How the ‘Billy’ bookcase started a revolution

Economist and journalist Tim Harford was able to share his new book, “Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy” (Riverhead, Aug. 29) — filled with tales of 50 inventions that shaped our world and economy — because of one such invention: writing.

“The ability to write down our ideas, memories and stories underpins our entire civilization,” he writes. “But we’re now coming to realize that writing itself was invented for an economic purpose, to help coordinate and plan the comings and going of an increasingly sophisticated economy.”

Here are 10 more of the book’s inventions that had a surprisingly crucial impact on our civilization.

If you have a basic IKEA bookcase — and chances are, you do — then it’s most likely a Billy. There are over 60 million of them in the world, one for almost every 100 people on the planet. Every three seconds, another one rolls off the production line.
“So ubiquitous they are, Bloomberg News uses them to compare purchasing power around the world,” writes Harford. “According to the Bloomberg Billy Bookcase index — yes, that’s a thing — the bookcase costs the most in Egypt, just over $100; in Slovakia you can get one for less than $40.”

The reason for the bookcase’s widespread use is twofold: its clean-lined design (“The Billy is surprisingly well accepted by the type of people you expect to be sniffy about mass-produced [medium-density fiberboard],” Harford writes) and IKEA’s penchant for “relentlessly finding ways to cut costs . . . without reducing the quality of its products.”
The Billy costs 30 percent less today than it did in 1978 due to “constant, tiny tweaks in both product and production method.”

“The Billy bookcase isn’t innovative in the way that the iPhone is innovative,” writes Harford. “The innovations are about working within the limits of production and logistics, finding tiny ways to shave off the cost, all while producing something that looks inoffensive and does the job.”

When Venetian merchant Marco Polo made his groundbreaking visit to China 750 years ago, the most exciting of the many innovations the explorer saw there was “paper” money: currency that was representative of riches, as opposed to the riches themselves. The bills — made from the bark of mulberry trees — had been in circulation for 300 years in China when Polo brought the concept to Europe. Initially intended as IOUs for gold and silver that the government didn’t want falling into foreign hands, the bills came to be more theoretical as paper money less represented actual amounts of gold, silver and other riches and, instead, took on inherent value based on government backing.

Paper money proved an imperfect system — as evidenced by inflation — but, Harford writes, most economists believe it’s a vast improvement over a gold-based system.
“We may not always be able to trust central bankers to print just the right amount of new money,” Harford writes, “[but] it probably makes more sense than trusting miners to dig up just the right amount of new gold.”

In the first years of the 20th century, inventor King Camp Gillette invented the disposable razor blade — and accidentally set the wheels in motion for one of the more annoying features of our economy, known as two-part pricing.

Previously, shavers sharpened their steel razor when it got dull. After Gillette invented the disposable, customers had reason to buy their shaving equipment in two parts: the razor and the blade. This eventually led to the model of charging for an item, then requiring the customer to pay endlessly to keep it working. While you may enjoy having your morning coffee thanks to your Keurig, you probably enjoy continuously paying for coffee pods less. For that, you have Gillette to thank.

The apocryphal origin story of barbed wire has a man named John Warne Gates building a wire fence in San Antonio, Texas, in 1876, and betting locals that his fence could hold back “some of the toughest and wildest longhorns in all of Texas.” Gates reportedly won his bet, but gambling wins weren’t his true aim — he was promoting the new fence. (The barbed-wire salesman character in “Back to the Future III” is allegedly based on Gates.)

Before the invention of barbed wire, patented by Illinois businessman J.F. Glidden in 1874, the American West was a free-for-all, with no clear boundaries on property to hold off intruders or wild cattle. President Lincoln’s 1862 signing of the Homestead Act, which allowed Americans to claim up to 160 acres of land if they worked it for five years, promoted the concept of privately owned property. But until barbed wire, there was no way to enforce it.

There wasn’t enough wood to keep out trespassers or those who would try to claim the land out from under settlers, and other sorts of wire fence were destroyed by cattle. Barbed wire gave private ownership of property — a defining characteristic of our nation — a foothold in the American West.

When Stanford researchers prepared to present a paper on their findings regarding asymmetrical encryption — akin to using a code where the recipient of the information does not have the tools to decipher the code — in 1977, the US government was so rattled that it informed the researchers that sharing their findings would be “legally equivalent to exporting nuclear arms to a hostile foreign power.” The fear was that we could end up freely disseminating knowledge that would help foreign adversaries encode messages impossible for the US to crack.

In time, though, the government came to understand the technology’s practical applications and benefits. It is public-key cryptography that allows us to send confidential, private communication over the Internet. That’s not to say, however, that the government’s fears were unfounded, as this same technology allows drug dealers, terrorists and other unscrupulous types to communicate without prying eyes.

When Thomas Midgley, inventor of leaded gasoline, initially demonstrated it to the media in the 1920s, he did so by washing his hands with it, demonstrating its safety.

He neglected to mention that he’d just spent several months recovering from lead poisoning.
The US government bent over backward to convince the country that leaded gasoline was safe, despite all evidence to the contrary. Americans pumped it into their cars for almost 50 years before the Clean Air Act of 1970 marked the beginning of the end.

But here’s the shocker: Several decades later, economist Jessica Reyes noticed that “rates of violent crime were starting to go down.” Noting the effect of lead on children’s brains, this led to studies that correlated the removal of lead from society with a decrease in crime. Reyes concluded that “nationally, over half the drop in crime — 56 percent — was because of cars switching to unleaded gas.”

When Reyes later studied the cost of switching the nation’s cars to unleaded, she found that it “came to about 20 times less than the cost of all crime.”

In 1965, the average American woman spent four hours a day on household chores including cooking and cleaning. Today, that number is down to 45 minutes. While still more than American men, who average 15 minutes a day on these tasks, this drastic reduction is at least partially due to the invention of the TV dinner, which was introduced in 1954.

The TV dinner was invented by a bacteriologist named Betty Cronin, an employee of the Swanson food processing company who was “looking for ways to keep busy after the business of supplying rations to US troops dried up after World War II.” Freed from the time and responsibility of spending two to three hours a day preparing meals, American women entered the workforce in far greater numbers, secure in the knowledge that they would have food on the table come suppertime.

While sales of frozen dinners have fallen in recent years, you can see the evolutionary impact in other “ready meals,” including meal kits.

“The industrialization of food — symbolized by the TV dinner —freed women from hours of domestic chores, removing a large obstacle to their adopting serious professional careers,” Harford writes.

These have certainly gotten a bad rap in recent history, linked as they are to exploding cellphones and hoverboards. But without the invention of lithium-ion batteries — lightweight and highly reactive — mobile phones and laptops wouldn’t have had quite as monumental an impact on our lives.

Prior to Akira Yoshino in patenting the lithium-ion wonder in 1985, Motorola’s first phone weighted nearly two pounds because of its battery. And the charge lasted just 30 minutes.

The question is, what’s next it battery technology. As Harford writes, Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk is “building a gigantic lithium-ion factory in Nevada . . . betting that it can significantly wrestle down the costs of production.” The goal is not only to be used in charging electric cars but also battery packs that store energy collected by solar panels and can power our homes.

And in the past two weeks, there have been two promising developments: a solid-state alkaline battery from Sun Microsoft Systems and a zinc-air battery being developed at the University of Sydney, both claimed to be cheaper and safer than lithium-ion.

In documenting the earth-shattering importance of baby formula, Harford notes two depressing facts about American life in the 1800s.

“Before modern medicine, about one in 100 childbirths killed the mother,” he writes, also noting that, “in the early 1800s, only two in three babies who weren’t breastfed lived to see their first birthday.” Add to this that some women cannot breastfeed, and you can see that life itself was tenuous for newborns.

The invention of infant formula by German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1865 changed this, giving more babies a chance at a full life even if their mother couldn’t breastfeed or, worse, didn’t survive the birth.

In just two decades, Google has become so ubiquitous that researchers at the UK’s University of Lancaster found that the name/verb itself pops up in conversation more frequently than the word “death.” The access Google provides to information has changed the world and the economy in many ways. The introduction of pay-per-click advertising in 2001, Harford writes, marked the beginning of the decline of newspaper ad revenue and an overall change in the nature of media. But according to a study by the McKinsey consulting firm, Google search has had numerous positive effects on the economy.

For one thing, it makes finding new information at least three times faster than using sources of old, not counting travel time to and from a library. It’s also led to greater “price transparency,” meaning that being able to Google a price while in a store leads to a more level financial playing field.