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.

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."[1]

The first episode of the first series was broadcast on Saturday 5 November 2016.

The first 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 was released in 2 August 2018.

A public call was made for suggestions of a 51st thing in August 2017. Harford chose his six favourite submissions for an online vote from late September to 6 October 2017.[2] The winning item was announced as the Credit Card in an episode released on 28 October 2017.

A special bonus episode on Santa Claus was broadcast on Monday 24 December 2018.

A second series began broadcasting on Saturday 30 March 2019.

All episodes are available as podcasts.

Radio series[edit]

Each of the nine-minute long programmes introduces the story of a product or invention that 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.

Series 1 episode listing with released titles and taglines
Episode Title Tagline Broadcast Date
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 Google 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
Series 2 episode listing with released titles and taglines
Episode Title Tagline Broadcast Date
1 Langstroth Hive Few of us truly appreciate just how much the honey bee has been industrialised – and the simple yet radical invention that made that industrialisation possible. 30 Mar 2019
2 Cellophane When Jacques Brandenberger invented cellophane, consumers loved it. Clear plastic food packaging transformed the way we purchased food, as well as how producers sold it. 6 Apr 2019
3 Gyroscope The gyroscope: a remarkable device used to guide everything from submarines to satellites, They’re also integral to drones, a technology some believe will transform how we shop. 13 Apr 2019
4 QWERTY The QWERTY keyboard layout has stood the test of time, from the early typewriters to the virtual keyboard on the screen of any smart-phone. 20 Apr 2019
5 Bicycle Has the bicycle had its day, or is it a technology whose best years lie ahead? 27 Apr 2019
6 Mail order catalogue 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. 4 May 2019
7 Brick The humble brick has housed us for thousands of years, but how much longer will it endure? 11 May 2019
8 Spreadsheet How a grid on a computer screen gives us a glimpse of the future of automated work. 18 May 2019

51st Thing[edit]

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”

Bonus Episodes[edit]

A bonus episode on Santa Claus was broadcast on Tuesday 24 December 2018. This included the announcement of the series 2 for March 2018.

The series 1 episode on the Index Fund was re-released with additional comments by Harford in the podcast feed to commemorate the death of John Bogle. A number of episodes of the parallel BBC radio documentary series 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter were included as bonuses in the podcast feed of early episodes of series 2.

Book Chapters[edit]

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.

Book chapter listing
Chapter Title
1 The Plough
I. Winners and Losers
2 Gramophone
3 Barbed Wire
4 Seller Feedback
5 Google Search
6 Passports
7 Robots
8 The Welfare State
II. Reinventing How We Live
9 Infant Formula
10 TV Dinners
11 The Pill
12 Video Games
13 Market Research
14 Air Conditioning
15 Department Stores
III. Inventing New Systems
16 The Dynamo
17 The Shipping Container
18 The Barcode
19 The Cold Chain
20 Tradable Debt and the Tally Stick
21 Billy Bookcase
22 Elevator
IV. Ideas About Ideas
23 Cuneiform
24 Public-Key Cryptography
25 Double-Entry Bookkeeping
26 Limited Liability Companies
27 Management Consulting
28 Intellectual Property
29 The Compiler
V. Where Do Inventions Come From
30 The iPhone
31 Diesel Engines
32 Clocks
33 The Haber-Bosch Process
34 Radar
35 Batteries
36 Plastic
VI. The Visible Hand
37 The Bank
38 Razors and Blades
39 Tax Havens
40 Leaded Petrol
41 Antibiotics in Farming
42 M-Pesa
43 Property Registers
VII. Inventing the Wheel
44 Paper
45 Index Funds
46 The S-bend
47 Paper Money
48 Concrete
49 Insurance
50 Lightbulb

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "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.
  2. ^ "Vote for the 51st Thing!". BBC. Archived from the original on 5 October 2017. Retrieved 5 October 2017.

External links[edit]