A well-known British economist shapes his radio broadcasts into chapters of a diverting collection of what he considers humanity’s greatest inventions.
Best taken in small doses, the chapters sometimes cover the expected territory but more often head off in surprising directions. For Financial Times senior columnist Harford (Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, 2016, etc.), an invention might be a concrete object, like a plow or a battery, but it’s just as likely to be a more abstract idea, like intellectual property or index funds. Fortunately, the author has a knack for making potentially dry and demanding concepts spring to life. For example, in a chapter on management consulting, Harford darts from a messy factory in contemporary Mumbai back to the 1930s to introduce the first cigar-chomping management consultant and the creation of a consulting company requiring its employees to wear white shirts and hats—and then back to Mumbai, pointing out telling details along the way. The author shines when tackling seemingly homely topics. Writing about barbed wire, he weaves together the philosophy of John Locke into a discussion of a material that its marketer called “lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust.” Some might quibble that Harford awards a disproportionate amount of attention to relatively modern inventions. However, he makes it clear that these are personal choices, and his zest for his subjects makes them hard to resist; his lively, humorous style and wide-ranging curiosity make hard topics go down easily. And while the essays stand on their own, he has a broader point to make. “Inventions shape our lives in unpredictable ways,” he writes, “and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else.”
Harford’s contagious delight in his subject reminds readers not to take for granted the impact of objects and ideas so familiar they’re easy to overlook.