Podcast

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.

Episodes

  • Cassava

    Aug 12 2019

    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.

  • Fire

    Aug 05 2019

    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.

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

    Jul 29 2019

    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.

  • Postage stamp

    Jul 22 2019

    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.

  • Rubber

    Jul 15 2019

    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.

  • CubeSat

    Jul 08 2019

    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.

  • Factory

    Jun 29 2019

    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?

  • Blockchain

    Jun 24 2019

    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?

  • Pencil

    Jun 17 2019

    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?

  • 'Like' button

    Jun 10 2019

    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? Ti...more

  • Dwarf wheat

    Jun 03 2019

    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,...more

  • Pornography

    May 27 2019

    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 ...more

  • Recycling

    May 20 2019

    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.

  • Spreadsheet

    May 13 2019

    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 Harford explains, the digital spreadsheet is a 40-year-old example of what automation could do to all of our jobs.

  • Brick

    May 06 2019

    '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 rob...more

  • Mail order catalogue

    Apr 29 2019

    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 replac...more

  • Bicycle

    Apr 22 2019

    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.

  • QWERTY

    Apr 15 2019

    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 ...more

  • Bonus 4: Woodpecker and black box

    Apr 15 2019

    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

  • Gyroscope

    Apr 08 2019

    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...more

  • Bonus 3: Mosquito and surgical needle

    Apr 08 2019

    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 it here: www.bbcworldservice.com/30animals #30Animals

  • Cellophane

    Apr 01 2019

    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 that plastic doesn’t get recycled enough but there are two sides to this story. Plastic packaging can protect food from being damaged in transit, and help it stay fresh for longer. Should we care more about plastic waste or food waste? As Tim Harford e...more

  • Bonus 2: Octopus and camouflage

    Apr 01 2019

    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 camouflage. Can we make robots do the same thing? With Patrick Aryee. www.bbcworldservice.com/30animals #30Animals

  • Langstroth Hive

    Mar 25 2019

    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 has been industrialised – and the simple yet radical invention that made that industrialisation possible. As Tim Harford explains, it is a sign of just how far the modern market economy has penetrated that it now reaches deep into the heart of the b...more

  • Bonus: 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter

    Mar 25 2019

    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 fastest in the world. It is also quiet, but that was not always the case. This is the tale of Japanese engineer Eiji Nakatsu, the kingfisher, an owl, a penguin and biomimicry. www.bbcworldservice.com/30animals

  • Coming soon: Season two

    Mar 17 2019

    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

  • Index Fund

    Jan 17 2019

    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 ...more

  • Special Bonus: Santa Claus

    Dec 17 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

  • Number 51

    Oct 28 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 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

  • The Plough

    Oct 21 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 – 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)

  • Cold Chain

    Oct 14 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 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 ...more

  • Welfare State

    Oct 07 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 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 welfar...more

  • Property Register

    Sep 30 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 rights matter for investment: experts point to a direct correlation between a nation’s wealth and having an adequate property rights system. This is because real estate is a form of capital and capital raises economic productivity and thus creates weal...more

  • Searching for 51

    Sep 23 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 Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Montage of pencil, credit card, glass, spreadsheet, GPS, irrigation, Credit: Getty Images/Shutterstock)

  • Management Consulting

    Sep 16 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 exhorbitant fees for advice that, on close inspection, turns out to be either meaningless or common sense. Managers who bring in consultants are often accused of being blinded by jargon, implicitly admitting their own incompetence, or seeking someone ...more

  • Double-entry Bookkeeping

    Sep 09 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 bookkeeping. Before the Venetian style of bookkeeping caught on, accounts were rather basic. An early medieval merchant was little more than a travelling salesman. He had no need to keep accounts – he could simply check whether his purse was full or empt...more

  • S-Bend

    Sep 02 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. Cumming’s world-changing invention owed nothing to precision engineering. In 1775, he patented the S-bend. It was a bit of pipe with a curve in it and it became the missing ingredient to create the flushing toilet – and, with it, public sanitation as we ...more

  • Radar

    Aug 26 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 would be dominated by air power. To address the problem, Britain launched a number of projects in hopes of mitigating the threat — including a prize for developing a high-tech ‘death ray’ that could zap a sheep at a hundred paces. But even though the...more

  • Market Research

    Aug 19 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 could no longer sell what their own judgement dictated – they must sell what the consumer wanted. That commentator was Charles Coolidge Parlin, widely recognised as the man who invented the very idea of market research. The invention of market researc...more

  • Plastic

    Aug 12 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 stuff of plastic bags. As the Second World War stretched natural resources, production of plastics ramped up to fill the gap. And when the war ended, exciting new products like Tupperware hit the consumer market. These days, plastics are everywhere. We...more

  • Seller Feedback

    Aug 05 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-one had ever seen anything like [it]”. The idea of both parties rating each other after a transaction has now become ubiquitous. You buy something online – you rate the seller, the seller rates you. Or you use a ride-sharing service, like Uber – you ra...more

  • Paper Money

    Jul 29 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 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 ver...more

  • Limited Liability Company

    Jul 22 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 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 Richa...more

  • Dynamo

    Jul 15 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 simply couldn’t see the advantage of electric power when their steam systems – in which they had invested a great deal of capital – worked just fine. Simply replacing a steam engine with an electric dynamo did little to improve efficiency. But the thi...more

  • Leaded Petrol

    Jul 08 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 richer, they tend initially to get dirtier and later clean up. Economists call this the “environmental Kuznets curve”. It took the United States until the 1970s to tax lead in petrol, then finally ban it, as the country moved down the far side of the e...more

  • Department Store

    Jul 01 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 merchandise apart to one where “just looking” was positively encouraged. In the full-page newspaper adverts Selfridge took out when his eponymous department store opened in London in the early 1900s, he compared the “pleasures of shopping” to those of “sight-...more

  • Barbed Wire

    Jun 24 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 Age”. That might seem hyperbolic, even making allowances for the fact that the advertisers didn’t know that Alexander Graham Bell was just about to be awarded a patent for the telephone. But – as Tim Harford explains – while modern minds naturally th...more

  • Tax Havens

    Jun 17 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 balance. But they don’t. Each individual centre tends to report more liabilities than assets. Zucman crunched the numbers and found that, globally, total liabilities were eight percent higher than total assets. That suggests at least eight percent of ...more

  • Infant Formula

    Jun 10 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-clean receptacles that teemed with bacteria. But in 1865 Justus von Liebig invented Soluble Food for Babies – a powder comprising cow’s milk, wheat flour, malt flour and potassium bicarbonate. It was the first commercial substitute for breastmilk and, a...more

  • Tally Stick

    May 27 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 like a character from Star Wars but was in fact a Bishop of London in the 13th century. He owed his debt to King Henry III. Now comes the elegant part. The stick would be split in half, down its length from one end to the other. The debtor would retai...more

  • Passports

    May 22 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 controls are back in fashion. It can seem like a natural fact of life that the name of the country on our passport determines where you can travel and work – legally, at least. But it’s a relatively recent historical development – and, from a ce...more

  • Intellectual Property

    May 13 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. 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 poten...more

  • Video Games

    May 06 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 labour market. The economy was growing, unemployment rates were low, and yet a surprisingly large number of able-bodied young men were either working part-time or not working at all. More puzzling still, while most studies of unemployment find that ...more

  • Cuneiform

    Apr 29 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 did it say? As Tim Harford describes, cuneiform wasn’t being used for poetry, or to send messages to far-off lands. It was used to create the world’s first accounts. And the world’s first written contracts, too. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Ric...more

  • Air Conditioning

    Apr 22 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 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: ...more

  • Elevator

    Apr 15 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, gentlemen, all safe!” he boomed. The city landscape was about to be turned on its head by the man who had invented not the elevator, but the elevator brake. As Tim Harford explains, the safety elevator is an astonishingly successful mass transit system...more

  • Contraceptive Pill

    Apr 08 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 twentieth century. A careful statistical study by the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz strongly suggests that the pill played a major role in allowing women to delay marriage, delay motherhood and invest in their own careers. The consequen...more

  • TV Dinner

    Apr 01 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 than men, who spend just 15 minutes a day. But it is a vast shift from the four hours a day which was common in the 1960s. We know all this from time-use surveys conducted around the world. And we know the reasons for the shift. One of the most impo...more

  • Gramophone

    Mar 25 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 secure her performances. In 1801 she ended up singing at both venues, alternating between the two, and pulling in at least £10,000. A remarkable sum, much noted at the time. But in today’s terms, it’s a mere £687,000, or about a million dollars; one per ...more

  • Battery

    Mar 18 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 been in particularly undignified circumstances. In front of a large London crowd, an Italian scientist with a flair for showmanship was sticking an electrode up Foster’s rectum. This is how the story of the battery begins – a technology which has be...more

  • Public Key Cryptography

    Mar 11 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 only by two prime numbers. Now challenge someone else to take that semi-prime number, and figure out which two prime numbers were multiplied together to produce it. That, it turns out, is exceptionally hard. Some mathematics are a lot easier to perform...more

  • Robot

    Mar 04 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 used for tasks like welding. Now, as Tim Harford explains, the world’s robot population is expanding rapidly (the robot “birth rate” is almost doubling every five years) and, coupled with rapid advances in artificial intelligence, robots are changin...more

  • Disposable Razor

    Feb 25 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 costs”. If you’ve ever bought replacement cartridges for an inkjet printer you experienced both when you discovered that they cost almost as much as the printer itself. It’s also known as the “razor and blades” model because that’s where it first dr...more

  • Clock

    Feb 18 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 named Christiaan Huygens. In the centuries since, as Tim Harford explains, the clock has become utterly essential to almost every area of the modern economy. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: A wall clock. Cr...more

  • Google

    Feb 11 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 – Google’s founders – were not, initially, interested in designing a better way to search. Their Stanford University project had a more academic motivation. Tim Harford tells the extraordinary story of a technology which might shape our access to kn...more

  • Insurance

    Feb 04 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 unknowable future. Today the biggest insurance market of all – financial derivatives – blurs the line between insuring and gambling more than ever. Tim Harford tells the story of insurance; an idea as old as gambling but one which is fundamental to the way th...more

  • Paper

    Jan 28 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. Still the Gutenberg press changed the world. It led to Europe’s reformation, science, the newspaper, the novel, the school textbook, and much else. But, as Tim Harford explains, it could not have done so without another invention, just as essential but ...more

  • Antibiotics

    Jan 20 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 bacteria he’d used the dish to cultivate. It’s hard to overstate the impact of antibiotics on medicine, farming and the way we live. But, as Tim Harford explains, the story of antibiotics is a cautionary one. And unhelpful economic incentives are in large...more

  • Billy Bookcase

    Jan 14 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 successful because they work and they are cheap. And – as Tim Harford explains in this fascinating story – brilliantly boring efficiency is essential to the modern economy. The humble Billy bookcase epitomises the relentless pursuit of lower costs and acce...more

  • Compiler

    Jan 07 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 – single-handedly invented the idea of open source software too. The compiler evolved into COBOL – one of the first computer languages – and led to the distinction between hardware and software. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and ...more

  • M-Pesa

    Dec 31 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 into something far bigger - there are now 100 times more M-Pesa kiosks than ATMs in Kenya – and with far-reaching consequences, in many developing economies. Tim Harford describes how money transferred this way is easy to trace, which is bad news fo...more

  • Lightbulb

    Dec 24 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 modern bulb shining for just 54 minutes. The invention of tallow candles made life a little easier. If you spent a whole week making them – unpleasant work – you would have enough to burn one for two hours and twenty minutes every evening for a year. Eve...more

  • Banking

    Dec 17 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 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)

  • Barcode

    Dec 10 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 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 b...more

  • iPhone

    Dec 03 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 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...more

  • Concrete

    Nov 26 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 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)

  • Shipping Container

    Nov 19 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 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 an...more

  • Haber-Bosch Process

    Nov 14 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 Harford tells the story of two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, figured out a way to use nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, which makes fertiliser. It was like alchemy; 'Brot aus Luft', as Germans put it, 'Bread from air'. Haber and...more

  • Diesel Engine

    Nov 05 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 industrial landscape was very different. Urban transport depended on horses and steam supplied power for trains and factories. Incredibly, Diesel’s first attempt at a working engine was more than twice as efficient as other engines which ran on petrol and ga...more