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BBC World Service - 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

Tim Harford tells the fascinating stories of 50 inventions, ideas and innovations which have helped create the economic world.

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

  • 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

  • The Plough
    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 (Photo: Farmer ploughing field, Credit: Shutterstock)

  • 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 nearly nine in ten. Presenter: Tim Harford Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Fully loaded shelves, Credit: Shutterstock)

  • 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 welfare states stunt economic growth? Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Frances Perkins, Credit: Getty Images)

  • 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 creates wealth. Mr de Soto's understanding – that title frees up credit, turning ‘dead capital’ into ‘live capital’ – has prompted governments in other countries to undertake large-scale property-titling campaigns. Voting for the 51st Thing has now closed. The winning “thing” will be revealed on Saturday 28 October 2017. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Hernando de Soto, Credit: Getty Images)

  • Searching for 51
    The extra “thing” – what should it be? Shortlist: the credit card, glass, GPS, irrigation, the pencil and the spreadsheet. Voting for the 51st Thing has now closed. The winning “thing” will be revealed on Saturday 28 October 2017. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Montage of pencil, credit card, glass, spreadsheet, GPS, irrigation, Credit: Getty Images/Shutterstock)

  • Management Consulting
    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 common sense. Managers who bring in consultants are often accused of being blinded by jargon, implicitly admitting their own incompetence, or seeking someone else to blame for unpopular decisions. Still, it’s lucrative. Globally, consulting firms charge their clients a total of about $125bn. Voting for the 51st Thing has now closed. The winning “thing” will be revealed on Saturday 28 October 2017. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Business team present, Credit: Shutterstock)

  • Double-entry Bookkeeping
    Luca Pacioli was a renaissance man – he was a conjuror, a master of chess, a lover of puzzles, a Franciscan Friar, and a professor of mathematics. But today he’s celebrated as the most famous accountant who ever lived, the father of double-entry bookkeeping. Before the Venetian style of bookkeeping caught on, accounts were rather basic. An early medieval merchant was little more than a travelling salesman. He had no need to keep accounts – he could simply check whether his purse was full or empty. But as the commercial enterprises of the Italian city states grew larger, more complex and more dependent on financial instruments such as loans and currency trades, the need for a more careful reckoning became painfully clear. In 1494 Pacioli wrote the definitive book on double-entry bookkeeping. It’s regarded by many as the most influential work in the history of capitalism. And as the industrial revolution unfolded, the ideas that Pacioli had set out came to be viewed as an essential part of business life; the system used across the world today is essentially the one that Pacioli described. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Handwritten accounting ledger, Credit: Suntezza/Shutterstock)

  • S-Bend
    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 as we know it. Roll-out was slow, but it was a vision of how public sanitation could be – clean, and smell-free – if only government would fund it. More than two centuries later, two and a half billion people still remain without improved sanitation, and improved sanitation itself is a low bar. We still haven’t reliably managed to solve the problem of collective action – of getting those who exercise power or have responsibility to organise themselves. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Vadon and Richard Knight (Image: S-bend, Credit: ericlefrancais/Shutterstock)

  • Radar
    How the 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 for developing a high-tech ‘death ray’ that could zap a sheep at a hundred paces. But even though the project failed to develop such a weapon, it did result in something potentially far more useful that was able to detect planes and submarines – radar. And it was an invention that was crucial in the development of the commercial aviation industry. Producer: Ben Crighton Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon (Image: Abstract radar with targets, Credit: Andrey VP/Shutterstock)