50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy began as a weekly economic history documentary radio series on the BBC World Service presented by economist and journalist Tim Harford. The first episode was broadcast on Saturday 5 November 2016, and all episodes are available as podcasts.
Harford explained his motivation "to paint a picture of economic change by telling the stories of the ideas, people, and tools that had far-reaching consequences". He was fascinated by the many unexpected outcomes, such as "the impact of the fridge on global politics, or of the gramophone on income inequality."
The series was subsequently released by Harford as a book titled Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy in the UK published by Little, Brown Books, and as Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy in the US published by Riverhead Books. The hardcover and eBook editions were released on 6 July 2017 in the UK and the US edition was released on 29 August 2017. A paperback edition has been announced for May 2018.
A public call was made for suggestions for a 51st thing in August 2017. Harford chose his six favourite submissions for an online vote from late September to 6 October 2017. The winning item was announced as the Credit Card in an episode released on 28 October 2017.
Each of the nine-minute long programmes introduces the story of fifty products or inventions that have revolutionised the modern world.
Each episode was originally broadcast on BBC World Service, with a subsequent broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and distribution as a BBC podcast.
|1||Diesel Engine||Rudolf Diesel died in strange circumstances after changing the world with his engine||5 Nov 2016|
|2||Haber-Bosch Process||Saving lives with thin air - by taking nitrogen from the air to make fertiliser||14 Nov 2016|
|3||Shipping Container||The boom in global trade was caused by a simple steel box||19 Nov 2016|
|4||Concrete||It's improved health, school attendance, agricultural productivity and farm worker wages||26 Nov 2016|
|5||iPhone||How Uncle Sam played an essential role in the creation and development of the iPhone||3 Dec 2016|
|6||Barcode||How vast mega-stores emerged with the help of a design originally drawn in the sand||10 Dec 2016|
|7||Banking||Warrior monks, crusaders and the mysterious origins of modern banking||17 Dec 2016|
|8||Lightbulb||Once too precious to use, light is now too cheap to notice||24 Dec 2016|
|9||M-Pesa||Transferring money by text message is far safer and more convenient than cash||31 Dec 2016|
|10||Compiler||Installing Windows might take 5,000 years without it||7 Jan 2017|
|11||Billy Bookcase||Low cost, functional and brilliantly efficient, one is produced every three seconds||14 Jan 2017|
|12||Antibiotics||The tale of antibiotics is a cautionary one, and economic incentives are often to blame||20 Jan 2017|
|13||Paper||The Gutenberg press changed the world – but it could not have done so without paper||28 Jan 2017|
|14||Insurance||Insurance is as old as gambling, but it’s fundamental to the way the modern economy works||4 Feb 2017|
|15||The words 'clever' and 'death' crop up less often than 'Google' in conversation||11 Feb 2017|
|16||Clock||The clock was invented in 1656 and has become an essential part of the modern economy||18 Feb 2017|
|17||Disposable Razor||King Camp Gillette created the disposable razor. But his influence extends beyond shaving||25 Feb 2017|
|18||Robot||Robots threaten the human workforce, but they are crucial to the modern economy||4 Mar 2017|
|19||Public-Key Cryptography||Geeks versus government – the story of public key cryptography||11 Mar 2017|
|20||Battery||The story of the battery begins inside a dead murderer. It’s a tale that’s far from over||18 Mar 2017|
|21||Gramophone||"Superstar” economics – the story of how the gramophone led to a winner-take-all market||25 Mar 2017|
|22||TV Dinner||The TV dinner, and other inventions from the same era, made a lasting economic impression||1 Apr 2017|
|23||Contraceptive Pill||The pill wasn’t just socially revolutionary, it also sparked an economic revolution||8 Apr 2017|
|24||Elevator||The safety elevator is a mass transit system that has changed the shape of our cities||15 Apr 2017|
|25||Air Conditioning||Invented for the printing industry, air conditioning now influences where and how we live||22 Apr 2017|
|26||Cuneiform||Cuneiform, the earliest known script, was used to create the world’s first accounts||29 Apr 2017|
|27||Video Games||From Spacewar to Pokemon Go, video games have shaped the modern economy in surprising ways||6 May 2017|
|28||Intellectual Property||Intellectual property reflects an economic trade off when it comes to innovation||13 May 2017|
|29||Passports||If anyone could work anywhere, some economists think global economic output would double||22 May 2017|
|30||Tally Stick||The tally stick shows us what money really is: a kind of debt that can be traded freely||27 May 2017|
|31||Index Fund||Warren Buffett is one of the world’s great investors. His advice? Invest in an index fund||3 Jun 2017|
|32||Infant Formula||For many new mothers who want, or need, to get back to work, infant formula is a godsend||10 Jun 2017|
|33||Tax Havens||Gabriel Zucman invented an ingenious way to estimate how much wealth is hidden offshore||17 Jun 2017|
|34||Barbed Wire||“Lighter than air, stronger than whiskey” – barbed wire wreaked huge changes in America||24 Jun 2017|
|35||Department Store||Harry Selfridge pioneered a whole new retail experience with his London department store||1 Jul 2017|
|36||Leaded Petrol||When lead was added to petrol it made cars more powerful – but it also poisoned people||8 Jul 2017|
|37||Dynamo||The big story behind the way dynamos made electricity useful||15 Jul 2017|
|38||Limited Liability Company||How some legal creativity has created vast wealth down the centuries||22 Jul 2017|
|39||Paper Money||Currency derives value from trust in the government which issues it||29 Jul 2017|
|40||Seller Feedback||Without seller feedback, companies like eBay might not have grown as they have||5 Aug 2017|
|41||Plastic||We make so much plastic these days that it takes about eight percent of oil production||12 Aug 2017|
|42||Market Research||Market research marked a shift from a producer-led to consumer-led approach to business||19 Aug 2017|
|43||Radar||A high-tech ‘death ray’ capable of zapping sheep led to the invention of radar||26 Aug 2017|
|44||S-Bend||The S-bend was a pipe with a curve in it, an invention that led to public sanitation||2 Sep 2017|
|45||Double-entry Bookkeeping||Market research marked a shift from a producer-led to consumer-led approach to business||9 Sep 2017|
|46||Management Consulting||If managers often have a bad reputation, what should we make of the people who tell managers how to manage?||16 Sep 2017|
|47||Property Register||Property rights for the world's poor could unlock trillions in ‘dead capital’||30 Sep 2017|
|48||Welfare State||Do welfare states boost economic growth, or stunt it? It’s not an easy question to answer||7 Sep 2017|
|49||Cold Chain||Refrigeration revolutionised the food industry, and other industries too||14 Oct 2017|
|50||Plough||The plough kick-started civilisation - and ultimately made our modern economy possible||21 Oct 2017|
|51||Number 51||Revealed – the winning 51st Thing! Which “thing” won the vote to be added to our list?||28 Oct 2017|
The shortlist selected by Tim Harford for public vote as the 51st thing was:
The item selected by public vote was the Credit Card, announced by Tim Harford in the episode entitled “Number 51”
Each of the short chapters describes fifty products or inventions that have revolutionised the modern world.
The book title uses the word Fifty whereas the radio programme uses the number 50. The chapter order is different to the radio broadcast and podcast order, some book chapters have modified titles, and the chapters are grouped into sections in the book.
- "BBC World Service invites suggestions for the ’51st Thing’ that made the modern economy", BBC World Service, 19 August 2017. Retrieved on 10 September 2017.
- "Vote for the 51st Thing!". BBC. Archived from the original on 5 October 2017. Retrieved 5 October 2017.