Beginning tonight, public television stations in the United States will broadcast a four-part series from economist and historian Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money. This is an expanded version of a documentary that first aired in January.

Here’s a description of The Ascent of Money from the official site:

For millions of people, the recession has generated a thirst for knowledge about how our global economic system really works, especially when so many financial experts seem to be equally baffled. In THE ASCENT OF MONEY, economist, author and historian Ferguson offers insight into these questions by taking viewers step-by-step through the milestones of the financial history that created this system, visiting the locations where key events took place and poring over actual ledgers and documents — such as the first publicly traded share of a company — that would change human history.

Ferguson maintains that the history of money is indeed at the core of our human history, with economic strength determining political dominance, wars fought to create wealth and individual financial barons determining the fates of millions.

Apparently, PBS will also be posting each episode online for free. The first installment, “From Bullion to Bubbles”, is already available. I watched it this morning. It’s fascinating.

Geekiness: For 20+ years (since high school), I’ve wanted to know why most of the world uses Arabic numerals. Nobody has ever been able to give me an answer. In this show, Ferguson explains the source of this standard!

Ferguson suggests that financial history is the fundamental background to all history. “From Mesopotamia right down to day, the ascent of Money has been an indispensable part of the ascent of Man,” he says, adding: “Without the invention of credit, the entire economic history of our world would have been impossible.”

What I find especially interesting about The Ascent of Money is the way in which it ties together bits of history that are largely unrelated in my mind. It’s sort of like Connections, but solely about money. (I knew some of these things from The Four Pillars of Investing, but The Ascent of Money paints a broader picture.)

The first part of The Ascent of Money was interesting enough that I plan to watch the other three episodes as they’re made available online. To be honest, though, I felt like the narrative wandered at times. I’m curious if the original two-hour version (already available on DVD) might not be more effective.

If you’re interested in this show, you can check the PBS website to see when it airs on your local public television station. (Here in Portland, the four parts air Wednesday nights at 9pm starting today.) You might also try to watch some similar shows from the past, including:

Did anyone catch The Ascent of Money when the original version was broadcast in January? What did you think? And am I the only one around here fascinated by the history of money?

This article is about Basics, Economics, Odds and Ends