Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy by Tim Harford (book review)

July 6, 2017 | By | Reply More

Don’t think the title ‘Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy’ is going to be about the money side of our reality. Tim Harford’s book focuses on significant inventions and regimes that have formed our civilisation over the centuries. From the start, he examines the switch from the scratch plough that merely dug a grove into the soil to the heavier mouldboard plough which turned the soil over, destroying weeds and turning them into compost and revolutionised the northern hemisphere for farming. This simple tool also reduced the number of people involved in agriculture and allowed other talents the space to develop. A rather interesting comment that should make you think is Harford pointing out that Luddites weren’t afraid of machinery but the fact that it took less skilled people and at a cheaper price to run them. Logistically, from my point of view, you would have thought that they might have turned to creating other things but I suspect the landowners only wanted to make money. Even so, it did give employment to the semi-skilled.

Don’t expect all of these things to go back to the year dot. This book is supposed to be reflecting the modern economy so there’s a large proportion of things related to computers and software as well. Each gets a potted history, function and development and how it affects the world with nuggets of information along the way. Unlike the original Industrial Revolution, different job opportunities do open up but not necessarily where you currently live. Even so, it might give you thoughts into what you can turn your particular talents to other than those they were trained in.

There’s a lot that can be learnt here and I’m only touching the surface. I didn’t realise passports didn’t really come into their own until 1921, as formalised by the United Nations. Air conditioning wasn’t devised for human use originally but for keeping humidity static for printing purposes. Every time you see a mis-register of colour on a page, you now know the cause. A lot of current mass market shopping owes a lot to Harry Gordon Selfridge, ensuing that there were choices for all sorts of customers and we owe him for the bargain basement.

Don’t be mistaken that this book is all to do with physical inventions. A lot of them include things that we take for granted today like the barcode. Something I wasn’t aware of was it was originally thought of back in 1948 and again in the 1950s and late 1960s but it took computers to make it a reality.

In case you didn’t know the first banana republic was Guatemala and bananas were what was traded for arms. The tallystick, made from willow, was one of the earliest ways to record debt and to trade in the UK. We use the word ‘tally’ so commonly now that I never realised its source. Things like cuneiforms were also used as a means to count objects that were being sold is another one.

If you use computers (don’t we all here?), you will learn something about encryption and why the NSA were a bit concerned when it was revealed outside of espionage circles for coding but essential for Internet messaging, bank business and trade. We also owe our debt to Grace Hopper who designed the first compiler, originally used in COBOL, for making it easier to write computer code. I love the fact that without a compiler, to install Windows would take 5000 years. Makes the few hours of updates when you buy a new computer seem trivial by comparison, doesn’t it?

Us writers owe a debt to Charles Dickins when it comes to intellectual property. Although he never made good on his books being illegally printed in the USA as international copyright hadn’t been thought of, he did at least add lecture tours to a writer’s duties if they wanted them.

Although I don’t use a mobile phone, the navigation system used of satellite position and distance will always find you, especially if you have its tracker on, but it also ensures you have accurate time.

Not all plastic is good, but without Leo Baekeland, it might have come much later. If his name isn’t familiar, look up ‘Bakelite’, the original first commercial plastic. More worrying is leaded petrol and how its manufacturers kept trying to prove it was safe to use despite the fatalities against all the evidence to the contrary. The history of paper makes for interesting reading and why it’s still preferred to digital.

For sanitation, the S-bend pipe also means what goes down the toilet stays down the toilet and hence its value. The descriptions of when the Thames in London got to cesspool proportions will make you grateful that commonsense prevailed. Adding to your worries should be reinforced cement and how it’s used in bridges. Leaks into the concrete can make the steel rusty, you might have seen the results in torn down buildings, so think about that with bridges.

This book is packed full of information and I’ve only touched the surface in my comments above. Harford did well in selecting things we take for granted but not realise the implications without them. I’m sure he could write another book with another 50 things but this is a good start. If you’re reality building, there’s a lot here that will make you think in how you put things in your time frame. As Harford comments in his introduction, without some of the early inventions, the later ones wouldn’t have come about.

GF Willmetts

July 2017

(pub: Little, Brown. 343 page indexed hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4087-0911-5)

check out websites: and

Category: Books, Culture, Science


About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Leave a Reply

Enjoy scifi? Please spread the word :)