Why bother trying to summarise the whole economic history of the world, from the earliest commerce in ancient Mesopotamia to Donald Trump’s trade wars, in a single middleweight volume? The point, I suppose, is to establish, taking the longest possible perspective, what works and what doesn’t: which natural advantages, inventions, political structures and events have nudged nations towards prosperity, which have impoverished them and which mistakes we should strive never to make again.
Philip Coggan, a former Financial Times journalist, has had a pretty good go at this herculean task, producing an accessible book that’s packed with amazing facts, a veritable compendium of answers to questions you might find in an advanced pub quiz for social historians and anthropologists. To pick a random example, who knew that ‘as early as 1700, 13% of [British] domestic servants owned a watch’ but that by the end of the 18th century, ‘40% of those deemed paupers owned either a watch or a clock’?
This is one small illustration of the impact technological innovation can have. Coggan’s other case studies take in everything from horse collars and spectacles to canals, steamships, electrification, refrigeration and, of course, the internet. The most significant new technologies have brought about quantum leaps in productivity and spectacular falls in