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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

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

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Tulips

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.

10mins

27 Jan 2020

Rank #1

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Shipping Container

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

8mins

19 Nov 2016

Rank #2

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Concrete

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)

8mins

26 Nov 2016

Rank #3

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Barcode

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)

8mins

10 Dec 2016

Rank #4

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Banking

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)

8mins

17 Dec 2016

Rank #5

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Canned food

Developed for the military, dodging bureaucracy and fuelled by venture capital: canned food blazed a trail many of today's biggest tech innovations have followed. Tim Harford reveals the surprising lessons and cautionary tales lurking under the lid.

9mins

16 Sep 2019

Rank #6

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Solar PV

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 mean for the planet's future.

9mins

19 Aug 2019

Rank #7

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Index Fund

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

9mins

17 Jan 2019

Rank #8

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Blockchain

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?

10mins

24 Jun 2019

Rank #9

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Retirement

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?

10mins

23 Dec 2019

Rank #10

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SWIFT

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.

10mins

11 Nov 2019

Rank #11

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Number 51

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 HarfordProducer: Ben CrightonEditors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon

9mins

28 Oct 2017

Rank #12

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Chatbot

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.

10mins

26 Aug 2019

Rank #13

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RFID: The tech you’ve never heard of – but use every day

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.

10mins

29 Jul 2019

Rank #14

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Wedgwood

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.

9mins

4 Nov 2019

Rank #15

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Sewing machine

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.

9mins

9 Dec 2019

Rank #16

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Cold Chain

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 HarfordProducer: Ben CrightonEditors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon(Image: Fully loaded shelves, Credit: Shutterstock)

9mins

14 Oct 2017

Rank #17

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Glasses

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.

10mins

28 Oct 2019

Rank #18

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Limited Liability Company

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

9mins

22 Jul 2017

Rank #19

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QWERTY

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 CrightonEditor: Richard Vadon(Image: qwerty keyboard, Credit: Getty Images)

8mins

15 Apr 2019

Rank #20