The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

Tim Harford

The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

Things from season two of the podcast that will probably be used in the next book.

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1. Gutenberg press

A revolutionary technology - so why did its inventor struggle to make money from it?

Podcast episode

2. Slot machines

Spinning wheels, flashing lights, and the business of addiction

Podcast episode

3. Chess algorithms

What chess reveals about the power of computers

Podcast episode

4. Auctions

Are things only worth what people are willing to pay for them?

Podcast episode

  • Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 31
  • Ralph Cassady Auctions and Auctioneering Berkeley: University of California Press 1967 pp33-36
  • Brian Learmount The History of the Auction London: Barnard and Learmount 1985 p84
  • Brian Learmount The History of the Auction London: Barnard and Learmount 1985 p84
  • John McMillan Reinventing the Bazaar: A natural history of markets New York: WW Norton 2002 and “ Aalsmeer Flower Auction Fights the Clock” The New York Times Video 23 Dec 2014
  • William Vickrey, 1961 “Counterspeculation, Auctions and Competitive Sealed Tenders,” Journal of Finance, 16, 8—39.
  • Paul Klemperer, 2002. “What Really Matters in Auction Design.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 16 (1): 169-189. DOI: 10.1257/0895330027166
  • Ken Binmore, Paul Klemperer “The Biggest Auction Ever: The Sale of the British 3G Telecom Licences”
  • The Economic Journal, Volume 112, Issue 478, March 2002, Pages C74–C96,
  • Google has a video tutorial explaining the workings of the Ad Auction. For a more academic discussion, Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian published an analysis of the auction as it was in 2009. Hal Varian “Position Auctions” International Journal of Industrial Organization, 2007, vol. 25, issue 6, 1163-1178
  • Rachel Lerman “Google reports $7.1 billion profit, but still falls short on third-quarter expectations” Associated Press 28 October 2019
  • Jasmine Enberg “ Global Digital Ad Spending 2019” eMarketer Mar 28, 2019
  • Jack Nicas “Google Uses Its Search Engine to Hawk Its Products; Google buys millions of its own search ads, competing with customers and promoting its products atop search results” The Wall Street Journal 19 January 2017

5. Dams

The benefits they bring can be huge - but so can the problems

Podcast episode

6. Tulips

Did colourful flowers really cause a financial bubble?

Podcast episode

  • Charles Mackay Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
  • Mike Dash Tulipomania Phoenix: London 2003
  • Anne Goldgar Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age University of Chicago Press: Chicago 2007
  • Stephen Moss “ The Super-studs: Inside the Secretive World of Racehorse Breeding” The Guardian 28 October 2009
  • Peter Garber “Famous First Bubbles” Journal of Economic Perspectives Spring 1990 and “Tulipmania” Journal of Political Economy 1989
  • James McClure and David Chandler Thomas “Explaining the timing of tulipmania’s boom and bust: historical context, sequester capital and market signals” Financial History Review 2017
  • Andrew Odlyzko “Collective hallucinations and inefficient markets: The British Railway Mania of the 1840s” Working Paper School of Mathematics and Digital Technology Center University of Minnesota, 2010

7. Sanitary towel

Selling a product that some people found too embarrassing to mention

Podcast episode

8. Wardian case

How miniature greenhouses were a powerful tool for British colonisers

Podcast episode

9. Fast food franchise

How a milkshake-mixer salesman turned a burger restaurant into a global giant

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10. CCTV

How do we feel about being watched?

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11. Retirement

How should we treat our elders?

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12. Santa

Why does Father Christmas wear red and white?

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13. Sewing machine

A device that changed women’s lives was designed to make a man very rich

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14. Hollerith punch card

The machine that turned data into money

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15. Stock option

An incentive for good performance, or another way to boost executives’ pay?

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16. Fundraising appeal

What’s the best way to get people to give to charity?

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17. SWIFT

A system that solved big problems is now facing its greatest challenge

Podcast episode

  • Susan Scott and Markos Zachariadis, The Society for Worldwoide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) Abingdon: Routledge 2014
  • Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1998
  • Patrice A. Carré ‘From the telegraph to the telex: a history of technology, early networks and issues in France in the 19th and 20th centures’ FLUX Cahiers Scientifiques Internationaux Réseaux et Territoires, 1993
  • ‘New SWIFT network gives banks an instant linkup - worldwide’ Banking 1977
  • Lily Hay Newman ‘A New Breed of ATM Hackers Gets in Through a Bank’s Network’ Wired 9 April 2019
  • Iain Thomson ‘Banking system SWIFT was anything but on security, ex-boss claims’ The Register 18 August 2016
  • Eric Lichtblau and James Risen ‘Bank Data Is Sifted By US In Secret To Block terror’ The New York Times 23 June 2006
  • Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman ‘Weaponised Interdependence’ forthcoming, International Security, Summer 2019
  • Nicholas Lambert, Planning Armageddon, London: Harvard University Press 2012

18. Wedgwood

What does the fashion industry owe to an 18th-century potter?

Podcast episode

19. Glasses

A vital aid for many, but billions don’t know they need them

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20. Vickrey turnstile

How did an invention that was never built help make the modern world?

Podcast episode

21. GPS

What would happen if GPS stopped working?

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22. Bonsack machine

Why did a machine for making cigarettes transform the advertising industry?

Podcast episode

23. Prohibition

How much does it cost to outlaw something?

Podcast episode

24. Interface Message Processor

The big metal box that made the internet possible

Podcast episode

  • Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon Where Wizards Stay Up Late Touchstone: New York 1996
  • Gene Rochlin Trapped In The Net Princeton University Press
  • Janet Abbate Inventing The Internet MIT Press 1999
  • Peter H Salus Casting The Net: from ARPANET to Internet and beyond Addison-Wesley, Reading Massachusetts 1995
  • Graham Linehan The IT Crowd “The Speech” Aired Dec 2008
  • Andrew Blum Tubes Viking: London 2012
  • Old Computers
  • David Bunnell Making The Cisco Connection John Wiley New York
  • Charley Kline Sends the First Message over the ARPANET - History of Information

25. Canned food

The surprising lessons lurking under the lid

Podcast episode

26. Interchangeable parts

The manufacturing revolution that started with a gun

Podcast episode

  • Simon Winchester Exactly Harper Collins
  • Marshall Brain ‘How Flintlock Guns Work’
  • William Howard Adams The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson Yale University Press 1997
  • Thomas Jefferson The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 30 August 1785, Ed. Julian Boyd
  • Frank Dawson John Wilkinson: King of the Ironmasters The History Press 2012
  • H.W. Dickinson A Short History of the Steam Engine Cambridge University Press 1939
  • Robert C. Allen Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press 2011
  • L. T. C. Rolt Tools for the Job London HM Stationery Office 1986
  • Ben Russell James Watt Reaktion Books, London 2014
  • Adam Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations 1776 Book 1
  • David A. Hounsell From the American System to Mass Production 1800-1932 John Hopkins Press, Baltimore 1987
  • Priya Satia Empire of Guns Duckworth Overlook London 2018

27. Oil

How did the price of oil become so important?

Podcast episode

28. Chatbot

Can a computer convince you that it’s human?

Podcast episode

29. Solar PV

How important is solar power to the future of the planet?

Podcast episode

30. Cassava

A toxic plant that sheds light on hidden social forces

Podcast episode

31. Fire

Does the story of economics really begin with a spark?

Podcast episode

32. RFID

Radio frequency identification is the foundation of many contactless technologies

Podcast episode

33. Postage stamp

How a disgruntled customer revolutionised the postal service

Podcast episode

34. Rubber

An everyday substance with a bloody past

Podcast episode

35. CubeSat

How a student engineering challenge has changed the way we use space

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36. Factory

Have factories made workers’ lives better?

Podcast episode

37. Blockchain

How powerful could the technology behind Bitcoin be?

Podcast episode

38. Pencil

Is the pencil underrated?

Podcast episode

39. ‘Like’ button

Are we addicted to getting ‘likes’ on social media?

Podcast episode

40. Dwarf wheat

Feeding a hungry world – how Norman Borlaug used genetics to tackle predicted famines

Podcast episode

41. Pornography

Did pornography help develop the internet?

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42. Recycling

Could recycling save cash, as well as the planet?

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43. Spreadsheet

How a grid on a computer screen gives us a glimpse of the future of automation

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44. Brick

The humble brick has housed us for thousands of years - will it endure?

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45. Mail order catalogue

How the Montgomery Ward shopping catalogue transformed the middle-class way of life

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46. Bicycle

Has the bicycle had its day, or is it a technology whose best years lie ahead?

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47. QWERTY

From the early typewriters, the QWERTY keyboard layout has stood the test of time

Podcast episode

48. Gyroscope

The gyroscope: a remarkable device used to guide everything from submarines to satellites

Podcast episode

49. Cellophane

Cellophane transformed how consumers purchased food, as well as how producers sold it

Podcast episode

50. Langstroth Hive

The Langstroth Hive: a wooden box that made the industrialisation of the bee possible

Podcast episode

51. Credit Card

When you make a purchase with a credit card, how does the business owner trust you’ll pay them back?

Find out how the idea of a credit card came about. From invention for ‘the professional man’ to wallet staple for many - has it become too easy to spend money that we might not necessarily have?

The credit card was voted the 51st ‘thing’ by listeners of the series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.

Podcast episode