Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

Tim Hardford’s books are always enjoyable and stuffed with interesting tidbits. Like Mary Roach, Hardford’s ability to intersperse humor with facts makes for delightful reading and this book is no exception.


A lively history seen through the fifty inventions that shaped it most profoundly, by the bestselling author of The Undercover Economist and Messy.

Who thought up paper money? What was the secret element that made the Gutenberg printing press possible? And what is the connection between The Da Vinci Code and the collapse of Lehman Brothers? 

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy paints an epic picture of change in an intimate way by telling the stories of the tools, people, and ideas that had far-reaching consequences for all of us. From the plough to artificial intelligence, from Gillette’s disposable razor to IKEA’s Billy bookcase, bestselling author and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford recounts each invention’s own curious, surprising, and memorable story. 

Invention by invention, Harford reflects on how we got here and where we might go next. He lays bare often unexpected connections: how the bar code undermined family corner stores, and why the gramophone widened inequality. In the process, he introduces characters who developed some of these inventions, profited from them, and were ruined by them, as he traces the principles that helped explain their transformative effects. The result is a wise and witty book of history, economics, and biography. from Goodreads.

Colorful Cover featuring several inventions including a gramophone and a clock with the title Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Hardford


This book was absolutely perfect for pulling me out of (yet another) reading slump. Each invention is featured in short 5-10 pages which made it easy to pop in an out of as I work (that’s right, yet again) on my ability to focus.

I have loved Tim Harford’s style of writing since I read Messy and he does not disappoint here. Going into the book I expected that I would read about paper, the light bulb, the wheel, etc but I was interested to see how each invention impacted modern economy. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been, that Harford took a different approach and started with the economic impact and worked backwards finding a slew of off-beat inventions that would never have occurred to me.

“These fifty inventions shaped our economy. But they didn’t shape it by just producing more stuff, more cheaply. Each invention tugged on a complex web of economic connections. Sometimes they tangled us up, sometimes they sliced through old constraints, and sometimes they weaved entirely new patterns.”

50 Inventions that Shaped a Modern Economy by Tim Harford

While some inventions were easily predicable some are exclusively beneficial to specific demographics and are frequently overlooked by society. Infant formula and birth control have both allowed women to control the number and spacing of children and feed them when they returned to work. Debates ensue about the use of both but the reality is, without them, women would not be the force they are in the economy today.

I was more surprised by the impact of inventions like the Billy Bookcase, which I purchase frequently as my collection grows. And how the the shipping container that brings me my Billys (and many other goods) while the bar code that keeps everything flowing. I was struck by how much has changed even in my lifespan and made the world both more interconnected and interdependent.

But the impact of economics was eye opening to me. As a history major in college I nearly always rolled my eyes when we hit the economic impact of historical events – absolute snooze fest as far as I was concerned. Harford makes the point that the economy can drive decisions, inventions, and innovation. Surprisingly, this point was so clearly made for me when he remarked that more people own a cell phone than a toilet both because of the positive externalities – the impact made on others – versus the benefits to the individual. If I had a flying toilet (am I the only person that didn’t know about this?!?)* and I had to chose between a cell phone and a toilet I would have thought I would pick the toilet but, realistically, if I purchased a cell phone I could get a job, become more connected, and quickly own the phone and the toilet.

Tim Harford convinced me that a messy environment has its benefits and he has won me over again with these 50 Inventions.

*a “flying toilet” system is when one poops in a plastic bag, then, in the middle of the night, you whirl the bag around your head and hurl it as far away as possible.

Tell me, please! Do you have a Non-Fiction writer that you love?


8 thoughts on “Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford

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  1. Ooh this sounds absolutely fascinating! Like you I think I would have expected it to cover the bigger, more influential inventions, but I’m so intrigued about the significance behind something like the Billy bookcase! And anything that can pull you out of a reading slump is massively worthwhile. Thanks for the fantastic introduction to this one!!

    Liked by 1 person

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