School of Economics Student Book Review

Image of bookshelves with the text: Student Book ReviewBSc Economics student, Tomos Vaughan reviews ‘The Next Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy’, by author Tim Harford.

If I was to ask you, what one object in the 19th century did more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world, I guarantee that the bicycle would not be the first thing to spring to mind.

On the outskirts of New York City in 1893, Angeline Allen caused a sensation, by simply wearing trousers while cycling. Women now needed to shuck off whalebone girdles and hoop-reinforced skirts in favour for something simpler and more comfortable. Also, they would now ride without chaperones. The forces of conservatism were alarmed, bellowing that ‘immodest bicycling’ would lead to masturbation, or even prostitution!

There are hundreds of inventions like the bicycle – strokes of genius which allow our world to run in the way it does today. In this book, Tim Harford highlights fifty inventions whose stories are seldom told, and the lessons they hold which are rarely learned.

This book follows his bestselling Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy, which comes as a Radio 4 series, a podcast and a book. In his first venture, Harford lists obvious inventions, such as the internet and the wheel. Whereas in the prequel, Harford delves deeper under the surface to list less obvious inventions. “I am an admirer of the things that tend to pass unnoticed,” Harford says in the introduction. “From the brick to the ‘Like’ button, cellophane to the menstrual pad, the inventions that fill the pages of this book are often taken for granted.”

This book follows its predecessor in a way which breaks each invention into chapters containing five to six pages of digestible information. The compendious and witty writing style of this book will come as no surprise to anyone who has read The Undercover Economist.

This book tells stories about the invention of objects that are taken for granted today. With each story being filled with twists and turns. The V-2, or ‘the vengeance weapon,’ was supposed to win Hitler the Second World War. Who would have thought that in an attempt to monitor it from a safe distance, German scientists would invent CCTV as we know it today? Or who would have thought that the inventor of the sewing machine, an “incorrigible womaniser who fathered at least 22 children,” would enhance the domestic life of many women?

Harford also tells the tale of the Postage Stamp, which was effectively invented by a schoolmaster named Rowland Hill, whose only experience of the Post Office was as a disgruntled user. In 1837, Hill came up with a detailed proposal for completely revamping the postal service, in his spare time! The problem was, back then, you didn’t pay to send a letter. You paid to receive one. If the postman knocked on your door in Birmingham, with a three-page letter from London, he’d let you read it only if you coughed up two shillings and threepence. Which wasn’t far below the average daily wage at the time. Hill was soon to learn that people whose careers depend on a system won’t welcome a total outsider turning up with a proposal for improvements. “Utterly fallacious… most preposterous” fulminated the Secretary of the Post Office, Colonel Maberly; “wild… extraordinary” added the Earl of Lichfield, the Postmaster-General. Hill realised that he would have to change tack. He began printing and distributing his proposals, under the title ‘Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability.’ After petitions, backings from newspapers and campaigns from the public calling for the reform, what did the government do? Appoint a Post Office supremo: Rowland Hill himself.

Harford has a way of introducing basic Economic concepts into each of his stories. When discussing the Bonsack Machine, he considers the danger of the consumer surplus produced from branding in the cigarette market. He considers how pornography drives up demand for faster connections, better modems and higher bandwidth. He considers how the invention of spectacles helped increase labour productivity. Harford has a simple way with words, which allows him to break down the Economics behind the most complex of innovations.

The short and sweet chapters which make this book special comes with its own major downfall. There is often not enough detail. There are a number of innovations in this book with such a rich backstory, that it could have done with a few more pages of explanation. For example, it is almost impossible to give a full explanation into how oil or fire helped make the modern economy in just a few pages.

Despite this, Harford has created a masterpiece in its own right, which only compliments the first book in the series. Anyone with an interest in Economics, History and innovation in general would be a fool not to read this book.