Support 100 years of independent journalism.

Patented: History of Inventions is perfect fact-of-the-day fodder

In finding out the origin stories of the innovations that power our lives, this podcast also reveals the power of collaboration.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Every so often a radio show comes along that seems tailor-made for showing off at dinner parties. The award-winning Freakonomics podcast is one; Tim Harford’s More or Less is another. And now we have Patented: History of Inventions, in which the presenter Dallas Campbell speaks to experts to find out how the innovations that power our lives really came about.

First up is the science writer and Tory peer Matt Ridley on the steam train, invented by George Stephenson in 1825. Or was it? Ridley encourages us not to think of inventions as “great leaps” of technological advancement, but rather a gradual, collaborative process that results in world-changing progress. He is as interested in other transport revolutions as he is in trains, pointing out that the Wright brothers’ first motor-powered flight in 1903 was only possible thanks to the work of other pioneers across the world who were studying kites, birds and wind tunnels. “Innovation is a collective phenomenon that happens between, not within, brains,” we are told. “Even if you are the inventor of something, you don’t know how to make the ingredients.”

Later, we’re treated to some predictions of what breakthroughs we might expect in our lifetimes: the Hyperloop (no), further revolutions in telecommunications (also no), commercial space travel (probably not). Ridley thinks we will see huge progress in biotech and medical science, now that the potential of genetic engineering is finally being realised. This segues nicely into episode two, in which Campbell chats to the geneticist Adam Rutherford about why gene editing is like hip-hop music. Future episodes promise to consider military drones, condoms and the concept of zero. But I’ve already got the killer fact for my next dinner party ready: when umbrellas were first introduced, they were fiercely opposed by hansom cab drivers worried that this new invention would disrupt their livelihoods by encouraging walking. Some things never change.

Patented: History of Inventions

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Content from our partners
Our common endeavour
Why economic growth needs the right leaders
Why ports are the gateway to growth

This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain