Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford
Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford
Om Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford
We tell our children unsettling fairy tales to teach them valuable lessons, but these Cautionary Tales are for the education of the grown ups – and they are all true. Tim Harford (Financial Times, BBC, author of “The Data Detective”) brings you stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, and hilarious fiascos. They'll delight you, scare you, but also make you wiser. New episodes every other Friday.
In the 1920s, Germany’s Society for Spaceship Travel boasted some of the sharpest scientific minds – like the incandescently brilliant young Wernher von Braun. But it had very little money, and progress was slow. Then, in 1932, the army made a proposal: it would fund more serious research if the enthusiasts at the Society would develop a rocket weapon. Despite a string of failures to launch, von Braun was able to convince key powerbrokers in Nazi Germany that they couldn’t afford to ignore rocket technology. How did he do it? And what happened when the murderous Heinrich Himmler made a play for the rocket program? For a full list of sources for this episode, visit timharford.com. Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to email@example.com and we'll do our best to answer it in a Q&A episode. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
At the height of World War Two, British intelligence began receiving reports that the enemy was developing a rocket weapon. The idea seemed fantastical — resources in Nazi Germany were scarce and a rocket-building program defied economic logic. But one intelligence chief took the reports of a rocket weapon seriously and he managed to convince Winston Churchill to heed the threat too. The British Prime Minister gave the order to bomb Germany’s rocket factory to rubble, and 600 bomber planes embarked on a full-scale attempt to obliterate it. From the air, the damage appeared devastating. The British thought they had succeeded in crushing the rocket-building program. But they were wrong. For a full list of sources, see the show notes at timharford.com. Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
One speechmaker inspired millions with his words, the other utterly destroyed his own multi-million-dollar business with just a few phrases. Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr (played by Jeffrey Wright of American Fiction, Westworld and The Hunger Games) and jewelry store owner Gerald Ratner offer a stark contrast on when you should stick to the script - and when you should take a risk. We're taking a short rest on Cautionary Tales this January. We'll be back again in February, with a treasure chest of gripping, hair-raising tales for your ears. While you wait, we wanted to share some classic episodes from the Cautionary Vault - this is one of our favorites. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Torrey Canyon was one of the biggest and best ships in the world - but its captain and crew still needlessly steered it towards a deadly reef known as the Seven Stones. This course seemed like madness, but the type of thinking that resulted in this risky maneuver is something we're all prone to... We have a treasure chest of Cautionary Tales to bring you in 2024, but first we need to take a short rest. This week we're taking you all the way back to the start, with a classic episode from our Cautionary Tales vault. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Teaser: In 1977, two planes collided on the runway at Tenerife Airport. Why did the crash happen? And, given that it took place on the ground, why didn't more people escape? In this new two-parter, Tim Harford explores the most deadly aviation accident in history. Both episodes are available now, ad-free, exclusively for subscribers to Pushkin+. If you're not already a subscriber, you can sign up for Pushkin+ on our Apple podcasts show page, or at pushkin.fm/plus. Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to email@example.com and we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
What if you could never have the same day off as your family and friends? Would you quit your job? What if it was the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin giving you the order? The Soviet Union wanted its factories to run every day, all year long. And so, in 1929, Stalin killed the weekend: workers were prevented from all taking the same day off at the same time. In this crossover episode of Cautionary Tales and The Happiness Lab, Tim Harford and Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos tell the story of Stalin's curious, calendar-reshaping experiment. They explore what it can teach us about time off even today, and why the holidays matter so very much. For a full list of sources, visit timharford.com. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Cautionary Book Club: Mollie Maggia's dentist planned to remove a painful abscess from her mouth. But to his horror, her jawbone disintegrated at his touch, crumbling and splintering until it resembled ash. Like hundreds of her colleagues, Mollie had been slowly poisoned by her work with glowing radium dust. Eight months after her first toothache, she was dead. In the previous episode, Cautionary Tales told the story of the "Radium Girls". Their employers ignored the horrific side effects of these women's work, resorting to obfuscation and even outright lies to deny their claims that they were getting sick. In this follow-up interview, Tim Harford sits down with Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. Tim and Kate discuss how the women banded together and worked out what was happening to them, as well as how they fought back against their powerful bosses and their monumental legacy. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
In Goiânia, Brazil, a junk dealer acquires an old medical device from two scrap-metal scavengers. The device itself isn't useful, but it comes with precious lead which will fetch him good money. There's something else inside the device, too: a curious, crystal-like substance that glows bright blue in the dark. At first, the dealer is mesmerized by it: he wants to turn it into jewelry for his wife. But, everyone who comes into contact with the magical glitter seems to get sick. His own family succumbs to nausea and vomiting. A doctor suggests food poisoning - but this isn't like any food poisoning they've ever known before. And soon, the whole city is contaminated. No-one saw this horrifying radiation accident coming. Should they have? For a full list of sources, please see the show notes at timharford.com. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Cautionary Conversation: Just before Christmas 1799, President George Washington was riding around his country estate, Mount Vernon, when it began to snow. When he arrived home, guests were waiting for him. Known for his punctuality, he hurried to entertain them - still clad in his damp clothes. The next morning, Washington had a sore throat and a chesty cough. His family decided to take a fateful step: they summoned a doctor. Tim Harford is joined by comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, hosts of the hugely popular history podcast The Dollop. They discuss the parade of doctors that tended to the ailing Washington, and the various remedies they prescribed - from lamb's blood to a collar of beetles. Tim, Dave and Gareth also look at what happened when cars first hit the streets in the early twentieth century: why did so many cars "turn turtle"? Who were the first jaywalkers? And which British inventor rode around in a giant white stiletto? See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
William the Conqueror undertook a remarkably modern project. In 1086, he began compiling and storing a detailed record of his realm: of where everyone lived, what they did and where they came from. 900 years later, the BBC began its own Domesday project, sending school children out to conduct a community survey and collect facts about Britain. This was a people’s database, two decades before Wikipedia. But just a few years later, that interactive digital database was totally unreadable, the information lost. We tend to take archives for granted — but preservation doesn't happen by accident; digitisation doesn’t mean that something will last forever. And the erasure of the historical record can have disastrous consequences for humanity... For a full list of sources, please see the show notes at timharford.com. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Henry Roan has been shot through the back of his head. The local authorities have found his body slumped over the steering wheel of his car. There's no gun at the scene: this is no suicide - it's brutal murder. And the man who ordered Henry Roan's killing? He claims to be his best friend... Former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation Jim Roan Gray joins Tim Harford to speak about his great-grandfather Henry Roan. They also discuss the Osage Nation today and Jim's take on the new film Killers of the Flower Moon, directed by Martin Scorsese. This episode of Cautionary Tales was produced in association with Apple Original Films. Killers of the Flower Moon stars William Belleau as Henry Roan, Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. Do you have a question for Tim? Please email any queries you might have, however big or small, to firstname.lastname@example.org. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Minnie Smith grew sick quite suddenly. She had been young, fit and healthy - and the doctors were baffled when she died. "A peculiar wasting illness," they called it. Then, her sister Anna went missing. Her rotting corpse was found a week later, a bullet hole through her skull. When a third sister, Rita, was blown up in her own bed, a grim pattern was clear: the family was being targeted. Lawman Tom White strode into town to investigate - and uncovered a vicious plot that chilled him to the bone... This episode is based on David Grann's book, Killers of the Flower Moon, and is the first of two cautionary tales produced in association with Apple Original Films. The film of the same title is in movie theaters now. It's directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. Next week, we'll hear more on this story from former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation Jim Roan Gray. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
This week, we've twice the storytelling fun for you: two Cautionary Tales shorts, previously only available to Pushkin+ subscribers. A Monkey for Mayor: It was supposed to be a publicity stunt, but when the man who dressed as Hartlepool United’s monkey mascot stood in a mayoral election... he won. Actual politicians predicted disaster - since thousands of workers and millions of dollars were now in the hands of a complete novice. But H’Angus the Monkey proved to be a more effective leader than anyone had predicted, raising interesting questions about how we select the best people to be our managers and our mayors. And A Screw Loose At 17,000 Feet: Can you tell the difference between an A211-7D bolt and an A211-8C? Well, nor could the tired and stressed engineer fitting a cockpit windshield to Flight 5390. The difference is tiny, but the consequences of muddling them up - which played out at 17,000 ft - were dramatic. Such design flaws are common - and result in far more loose aircraft windows than you would imagine. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Why are board games so popular in Germany? What’s Tim Harford’s top tip for productivity? And where do all those sound effects come from? Tim is joined by Cautionary Tales’ very own wizard of sound Pascal Wyse, to read your emails and answer your questions. Do you have a question for Tim? Please email any queries you might have, however big or small, to email@example.com. Please note that some emails in this episode have been edited for length. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
1957. Jørn Utzon receives a phone call: he's just won an international competition to design a brand new opera house for the Australian city of Sydney. Utzon is unknown in the field, so this is a triumph. The young architect couldn’t have imagined what a bitter victory it would turn out to be... The Guggenheim in Bilbao; the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; the Shard in London. These days, everyone seems to want an iconic building. But Sydney Opera House was the first, the greatest – and the most painful. It's now fifty years since the Opera House was opened. This is its origin story. For a full list of sources, please see the show notes at timharford.com. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Cautionary Book Club: When Morgan Stanley offered to lease Chicago's parking meters for the princely sum of $1 billion, the City Council were convinced that they had struck gold. They hastily signed the deal. But they soon learnt that they hadn't just traded away parking revenue - they had traded away the streets themselves... In this hybrid episode of Cautionary Tales, Tim Harford first tells the story of the Chicago parking metres fiasco of 2008. In the second half, Tim is joined by Henry Grabar, author of Paved Paradise, to discuss the lessons we can glean from Chicago's deal with Wall Street, and why parking is such an emotive issue for so many. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
1812. A band of "Luddites" is laying siege to a textile mill in the North of England, under cover of night. They plan to destroy the machines that are replacing their jobs. But mill owner William Cartwright is prepared: he's fortified his factory with skilled marksmen, fearsome eighteen-inch metal spikes and barrels of sulphuric acid. Today "Luddite" is a term of mockery — a description for someone who's scared of technology. But in 1812, Luddism was no laughing matter for the likes of Cartwright. And he plans to teach the intruders a lesson. For a full list of sources for this episode, please visit timharford.com. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Cautionary Conversation: Andy Warhol’s assistant, Gerard Malanga, is facing a long prison sentence in Italy. He’s forged several Che Guevara portraits and tried to pass them off as genuine Warhols. What happens next is a landmark event in the history of art and authenticity… Tim Harford is joined by Alice Sherwood, author of Authenticity, to discuss truth and fakery in modern times. Today, authenticity seems to matter more than ever — and yet we’re also constantly assailed by people and products that are not what they seem. What’s going on here? And what’s the attention economy got to do with it? See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Heroic explorer Frederick Cook has just returned from the very roof of the world, the first man to reach the North Pole. Or so he says. Journalist Philip Gibbs has been watching him, and he’s convinced he’s lying. When Gibbs publishes that belief, he stands alone. Cook has a gripping manner and an excellent reputation: his winning tale must be true. Diners boo Gibbs at a restaurant, newspapers publish sly-looking caricatures of him, and he even receives threats of violence. But then, everything changes. We often think of polarisation as a modern problem — but the story of Cook and Gibbs has much to teach us here. For a full list of sources for this episode, please visit timharford.com. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.
Cautionary Conversation: Did a Nazi put America on the moon? To celebrate the launch of his mini-series on the V-2 rocket, Tim Harford sits down with Pushkin’s resident V-2 expert, Ryan Dilley. They discuss the so-called “Father of Space Travel”, Wernher von Braun, and satirist Tom Lehrer’s musical lampooning of him. A three-part mini series on the V-2 rocket is available now for Pushkin+ subscribers. We’ll be back again on August 4th with a brand new episode of Cautionary Tales on the main feed. See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.