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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.






Glowing Peril: The Magical Glitter That Poisoned a City

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 See for privacy information.


George Washington's Beard of Beetles (with The Dollop)

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 for privacy information.


Laser Versus Parchment: Doomsday for the Disc

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 See for privacy information.


Cautionary Tales Presents The Dream

On The Dream, host Jane Marie gets to know the life coaches and gurus who claim they know the secret to living our best lives. Is it all in our mindset? Or our privilege? Or are we all under a spell? Tim Harford is joined by Jane Marie to talk about who coaching works least well for. Turns out it’s the exact people who could benefit most from it, according to the industry. Dr. Sherman James and Dr. Arline Geronimus discuss the downsides of positive thinking, bootstrapping, and mindset culture. For some people, striving has negative impacts on health and happiness. See for privacy information.


Killers of the Flower Moon: Osage Chief Jim Gray In Conversation

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 See for privacy information.


Oil and Blood: The Osage Murders

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 for privacy information.


DOUBLE BILL: A Monkey For Mayor / A Screw Loose At 17,000 Feet

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 for privacy information.


"7000 horses are being flown across space..." - Cautionary Questions #2

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 Please note that some emails in this episode have been edited for length. See for privacy information.


Cautionary Tales Presents: Getting out of Dodge from Revisionist History

The longest running television series of the 20th century was Gunsmoke, a western set in the notorious Dodge City, Kansas. Malcolm sweeps away mountains of legal scholarship to make a bold claim: The simplest explanation for the Supreme’s Court’s puzzling run of gun rights decisions may be that the justices watched too much Gunsmoke when they were growing up. Enjoy this episode from Revisionist History, another Pushkin Industries podcast. See for privacy information.


A Chorus of Contempt at The Sydney Opera House

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 See for privacy information.


The City That Sold Itself To Wall Street

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 for privacy information.


General Ludd's Rage Against the Machines

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 See for privacy information.


Andy Warhol's Factory of Truth

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 for privacy information.


Poles Apart: How A Journalist Divided A City

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 See for privacy information.


The Father of Space Travel

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 for privacy information.


A Fascination with Failure: Death On The Dancefloor (Classic)

Henry Petroski is one of Tim Harford's favourite fellow nerds. His study of engineering failures has profoundly influenced Tim's own writing, including the classic Cautionary Tales episode Death on the Dance Floor. Petroski passed away in June 2023, at the age of 81. This week, in honour of the late great engineer, Tim looks back at the catastrophic Kansas City Hyatt Regency disaster of 1981. The hotel's space-age sky walks -- 60 tonnes of glass, concrete and steel -- crashed down onto the heads of revellers in the atrium below. 114 people died. What was to blame? For a full list of sources for this episode, please visit See for privacy information.


When Parakeets Plundered New York

Cautionary Conversation: An invasive parakeet species began spreading in New York City - and the government decided to kill every last bird. Tim Harford is joined by Ben Naddaff-Hafrey, host of The Last Archive, to talk about the great parakeet panic of the 1970s and a history of anxieties about population growth. See for privacy information.


The Coup, the Poet and the Secret to Winning Wimbledon

“If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss..." Those words - from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" - were based on charismatic nineteenth century doctor, Leander Starr Jameson. In Britain, Jameson was worshipped as a plucky hero: a bastion of courage and mental fortitude. Ironically, he was also responsible for the Jameson Raid, a South African coup that was an unmitigated disaster. Kipling's champion might have spearheaded a fiasco - but could the poem "If" hold clues for triumph in another arena? See for privacy information.


The Man Who Played With Hurricanes

Today, the idea of controlling the weather is controversial. Scientists who research geoengineering have even received death threats. But once upon a time, people were optimistic about remaking the climate in entire regions of the world. They approached this science with a touching faith in the power of human creativity. Absent-minded genius Irving Langmuir was one such scientist. He dreamt of making deserts bloom and conjuring rain from an arid sky. He even believed that his experiments with a hurricane had succeeded in redirecting its path. Why did we stop trying to control the weather? And might geoengineering help us solve climate change - or have we missed our chance? For a full list of sources, please visit See for privacy information.


Cautionary Tales Presents: Lost Hills - The Dark Prince

Today, we're sharing an episode of the gripping Pushkin series Lost Hills: The Dark Prince. The brand-new season takes a deep dive into the surf world to explore the legacy of Malibu's Dark Prince: Miki Dora. A surfer known for his style, grace and aggression, he ruled Malibu from the 1950s to the 1970s. Celebrated for his rebellious spirit, he was also a conman who led the FBI on a 7-year manhunt around the world. Episodes 1 and 2 are out now: And of course, if you'd like to binge all of the season 3 episodes early and ad free, make sure you subscribe to Pushkin+. See for privacy information.