Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

Often tagged by the name of his Financial Times column (and title of his first book), "The Undercover Economist," Tim Harford has built a reputation as someone who can turn marginal utility curves into common sense. In Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, he writes clever, quixotic essays exhibiting his take on the singular innovations that seeded the contemporary way of life. These are pithy vignettes about objects people may take for granted now, but which were hardly obvious when somebody dreamed them up. Based on history, biography and a splash of economics, Harford's fresh look is great entertainment, with enough ah-ha wisdom to evoke a "listen to this," reading aloud of a favorite passage.

While he includes the usual heavy-hitters like barbed wire, air-conditioning, the elevator, the clock and the computer, he also throws in several of his own unexpected quirky favorites. Who would have highlighted the TV dinner, the Ikea Billy bookcase, the passport, the Pill or mundane business tools like insurance, index funds and management consulting? But he has his reasons. The Billy, for example, is included not so much for its design as for IKEA's mass production and packaging techniques. Each day in southern Sweden, "in goes particleboard by the truckload... out come ready-boxed products, stacked six by three on pallets"--adding up to a cumulative total of 60 million shelving units. That's a lot of head-scratching DIY assembly across the globe--and homes for a lot of books. Put this one among them. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Powered by: Xtenit