Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy
by Tim Harford
Riverhead Books

In his introduction, Tim Harford assures readers that his is not a book-length listicle; neither is it an attempt to name the 50 most economically significant inventions. That would be boring (this reviewer’s comment). The author, instead, identifies themes and works through them, showing how new ideas can create new winners (and losers), change lifestyles and introduce the potential for other advances. More than anything, however, it’s the stories Harford tells around his chosen inventions that set Fifty Inventions apart from any mundane list.

In addition to such creations as barbed wire and robots, he includes infant formula (under “reinventing how we live”), the bar code (“new systems”) and intellectual property (a meta-idea about how ideas should be protected). Among the surprising inclusions (and there are many) is Ikea’s Billy bookcase. This set of shelves hasn’t changed much since 1978, although it now costs 30 per cent less, economies of scale being one reason for its price decrease. And that’s why it’s in the book. It may not be as clever as the iPhone (another of Harford’s nominees), but it is a symbol of how innovation in production and logistics can cut costs.