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50 Things That Made the Modern Economy-logo

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy


Inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world we live in.

Inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world we live in.
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Inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world we live in.




How Louis Bachelier Scooped Economists by Half a Century

A forgotten French mathematician is the focus of our programme. He anticipated both Einstein's theories and the application of maths to the stock market. Born in the 1870s, his work was unusual at the time. With the help of Alison Etheridge, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, we explain how his ideas were rediscovered decades after his death. (Photo: Pocket watch. Credit: Kanyapak Lim/Shutterstock)

Duration: 00:09:23

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

Duration: 00:09:39


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 Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Farmer ploughing field, Credit: Shutterstock)

Duration: 00:09:59

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...

Duration: 00:09:23

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...

Duration: 00:09:47

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...

Duration: 00:10:01

Searching for 51

Vote for the 51st Thing! What should be the “thing” that we explore in a special final episode? Hear all about our shortlist: the credit card, glass, the global positioning system, irrigation, the pencil and the spreadsheet. To vote, go to The deadline is 1200 GMT, Friday 6 October 2017. You can find full terms and conditions on the website. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Montage of pencil, credit card, glass,...

Duration: 00:09:09

Management Consulting

Vote for the 51st Thing! Exclusive podcast content – find out our shortlist after hearing the story of how management consulting became big business. If 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...

Duration: 00:10:33


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...

Duration: 00:10:15


Join our search for the 51st Thing! Exclusive podcast content – find out all about it after hearing how 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...

Duration: 00:10:33

Market Research

Join our search for the 51st Thing! Exclusive podcast content – find out all about it after hearing the story of market research. In the early years of the 20th century, 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...

Duration: 00:10:38


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...

Duration: 00:09:14

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 –...

Duration: 00:09:08

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...

Duration: 00:09:13

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...

Duration: 00:09:08


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...

Duration: 00:09:08

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...

Duration: 00:09:12

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...

Duration: 00:09:08

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...

Duration: 00:09:13

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...

Duration: 00:09:13

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