 2017

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...Show More

09:12 | Feb 25th, 2017

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...Show More

09:09 | Feb 18th, 2017

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 name...Show More

09:14 | Feb 11th, 2017

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...Show More

09:11 | Feb 4th, 2017

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 unknowabl...Show More

08:58 | Jan 28th, 2017

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. Sti...Show More

08:59 | Jan 20th, 2017

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 bacte...Show More

08:58 | Jan 14th, 2017

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 succes...Show More

08:58 | Jan 7th, 2017

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 – sin...Show More

08:58 | Dec 31st, 2016

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...Show More

08:58 | Dec 24th, 2016

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 mode...Show More

08:58 | Dec 17th, 2016

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 Harfor...Show More

08:58 | Dec 10th, 2016

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 no...Show More

08:58 | Dec 3rd, 2016

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 subsequen...Show More

08:57 | Nov 26th, 2016

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 vers...Show More

08:58 | Nov 14th, 2016

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 Harf...Show More

08:58 | Nov 5th, 2016

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 industri...Show More