You might expect a book about inventions that shaped the modern economy to begin with the invention of computers, the internet, or perhaps some important but obscure financial software you can’t begin to understand. Instead, bestselling author Tim Harford, a senior columnist at the Financial Times whose previous works include The Undercover Economist, begins with the plow.
Yes, the plow. And for good reason. According to Harford, not only did the plow create the underpinnings of civilization, different types of plows led to different types of civilizations which reshaped social structures, family life and economic and political systems.
From this beginning, Harford effortlessly leaps across time and continents to show readers various inventions in a new light, revealing unexpected insights into 21st-century society. Harford notes, “Inventions shape our lives in unpredictable ways—and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else.”
Some of the inventions Harford highlights are what you might expect to find: the bank, double-entry bookkeeping and the iPhone being among them. And then, of course, for anyone old enough to remember The Graduate, there’s plastic.
But other inventions may be less known, including the Billy Bookcase (a cheaper bookcase), M-Pesa (more than 20 million Kenyans use it to move money by mobile phones) and the Haber-Bosch process (which uses nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, which can then be used to make fertilizer).
Tim Harford ends his fantastically enlightening book by talking about an invention that has improved our lives “almost beyond our ability to measure.” I’ll give you a hint: if you’re reading this review after dark, you’re probably using one somewhere in your house.