Book Review — Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

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Yesterday evening, I finished Tim Harford’s “Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy”. Tim Harford is a journalist, economist, and broadcaster who currently is a senior columnist at the Financial Times and is the host of a BBC World Service program. The book was published in 2017.

The book is Tim’s attempt at identifying fifty illuminating stories about inventions that have shaped the modern economy. He was explicit in saying that it is not an attempt to define the fifty most significant inventions in economic history.

I write this review at the immediate aftermath of the #LekkiShooting that trail the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria and while I had read this part before the protests started, writing this review now makes me wonder how I will answer the question the author posed at the beginning of the book:

“Surrounded by the wreckage of modernity, without access to the lifeblood of modern technology, where do you start again? What do you need to keep yourself — and the embers of civilization — alive?”

With what you know right now, which piece of technology would you choose?

Some of the inventions Tim wrote about are ridiculously simple, like the plow, the barbed wire, and even writing (any kind of writing), while some are complex, like Google Search and Chemical fertilizer. However, regardless of their simplicity or complexity, there is no denying the fact that they have shaped where and how you are right now.

For example, when farming was well established — two thousand years ago in Imperial Rome, nine hundred years ago in Song dynasty China — these farmers were five or six times more productive than the foragers they had replaced. Think about that: It becomes possible for a fifth of a society’s population to grow enough food to feed everyone. What do the other four-fifths do? Well, they’re freed up to specialize in other things: baking bread, firing bricks, felling trees, building houses, mining ore, smelting metals, constructing roads — making cities; building civilization.

#WILT The word “ream” — 500 sheets of paper — is derived from the Arabic rizma, meaning “bundle” or “bale.”

Some of the inventions were used as tools of oppression. While the barbed wire for instance helped with property rights as Europeans settled in America, the American tribes hated it so much that they named it “the devil’s rope”.

For some other inventions it’s simply difficult to comprehend how life was before them. It’s hard to remember just how bad search technology was before Google. In 1998, for instance, if you typed “cars” into Lycos — then a leading search engine — you’d get a results page filled with porn websites. Why? Owners of porn websites inserted many mentions of popular search terms like “cars,” perhaps in tiny text or in white on a white background. The Lycos algorithm saw many mentions of “cars” and concluded that the page would be interesting to someone searching for cars. It’s a system that now seems almost laughably simplistic and easy to game. But at the time, nothing better was available.

Some of the other inventions mentioned were not for the purpose they are known for right now. Air conditioning is a prime example. Air-conditioning as we know it began in 1902, and it had nothing to do with human comfort. Read the book to find out its original purpose. Air conditioning is such an important invention that it has been argued that it elected Ronald Reagan.

If you meet me randomly and asked me about the Passport as an invention, I would be befuddled. Of course if I had time to think about it, I will admit that it is an invention. But the thought that anyone could generally get on their feet and go anywhere they want in the world without applying to go there just didn’t occur to me. To further confuse me, the passport as we know it today was invented as late as 1920.

Trivia: How much might global economic output rise if anyone could get on their bikes to work anywhere without the need of a passport? Some economists have calculated global GDP would double.

#DoYouKnow Baby formula is arguably more addictive than tobacco or alcohol. No wonder baby food was a source of conflict in my household. Now, I have a viable argument for my wife.

The “one-price” approach, where a customer is quoted a fair price and told to take it or leave it, was considered totally unprecedented, and at the time considered radical. A certain store using this approach once hired a particularly skilled salesman who was appalled to hear that he would not be allowed to apply his finely tuned skill of sizing up the customer’s apparent wealth and extracting as extravagant a price as possible. He resigned on the spot, telling the youthful Irish shopkeeper he’d be bankrupt within a month. By the time the owner of the store died, over five decades later, he was one of the richest men in New York.

#DoYouKnow the first focus group was conducted in 1941 by an academic sociologist, Robert K. Merton. He later wished he could have patented the idea and collected royalties.

If you read my reviews, you already know that I read all my books with Nigeria in mind. Reading how revolutionary the shipping container is offers some lessons. Goods produced in faraway ends of the earth get to us because of this simple invention. Yet Africa is unable to enjoy the true wonder of this invention because of poor infrastructure. Many ports in poorer countries still look like New York in the 1950s and are unable to enjoy the benefits of the containerization revolution. Without the ability to plug into the world’s container shipping system, Africa continues to be a costly place to do business.

While some inventions like the plow are standalone, for some others they are most useful when they combine with other inventions: think of the elevator, air-conditioning, and reinforced concrete, which together gave us the skyscraper.

Talking of elevators, we don’t tend to think of them as mass transportation systems, but they are: they move hundreds of millions of people every day. They are so important to modern China that the country alone is installing 700,000 elevators a year. And oh, many people are nervous of elevators, yet they are safe — at least ten times safer than escalators.

The lightbulb is a miracle. That’s a chapter you have to read. But think about this: When you switch off a lightbulb for an hour, you are saving illumination that would have cost our ancestors all week to create. Light bulb moment for you?

The myths behind writing really caught my attention. People used to believe that the ability to write came from the gods. The Greeks believed that Prometheus had given it to mankind as a gift. The Egyptians also thought that literacy was divine, a benefaction from baboon-faced Thoth, the god of knowledge. Mesopotamians thought the goddess Inanna had stolen it for them from Enki, the god of wisdom.

How about the development of cryptography? Two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar sent encrypted messages to far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire — he’d arrange in advance that recipients should simply shift the alphabet by some predetermined number of characters. So, for instance, “jowbef Csjubjo,” if you substitute each letter with the one before it in the alphabet, would read “invade Britain.”

Some names in the list make you scratch your head but upon closer look, you can’t but acknowledge their roles in our civilization. The limited liability corporation is one. Management Consultants is another. Globally, consulting firms charge their clients a total of about $125 billion. Are they worth these fees? There are arguments for both sides of the divide. For perspective, Nigeria’s annual budget hovers around the $30 billion mark.

When Americans go on and on about China copying their ideas, would someone point out to this new generation that America was built on the ideas copied by their ancestors from Britain and Europe? Charles Dicken was so livid at his pirated books that he took a trip to Boston to decry his losses. The U.S. economy was in full-blown copying mode: Americans wanted the cheapest possible access to the best ideas that Europe could offer. The United States finally began to respect international copyright in 1891, 50 years after Dickens’s campaign. And a similar transition is occurring in developing countries today: the less those countries copy other ideas and the more they create of their own, the more they protect ideas themselves. There’s been a lot of movement in a brief time: China didn’t have a system of copyright at all until 1991.

I find the chapter on copyrights intriguing. Some notable economists have said that what truly unleashed steam-powered industry was the expiration of the patent. Some have even argued that intellectual property be scrapped as it unleashes innovation. They point to Tesla’s opening up access to its patent archive in an effort to expand the industry as a whole as an example of how scrapping intellectual property does not mean the idea creator would lose out.

#WILT In the United States, copyrights originally lasted fourteen years, and were renewable once.

As expected, most of the inventors encountered in the book are male, and no wonder — who knows how many brilliant women, like Clara Immerwahr (notable story), were lost to history after having their ambitions casually crushed. Fortunately, we’re already a long way toward learning one big lesson about encouraging inventiveness: most societies have realized that it isn’t sensible to waste the talents of half their populations.

Trivia: What is the most profitable invention in history? You’d probably not guess right. Read the book.

I read the chapter about Diesel Engines three times. The concept of Path Dependence struck me. Path Dependence is a self-reinforcing cycle in which existing investments and infrastructure mean we keep doing things in a certain way, even if we’d do them differently if only we could start from scratch. As late as 1914, steam was at least as viable as crude oil for powering cars, but the growing influence of the oil industry ensured that much more money was going into improving the internal combustion engine than the steam engine. With equal investment in research and development, who knows where breakthroughs might have happened; perhaps today we’d be driving next-generation steam-powered cars. Or may be vegetable oils. In 1912, a year before his death, the inventor of Diesel Engine demonstrated and predicted that vegetable oils would become as important a source of fuel as petroleum products.

#DoYouKnow Paper money sometimes called fiat money is from the Latin word which means “Let it be done.” The Great Khan announces that officially stamped mulberry bark is money — and lo, let it be done. Money it is.

Discussions about inventions like Radar, which spawned ten Nobel laureates, Plastics, S-bend, and Two-part pricing were nothing short of enthralling. It’s interesting that I have been found explaining the concept of Environmental Kuznets Curve several times, but I didn’t know there is a name for it.

In many parts, the author hailed how people left to their own devices can come up with great innovations, but in other parts he cautions that without regulation, we may hurt ourselves in more ways than we can imagine.

Throughout the book, I was looking for answers to a particular question for Nigeria: How do you spur innovation? One of the answers is, if we want to encourage more good ideas, we need to concentrate minds by offering prizes for problem solving. The Longitude Prize inspired the creation of clocks. The DARPA Grand Challenge, which began in 2004, helped kick-start progress in self-driving cars.

But more generally, there are no easy answers with regards to laws and regulations that encourage innovation. The natural assumption is that bureaucrats should err on the side of getting out of the way of inventors, and this does pay dividends. A laissez-faire approach gave the world the remarkable M-Pesa. But it also gave the world the slow-motion disaster of leaded gasoline; there are some inventions that governments really should be stepping in to prevent.

This was a book I enjoyed reading and for which I will definitely come back to read specific chapters.

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