Tim Harford’s *Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy*

by on August 23, 2017 at 1:40 am in Books, Economics, History, Science, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tim reaffirms his status as one of the great (greatest?) contemporary popular writers on economics, this time turning his attention to technology.  From a Smithsonian interview:

So what made you decide to write a book looking at the modern economy through specific inventions? 

I think it was a slight sense of frustration. I’m an economist, and economics often feels abstract and very impersonal, even though I don’t think it’s abstract or impersonal. As an economics writer, I’m also looking for a way to tell a good story and get some ideas across. I realized if I produced a kind of technological history with lots of ideas and examples I could teach some economics lessons through these very specific stories.

What’s your favorite invention in the book?

It varies, but right now it’s paper. I just loved the realization that there was an alternative to talking about the Gutenberg press. Obviously I have nothing but admiration for the Gutenberg press – it’s a tremendously important innovation. But everybody told me, ‘oh, you’ve doing fifty inventions that shaped the world, you must do the Gutenberg press.’ And I thought, ‘yeah, but it’s so obvious.’ Then I was looking at the Gutenberg Bible in the New York Public Library, and thinking, ‘this bible is printed on something. It’s not printed on nothing. It’s printed on a surface.’ It turns out that the Gutenberg press works perfectly well with parchment, technologically speaking, but economically speaking it doesn’t make any sense without paper. Parchment is just too expensive to produce a long print run. So as long as all you’re doing is handwriting bibles and making them look beautiful, there’s no need to use paper at all. But with paper you’ve got a mass-produced writing surface. It’s often the very cheap inventions that get overlooked, but nevertheless change the world.

Here is an adaptation from the book on the history of barbed wire.  Here is another BBC adaptation on why electricity did not change manufacturing more quickly.  You can pre-order the book here.

1 Daniel August 23, 2017 at 2:41 am

There is a great series of BBC podcasts on this

2 jb August 23, 2017 at 6:22 am

I second this. I happen to have discovered them a few weeks ago and have really been enjoying them.

3 MOFO August 23, 2017 at 10:23 am

Link? I too am interested.

4 MOFO August 23, 2017 at 10:34 am

and i see it below. nevermind!

5 M August 23, 2017 at 3:00 am

What the hell kind of post is this? You appear first to be objecting to the idea that he does not credit the Chinese with the invention of paper, with no evidence, and then offer a bizarre riposte to his other quote (Sung was not using paper for “beautiful handwritten bibles”). Anger issues?

6 prior_test3 August 23, 2017 at 3:39 am


Paper was being used in Europe for woodblock prints decades before Gutenberg invented his press. Chinese officials and printers used paper for other things than bibles centuries before Gutenberg printed his.

And the mass manufacturing of paper predates Gutenberg’s press by something along the lines of 1250 years, at least.

And do note this in terms of ‘with no evidence’ – this is what was written regarding Harford’s treatment concerning the history of paper, without evidence of what he actually wrote – ‘Which one assumes he did, of course.’ – that is, one can only hope that he provided such an overview to his readers.

So, I actually credited him with knowing that mass production of paper is around 2000 years old, that it came from China and reached western Europe a couple centuries before Gutenberg was born via Islam, and that paper making was already a well established industry in Europe decades before Gutenberg created his printing press. Using easily found cites, based on my memories of both an art course and an East Asian history course at GMU in the early 1980s.

Of course, if he did not write at least a couple of lines concerning paper’s history that mention its invention and introduction and use in Europe before Gutenberg created a much larger market for paper, well, one could judge the quality of the work that Prof. Cowen is highlighting from Harford’s favorite example alone.

7 Ray Lopez August 23, 2017 at 3:53 am

People who have studied the issue says Gutenberg made improvements to the Chinese press to make it work in Europe, perhaps the key is paper as TC hints.

Very pleased to see this post; people get worked up over tax policy, monetary policy, fiscal policy, but in the long run the only thing that matters to an economy, says the Solow equation, is long-run technology growth rates.

8 M August 23, 2017 at 4:03 am

Chinese officials and printers used paper for other things than bibles centuries before Gutenberg printed his.

Of course they did.

that paper making was already a well established industry in Europe decades before Gutenberg created his printing press

This would have to be the case for it to be worthwhile inventing a printing press; paper is a prerequisite for volumes of material that make it worth while. This is the point of what Harford’s excerpt was about.

9 prior_test3 August 23, 2017 at 5:29 am

‘This would have to be the case for it to be worthwhile inventing a printing press’

Not all – a third of Gutenberg’s Bibles were printed on vellum, and Harford is fully aware that the printing press works fine with it, as noted in the excerpt above.

What is the case that Gutenberg was not successful at printing, whether on vellum or on paper. The woodcut industry, however, was doing just fine before Gutenberg created his movable press. In an alternative world where Gutenberg’s commercial failure made barely a ripple, who knows if this man would be most closely associated with paper in Europe – ‘Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations, especially in printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were predominantly in private collections located in only a few cities. His success in spreading his reputation across Europe through prints was undoubtedly an inspiration for major artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, all of whom collaborated with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer

An entire industry existed before and after Gutenberg’s invention of using movable type to print books. And to be honest, considering the fairly low literacy rate of the period, it is not unlikely that printmakers consumed considerably more paper for decades after Gutenberg’s invention, at least until Luther became a best selling author. As the two industries clearly share much in common, one would not want to go too far in creating just so stories of economic history based exclusively on just one or the other. Yet if this area is not discussed when talking about paper in Harford’s book, it would be a glaring omission to anyone familiar with European art history.

10 prior_test3 August 23, 2017 at 5:31 am

Gutenberg was successful at printing, just not commercially successful – a glaring textual omission of my own.

11 tjamesjones August 23, 2017 at 5:47 am

a marginal revolution would be if prior_test was banned from this website.

12 Anonymous August 23, 2017 at 6:43 am

If this was another story of Western innovation (omitting China) it is a fair cop. But the point probably could have been made more briefly.

13 Thor August 23, 2017 at 11:25 am

Ok, point made briefly: ban Prior.

On the other hand, first they came for the earlier Priors, then later they came for later Priors…

14 Careless August 23, 2017 at 5:44 pm

Isn’t the reason that he’s prior_test3 now that he’s been name-banned a few times already?

15 CJ August 23, 2017 at 5:57 am

Here are the associated podcasts. Not sure if they can be listened to outside Perfidious Albion http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04b1g3c/episodes/downloads

16 prior_test3 August 23, 2017 at 6:07 am

They seem quite downloadable in the land of the Huns. Should work for perfidious colonials too.

17 prior_test3 August 23, 2017 at 5:58 am

It also occurs to me that in a book that mentions the ‘welfare state’ as one of the inventions that shaped the modern economy, paper’s role in the creation of an educated, merit based civil service centuries before Gutenberg’s invention is worth at least passing mention.

18 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 6:07 am

“this bible is printed on something. It’s not printed on nothing. It’s printed on a surface.’”
Good catch. I myself had never noticed it. As Pasteur pointed out, chance “favors the prepared mind”.

19 dux.ie August 23, 2017 at 6:10 am

Papers and books only affect a small segment of the population. It is impossible to talk about the importance of papers without mentioning this. http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/22921 Think of the alternative.

20 rayward August 23, 2017 at 6:18 am

I’d pick the codex over paper, and the printing press over both. [Codex is a fancy word for what we refer to as a book (i.e., with the pages bound on one side)]. The scroll was highly inefficient: it was difficult to store and difficult to find a particular place on it. As for the printing press, one has to remember that until the printing press, every copy of a manuscript had to be printed by hand, each word, each letter, which meant that no two would be the same since even the best scriveners made mistakes. Of course, we owe these two advancements in large part because of religion (Christianity), the demand for accurate copies of religious manuscripts providing the motivation.
Today, every copy of an Ayn Rand book of fiction is exactly the same, something we take for granted. Just think how confusing life would be if no two copies were the same. WWRD (What Would Randians Do).

21 rayward August 23, 2017 at 6:46 am

Consider the chaos if Randians didn’t agree on the accuracy of different copies of her books of fiction, or if free marketers didn’t agree on the accuracy of different copies of Wealth of Nations, or if Christians didn’t agree on the accuracy of different copies of the Christian Bible. “Fake copy” would replace “fake news”. Before the codex and the printing press charges of heresy depended on which copy one read of a particular religious text. Only the Word Brings Order Out of Chaos.

22 rayward August 23, 2017 at 12:54 pm

The New Testament was first translated into English by William Tyndale. Fluent in eight languages, his was a herculean task given that there were so many versions of the text, each with discrepancies large and small. Tyndale relied primarily on Greek text from several manuscripts. In keeping with his scholarly approach to his task, Tyndale’s translation included notes which identified the discrepancies in the different manuscripts. The full version of Tyndale’s translation was published in 1526. For his efforts, Tyndale was burned at the stake for the crime of heresy, his notes pointing out the discrepancies in the manuscripts the evidence of his crime, the notes having created doubt as to the original text. All the man did was point out the discrepancies. By the way, about 90% of the King James Version of the Bible is based on Tyndale’s work (as to the parts translated by Tyndale). Fake news, fake copies, alternative facts, who will be burned at the stake for the crime of heresy in the Trump era?

23 Thiago Ribeiro August 23, 2017 at 7:07 am

“if Christians didn’t agree on the accuracy of different copies of the Christian Bible.”

24 JonFraz August 25, 2017 at 12:47 pm

That involves the accuracy of translation, something we will argue about until Kingdom Come, since a 100% accurate translation is an impossibility.

25 Mark Thorson August 23, 2017 at 9:13 am

Electricity took so long to change manufacturing because although the electromagnetic effect was discovered in the 1820’s, we didn’t have good electric motors until the 1870’s. Sometime around 1980 I happened to turn on the TV in the middle of the night, and I caught a speech by the President of the IEEE. He blamed the lack of progress on the design of motors being in the hands of tinkerers during that period. What changed was the rise of the research universities and the formation of organizations like the predecessors of the IEEE to disseminate knowledge. That put the design of electric motors on a firm scientific basis.

26 Ray Lopez August 23, 2017 at 10:34 am

Sounds plausible. That and Nicolas Tesla.

27 Mark Thorson August 23, 2017 at 11:14 am

Tesla invented the AC polyphase generator, which was a big advance over Edison’s DC generators. Another important advance was Stanley’s invention of the laminated core transformer. The combination of AC generators and good transformers made the electrical grid possible.

28 Ray Lopez August 23, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Thanks for that mini-history lesson about Stanley, who I never heard of, and I would bet the invention of Power MOSFETs back in the 70s and 80s did the same thing for digital electronics (enabled higher voltages and current flows in digital electronics).

29 STL August 23, 2017 at 9:29 am

The BBC article on electricity and productivity mentions that the benefits of electricity did not show up in productivity results until immigration was restricted in USA. Necessity is the mother of invention. Labor shortages drive innovation and productivity.

Paging Mr. Sailer….

30 Jacob Cherian August 23, 2017 at 11:19 am

Tim Harford wrote one good book (The Undercover Economist) and it has been a spectacular downhill from there. His most recent Messy was the worst of the lot.

31 ram August 23, 2017 at 12:06 pm

The book is well-written and Harford introduces the economic way of thinking in a very lucid manner. After the horrendous book Messy, Hartord redeems his reputation as an excellent pop-economics author.
A minor point: pre-order implies the book is not yet out. How come I got my copy here in India through Amazon India last week?

32 ALW August 23, 2017 at 10:06 pm

My favorite remains paper as well. Toilet paper. An unalloyed breakthrough in public health and hygiene.

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