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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

Updated 9 days 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
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The renaissance man and of BBC podcasts. Spectacular show.

Factories

By Retired lady lawyer - Jul 07 2019
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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

The Best Episodes Ranked Using User Listens

Updated by OwlTail 9 days ago

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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