Free Press Journal

Fifty Things that made the modern economy by Tim Harford: Review


Name of the book: Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy

Author: Tim Harford

Publisher: Hachette India

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 343

Apart from the name, the book coming from the author of ‘The Undercover Economist’ creates lot of excitement and expectations and the book delivers on it. Book is based on the weekly radio series produced for the BBC World Service by the author. 50 things are set in eight sections of the book. The structure of the book is interesting. It starts with the “first thing” which is followed by introduction and the “fiftieth thing” comes as epilogue after conclusion. While reading the book reader will keep wondering about the grouping. ‘The barbed wire’ & ‘Passports’ are grouped with ‘The Gramophone’ & ‘Robots’ while ‘Property Registers’ is grouped with ‘Razors & Blades’.

The selection of fifty things is surprising. In the authors words “this book isn’t an attempt to identify the fifty most economically significant inventions. It’s not a book length listicle, with a countdown to the most important invention of all. Indeed, some that would be no – brainers on any such list haven’t made the cut; the printing press, the spinning jenny, the steam engine, the aeroplane and the computer. What justifies such omissions? Simply that there are other stories to tell.”

The book covers ‘plough’ and ‘cuneiform’ among the fifty things, and hence it could have been named “Fifty things that made the economy”. The word ‘modern” has no relevance. The book also doesn’t talks of a cut off period or defines “modern economy”.

Moreover the book has been written with the perspective of only western economy and research is limited to that. All the inventions have been considered looking at their impact on western society. E.g. “Before the washing machine we didn’t wash clothes very often . . . The Washing machine didn’t save much time, and the ready meal did, because we were willing to stink but we weren’t ready to starve.” Book does give a view of the Western society and its culture over the period. The book provides a detailed coverage of status of women in Western society through its various chapters. Apart from this, paper, double entry book keeping are Indian inventions, a fact book ignores. And for this reason the apt name for the book would have been “Fifty Things That Made The Western Economy”

One thing that the book establishes is the fact that “Inventions shape our lives in unpredictable ways – and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else” and “most inventions can be used for either good or ill”. The book talks about “Luddite” and “Luddite Fallacy” and observes “the potential of inventions often becomes clear only when they combine with other inventions: think of elevator, air conditioning and reinforced concrete, which together gave us the skyscraper”.

Each invention’s own memorable story is recounted and individuals who developed them are introduced in a filmy manner, some profited from them or were destroyed by them. All this is done with the relevant background. It brings to notice how innovators have faced violent death in western society. The so called suicide of Rudolf Diesel (innovator of Diesel engine) was covered by one newspaper with the headline “Inventor thrown into the sea to stop sale of patents to British government”, while the other covered it with the headline “Murdered by agents from big oil trusts”. In 1912, a year before his death, Diesel predicted that vegetable oils would become as important a source of fuel as petroleum products.

Book has exhaustive notes section, great help to those who wants to get into more details. Talking of 50 inventions, giving the complete picture in less than 300 pages is not an easy task. Explaining the inventions without jargons, formulas, graph is not every ones cup of tea and the author deserves praise for the same. High point of the book is the fact that it goes beyond technological innovations and talks about process and methods as well. It analyses the impact of seemingly simple stuff like ‘barbed wire’ to complex issues like ‘Google search’.  Step by step, reader gets an idea where he is, how he got here and where he might be going or might not be going next, because a robot can fly planes but still not clean the toilet.

A good read for the whole family. The inventions affect the nation, the society and the families. And if a family is aware of the same, they can cope with it better. If family can cope with the changes in a better way, then in turn the society and hence the nation can cope with the changes easily and in a better way.