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Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy Hardcover – August 29, 2017
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“One of the joys of Tim Harford’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy is that it presents this perspective on economic growth so that the most casual reader can grasp it... It's great fun to dip into individual chapters of Fifty Inventions. Mr. Harford succeeds in teaching about productivity, economic growth, monopoly, regulation and other essential topics without resorting to technical terminology and intimidating charts and tables. Such a feat requires a kind of inventiveness in itself.” —Wall Street Journal
“This is a lovely book: the kind of thing whose bite-sized morsels add up to a whole meal, but can be enjoyed and shared on their own.” —Boing Boing
“Fantastically enlightening... Harford effortlessly leaps across time and continents to show readers various inventions in a new light, revealing unexpected insights into 21st-century society.” —BookPage
“Tim reaffirms his status as one of the great (greatest?) contemporary popular writers on economics, this time turning his attention to technology.” —Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class
“[Harford’s] zest for his subjects makes them hard to resist; his lively, humorous style and wide-ranging curiosity make hard topics go down easily…Harford's contagious delight in his subject reminds readers not to take for granted the impact of objects and ideas so familiar they're easy to overlook.” —Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Tim Harford and MESSY
“Every Tim Harford book is a cause for celebration.” —Malcolm Gladwell
“One of the best writers who also happens to be an economist.” —Stephen Dubner
“Harford’s argument goes beyond aesthetics, resurfacing over and over in his engrossing narrative.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Utterly fascinating. Tim Harford shows that if you want to be creative and resilient, you need a little more disorder in your world. It’s a masterful case for the life-changing magic of cluttering up.”—Adam Grant, New York Times–bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take
“Masterful.” —The Economist
About the Author
Tim Harford is an award-winning journalist, economist, and broadcaster. He’s the author of the bestselling The Undercover Economist, Messy, The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Adapt, and The Logic of Life. Harford is currently a senior columnist at the Financial Times and host of the BBC Radio 4 program More or Less. He has been named Economics Commentator of the Year (2014), has won the Rybczynski Prize (2014–15) for the best business-relevant economics writing, and has won the Bastiat Prize for economic journalism (2006). He’s a visiting fellow of Nuffield College at Oxford University and lives in Oxford with his family.
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Harford was a professional economist before becoming a writer for the Financial Times and then a presenter on BBC radio. He's written a number of books on economics and has now written this one looking at a range of technologies. He hasn't tried to pick the most important items, like the wheel, or light, because so many other people have looked at them. Instead it's an inspired list of varying items and the tales behind them.
The items include : The Plough, Barbed Wire, Robots, The Welfare State, Infant Formula, TV Dinners, The Pill, Video Games, Market Research, Air Conditioning, Department Stores, The Dynamo, The Shipping Container, The Barcode, Tradable Debt and the Tally Stick, The Billy Bookcase, The Elevator, Cuneiform, Public Key Cryptography, Double-Entry Bookkeeping and the Light Bulb. They vary considerably.
Each chapter is very interesting on its own and the whole is even greater than the sum of the parts. The chapters are also quite short and so the book can be read in nice short chunks if desired. Each chapter has extensive references as well so anyone who wants to go into more depth can easily go off and read books about the inventions.
It's really a great read and something that is really informative. Even if you have listened to the podcasts you'll also find more in the book. It's definitely one of Harford's best books and for anybody at all interested in technology or the impacts of technology it's highly recommended.
Harford is at his best when he can take the reader on an entertaining journey. This format does not allow him to do so.
As the title notes Harford discusses the origins and the implications of 50 inventions. I note ten of them below to give you a sample:
• Barbed Wire – Established the practically of legal boundaries in the American West.
• The Pill – Enabled female sexual autonomy that opened the way for women to enter the professions in the 1970s.
• The Dynamo – The broad transmission of electrical energy.
• The Shipping Container – Without which global commerce would be a shadow of its current self.
• The Elevator – Perhaps the foremost mass transit invention that enables dense cities.
• Double- Entry Bookkeeping – The way measure and control
the efficacy of enterprise.
• The Limited Liability Company – Enables risk taking on a grand scale.
• The Compiler – Enables computers to be programmed in English (well sort of).
• Property Registry – Converts land into tradeable capital.
There are, of course 40 more and Harford tells the story of all of them in a very breezy style. The chapters are short and that makes the book easy to put down and pick up with ease.
To sum up I highly recommend Harford’s book for lay readers, history buffs and economists alike interested in getting a better understanding how our world came to be.
One example: air conditioning. Air-conditioning reshaped the world. Places like Singapore and Shanghai are miserable when they’re hot and humid, but today they are global metropolises. There are studies saying that human productivity peaks around 70 degrees. That means that air-conditioning made us more productive, but also, by creating density in Singapore, it allows people to work longer and keep making the world a rich place. There is also the dark side of air-conditioning. You cool the temperature inside, but these units are energy-hungry, and they contribute to global warming.
A second: the plow. "... agricultural abundance creates rulers and the ruled, masters and servants, and inequality of wealth unheard of in hunter-gatherer societies.”
Fascinating insights into how inventions shape human culture.
Robert C. Ross