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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.

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Introducing 13 Minutes to the Moon Season 2

Jump on-board a doomed mission to the Moon. Apollo 13: the extraordinary story, told by the people who flew it and saved it. Search for 13 Minutes to the Moon wherever you get your podcasts. #13MinutestotheMoon
2020-03-09
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Gutenberg press

Johannes Gutenberg's printing press changed the course of human history. It created a new way of doing business, drastically reduced the cost and speed of making books, and enabled texts, ideas and arguments to spread further and faster than ever before. So why did he struggle to make money from it?
2020-03-02
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Slot machines

First developed by a toy company in the 1890s, slot machines have become one of the most profitable tools of the gambling trade - but many who play them say winning isn't the point. So why can't people pull themselves away? Tim Harford looks under the spinning wheels and flashing lights to see what these devices reveal about the business of addiction.
2020-02-24
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Chess algorithms

In 1997, Garry Kasparov, widely regarded as the world's greatest chess player, was defeated by Deep Blue, a computer. But how much did that reveal about the 'brainpower' of machines? Tim Harford explains by delving into the history of algorithms. They've been used by mathematicians and scientists for millennia, but have acquired a new level of power and importance in the digital age.
2020-02-17
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Auctions

Are things only worth what people are willing to pay for them? Tim Harford explains why a method of buying and selling that originated in ancient times has endured to the present day, and is now underpinning the success of some of the internet's most powerful brands.
2020-02-10
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Dams

From reliable water supplies to large-scale electricity generation, the benefits brought by dams can be huge. But so can the problems. Tim Harford explains how these massive structures have changed the world for many, but led to catastrophe for others.
2020-02-03
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Tulips

In the 1630s, the Netherlands experienced 'tulip mania' - a surge in demand for tulips from wealthy buyers, with some individual bulbs costing twenty times more than a carpenter's annual salary. Then, in February 1637, the price suddenly crashed. It's often cited as the first great financial bubble, but is that really the case? Tim Harford tries to sort fact from fiction.
2020-01-27
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Sanitary towel

In the early 20th Century, makers of sanitary towels had to find a way to sell an item that some people found too embarrassing to mention. In some parts of the world, that stigma still hasn't gone away. Tim Harford charts the controversial history of a quietly revolutionary product.
2020-01-20
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Wardian case

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward's miniature greenhouses made it far easier to successfully transport plants, spreading them far beyond their native lands. But that led to major consequences that Ward hadn't foreseen. Tim Harford tells the story of how glass boxes became powerful weapons in the hands of British colonisers.
2020-01-13
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Fast food franchise

There are more than 36,000 McDonald's restaurants around the world - but if the McDonald brothers had had their way, that might never have happened. Tim Harford tells the story of how milkshake-mixer salesman Ray Kroc turned their burger business into a global giant, and explains the principles that made his franchising model such a success.
2020-01-06
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CCTV

Surveillance cameras were invented so Nazi scientists could observe rocket launches from a safe distance. They've come a long way since then, and are gathering more data about us than ever before. But in a world where millions happily carry smartphones in our pockets, how do we really feel about being watched?
2019-12-30
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Retirement

As populations age, pension systems around the world are coming under strain. Governments, employers and economists are searching for ways to alleviate the problem - but could traditional societies hold some valuable lessons?
2019-12-23
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Santa

Why does Father Christmas wear red and white? It's not for the reason you may think. In an updated version of an episode from 2018, Tim Harford tells the story of Christmas and consumerism.
2019-12-16
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Sewing machine

Women's lives were transformed by sewing machines, which made a "never-ending, ever-beginning task" far less arduous and time-consuming. But Isaac Singer, who made his fortune from these devices, was far from a champion of women's rights. Tim Harford tells a story of how self-interest can sometimes be a powerful driver for social change.
2019-12-09
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Hollerith punch card

Data is a hugely profitable commodity - if you know how to process it. Tim Harford tells the story of Herman Hollerith, and how his 19th-century machine for processing census data laid the foundations for some of the world's most valuable companies.
2019-12-02
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Stock option

In theory, stock options should motivate executives to perform better by tying their pay to their company's performance. So why do some argue the practice has just become a way for the highest earners to boost their salaries even further? Tim Harford turns to ancient Greek philosophy and Bill Clinton's presidency in search of the answer.
2019-11-25
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Fundraising appeal

Tim Harford goes back to the 1900s to tell the story of how charity fundraising became big business. But in the social media age, what's the most effective way to get people to give?
2019-11-18
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SWIFT

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication - SWIFT - solved some big problems with international financial transfers, making them more secure and reliable than ever before. However, as Tim Harford explains, the global political climate means it might now be facing its greatest challenge.
2019-11-11
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Wedgwood

Josiah Wedgwood is arguably the best-known name in the history of pottery - but it's not just his pots that made their mark on history. Tim Harford explains how a business model Wedgwood devised in the 18th Century still underpins the modern fashion industry.
2019-11-04
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Glasses

Spectacles have been around for centuries, and have a huge impact on many people's quality of life. So why is it estimated that more than two billion people aren't aware that they need them? Tim Harford considers the difference that seeing clearly makes to the world.
2019-10-28
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Vickrey turnstile

In 1952, economist William Vickrey devised an innovative system of turnstiles to help solve a major problem on New York?s subway network. It never became a reality, but, as Tim Harford explains, the idea behind it has had a major influence on how companies decide what to charge us for goods and services today.
2019-10-21
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GPS

How dependent is the world on GPS - and what would happen if it stopped working? Tim Harford explains why it's not just our ability to navigate that would be affected.
2019-10-14
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Bonsack machine

In 1881, James Bonsack developed a machine that made it far easier to mass-produce cigarettes. But at the time, other tobacco products were much more popular ? so manufacturers had to find new ways of getting people?s attention. Tim Harford explains why the methods they devised are still working on consumers today.
2019-10-07
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Prohibition

When the US outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, it inadvertently created one of the most successful black markets in the world. Tim Harford considers how much it costs to make something illegal, and what a failed law reveals about the way criminals make their money.
2019-09-30
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Interface Message Processor

Arpanet was a computer network developed in the 1960s that paved the way for today's internet. At its heart was the Interface Message Processor: a massive, heavily armoured box containing the technology that made it possible. Tim Harford takes a look inside.
2019-09-23
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Canned food

Developed for the military, dodging bureaucracy and fuelled by venture capital: canned food blazed a trail many of today's biggest tech innovations have followed. Tim Harford reveals the surprising lessons and cautionary tales lurking under the lid.
2019-09-16
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Interchangeable parts

Tim Harford tells the story of how Honoré Blanc, a gun-maker in 18th-century France, transformed the way the world manufactures things - but couldn't benefit from his own innovations.
2019-09-09
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Oil

The price of oil is arguably the most important in the world economy. How did we become so dependent - and are we ever likely to wean ourselves off it?
2019-09-02
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Chatbot

It's claimed that some computers can now pass the Turing test: convincing people that they are human. Tim Harford asks how important that distinction is, and what it means for the future of human interaction.
2019-08-26
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Solar PV

Solar power has been harnessed by civilisations since the days of the ancient Greeks, but it's now on the verge of being more important than ever. Tim Harford examines how much of a challenge it poses to the energy establishment, and what that could mean for the planet's future.
2019-08-19
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Cassava

Despite being highly toxic, the roots of the cassava plant are a vital source of nutrition in many countries. They also shed light on the hidden social forces that support a modern economy.
2019-08-12
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Fire

Humanity's taming of fire may be where the story of economics really begins, some argue. Tim Harford explores how fire has shaped our world and our minds, and why it's still got some important lessons to teach us.
2019-08-05
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RFID: The tech you?ve never heard of ? but use every day

Radio frequency identification - RFID - is the foundation on which many contactless technologies are built. But is it getting left behind amid the "internet of things"? Tim Harford argues its best days may still be to come.
2019-07-29
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Postage stamp

In the mid-19th Century, a man named Rowland Hill got fed up with how Britain's postal service worked, and decided to come up with a new system of his own. It would go on to change the world.
2019-07-22
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Rubber

Rubber is an everyday substance with a controversial past. Tim Harford tells the story of the innovations that made it a hot property, and the surge in demand that led to turmoil and bloodshed in an African colony.
2019-07-15
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CubeSat

CubeSat started life as a student engineering challenge: build a satellite that can fit in a little toy box. But now, as Tim Harford explains, these tiny satellites are changing the way we use space ? and economics.
2019-07-08
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Factory

Tim Harford charts the history of the factory, from "dark, Satanic mills" to the sprawling industrial parks where today's consumer goods are assembled. Have factories made workers' lives better - and what does their future look like?
2019-06-29
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Blockchain

Billions are being poured into startups working on blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin. Supporters say it could become as disruptive as the internet. But how can we tell if they're right?
2019-06-24
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Pencil

Is the pencil underrated? Tim Harford examines the role pencils have played in developing our world, and finds out why some writers have called them a "miracle of the free market". Do they have a point?
2019-06-17
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'Like' button

Facebook?s 'like' button is ubiquitous across the web. It?s how user data is collected, meaning adverts and newsfeeds can be targeted more effectively. Some say there?s nothing to worry about, but others point to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, suggesting how Facebook might shape our opinions. But is there something else we should be worried about? Approval from our friends and family can be addictive ? so is the pursuit of ?likes? on social media the reason we?re glued to our mobile phones? Tim Harford asks how should we manage our compulsions in this brave new online world.
2019-06-10
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Dwarf wheat

The Population Bomb, published by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968, predicted that populations would grow more quickly than food supplies, causing mass starvation. Ehrlich was wrong: food supplies kept pace. And that?s largely due to the years Norman Borlaug spent growing different strains of wheat in Mexico. The 'green revolution' vastly increased yields of wheat, corn and rice. Yet, as Tim Harford describes, worries about overpopulation continue. The world?s population is still growing, and food yields are now increasing more slowly ? partly due to environmental problems the green revolution itself made worse. Will new technologies come to the rescue?
2019-06-03
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Pornography

Did pornography help develop the internet? And has the internet made it more difficult for porn producers to make money? From photography, to cable television, to the video cassette recorder, there?s a theory that pornography users are some of the earliest adopters of new technology. Five in six images shared on the Usenet discussion group in the 1990s were pornographic, one study claimed. But, as Tim Hartford describes, the internet has made it easier for people to access pornography, but made it harder for anyone to make money from it.
2019-05-27
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Recycling

Could recycling to save money be the answer to saving the planet? For decades, wealthy countries have been shipping their waste to China for sorting and recycling. Now China is getting wealthier, it no longer wants to be a dumping ground. So could we take another look at the cold, hard cash that recycling generates? After all, the idea it?s a moral obligation is relatively new and, as Tim Harford says, for centuries people reused and recycled to save money, not the environment.
2019-05-20
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Spreadsheet

A grid on a computer screen took the world of accountancy by storm in the early 1980s, making many accounting tasks effortless. But should we consider this 'robot accountant' more carefully? As Tim Harford explains, the digital spreadsheet is a 40-year-old example of what automation could do to all of our jobs.
2019-05-13
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Brick

'I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,' Caesar Augustus apparently boasted. If so, he wasn?t the only person to dismiss the humble brick. They?ve housed us for tens of thousands of years. They are all rather similar ? small enough to fit into a human hand, and half as wide as they are long ? and they are absolutely everywhere. Why, asks Tim Harford, are bricks still such an important building technology, how has brickmaking changed over the years, and will we ever see a robot bricklayer?
2019-05-06
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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 in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Ward struggled to get people to understand mail order shopping. His prices were so low, people thought there was a catch. Soon, though, this type of retail would improve roads and the postal service. Tim Harford describes how similar dynamics are changing today?s middle-classes in China, with the internet replacing the postal service and e-commerce the new mail order.
2019-04-29
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Bicycle

The bicycle was to prove transformative. Cheaper than a horse, it freed women and young working class people to roam free. And the bike was the testing ground for countless improvements in manufacturing that would later lead to Henry Ford?s production lines. Tim Harford considers whether the bicycle has had its day, or whether it?s a technology whose best years lie ahead.
2019-04-22
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QWERTY

The QWERTY keyboard layout has stood the test of time, from the clattering of early typewriters to the virtual keyboard on the screen of any smart-phone. Myths abound as to why keys are laid out this way ? and whether there are much better alternatives languishing in obscurity. Tim Harford explains how this is a debate about far more than touch-typing: whether the QWERTY keyboard prospers because it works, or as an immovable relic of a commercial scramble in the late 19th century, is a question that affects how we should deal with the huge digital companies that now dominate our online experiences. Producer: Ben Crighton Editor: Richard Vadon (Image: qwerty keyboard, Credit: Getty Images)
2019-04-15
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Bonus 4: Woodpecker and black box

The last bonus episode of our new podcast. For more, search for 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter and subscribe. Or find it here: www.bbcworldservice.com/30animals This one is about a bird?s remarkable skull and the quest to protect aeroplane flight recorders. #30Animals
2019-04-15
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Gyroscope

When the HMS Victory sank in 1744, with it went an inventor named John Serson and a device he?d dreamed up. He called it the ?whirling speculum?, but we now know the basic idea as a gyroscope. Serson thought it could help sailors to navigate when they couldn?t see the horizon. Nowadays gyroscopes are tiny and, as Tim Harford describes, they are used to guide everything from submarines to satellites, from rovers on Mars to the phone in your pocket. They are also integral to drones ? a technology that some believe could transform how we do our shopping. But for that, they?ll need to work in all weathers. Image: A gyroscope (Credit: Getty Images)
2019-04-08
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En liten tjänst av I'm With Friends. Finns även på engelska.
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