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

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.


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