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Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

History Podcasts

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.


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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.






Office Hell: the Demise of the Playful Workspace

In the early 90s, cutting-edge advertising agency Chiat/Day announced a radical plan, aimed at giving the company a jolt of creative renewal. They would sweep away corner offices and cubicles and replace them with zany open spaces, as well as innovative portable computers and phones. A brand new era of “hot-desking” had arrived. Problems quickly began. Disgruntled employees found themselves hauling temperamental, clunky laptops and armfuls of paperwork all over the office; some even had to...


La La Land: Galileo’s Warning (Classic)

With the 95th Academy Awards just around the corner, Tim Harford looks back at a basic lesson. Galileo tried to teach us that adding more and more layers to a system intended to avert disaster often makes catastrophe all the more likely. This principle has been ignored in nuclear power plants, financial markets and at the Oscars... all resulting in chaos. For a full list of sources for this episode, go to Listener questions Tim is taking your questions. Do you have any...


The Scientist and the Swindler

Cautionary Conversation: Celebrated physicist Professor Paul Frampton was on his way to Brussels to meet the love of his life, swimwear model Denise Milani. Or so he thought. When he found himself in jail, he realized he’d fallen prey to a confidence trickster. Tim Harford is joined by Maria Konnikova - journalist, psychologist and best-selling author - to talk about swindlers: what motivates them; what they look for in their victims; and how to avoid being conned altogether. Listener...


The Hero Who Rode His Segway Off a Cliff

Steve Jobs called It “the most amazing piece of technology since the PC.” According to Jeff Bezos It was not only “revolutionary,” but infinitely commercial. It was a fiendishly clever and massively hyped invention. But in the end It — also known as the Segway — was a failure. What makes an invention useful and valuable? Jimi Heselden’s pragmatic brainchild the Concertainer might hold the answers. First used to shore up the collapsing walls of a canal, it ultimately solved problems that...


The Mummy's Curse (Classic)

A hundred years ago, the Tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun was officially opened - despite the widely held belief that disturbing the remains of the Egyptian pharaohs could incur a deadly curse. Why did a team of archeologists risk inciting the wrath of King Tutankhamun by entering his burial chamber? And how many of them met a premature end for their impudence? For a full list of sources for this episode, go to If you’d like to keep up with the most recent news from this and...


The Final Illusion of the Great Lafayette

Golden sparks are raining down on the Great Lafayette’s famous vaudeville show, “The Lion’s Bride”. They look like they’re part of the performance. They aren’t — and soon the theater is ablaze. The manager has to figure out how to save the 3000 audience members, now trapped in a burning building. Thirty-five years earlier, the Brooklyn Theatre had gone up in flames too. The terrified spectators became a frantic, trampling mass, and hundreds perished in the flames and smoke. Panic in an...


LIVE: The Myth of the Million Dollar Tulip Bulb

Recorded before an audience at the Bristol Festival of Economics (11/17/2022) The Dutch went so potty over tulip bulbs in the 1600s that many were ruined when the inflated prices they were paying for the plants collapsed - that's the oft-repeated story later promoted by best-selling Scottish writer Charles Mackay. It's actually a gross exaggeration. Mackay's writings about economic bubbles bursting entertained and informed his Victorian readers - and continue to influence us today - but...


DOUBLE BILL: When a Plague Struck World of Warcraft/Blood on the Tracks

As a special New Year treat we're presenting two Cautionary Tales Shorts - which have previously only been available to paying Apple and Pushkin+ subscribers. When a Plague Struck World of Warcraft: The makers of WoW wanted to spice up the fantasy computer game by introducing a virtual disease - "Corrupted Blood". It was supposed to be a fun challenge for expert player - but the illness became a pandemic which wiped out villages, cities and then whole realms. AND Blood on the Tracks: The...


"Snow Crashing Into The Metaverse" from Imaginary Worlds

This week, we’re sharing an episode of Imaginary Worlds. For the last 30 years, the real world has been catching up to Neal Stephenson’s vision of the future in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, which influenced the creators of Google Earth, Second Life, Oculus Rift and more. Now the centerpiece of the novel, a virtual world called The Metaverse, may become a daily part of our lives thanks to Facebook (renamed Meta) and other big tech companies. In this episode of Imaginary Worlds, host Eric...


The Company That Cancelled Christmas

More than 100,000 families - many of them amongst the poorest in Britain - put money aside for Christmas gifts and other seasonal treats in a savings club called Farepak. It wasn't a bank, and it wasn't great value for money... and it went bust. Kids went without toys, and festive dinner tables were left bare. Why would someone put their hard-earned money into such a scheme? And what does it tell us about how we often view Christmas as a time for frenzied spending? For a full list of...


The Wild Turkeys of Schleswig

There are eight American turkeys painted on the walls of Schleswig's Cathedral of St Peter - which is odd... since the frescoes were created two centuries before Columbus even crossed the Atlantic. How did the creatures come to be added to the medieval Biblical scene? Was this proof that the Germans reached the Americas before Columbus? Or do the painted birds tell a different story all together? For a full list of sources used in this episode visit Tim See...


Cautionary Conversation: The Blitz Spirit and the Blackout Ripper

In a crisis most people respond with decency and solidarity. The bombing of British cities in the Second World War did not cause society to crumble as was expected, but proved instead human resilience. That defiant "Blitz Spirit" is still a source of pride for Britons... but have inconvenient facts about that time been ignored? Alice Fiennes (co-host of the podcast Bad Women: The Blackout Ripper) explains that the chaos and disruption of the bombing allowed some people to commit awful...


The Inventor Who Almost Ended the World

Thomas Midgley's inventions caused his own death, hastened the deaths of millions of people around the world, and very nearly extinguished all life on land. Midgley and his employers didn't set out to poison the air with leaded gasoline or wreck the ozone layer with CFCs - but while these dire consequences were unintended... could they have been anticipated? For a full list of sources used in this episode visit Tim See for privacy information.


The Halloween Poisoner

Candy laced with cyanide and needles in marshmallows, we've long been warned to be suspicious of the sweet treats handed out by strangers at Halloween. But it seems that most stories of "Halloween sadism" are just that, stories. No child seems to have been killed by adulterated Halloween candy... well... there is one terrible exception. The poisoned Pixy Stix of Pasadena, TX. For a full list of sources used in this episode visit Tim See for privacy...


Cautionary Conversation: The Conspiracy Theorist Who Changed His Mind

Charlie Veitch was certain that 9/11 was an inside job. The attack on the World Trade Center wasn't the work of Al-Qaeda, but an elaborate conspiracy. He became a darling of so-called "9/11 truthers" - until he actually visited Ground Zero to meet architects, engineers and the relatives of the dead. The trip changed his mind... there was no conspiracy. His fellow "truthers" did not take Charlie's conversion well. David McRaney (host of You Are Not So Smart and author of How Minds Change:...


Cautionary Tales Presents: Warfare, The Life of Anne Frank

This week, it's an episode from Warfare, a podcast from our friends at History Hit. It's 1942. The year Anne Frank and her family went into hiding during the Second World War. It was there that Anne began keeping a diary that would become one of the most recognisable testimonies of the Jewish war-time experiences. But what do we know of her life before the war? Host James Rogers explores the Franks' lives before the outbreak of war, and why this story is still so relevant today. You can...


The Online Date That's Too Good to be True

Single and looking for love, Dr Robert Epstein found himself chatting with a slim, attractive brunette online. She seemed perfect... perhaps even too good to be true. Dr Epstein is an expert on artificial conversation - so surely he'd be the last person to fall for a computer? Chatbots fool us more often than we think... especially when they replicate our very worst conversational habits. To read more on this topic try Brian Christian’s “The Most Human Human”. For a full list of sources go...


A Leap of Faith From the Eiffel Tower

Inventor Franz Reichelt wants to test his novel "parachute suit" from as tall a structure as possible - and the Eiffel Tower seems ideal. Previous trial runs used a mannequin strapped to the chute and have not ended well. Despite this, his plan is to make the Eiffel Tower jump himself. Can he be persuaded to see sense? Self-experimentation - particularly in the field of medicine - has a long and checkered history. Can we learn anything useful from such unorthodox experiments, or are they...


Cautionary Conversation: Flying on Empty

A meter is longer than a yard. An ounce is heavier than a gram. We harmlessly mix them up sometimes, but a "unit conversion error" when you're filling up the fuel tanks of an airliner can be fatal. Which is exactly what happened to Air Canada Flight 143. Tim Harford talks to mathematician and comedian Matt Parker about how the aircraft came to take off without the proper fuel load, how no one noticed until it was too late, and why such errors give us an insight into just how important maths...


Tim Talks Bicycles with Patented

Invented in the mid-1800s, bicycles have had enduring popularity. Across cultures, they have been embraced, promising freedom and mobility at a lower price point. Tim joins Dallas Campbell on Patented: History of Inventions, to discuss the history of the bicycle, from the invention story through to bicycle booms, the C5 Sinclair and the rise of dockless bike sharing schemes. If you're interested in the stories behind the world's greatest inventions - from the mighty steam train to the...