April 15, 2015

When you think about great inventions that utterly transformed the world, your mind probably jumps to the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine… even the computer. 

Well, here's another one to add to the list: the F1 hybrid camel. William Bernstein, author of A Splendid Exchange, says the breeding of this particular camel - capable of literally carrying a ton of goods across the desert - changed the way humans traded property, and thereby changed the world.

The camel is simply one of the myriad discoveries and inventions that have shaped trade - and that were spread by trade. Innovations, Bernstein argues, are disseminated three ways.

The first is through communication and media; Edison came up with the lightbulb (or lifted a design from Nikola Tesla), and the world learned about it from newsreels, newspapers and the telegraph. 

The second is through war; armies have discovered huge leaps in technology when they encountered them on the battlefield, like the way Central Europe found out about gunpowder when the Mongols invaded.

The third way that innovations are spread - and one of the most important - is trade.

The wheel, for instance, appeared suddenly around 3500 BC, in three different places across the globe: Central Europe, the North Caucasus, and Mesopotamia. Berstein argues these almost-simultaneous appearances were due to trade: goods were wheeled across the land, and the concept of the wheel came with them.

From the wheel, to the camel, to our globalized economy, trade has been a monumental force in our daily lives. Bernstein believes this march of trade has been, overall, positive for society. “The average American spends 7-8% of their budget on groceries and a relatively small amount on clothes. Well, those ate up 100% of your budget 100 years ago.”

Though it has lowered the costs of goods and touched every single part of our consumer society, trade hasn’t really spread inventions and discoveries as much in the past century, thanks to the development of communications technology. With the printing press, telegraph (which Bernstein describes as “the Victorian Internet”), telephone, radio, and the web, it’s gotten easier than ever to connect with people and ideas across the world.

You don’t need to breed an F1 camel anymore. And that makes Bernstein excited: “If you become interested in an obscure area of the sciences, you can find the two or three world experts, you can get their email addresses. The amazing thing is, unless they’re really famous, most of them will respond to you.”

Though, if you’re like me, you’ll have just a slight twinge of nostalgia for the humble humped mammal. Or not.

Culture, William Bernstein, trade, Kara Miller, Sci and Tech

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