Things That Made The Modern Economy

Episodes

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02Bicycle2019090920200710 (R4)Has the bicycle had its day? Or is it a technology whose best years lie ahead?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

On an early cycle ride, the bicycle engineer Pierre Lallement was mistaken for the devil: he did appear to be a strange centaur-like creature, and he was flying downhill at speed while screaming. Bicycle brakes had, after all, not yet been invented. 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 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.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

02Bonsack Machine2019112820201009 (R4)One historian of the cigarette industry reckons it invented much of modern marketing. Why did such huge sums go into advertising early brands such as Camels and Lucky Strikes? Before an inventor called James Bonsack came along, cigarettes were far less popular than cigars, pipes or chewing tobacco. Bonsack’s machine made it possible to make huge amounts of cigarettes more cheaply – creating the need to persuade people to buy them. But, as Tim Harford explains, many modern regulators think we should be worried about the power of cigarette branding.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Bricks2019052820200612 (R4)Bricks: used for tens of thousands of years and still such a vital building technology.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

“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 under-rate the humble brick. Bricks have been used 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?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Bricks: used for tens of thousands of years and still such a vital building technology.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Canned Food2019112520200918 (R4)What does canned food have in common with Silicon Valley? More than you might think. Its story reveals how little some dilemmas around innovation have changed in two hundred years. Initially developed for military purposes, then commercialized in a place with plenty of venture capital and no stifling bureaucracy, the path of canned food is shared by many recent technological innovations. But, as Tim Harford explains, canned food may also hold lessons about the dangers of under-regulation.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Cassava20191118
02Cassava2019111820200727 (R4)

Cassava roots are a vital source of calories in tropical countries. They are also a puzzle: cassava is highly toxic, and to be made safe it requires a tedious and complex preparation ritual. Plants such as cassava have routinely poisoned the unwary, and yet societies who are accustomed to it manage to make it safe despite all the hurdles. Tim Harford asks how humans have learned to do this without dropping dead. And what does cassava teach us about the hidden social forces that support a modern economy?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

What does cassava teach us about the hidden social forces that support a modern economy?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Cassava2019111820200727 (R4)Cassava roots are a vital source of calories in tropical countries. They are also a puzzle: cassava is highly toxic, and to be made safe it requires a tedious and complex preparation ritual. Plants such as cassava have routinely poisoned the unwary, and yet societies who are accustomed to it manage to make it safe despite all the hurdles. Tim Harford asks how humans have learned to do this without dropping dead. And what does cassava teach us about the hidden social forces that support a modern economy?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

What does cassava teach us about the hidden social forces that support a modern economy?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Chatbot20191120
02Chatbot2019112020200729 (R4)

Have computers finally passed the Turing test? Some computers claim to have passed the Turing test – convincing humans that they themselves are human. Tim Harford asks what the Turing test really signifies. How do computers try to pass it, and what does this have to teach us about business, politics – and the art of conversation itself?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Have computers finally passed the Turing test, convincing us they themselves are human?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Chatbot2019112020200729 (R4)Have computers finally passed the Turing test? Some computers claim to have passed the Turing test – convincing humans that they themselves are human. Tim Harford asks what the Turing test really signifies. How do computers try to pass it, and what does this have to teach us about business, politics – and the art of conversation itself?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Have computers finally passed the Turing test, convincing us they themselves are human?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Dwarf Wheat2019091020200717 (R4)Norman Borlaug averted famine predictions by tinkering with the genetic design of wheat.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published an explosive book, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich 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?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

02GPS2019112920201016 (R4)

What would happen if GPS (the Global Positioning System) stopped working? From emergency services to ride-sharing apps to just-in-time supermarket logistics networks, the ability to navigate using GPS is baked into the economy. And that’s just the start. GPS is not so much a location service as a time service. Power grids, stock markets and cloud computing all depend on the ability to agree on the exact time. No wonder GPS is sometimes called the “invisible utility”. But Tim Harford thinks that perhaps what we should really fear is not so much GPS signals going down, as being spoofed in ways we fail to notice.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

GPS is sometimes called the \u201cinvisible utility\u201d. What would happen if it stopped working?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Interchangeable Parts2019112220200911 (R4)A sweltering afternoon in July 1785, in the cool of a dungeon east of Paris, was the site of a remarkable demonstration of French engineering – and French insouciance. Honoré Blanc, a gunsmith, showed how he could take apart flintlock rifles, jumble up the parts, and reassemble the rifles. The parts were interchangeable, promising a revolution in maintenance and production. Thomas Jefferson, future President of the US, was in the audience. As Tim Harford explains, the world of engineering was about to change – but could either Blanc or Jefferson take advantage of what was coming?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Interchangeable parts revolutionised the world of engineering.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Interface Message Processor2019112620200925 (R4)In 1958, ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, was dubbed “a dead cat hanging in the fruit closet”. All the interesting projects had been transferred to its newer, more fashionable rival, NASA. And yet the dead cat turned out to have an extra life: ARPA commissioned and created a way for any computer in the world to contact any other computer in the world. As Tim Harford explains, the ARPAnet was the forerunner of today’s Internet – and the heart of the ARPAnet was a massive, heavily armoured piece of kit that set the stage for how the internet works: The Interface Message Processor, the most important hunk of silicon you’ve never heard of.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

The Interface Message Processor: the most important hunk of silicon you've never heard of.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Oil2019112120200904 (R4)The price of oil is arguably the most important price in the world economy. So when did the oil boom begin, and how did we become so excruciatingly dependent? Tim Harford wonders if there is any prospect of us weaning ourselves off what one oil minister called “the devil’s excrement”.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Pencil2019053120200703 (R4)“I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove.”
So declares the slim, graphite-spined narrator of one of the most famous essays in economic history, “I, Pencil”. The pencil claims to be a miracle product of the free market – but is that true? Why, asks Tim Harford, do engineers, as well as economists like himself, think the pencil is so underrated? And how on earth do pencil-makers get the lead inside the wood?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

The pencil claims to be a miracle product of the free market, but is that true?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Postage Stamp2019091820200723 (R4)Rowland Hill was annoyed with Great Britain’s expensive and inefficient postal service, so he decided to invent a better system. His ideas proved so popular, the government agreed to put him in charge. Hill made senders, not recipients, pay for postage. And he sold stamps for an affordable sum, convinced that more people would use the postal service if it were cheaper. He was right: in 1840, as Tim Harford explains, the first year of “penny post”, the number of letters sent more than doubled – with consequences that still hold lessons for today.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Rowland Hill went from disgruntled user to radical reformer of Britain's postal system.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Prohibition2019112720201002 (R4)Economists in the 1920s argued in favour of Prohibition, the short-lived attempt to ban sales of alcohol in the United States. They were worried about drunkenness affecting productivity. But economics didn’t yet have the idea of the “rational criminal”, which helps to explain why Prohibition was so widely flouted. Now debates are raging about whether cannabis should continue to be prohibited. Tim Harford reveals how a branch of economics called public choice theory has a surprising explanation for why alliances in favour of banning things can command such wide support.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

The idea of the \u201crational criminal\u201d helps explain why Prohibition was so widely flouted.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Recycling2019053020200626 (R4)The idea recycling is a moral obligation, as well as an economic one, is relatively new.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

Globalisation hasn’t just meant moving goods around – it’s meant moving rubbish around, too. For decades wealthy countries shipped huge volumes of waste to China for sorting and recycling. But now China is getting richer, it no longer wants to be a dumping ground – and the recycling industry is struggling to respond. For centuries people have reused and recycled to save money. The idea that it’s also a moral obligation is relatively new. Tim Harford asks if we should we take a more hard-headed view of the economic costs and benefits.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

The idea recycling is a moral obligation, as well as an economic one, is relatively new.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Rfid2019091920200724 (R4)At the beginning of the Cold War, musical inventor Leon Theremin managed to bug the US embassy in Moscow. The ingenious device he used is a predecessor of a humble technology that surrounds us every day: the Radio-Frequency Identification tag. Tim Harford asks if RFID is introducing an 'internet of things'. Or are its glory days behind it?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Is RFID introducing an 'internet of things'? Or are its glory days behind it?

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Solar Photovoltaics20191119
02Solar Photovoltaics2019111920200728 (R4)

Solar power is a very old technology: Socrates explained how to use it to heat a house, while the Romans, the Chinese, the Puebloans all used houses to be shady in summer while trapping sunlight in the winter. All very elegant: but in recent years, solar power has come to mean something altogether more technologically advanced and disruptive to the oil energy order. So just how quickly is solar photovoltaic energy becoming affordable? And how will the world change, asks Tim Harford, if, or when, the cheapest source of power is solar power?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Solar power: an old technology now more advanced and disruptive to the oil energy order.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Solar Photovoltaics2019111920200728 (R4)Solar power is a very old technology: Socrates explained how to use it to heat a house, while the Romans, the Chinese, the Puebloans all used houses to be shady in summer while trapping sunlight in the winter. All very elegant: but in recent years, solar power has come to mean something altogether more technologically advanced and disruptive to the oil energy order. So just how quickly is solar photovoltaic energy becoming affordable? And how will the world change, asks Tim Harford, if, or when, the cheapest source of power is solar power?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

Solar power: an old technology now more advanced and disruptive to the oil energy order.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Spreadsheet2019052920200619 (R4)The digital spreadsheet: a technology which took the world of accountancy by storm.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

What does a robot accountant look like? Not C-3PO, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, I’d suggest. It looks more like a grid on a computer screen: the digital spreadsheet, a technology which took the world of accountancy by storm in the early 1980s and made countless accounting tasks effortless. We should all spend more time pondering the spreadsheet because, as Tim Harford explains, in that four-decade-old technology lies a glimpse of what automation is really likely to do to all of our jobs.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

The digital spreadsheet: a technology which took the world of accountancy by storm.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world

02Vickrey Turnstile2020033020201023 (R4)

Subways get crowded, aeroplanes over-booked and roads congested. Back in the 1950s, a future Nobel laureate suggested a solution to these problems that worked well in theory but was unpalatable to the decision-makers of the day. Was he impractical, asks Tim Harford, or was he ahead of his time?

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editor: Richard Vadon

The electromechanical Vickrey Turnstile worked well in theory, but was never built.

Inventions, ideas and innovations that have helped to create the modern economic world