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Podcast of the Week: 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

So many inventions that we take for granted have amazing backstories. Simon O'Hagan listens in as Tim Harford brings them to life

Tim Harford
Published: Friday, 25th August 2017 at 3:21 pm

By Simon O'Hagan


The podcasting revolution has presented a challenge to the BBC. It wants a slice of the audience that podcasting has reached but its first duty is to make radio programmes for its various networks. Some of those programmes now stand to be podcastified. Some already have been.

The question of the BBC and podcasts is such a big one that I’ll come back to it another time, but for now there are numerous BBC programmes that have a robust podcast afterlife, and even though in many instances they don’t differ much from the original radio broadcast, they are making sufficient waves in podcast-land that they should be considered alongside any other podcast.

In the British Podcast Awards earlier this year, BBC podcasts were in the mix with non-BBC ones — an uneven playing field, some would say, but listeners can only be expected to care about the end product. They certainly care about, for example, the podcast version of the Radio 5 Live show Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, which is huge.

And this week I want to write about another brilliant BBC podcast, in part because it is suffused with the spirit of podcasting.

50 Things that Made the Modern Economy is a weekly series that began on the BBC World Service last October (turning up in chunks on Radio 4), and the podcast version has captured imaginations all round the world. Presented by the Financial Times columnist and one-time economist Tim Harford, 50 Things is an education and a delight, each edition weighing in at a sprightly sub-10 minutes. 

“The top 50 of something is a venerable idea,” Harford tells me, “but I’d never seen it applied to economic history. I wanted to make the connection between what might seem dry academic subjects to the fact that behind every one there is a human story, with so many great characters. 

“The series was a way of personalising economic history. Each story is almost like a parable — a little lesson in how we got to where we are today.”

Subjects have included paper money, infant formula, air conditioning, the disposable razor, and barbed wire, and every one has been fascinating, made totally accessible by Harford’s mix of enthusiasm, expertise and eye for a story. Who knew that plastic can trace its origins to Belgian-born Leo Baekeland, and that he might never have come up with it had he not had the luxury of working from home. 

Can’t we have more Things? That’s not up to me, says Harford, though he’d be on for it, and in the meantime he has come up with the idea to invite listeners to nominate a 51st Thing. That will provide him with two additional programmes — a 51st that will consider six shortlisted Things, and a 52nd that will devote itself to the winning Thing. 

Nominations for the extra Thing opened on 19th August. Early suggestions included clingfilm, the ballpoint pen, and the bicycle.

Suggestions for the 51st Thing can be sent to or by messaging the BBC World Service Facebook page or via Twitter @BBCWorldService. The deadline is 12 noon GMT on 8th September. The six on the shortlist will be announced on the podcast on 16th September, and listeners can then vote online for their favourite at

A book of the series came out in July.


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