Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Economy – Tim Harford

There are so many inventions that I never even thought of or overlooked until I read this book. I couldn’t write about all of them but here are a few highlights on some of the most productive, smart, coolest, and most impressive inventions, and a little history about them.


  1. Seller Feedback: The function of matching people who have coincidental wants is among the most powerful ways the Internet is reshaping the economy.
  2. Passports: Passports were essentially a threat at first and the concept of passports as protection goes back to biblical times. Protection at the time was a privilege, not a right. It used to be described as an oppressive invention, an embarrassment, and an obstacle to the peaceable citizens.
  3. Video Games: Virtual worlds can create real jobs. If your choice is to be a Starbucks server or a starship captain – what, really, is so crazy about deciding to take command in an imaginary world?
  4. TV Dinners: Putting food on the table wasn’t a metaphor for women. It was something that they did quite literally – and it took many hours each week. Betty Cronin worked for the Swanson food-processing company, which was looking for ways to keep busy after the business of supplying rations to US troops had dried up after World War 2. Cronin was an ambitious young career woman, was part of the ideal target market: women who were expected to cook for their husbands yet were busy trying to develop their own careers.
  5. Market Research: People can no longer sell what his own judgment dictates; he/she must sell what the consumer wanted. The invention of market research marks an early step in a broader shift from a “producer-led” to a “consumer-led” approach to business – from making something, then trying to persuade people to buy it, to trying to find out what people might buy and then making it. The best marketing-oriented companies help us discover desires we never knew we had and ways of fulfilling them we never imagined.
  6. Air Conditioning: If only we could control the weather – at the push of a button make it warmer or cooler, wetter, or drier – oh wait, we can haha. Air-conditioning as we know it began in 1902 and it had nothing to do with human comfort. It was actually because workers in a printing company in NY wanted to print in color but the humidity changed between print runs so they found a way to control humidity, and today, we have air-conditioners!
  7. Public-key Cryptography: The development of cryptography has been driven by conflict. Encryption can be both numerical, symmetrical, or asymmetrical. You can send an encrypted message to someone you’d never met before, someone you didn’t even know – and be confident that they, and only they, would be able to decode it.
  8. Limited Liability Companies: It’s important because otherwise, investors were personally liable for everything the business did. The way we invest today – buying shares in companies whose managers we will never meet – would be unthinkable without limited liability.
  9. The Compiler: The language of computers. Every clever think your computer does – make a call, search a database, play a game – comes down to ones and zeroes. Grace Hopper’s compiler evolved into one of the first programming languages, COBOL; more fundamentally, it paved the way for the now-familiar distinction between hardware and software.
  10. Razors and Blades: The two-part pricing model is also known as the “razors and blades” model because that’s where it first drew attention – sucking people in with attractively priced razor but then repeatedly fleece them for extortionately priced replacement blades.
Elevators: We hold elevators to a higher standard than other forms of transport. We're okay if we wait only a couple minutes for a bus or a train, but grumble if we have to wait twenty seconds for an elevator. The humble elevator is a green mode of transport that moves billions every day and yet, it's so overlooked.
*I take no credit for any of these points.

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