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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

Updated 2 months ago

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

Read more

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

iTunes Ratings

1358 Ratings
Average Ratings
1173
123
32
14
16

All hail Tim Hartford.

By avm1406 - Nov 19 2019
Read more
The renaissance man and of BBC podcasts. Spectacular show.

Factories

By Retired lady lawyer - Jul 07 2019
Read more
This is very enlightening, brings some vague ideas I had into focus.

iTunes Ratings

1358 Ratings
Average Ratings
1173
123
32
14
16

All hail Tim Hartford.

By avm1406 - Nov 19 2019
Read more
The renaissance man and of BBC podcasts. Spectacular show.

Factories

By Retired lady lawyer - Jul 07 2019
Read more
This is very enlightening, brings some vague ideas I had into focus.
Cover image of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

Latest release on Mar 09, 2020

Read more

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

Rank #1: iPhone

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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 impact on our lives. And rightfully so. But who are other key players without whom the iPhone might have been little more than an expensive toy? Tim Harford tells the story of how the iPhone became a truly revolutionary technology.
(Photo: Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone, Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Dec 03 2016

8mins

Play

Rank #2: Shipping Container

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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 by selling the idea of container shipping to the US military. Against huge odds he managed to turn 'containerisation' from a seemingly impractical idea into a massive industry – one that slashed the cost of transporting goods internationally and provoked a boom in global trade.
Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
(Photo: Container ship travelling along the Suez Canal, Credit: Science Photo Library)

Nov 19 2016

8mins

Play

Rank #3: Concrete

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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 versatility and there are few more important inventions. Tim Harford tells the remarkable hidden story of a ubiquitous, unloved material.
(Image: Masons hands spread concrete, Credit: APGuide/Shutterstock)

Nov 26 2016

8mins

Play

Rank #4: Barcode

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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 ubiquitous stamp, found on virtually every product, was designed to make it easier for retailers to automate the process of recording sales. But, as Tim Harford explains, its impact would prove to be far greater than that. The barcode changed the balance of power between large and small retailers.
(Image: Barcode with red laser line, Credit: Jamie Cross/Shutterstock)

Dec 10 2016

8mins

Play

Rank #5: Index Fund

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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 the market as a whole by buying a little of everything, rather than trying to beat the market with clever stock picks – the kind of clever stock picks that Warren Buffett himself has been making for more than half a century. Index funds now seem completely natural. But as recently as 1976 they didn’t exist. And, as Tim Harford explains, they have become very important indeed – and not only to Mrs Buffett.
Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon

Producer: Ben Crighton
(Image: Market graphs, Credit: Shutterstock)

Jan 17 2019

9mins

Play

Rank #6: Banking

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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 explains – as surprising and mysterious as the plot of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
(Photo: Temple Church in London. Credit: Kiev Victor/Shutterstock)

Dec 17 2016

8mins

Play

Rank #7: Number 51

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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 have a winner. Discover what it is and why it is worthy of being Number 51.
Presenter: Tim Harford

Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon

Oct 28 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #8: Glasses

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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 to the world.

Oct 28 2019

10mins

Play

Rank #9: Cold Chain

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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 labour market: less need for frequent shopping frees up women to work. As low-income countries get wealthier, fridges are among the first things people buy: in China, it took just a decade to get from a quarter of households having fridges to nearly nine in ten.
Presenter: Tim Harford

Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
(Image: Fully loaded shelves, Credit: Shutterstock)

Oct 14 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #10: Limited Liability Company

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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 surprising. “The greatest single discovery of modern times,” he said, “is the limited liability corporation”. Tim Harford explains why Nicholas Murray Butler might well have been right.
Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
(Image: LLC. Credit: Getty Images)

Jul 22 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #11: QWERTY

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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)

Apr 15 2019

8mins

Play

Rank #12: Welfare State

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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 possible, after all, to mother too much. Every parent instinctively knows that there’s a balance: protect, but don’t mollycoddle; nurture resilience, not dependence. And if overprotective parenting stunts personal growth, might too-generous welfare states stunt economic growth?
Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
(Image: Frances Perkins, Credit: Getty Images)

Oct 07 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #13: Paper Money

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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 extraordinary, Mr Polo could barely contain himself: “tell it how I might,” he wrote, “you never would be satisfied that I was keeping within truth and reason”. Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to witness an invention that remains at the very foundation of the modern economy: paper money. Tim Harford tells the gripping story of one of the most successful, and important, innovations of all human history: currency which derives value not from the preciousness of the substance of which it is made, but trust in the government which issues it.
Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
(Image: Ancient Russian money, Credit: RomanR/Shutterstock)

Jul 29 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #14: Santa

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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.

Dec 16 2019

16mins

Play

Rank #15: Stock option

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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 turns to ancient Greek philosophy and Bill Clinton's presidency in search of the answer.

Nov 25 2019

10mins

Play

Rank #16: The Plough

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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 all its benefits and inequities. Different types of plough led to different types of civilisation.
Presenter: Tim Harford

Producer: Ben Crighton
(Photo: Farmer ploughing field, Credit: Shutterstock)

Oct 21 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #17: Retirement

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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?

Dec 23 2019

10mins

Play

Rank #18: Air Conditioning

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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 much more than a mere convenience. It is a transformative technology; one that has had a profound influence on where and how we live.
Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
(Image: Air conditioning vent, Credit: Dorason/Shutterstock)

Apr 22 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #19: Intellectual Property

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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 and copyright grant a monopoly, and monopolies are bad news. Dickens’s British publishers will have charged as much as they could get away with for copies of Bleak House; cash-strapped literature lovers simply had to go without. But these potential fat profits encourage new ideas. It took Dickens a long time to write Bleak House. If other British publishers could have ripped it off like the Americans, perhaps he wouldn’t have bothered. As Tim Harford explains, intellectual property reflects an economic trade-off – a balancing act. If it’s too generous to the creators then good ideas will take too long to copy, adapt and spread. But if it’s too stingy then maybe we won’t see the good ideas at all.
Producer: Ben Crighton

Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
(Image: Copyright stamp, Credit: Arcady/Shutterstock)

May 13 2017

9mins

Play

Rank #20: Wedgwood

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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 industry.

Nov 04 2019

9mins

Play

Introducing 13 Minutes to the Moon Season 2

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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

Mar 09 2020

3mins

Play

Gutenberg press

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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. So why did he struggle to make money from it?

Mar 02 2020

10mins

Play

Slot machines

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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 spinning wheels and flashing lights to see what these devices reveal about the business of addiction.

Feb 24 2020

9mins

Play

Chess algorithms

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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 been used by mathematicians and scientists for millennia, but have acquired a new level of power and importance in the digital age.

Feb 17 2020

9mins

Play

Auctions

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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 powerful brands.

Feb 10 2020

9mins

Play

Dams

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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.

Feb 03 2020

9mins

Play

Tulips

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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 often cited as the first great financial bubble, but is that really the case? Tim Harford tries to sort fact from fiction.

Jan 27 2020

10mins

Play

Sanitary towel

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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 quietly revolutionary product.

Jan 20 2020

9mins

Play

Wardian case

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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 became powerful weapons in the hands of British colonisers.

Jan 13 2020

9mins

Play

Fast food franchise

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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 global giant, and explains the principles that made his franchising model such a success.

Jan 06 2020

9mins

Play

CCTV

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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 our pockets, how do we really feel about being watched?

Dec 30 2019

9mins

Play

Retirement

Podcast cover
Read more
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?

Dec 23 2019

10mins

Play

Santa

Podcast cover
Read more
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.

Dec 16 2019

16mins

Play

Sewing machine

Podcast cover
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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 tells a story of how self-interest can sometimes be a powerful driver for social change.

Dec 09 2019

9mins

Play

Hollerith punch card

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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.

Dec 02 2019

9mins

Play

Stock option

Podcast cover
Read more
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 turns to ancient Greek philosophy and Bill Clinton's presidency in search of the answer.

Nov 25 2019

10mins

Play

Fundraising appeal

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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?

Nov 18 2019

9mins

Play

SWIFT

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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 climate means it might now be facing its greatest challenge.

Nov 11 2019

10mins

Play

Wedgwood

Podcast cover
Read more
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 industry.

Nov 04 2019

9mins

Play

Glasses

Podcast cover
Read more
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 to the world.

Oct 28 2019

10mins

Play

iTunes Ratings

1358 Ratings
Average Ratings
1173
123
32
14
16

All hail Tim Hartford.

By avm1406 - Nov 19 2019
Read more
The renaissance man and of BBC podcasts. Spectacular show.

Factories

By Retired lady lawyer - Jul 07 2019
Read more
This is very enlightening, brings some vague ideas I had into focus.