Sunday, 21 October 2018

Book Review: Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy

I really enjoy Tim Harford's writing, on his blog, and in his previous books (here are my reviews of AdaptThe Undercover Economist Strikes Back, and Dear Undercover Economist). So, I've been looking forward to reading his latest book, Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy, for some time. And it didn't disappoint. When you read a book that is really a long list of things, there is a real risk that it devolves into one of the dime-a-dozen listicles that pervade the internet. Harford avoids that trap because of his engaging writing style, and the ability to link together anecdotes and stories into a supremely readable whole. Consider the following passage, in the chapter on cuneiform:
The Egyptians also thought that literacy was divine, a benefaction from baboon-faced Thoth, the god of knowledge. Mesopotamians thought the goddess Inanna had stolen it for them from Enki, the god of wisdom - although Enki wasn't so wise that he hadn't drunk himself insensible...
Scholars no longer embrace the "baboon-faced Thoth" theory of literacy.
It's just as well. The book isn't a collection of the fifty most important inventions, or the fifty most profitable inventions, or even the welfare-enhancing inventions. Harford omits some obvious candidates in those categories, such as fire, or the wheel. However, the list includes a number that you might not have considered yourself until you read about them, such as passports, the barcode, or property registers. The chapter on double-entry bookkeeping was a surprising highlight, as was the chapter on the s-bend, which includes this bit:
Flushing toilets had previously foundered on the problem of smell: the pipe that connects the toilet to the sewer, allowing urine and feces to be flushed away, will also let sewer odors waft back up - unless you can create some kind of airtight seal.
Cumming's solution was simplicity itself: bend the pipe. Water settles in the dip, stopping smells from coming up; flushing the toilet replenishes the water. While we've moved on alphabetically from the S-bend to the U-bend, flushing toilets still deploy the same insight: Cumming's invention was almost unimprovable.
Not all of the inventions are positive - the book includes chapters on tax havens, antibiotics in farming, and plastics (seen as good at the time, but not so much now) - but all have been transformative in their own way. The lightbulb, which we associate with ideas, appears only in the last chapter.

This is an excellent book, well-researched and interesting throughout. I found it hard to put down, and I'm sure many of you will also. Recommended!

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