50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

BBC World Service
BBC World Service
79Books
Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of 50 inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.
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.
Cassava, BBC World Service
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.
Fire, BBC World Service
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.
RFID, BBC World Service
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.
Postage stamp, BBC World Service
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.
Rubber, BBC World Service
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.
CubeSat, BBC World Service
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?
Factory, BBC World Service
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?
Blockchain, BBC World Service
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?
Pencil, BBC World Service
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, suggesting how Facebook might shape our opinions. But is there something else we should be worried about? Approval from our friends and family can be addictive – so is the pursuit of “likes” on social media the reason we’re glued to our mobile phones? Tim Harford asks how should we manage our compulsions in this brave new online world.
'Like' button, BBC World Service
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 Norman Borlaug spent growing different strains of wheat in Mexico. The 'green revolution' vastly increased yields of wheat, corn and rice. Yet, as Tim Harford describes, worries about overpopulation continue. The world’s population is still growing, and food yields are now increasing more slowly – partly due to environmental problems the green revolution itself made worse. Will new technologies come to the rescue?
Dwarf wheat, BBC World Service
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 earliest adopters of new technology. Five in six images shared on the Usenet discussion group in the 1990s were pornographic, one study claimed. But, as Tim Hartford describes, the internet has made it easier for people to access pornography, but made it harder for anyone to make money from it.
Pornography, BBC World Service
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 another look at the cold, hard cash that recycling generates? After all, the idea it’s a moral obligation is relatively new and, as Tim Harford says, for centuries people reused and recycled to save money, not the environment.
Recycling, BBC World Service
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-year-old example of what automation could do to all of our jobs.
Spreadsheet, BBC World Service
'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 fit into a human hand, and half as wide as they are long – and they are absolutely everywhere. Why, asks Tim Harford, are bricks still such an important building technology, how has brickmaking changed over the years, and will we ever see a robot bricklayer?
Brick, BBC World Service
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 prices were so low, people thought there was a catch. Soon, though, this type of retail would improve roads and the postal service. Tim Harford describes how similar dynamics are changing today’s middle-classes in China, with the internet replacing the postal service and e-commerce the new mail order.
Mail order catalogue, BBC World Service
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 lines. Tim Harford considers whether the bicycle has had its day, or whether it’s a technology whose best years lie ahead.
Bicycle, BBC World Service
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 languishing in obscurity. Tim Harford explains how this is a debate about far more than touch-typing: whether the QWERTY keyboard prospers because it works, or as an immovable relic of a commercial scramble in the late 19th century, is a question that affects how we should deal with the huge digital companies that now dominate our online experiences.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

(Image: qwerty keyboard, Credit: Getty Images)
QWERTY, BBC World Service
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 recorders.
#30Animals
Bonus 4: Woodpecker and Black Box, BBC World Service
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 couldn’t see the horizon. Nowadays gyroscopes are tiny and, as Tim Harford describes, they are used to guide everything from submarines to satellites, from rovers on Mars to the phone in your pocket. They are also integral to drones – a technology that some believe could transform how we do our shopping. But for that, they’ll need to work in all weathers.
Gyroscope, BBC World Service
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