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50 Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy—The Plow, Barbed Wire, and Google Search

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 27, 2023 3:01 am

50 Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy—The Plow, Barbed Wire, and Google Search

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 27, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Tim Harford, author of the bestselling book 50 Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, shares the stories of three inventions that changed the way we live today.

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This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. It's a wonderful example of how technology has profound effects on society. We think about technologies as solving problems. So with the plow, what's the problem? I want to grow crops. The soil is not very fertile.

I need to break up the surface of the soil so that I invent the plow. But of course, that's just the beginning. Then all the social changes begin. So with the case of the plow, it created a surplus. It created a harvest that you could store somewhere at the end of the year, which meant you had an incentive to grow. You had an incentive to form up in big gangs. These days, we call them armies, and we go and take the grain in someone else's barn. It meant that you could support an elite, people who thought, who planned, bureaucrats, accountants, priests. It meant you could support cities.

And with cities, of course, comes the whole of civilization. So you could really say this is where the whole thing started, whether you like it or not, with the plow. You say this, there was a reason that American farmers were so hungry for barbed wire. A few years earlier in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act. So that act said, anybody who wants to move to the West, to the Midwest, and to put up a fence and to farm some land for five years, men, women, freed slaves, anyone who wants to do that, that land will be theirs at the end of a few years. So it seems like a huge opportunity. The only trouble is, when these new settlers get to the great American prairie, they realize there is no wood, or certainly there's not enough wood to spare putting up miles and miles of fences. And so if they want to claim land, and in particular to keep off these tough long horn cattle from trampling all over the place, they need a source of fencing.

So this is one of those situations. Sometimes people invent things and they never know what it's going to be used for. So the classic is the laser. The laser's invented and it's a solution looking for a problem. Complete opposite with barbed wire.

Everybody knew what the problem was. It's how do we make inexpensive fencing that doesn't require a lot of wood. And there were huge efforts, lots and lots of patents for different fencing techniques emerged from the American Midwest at the time. Lots of people trying to solve the problem. The American government issuing reports saying we need fencing material.

And then about 10 years later, J.F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois, produces this patent for this technology. And it is the first recognizably modern barbed wire where you have a little twist. You have two pieces of wire together.

You twist one around the other in order to keep these barbs secure so they don't slide up and down the wire. And that's really barbed wire as we know it even today. And it was immediately a sensational hit. So within a few years, the factories of Glidden and his associates were producing over 250,000 miles of barbed wire each year. But as with the plow, it created winners and it created losers. It completely reshaped the American landscape. And it was just one of those things where the president, Abraham Lincoln, had granted people property rights. And yet those property rights are really no good unless there's some practical technology for defending the property rights.

And it was barbed wire. Let's talk about Google search. I was trying to describe to my wife the other day, I was using a search engine on a newspaper website and it wasn't working very well. And I was saying, oh, Google works so well. This search engines so bad I can't Google anything. So even when I was trying to describe the process of searching for something not using Google, I was still using the verb to Google. So it's just transformed the way that we access the internet, that we access the World Wide Web.

I'm old enough to remember the world before Google and the internet before Google. And you would discuss strategies for how to find things. So you would say, oh, if you know, for example, that a particular person has been working on a problem and you want to find some information, if you search for their name, that might help. Because it's completely useless to search for an actual phrase or a bit of content.

That's never going to work. But maybe if you search for someone's name, when Google came along, suddenly you would type stuff into the search bar and you would actually find it. And that has been completely transformative.

And of course, it continues to reshape the economy because now it's become more and more local. These search engines are on our phones. So your attention is being directed. You want to search for a place to have a drink nearby. You've been locked out of your house.

You need to find a locksmith. Google is trying to solve these problems, sometimes with great success, sometimes not. And enormous amounts of effort are devoted to where you come on that Google search ranking.

If you're on page three of the Google search ranking, you're absolutely nowhere. So it's an insight into the way that a particular technology can unlock a whole world of information out there. And you've been listening to Tim Harford, author of 50 things that shaped the modern economy. You heard him talk about the plow barbed wire, which was fascinating. What a story he told about all those Americans rushing the settlers to populate the American prairie. And there was not enough wood to make fences to claim that land and protect the property rights of those landholders. And in comes barbed wire. Two hundred and fifty thousand miles of barbed wire made every year.

And it reshaped the American landscape. By the way, Harford was quick to point out the word patent. He says patent. We say patent.

And of course, intellectual property rights and property rights of all kind are defended by patent rights. And last, of course, Google, which is now a verb. Tim Harford with 50 things that shaped the modern economy. The story of the plow barbed wire and Google here on our American story. This is Lee Habib, host of our American stories, the show where America is the star and the American people.

And we do it all from the heart of the South, Oxford, Mississippi. But we truly can't do this show without you. Our shows will always be free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, consider making a tax deductible donation to our American stories. Go to our American stories dot com.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-27 04:37:56 / 2023-11-27 04:42:08 / 4

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