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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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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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?
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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?
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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'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?
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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.
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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.
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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)
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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: This one is about a bird?s remarkable skull and the quest to protect aeroplane flight recorders. #30Animals
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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)
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Bonus 3: Mosquito and surgical needle

Episode 3 of our new podcast: the story of the blood-sucking pest and a pain-free surgical needle. Scientists have been studying the mosquito?s mouthparts. Could the dreaded ?prick? of a needle soon be a thing of the past? With Patrick Aryee. Find it here: #30Animals
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Plastic food packaging often seems obviously wasteful. But when Jacques Brandenberger invented cellophane, consumers loved it. It helped supermarkets go self-service, and it was so popular Cole Porter put it in a song lyric. Nowadays, people worry that plastic doesn?t get recycled enough but there are two sides to this story. Plastic packaging can protect food from being damaged in transit, and help it stay fresh for longer. Should we care more about plastic waste or food waste? As Tim Harford explains, it isn?t obvious and the issue is complicated enough that our choices at the checkout may accidentally do more harm than good. Producer: Ben Crighton Editor: Richard Vadon (Image: Noodles and cellophane, Credit: Getty Images)
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Bonus 2: Octopus and camouflage

Episode 2 of our new podcast, 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter. This one is about the eight-limbed master of disguise and surveillance technology. The colour and texture-changing abilities of the octopus are helping researchers with developments in camouflage. Can we make robots do the same thing? With Patrick Aryee. #30Animals
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Langstroth Hive

Humans have valued bees for their honey for thousands of years ? and economists have long admired bees for their cooperative work ethic, too. But few of us, whether economists, honey-lovers, or both, have quite appreciated just how much the honey bee has been industrialised ? and the simple yet radical invention that made that industrialisation possible. As Tim Harford explains, it is a sign of just how far the modern market economy has penetrated that it now reaches deep into the heart of the beehive. Producer: Ben Crighton Editor: Richard Vadon (Image: Bee keeper lifting shelf out of hive, Credit: MIlan Jovic/Getty Images)
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Bonus: 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter

Introducing our new podcast about innovation, technology and the animal kingdom. This is the whole of the first episode about how the kingfisher inspired the design of a train. The 500 series Shinkansen, also known as bullet train, is one of the fastest in the world. It is also quiet, but that was not always the case. This is the tale of Japanese engineer Eiji Nakatsu, the kingfisher, an owl, a penguin and biomimicry.
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Coming soon: Season two

Fifty more things are on their way! Including the pencil, blockchain, bicycle, credit ratings and gambling. Tim Harford will return with season two on 25 March 2019. #50Things
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Index Fund

Warren Buffett is the world?s most successful investor. In a letter he wrote to his wife, advising her how to invest after he dies, he offers some clear advice: put almost everything into ?a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund?. Index funds passively track the market as a whole by buying a little of everything, rather than trying to beat the market with clever stock picks ? the kind of clever stock picks that Warren Buffett himself has been making for more than half a century. Index funds now seem completely natural. But as recently as 1976 they didn?t exist. And, as Tim Harford explains, they have become very important indeed ? and not only to Mrs Buffett. Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon Producer: Ben Crighton (Image: Market graphs, Credit: Shutterstock)
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Special Bonus: Santa Claus

Why does Father Christmas wear red and white? It is not for the reason you may think. The story of Christmas and consumerism, with Tim Harford. And we?ll be back with season two of 50 Things in March 2019. Producer: Ben Crighton
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Number 51

Revealed ? the winning 51st Thing! What won the vote to be added to our list of 50? We asked for ideas for an extra ?thing? that made the modern economy. We received hundreds of suggestions. Thousands of votes were cast on our shortlist of six. Now we have a winner. Discover what it is and why it is worthy of being Number 51. Presenter: Tim Harford Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon
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The Plough

The plough was a simple yet transformative technology. It was the plough that kick-started civilisation in the first place ? that, ultimately, made our modern economy possible. But the plough did more than create the underpinning of civilisation ? with all its benefits and inequities. Different types of plough led to different types of civilisation. Presenter: Tim Harford Producer: Ben Crighton (Photo: Farmer ploughing field, Credit: Shutterstock)
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Cold Chain

The global supply chain that keeps perishable goods at controlled temperatures has revolutionised the food industry. It widened our choice of food and improved our nutrition. It enabled the rise of the supermarket. And that, in turn, transformed the labour market: less need for frequent shopping frees up women to work. As low-income countries get wealthier, fridges are among the first things people buy: in China, it took just a decade to get from a quarter of households having fridges to nearly nine in ten. Presenter: Tim Harford Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Fully loaded shelves, Credit: Shutterstock)
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Welfare State

The same basic idea links every welfare state: that the ultimate responsibility for ensuring people don?t starve on the street should lie not with family, or charity, or private insurers, but with government. This idea is not without its enemies. It is possible, after all, to mother too much. Every parent instinctively knows that there?s a balance: protect, but don?t mollycoddle; nurture resilience, not dependence. And if overprotective parenting stunts personal growth, might too-generous welfare states stunt economic growth? Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Frances Perkins, Credit: Getty Images)
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Property Register

Ensuring property rights for the world's poor could unlock trillions in ?dead capital?. According to Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, the value of extralegal property globally exceeds 10 trillion dollars. Nobody has ever disputed that property rights matter for investment: experts point to a direct correlation between a nation?s wealth and having an adequate property rights system. This is because real estate is a form of capital and capital raises economic productivity and thus creates wealth. Mr de Soto's understanding ? that title frees up credit, turning ?dead capital? into ?live capital? ? has prompted governments in other countries to undertake large-scale property-titling campaigns. Voting for the 51st Thing has now closed. The winning ?thing? will be revealed on Saturday 28 October 2017. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Hernando de Soto, Credit: Getty Images)
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Searching for 51

The extra ?thing? ? what should it be? Shortlist: the credit card, glass, GPS, irrigation, the pencil and the spreadsheet. Voting for the 51st Thing has now closed. The winning ?thing? will be revealed on Saturday 28 October 2017. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Montage of pencil, credit card, glass, spreadsheet, GPS, irrigation, Credit: Getty Images/Shutterstock)
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Management Consulting

Managers often have a bad reputation. What should we make of the people who tell managers how to manage? That question has often been raised over the years, with a sceptical tone. The management consultancy industry battles a stereotype of charging exhorbitant fees for advice that, on close inspection, turns out to be either meaningless or common sense. Managers who bring in consultants are often accused of being blinded by jargon, implicitly admitting their own incompetence, or seeking someone else to blame for unpopular decisions. Still, it?s lucrative. Globally, consulting firms charge their clients a total of about $125bn. Voting for the 51st Thing has now closed. The winning ?thing? will be revealed on Saturday 28 October 2017. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Business team present, Credit: Shutterstock)
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Double-entry Bookkeeping

Luca Pacioli was a renaissance man ? he was a conjuror, a master of chess, a lover of puzzles, a Franciscan Friar, and a professor of mathematics. But today he?s celebrated as the most famous accountant who ever lived, the father of double-entry bookkeeping. Before the Venetian style of bookkeeping caught on, accounts were rather basic. An early medieval merchant was little more than a travelling salesman. He had no need to keep accounts ? he could simply check whether his purse was full or empty. But as the commercial enterprises of the Italian city states grew larger, more complex and more dependent on financial instruments such as loans and currency trades, the need for a more careful reckoning became painfully clear. In 1494 Pacioli wrote the definitive book on double-entry bookkeeping. It?s regarded by many as the most influential work in the history of capitalism. And as the industrial revolution unfolded, the ideas that Pacioli had set out came to be viewed as an essential part of business life; the system used across the world today is essentially the one that Pacioli described. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Handwritten accounting ledger, Credit: Suntezza/Shutterstock)
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If you live in a city with modern sanitation, it?s hard to imagine daily life being permeated with the suffocating stench of human excrement. For that, we have a number of people to thank ? not least a London watchmaker called Alexander Cumming. Cumming?s world-changing invention owed nothing to precision engineering. In 1775, he patented the S-bend. It was a bit of pipe with a curve in it and it became the missing ingredient to create the flushing toilet ? and, with it, public sanitation as we know it. Roll-out was slow, but it was a vision of how public sanitation could be ? clean, and smell-free ? if only government would fund it. More than two centuries later, two and a half billion people still remain without improved sanitation, and improved sanitation itself is a low bar. We still haven?t reliably managed to solve the problem of collective action ? of getting those who exercise power or have responsibility to organise themselves. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Vadon and Richard Knight (Image: S-bend, Credit: ericlefrancais/Shutterstock)
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How the high-tech ?death ray? led to the invention of radar. The story begins in the 1930s, when British Air Ministry officials were worried about falling behind Nazi Germany in the technological arms race. They correctly predicted that the next war would be dominated by air power. To address the problem, Britain launched a number of projects in hopes of mitigating the threat ? including a prize for developing a high-tech ?death ray? that could zap a sheep at a hundred paces. But even though the project failed to develop such a weapon, it did result in something potentially far more useful that was able to detect planes and submarines ? radar. And it was an invention that was crucial in the development of the commercial aviation industry. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Abstract radar with targets, Credit: Andrey VP/Shutterstock)
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Market Research

US car makers had it good. As quickly as they could manufacture cars, people bought them. By 1914, that was changing. In higher price brackets, especially, purchasers and dealerships were becoming choosier. One commentator warned that the retailers could no longer sell what their own judgement dictated ? they must sell what the consumer wanted. That commentator was Charles Coolidge Parlin, widely recognised as the man who invented the very idea of market research. The invention of market research marks an early step in a broader shift from a ?producer-led? to ?consumer-led? approach to business ? from making something then trying to persuade people to buy it, to trying to find out what people might buy and then making it. One century later, the market research profession is huge: in the United States alone, it employs around half a million people. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Market research, Credit: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock)
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A couple of decades after Leo Baekeland invented the first fully synthetic plastic ? Bakelite ? plastics were pouring out of labs around the world. There was polystyrene, often used for packaging; nylon, popularised by stockings; polyethylene, the stuff of plastic bags. As the Second World War stretched natural resources, production of plastics ramped up to fill the gap. And when the war ended, exciting new products like Tupperware hit the consumer market. These days, plastics are everywhere. We make so much plastic, it takes about eight percent of oil production ? half for raw material, half for energy. And despite its image problem, and growing evidence of environmental problems, plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Plastic bottle tops, Credit: Taweesak Thiprod/Shutterstock)
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Seller Feedback

Why should we get into a stranger?s car ? or buy a stranger?s laser pointer? In 1997, eBay introduced a feature that helped solve the problem: Seller Feedback. Jim Griffith was eBay?s first customer service representative; at the time, he says ?no-one had ever seen anything like [it]?. The idea of both parties rating each other after a transaction has now become ubiquitous. You buy something online ? you rate the seller, the seller rates you. Or you use a ride-sharing service, like Uber ? you rate the driver, the driver rates you. And a few positive reviews set our mind at ease about a stranger. Jim Griffith is not sure eBay would have grown without it. Online matching platforms would still exist, of course ? but perhaps they?d be more like hitch-hiking today: a niche pursuit for the unusually adventurous, not a mainstream activity that?s transforming whole sectors of the economy. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Hand touching stars, Credit: Cherezoff/Shutterstock)
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Paper Money

A young Venetian merchant named Marco Polo wrote a remarkable book chronicling his travels in China around 750 years ago. The Book of the Marvels of the World was full of strange foreign customs Marco claimed to have seen. One, in particular, was so extraordinary, Mr Polo could barely contain himself: ?tell it how I might,? he wrote, ?you never would be satisfied that I was keeping within truth and reason?. Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to witness an invention that remains at the very foundation of the modern economy: paper money. Tim Harford tells the gripping story of one of the most successful, and important, innovations of all human history: currency which derives value not from the preciousness of the substance of which it is made, but trust in the government which issues it. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Ancient Russian money, Credit: RomanR/Shutterstock)
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Limited Liability Company

Nicholas Murray Butler was one of the great thinkers of his age: philosopher; Nobel Peace Prize-winner; president of Columbia University. When in 1911 Butler was asked to name the most important innovation of the industrial era, his answer was somewhat surprising. ?The greatest single discovery of modern times,? he said, ?is the limited liability corporation?. Tim Harford explains why Nicholas Murray Butler might well have been right. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: LLC. Credit: Getty Images)
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You might think electricity had an immediate and transformative impact on economic productivity. But you would be wrong. Thirty years after the invention of the useable light bulb, almost all American factories still relied on steam. Factory owners simply couldn?t see the advantage of electric power when their steam systems ? in which they had invested a great deal of capital ? worked just fine. Simply replacing a steam engine with an electric dynamo did little to improve efficiency. But the thing about a revolutionary technology is that it changes everything. And changing everything takes imagination. Instead of replacing their steam engines with electric dynamos, company bosses needed to re-design the whole factory. Only then would electric power leave steam behind. As Tim Harford explains, the same lag has applied to subsequent technological leaps ? including computers. That revolution might be just beginning. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Dynamo AC exciter Siemens, Credit: Igor Golovniov/Shutterstock)
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Leaded Petrol

In the 1920s lead was added to petrol. It made cars more powerful and was, according to its advocates, a ?gift?. But lead is a gift which poisons people; something figured out as long ago as Roman times. There?s some evidence that as countries get richer, they tend initially to get dirtier and later clean up. Economists call this the ?environmental Kuznets curve?. It took the United States until the 1970s to tax lead in petrol, then finally ban it, as the country moved down the far side of the environmental Kuznets curve. But as Tim Harford explains in this astonishing story, the consequences of the Kuznets curve aren?t always only economic. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Petrol Nozzle, Credit: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
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Department Store

Flamboyant American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge introduced Londoners to a whole new shopping experience, one honed in the department stores of late-19th century America. He swept away previous shopkeepers? customs of keeping shopper and merchandise apart to one where ?just looking? was positively encouraged. In the full-page newspaper adverts Selfridge took out when his eponymous department store opened in London in the early 1900s, he compared the ?pleasures of shopping? to those of ?sight-seeing?. He installed the largest plate glass windows in the world ? and created, behind them, the most sumptuous shop window displays. His adverts pointedly made clear that the ?whole British public? would be welcome ? ?no cards of admission are required?. Recognising that his female customers offered profitable opportunities that competitors were neglecting, one of his quietly revolutionary moves was the introduction of a ladies? lavatory. Selfridge saw that women might want to stay in town all day, without having to use an insalubrious public convenience or retreat to a respectable hotel for tea whenever they wanted to relieve themselves. As Tim Harford explains, one of Selfridge?s biographers even thinks he ?could justifiably claim to have helped emancipate women.? Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Images: Selfridges Christmas shop window, Credit: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
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Barbed Wire

In 1876 John Warne Gates described the new product he hoped to sell as ?lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust?. We simply call it barbed wire. The advertisements of the time touted it this fence as ?The Greatest Discovery Of The Age?. That might seem hyperbolic, even making allowances for the fact that the advertisers didn?t know that Alexander Graham Bell was just about to be awarded a patent for the telephone. But ? as Tim Harford explains ? while modern minds naturally think of the telephone as transformative, barbed wire wreaked huge changes in America, and much more quickly. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Barbed wire and sun, Credit: Getty Images)
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Tax Havens

The economist Gabriel Zucman is the inventor of an ingenious way to estimate the amount of wealth hidden in the offshore banking system. In theory, if you add up the assets and liabilities reported by every global financial centre, the books should balance. But they don?t. Each individual centre tends to report more liabilities than assets. Zucman crunched the numbers and found that, globally, total liabilities were eight percent higher than total assets. That suggests at least eight percent of the world?s wealth is illegally unreported. Other methods have come up with even higher estimates. As Tim Harford explains, that makes the tax haven a very significant feature of the modern economy. Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon Producer: Ben Crighton (Image: Huts along tropical beach, Credit: DonLand/Shutterstock)
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Infant Formula

Not every baby has a mother who can breastfeed. Indeed, not every baby has a mother. In the early 1800s, only two in three babies who weren?t breastfed lived to see their first birthday. Many were given ?pap?, a bread-and-water mush, from hard-to-clean receptacles that teemed with bacteria. But in 1865 Justus von Liebig invented Soluble Food for Babies ? a powder comprising cow?s milk, wheat flour, malt flour and potassium bicarbonate. It was the first commercial substitute for breastmilk and, as Tim Harford explains, it has helped shape the modern workplace. Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon Producer: Ben Crighton (Image: Baby lying down drinking from bottle, Credit: Lopolo/Shutterstock)
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