Har­ford’s an ex­cel­lent read, cover-to-cover

En­gag­ing book about fifty things that changed the world

Sowetan - - Entertainment -

Fifty Things That Made the Mod­ern Econ­omy AU­THOR Tim Har­ford PUB­LISHER RE­VIEWER Tumo Mokone

You owe your mod­ern life­style to the hum­ble plough. Yes, the same agri­cul­ture tool you have seen from a dis­tance while trav­el­ling in the coun­try­side.

Iron­i­cally, the very fact that you might have seen the plough from afar is the rea­son that your ca­reer is in a dif­fer­ent sec­tor of the econ­omy.

No one can lay claim to the creation of the plough but the au­thor’s his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive vouches for the farm­ing tool break­ing the ground for the creation of the mod­ern so­ci­ety and economies that dom­i­nate hu­man life to­day.

Why? Be­cause that’s when peo­ple aban­doned their hunter-gatherer ex­is­tence to set­tle down into set­tle­ments.

But the rest of the fifty things Har­ford cred­its for rev­o­lu­tion­ar­is­ing the world have peo­ple be­ing cred­ited for their ideas and cre­ations.

I liked the story of how in­fant for­mula milk changed women’s life, both at home and in public, thrust­ing fe­males’ quest for im­proved odds in the world of work.

Would you be­lieve a vol­cano erup­tion in In­done­sia in­spired the creation of for­mula milk for ba­bies in Ger­man town of Darm­stadt? The story goes that in 1815 a “vast cloud of vol­canic ash drifted across the south­ern hemi­sphere, block­ing the sun”.

Ap­par­ently, this led to Europe miss­ing out on its sum­mer sea­son in 1816, lead­ing to crop fail­ure and peo­ple eat­ing rats and grass.

Justus von Liebig, son of a chemist who spe­cialised in mak­ing pig­ments and paints, used his knowl­edge of chem­istry to pi­o­neer nu­tri­tional sci­ence. He cre­ated beef ex­tract, but his creation of the first-ever com­mer­cial sub­sti­tute for breast milk in 1865 sim­ply changed the world.

While Liebig en­joyed recog­ni­tion for his in­ven­tions in his life, fel­low Ger­man Ru­dolf Diesel died at sea be­fore see­ing how his creation – the diesel en­gine – changed the in­dus­trial world.

Har­ford sto­ry­telling is en­gag­ing, witty and anec­do­tal.

When nar­rat­ing the story of how Joseph Wood­land was in­spired to cre­ate the bar code, he writes: “On a visit to his grand­par­ents in Miami he sat on the beach, pon­dered and ... a thought struck him.”

Fifty Things That Made the Mod­ern Econ­omy lists other items one would have taken for granted, in­clud­ing video games, dou­ble-en­try book­keep­ing, blades and cu­nei­form, a form of writ­ing in­vented 5 000 years ago by Sume­ri­ans of Me­sopotamia.

Among more mod­ern in­ven­tions is the mo­bile bank­ing sys­tem which took off via MPesa in Kenya, se­cur­ing a new life even for sim­ple folk as far as Afghanistan. Ne­ces­sity is the mother of in­ven­tion, you must have heard.

Har­ford also shows that in­ven­tion and in­no­va­tion make the world go round, de­spite a few dis­ap­point­ments here and there be­cause of un­nec­es­sary ex­cesses and hu­man er­ror.

An ex­cel­lent read, cover to cover.

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