Harford’s an excellent read, cover-to-cover
Engaging book about fifty things that changed the world
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.