The best economics book of the moment does not talk about economics: ‘Fifty innovations that have transformed the world’
Tim Harford is an English economist and popularizer who rose to fame 15 years ago with his famous book ‘The Camouflaged Economist’. He recently published a new book called ‘Fifty innovations that have transformed the world‘which is really fascinating.
Normally books on economics, although they are educational and entertaining, do not usually attract people’s attention, as it is a discipline that is often perceived as boring. There are many counter-examples, such as the ‘Freakonomics’ saga or the author’s own camouflaged economist. But this novel goes much further, since by focusing on inventions the economic part is somewhat more hidden and accessible.
Can humanity be summed up in 50 inventions?
The first thing the book does is make it clear that we are not facing an exhaustive selection of the most important inventions that have transformed humanity. To make such a summary would be practically impossible. In fact, some fundamentals, such as the wheel, the computer or the printing press, have been explicitly left out of this selection. Why?
The author masterfully tells fifty interesting stories that have had a remarkable impact as world transformers. Not the most relevant or the most shocking, just fifty stories that define humanity and its ability to transform society with innovations.
Could it have been fifty other different innovations? Of course. In fact, the book I’m talking about was published in 2017 and, due to its success, the author published another book last year with fifty other innovations that are also worth counting. Of course, this second part is not yet in Spanish.
I have to say that this book of innovations have a plot thread, despite the different areas they cover. The book is divided into eight large blocks, each one with a theme. But before entering the categories, start with an innovation that changed everything: the plow.
Without the plow, humanity would remain a hunter-gatherer animal not very numerous and it would not have been able to dominate the planet as it has. Inside the plow there is also an evolution. The first plow was basically a stick that made furrows in the earth and was used to cultivate relatively dry land (Middle East). But this evolved and allowed to cultivate wetter lands (because they not only made furrows but turned the earth) and this allowed northern Europe to move faster.
With the plow, humans had free time to create other innovations, since we did not have to be looking for food all the time, the work specialized. It is then that the book enters the different blocks in which it groups these innovations and inventions.
He calls the first block “winners and losers.” Whenever there is an innovation there are, and although in the medium-long term all these inventions have meant an improvement for humanity, in the short term there are harmed. In this way, and with a few examples, he addresses the subject of the Luddites, which is so topical.
For example we have the creation of the gramophone. Where once there was a market for many singers who made a living locally, a market for superstars who earned a lot and a residual market for the rest was created. It is clear that for good singers this has been very positive (they are now millionaires when not before) but the rest cannot earn a living like this.
Public cryptography, which allows encrypted communication between two people without having to meet previously to exchange keys
In the next category describe innovations that have transformed how we live. Inventions that have changed society from the point of view of manners. For example, air conditioning, whose initial intention was simply to maintain constant humidity, but without which we could not be as productive in the summer months and economic growth would not have been so great as to bring us to current levels of prosperity.
It also includes in this block the contraceptive pill, which started the feminist revolution by allowing women to develop a professional life beyond caring for the family. Or the creation of video games, which on the one hand have profoundly transformed leisure, but on the other also the economy: there are some studies that indicate that the low salaries seen in some sectors without excessive social conflict is due to the fact that relatively inexpensive entertainment options are plentiful, and there video games have a lot to do with it.
Then come the innovations that have brought us new systems. They are common things that we stop to think about a little, but they have changed the world in a very profound way. Among others, the barcode is addressed: before businesses existed, they could not manage millions of references for sale. The barcode and its universal use in products, together with computer systems, have led to giant supermarkets or online sales, without going any further.
The compiler made computers more than just an anecdote in history
Another invention of this block is the the elevator. Its history is curious, since it has existed for many centuries, what is more recent is the safety brake that Elisha Otis invented. And this security, along with advances in construction, transformed cities by making them taller. Where before there could only be three or four floors, now there can be dozens.
The ideas block about ideas is exciting. That a simple idea can transform the world is fascinating. Among the innovations discussed here, he talks about public cryptography, which allows an encrypted communication to be established between two people without having to meet previously to exchange the keys. The Internet could not exist as such without this innovation. And his history with the US trying to prevent the publication of this advance is very interesting.
Another innovation of this block is the compiler. Until his invention, programming was very complicated and reserved for mathematical experts. However Grace Hopper, an American woman, thought it would be easier to do this if she created a series of preset subroutines. So in his spare time I create the first compiler that would be the basis of Cobol and I achieve that computers were more than an anecdote in history.
Banks allow money to be kept without theft worries but they need supervision
There are also very curious stories of the origins of innovations, and the block “where inventions come from” deals with this matter. Worth the chapter on the iPhone, but it does not talk about the internal history within Apple (which has been told so many times) but about all of the past innovations without which it could not have existed: microprocessors, memory chips, solid state memories, liquid crystal displays, lithium batteries, fast Fourier transform, Internet, HTTP and HTML, cell phone networks, GPS, touch screen and Siri. And the funny thing is that all these innovations that allowed the iPhone to be what it is were financed by governments (often the American).
Another curious origin is the of the radar. Initially conceived as a death ray during WWII, the Allies wanted to fry pilots flying enemy fighter jets. But the energy required was excessive. However, it could be used to detect airplanes. And so a key technology emerged in the military but also civil sphere.
It is often said that innovation always comes from the private sector and that the authorities sometimes prevent it, but it is not entirely true. The “visible hand” block deals with this issue. An example is the creation of banks, that allow to have the money saved without worries of theft but need supervision. Its origin is in the Templars during the Crusades, when warriors had to travel thousands of kilometers and robberies were frequent.
Another example, this time on the negative side, is that of leaded gasoline, which causes very serious diseases but which was maintained by pressure from the industry until finally the States put an end to it.
Innovations make us live better and better
And finally there is the block of “inventing the wheel”. Here the author deals with fundamental inventions, transformers, without which society would not be what it is. An example is that of paper, which was originally used for wrapping but was soon used for writing and was central to the development of the printing press. Until then it was written in skins and the production of books could not have been increased or we would not have had newspapers without something that we consider so basic.
Another example is the concrete, an old invention but improved over the years that right now is essential for construction. Curiously, current constructions, which have concrete reinforced with steel, have less duration due to water seepage, so we can see Roman constructions with concrete still standing, but 120-year-old buildings that have to be fixed because they do not hold up. But reinforced concrete construction, along with elevators, is what makes cities as we know them possible today.
The last book, like the first, is out of the blocks. And it is the light bulb. Instead of presenting its origin (Thomas Edison invented it) he explains the amount of work mankind has needed throughout history to get artificial light. From the wood to the LED bulb, through the oil.
When the only way to have artificial light was to burn wood, a person could work 60 hours to achieve fifty minutes of light. Around 1700, with the existence of wax candles, those sixty hours of work could give two hours and twenty minutes of light. In 1900 with Edison’s invention, 10 days of light were achieved. In 1920, with the refined invention, 5 months. In 1990 nothing more and nothing less than 10 years. And now with Led bulbs, fifty years. In short, you can see the advancement of humanity with this invention, how innovations make us live better and better.
And all this is summed up in one question: Which would you rather make $ 70,000 a year now or in 1900? In 1900 that amount is equivalent to 2 million dollars. But almost no one answers that in 1900, because although that amount had a lot of purchasing power, there were really no antibiotics, no Internet, and millions of products ready for purchase. Innovations throughout history are essential to understand what humanity is like today.
In conclusion, Tim Harford presents us with a very interesting book, full of curiosities, but which does not simply explain the origin of certain inventions but rather explains the consequences of them as transformers of the world in which we live. Economy without explicitly talking about economy. A highly recommended read.
Fifty innovations that have changed the world (Conecta)