Editor's Choice

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

August 24, 2017


Tim Harford has written another great economic history that helps reveal how the modern economy came to be, and the benefits and risks associated with invention.

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford, Riverhead Books, 336 pages, Hardcover, August 2017, ISBN 9780735216136

Books like Tim Harford’s Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy (think Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now, or Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators) are usually decidedly positive and upbeat, celebrating human creativity and the capacity to improve the world around us through innovation and inventiveness. They may have brief asides into the darker aspects of that history, but they usually carry the message that, to paraphrase Dr. King wildly out of context, “the arc of invention and innovation is long, but it bends toward progress.” Harford’s take is more nuanced, sometimes scandalous (the invention of leaded gasoline), often mundane (like the s-bend in pipes that made flushing toilets possible), and at times quite ominous.

Writing of the fact that robots are now replacing white collar work as much, if not more than rote, manual labor, he references one of our favorite books from 2015, Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, which noted that “robots can land airplanes and trade shares on Wall Street, but they still can’t clean toilets.” He then wryly relates the logical conclusion of the Jennifer Unit, a robot that instructs warehouse workers what to pick off shelves, and in what order:


If robots beat humans at thinking, why not control a human body with a robot brain? It may not be a fulfilling career choice, but you can’t deny the logic.


Thus ends the chapter “Robots,” and it’s onto “The Welfare State.” Ummmm… what the what, Harford? All of the fifty inventions are connected in some way to each other, and to a larger picture that emerges as the book unfolds. The welfare state, for instance, is tied to the concern over whether robots will eventually take all our jobs, and to the power of search and seller feedback systems (both of which get their own chapter) that is giving rise to a broader freelance economy in which employers don’t provide the benefits of traditional twentieth-century employment. It also ties into migration issues, which ties to a chapter on another invention: the passport. Telling the story of Alan Kurdi, whose family was attempting to travel from Turkey to Vancouver (where his aunt lived) via Greece in 2015, the book moves from the dichotomous nature of invention to a crushingly depressing tale:


There are easier ways to travel from Turkey to Canada that starting with a dinghy to Kos, and Abdulluh [Alan’s father] had the money—the 4,000 euros he paid a people-smuggler could instead have bought the plane tickets for them all. At least it could have if he and his family hadn’t needed the right passports.

Since the Syrian government denied citizenship to ethnic Kurds, the Kurdis had no passports.


But even if they had passports, Harford tells us, a Syrian passport wouldn’t have been enough to enter Canada. “If they’d had passports issued by Sweden or Slovakia, or Singapore or Samoa,” he says, “they’d have had no problems making the journey.” Because passports are “designed to ensure that a certain kind of discrimination takes place: discrimination on the grounds of nationality,” we know Alan Kurdi’s story because of the way it ended. He was three-year-old boy whose dinghy capsized while making the crossing from Turkey to Greece with his family, and whose posthumous photograph, of him washed ashore on the beaches of Turkey, became emblematic of the refugee crisis two summers ago.

Passports have not always been deemed necessary or beneficial. Before WWI, they were increasingly falling out of fashion, and travel between countries was becoming more and more unrestricted. “In some South American countries,” in fact, “passport-free travel was a constitutional right.” And economists believe that economic output would increase dramatically (some believe it would double) if people could easily relocate to where workers were most needed without the need for the right passport. It’s a timely reminder to be cognizant of the inventions we allow in our daily lives, and the norms we allow to take root in our societies. Perhaps protecting national borders is more important than protecting human life in times of great migration, and more important than promoting economic output in less strenuous times. Perhaps not. The fact is that inventions have both benefit and risk, and we tend to pursue the former without a proper account for the latter.

If this book were a hero’s journey with invention in the role of protagonist, this would be the nadir of that tale. It is not always so depressing. It is, however, relentlessly unflinching. The point is that “inventions in the wild aren’t quite so tame and cuddly” as they are usually made to appear in most accounts of innovation. They affect our lives for both better and worse, both individually and as a species. The most important invention we’ve ever devised as a species is, arguably, the plow:


The plow was a better way to grow crops, but it wasn’t just a better way to grow crops: it ushered in an utterly new way of life, even if you personally never used a plow.


The plow was the invention that made possible what we now call “civilization”—the construction of larger population centers and the freedom from basic subsistence that led to writing, specialized craftspeople, the arts, and so much else. It even led to the invention of our first form of the written word, cuneiform, which gets its own chapter in Harford’s book. One thing it did not do was lead to better, more balanced diets or healthier individuals. In fact:


As societies switched from foraging to agriculture ten thousand years ago, the average height for both men and women shrank by about six inches and there’s ample evidence of parasites, disease, and childhood malnutrition.


Are modern innovations changing us just as drastically? Baby formula and TV dinners are both given a chapter to explain the effects of the industrialization of food on our health, and conversely on women’s liberation and the world of work. Another invention that weighed heavily in liberating women both socially and sexually, the birth control pill, was approved in 1960, and sparked what Harford believes is “perhaps the most significant economic change of the late twentieth century.” As access was extended to younger woman and the unmarried, women began entering more and more professions that required advanced degrees that were riskier to begin when women married earlier and had a greater chance of being derailed in those studies by pregnancy. Gender equality has yet to be fully realized, but consider the alternative. It can be found in Japan, which didn’t legalize the pill until 1999, and where “gender equality is generally reckoned to be worse than anywhere else in the developed world.”

Many of the inventions Harford features are ancient in origin, like the plow, and many others seem boring and bureaucratic until Harford teases out their importance. There are probably as many that owe their existence to bureaucracy as much as individual inventiveness, which is a threat that’s continuously tangled and pulled throughout the book. The iPhone, for instance, doesn’t exist without Grace Hopper and her invention of the compiler during WWII that led to modern computer programming—not to mention, as Harford explains, the government funding that led to all twelve of the main technologies the iPhone is built upon. He also expounds upon the inventions of market research, tradable debt (which, with the history of British tally sticks and other currencies included, becomes much more fascinating than you might imagine), public-key cryptography, double-entry bookkeeping, and the limited liability company. Tax havens even merit a chapter. Next to these, the elevator (unfairly underrated, in Harford’s view) and air conditioner seem positively dazzling, but all are important and interconnected in Harford’s great economic history of things. Most of time, the more boring the invention seems, the more fascinating it becomes when its origins and effects on today’s world, with all of its interconnections, are explained. The resurrection and standardization of the passport in WWI has a story to tell in the invention of the dynamo and the rise of electricity. The history of the shipping container, bar code, and cold chain of refrigerated shipping are all wound up in one other. The plow led to accounting and cuneiform. And Harford is a master at getting from an invention’s origin to its current effect quickly without sacrificing detail, pulling people’s personal histories in to make it more poignant and relatable—taking you, for instance, from Alessandro Volta to Elon Musk in under five pages. As in all his previous books (The Undercover Economist and Messy among them), he proves to be as good a storyteller as economist.

And, in the end, though Harford’s account is tinged with a little more caution and pessimism than other books, he does believe that “overall, they’ve had vastly more good effects than bad.” And he concludes the book on a very bright note that will leave you in awe and appreciation for the times we live in, and the inventions that have made the modern world possible.

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