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Review: Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy

Inventions form many of the foundations of modern society. Many are easily recognizable from children’s textbooks: the lightbulb, railroads, the printing press, the internet. Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy explores a set of complementary inventions. This is a set of inventions that have been mostly overshadowed by the aforementioned, more lauded discoveries, but their existence ended up relaxing constraints or enabling efficiencies which ultimately lets their more famous complements have the widespread impact that we celebrate today. The book is a celebration of the under-appreciated.

The format is pretty straightforward—50 chapters, one per invention, that go into how that invention was made, where it fits in with other inventions at the time, and eventually what it enabled which we’d still feel the effects of in the 21st century. The topics range from Ikea furniture, to management consulting as a capitalistic function, to the Google search algorithm, to the modern flushable toilet. True to the premise of the book title, many of these inventions are not thought of as breakthrough technologies today, even as the author traces major subsequent events and developments.

There are times when the book feels like it’s trying too hard, when it reads like a “did you know?” collection of unobscure trivia. That is, the author can give too much credit to his inventions, when many of them wouldn’t have been possible without other, more famous precursor inventions (e.g., search engines don’t exist without the internet). Some just happened to be the technologies that survived the competition (e.g., Google’s PageRank over other search indexing algorithms); chances are some other inventions would have risen to take their places, though we may not be as far along technologically in that alternate timeline. In doing so, it manages to sometimes overstate what it initially suggests to be understated.

That’s not to say its examples are all contrived; many are genuinely interesting and in their unremarkableness show how much we take them for granted. They’re also not all net positive contributions to our modern economy either: in particular, some of the financial system inventions were engineered for gains of a few at the expense of the many. Mechanisms like tax loopholes exist to this day, stubbornly resisting reform even as they are widely acknowledged to be bad tradeoff for society.

Ultimately, Fifty Inventions does accomplish what most historical books set out to do: instill a sense of awe and appreciation in history in detailing why these inventions continue to matter.

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