With 680 ratings
By: Steven Johnson, George Newbern, et al.
Purchased At: $18.00
From the New York Times best-selling author of Where Good Ideas Come From and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new look at the power and legacy of great ideas.
In this volume, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation over centuries, tracing facets of modern life (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few) from their creation by hobbyists, amateurs, and entrepreneurs to their unintended historical consequences. Filled with surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes - from the French publisher who invented the phonograph before Edison but forgot to include playback, to the Hollywood movie star who helped invent the technology behind Wi-Fi and Bluetooth - How We Got to Now investigates the secret history behind the everyday objects of contemporary life.
In his trademark style, Johnson examines unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species - to cities such as Dubai or Phoenix, which would otherwise be virtually uninhabitable; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water made it possible to manufacture computer chips. Accompanied by a major six-part television series on PBS, How We Got to Now is the story of collaborative networks building the modern world, written in the provocative, informative, and engaging style that has earned Johnson fans around the globe.
It is important to note that “How We Got to Now” does not explore six discrete technical innovations. Rather, Johnson provides a basic synopsis of events across a half-dozen areas, such as sanitation, lighting, and food preservation. Early on, he introduces a fascinating concept: the hummingbird effect. Put simply, an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field that ends up triggering major changes in a different domain altogether. He coins the term from the sexual reproduction strategies of plants (e.g. flowers supplemented pollen with even more energy-rich nectar to attract insects) that ended up shaping the design of a hummingbird’s wings (i.e. evolving an extremely unusual form of flight mechanics enabling them to hover). The best example, in my opinion, is how the Gutenberg press generated a demand for eyeglasses that led to a broader experimentation with glass lens that led to the microscope and the subsequent discovery of microscopic cells. Or how the advent of air-conditioning had a “long zoom” impact on American politics. Or how the development of sonar to listen to sound waves bouncing off icebergs led, a few generations later, to ultrasound and the abortion of tens of millions of female fetuses in China and India.
The content of each chapter is relatively superficial but peppered with fascinating personal anecdotes about the discovery of important insights or commercialization of technical innovations. Here are some of my favorites.
In the early 1900s, Clarence Birdseye was living in the frozen land of Labrador, Canada. He discovered that trout caught while ice fishing, which froze solid almost instantly in the minus 20-degree temperature of the Canadian winter, retained their flavor when later defrosted. Thus, the value of “flash freezing” was discovered and today we still enjoy “Birdseye” frozen peas for dinner.
In 1908, New Jersey doctor John Leal surreptitiously added chlorine to the public water reservoirs for Jersey City. His patent- and licensing-free discovery of a simple way to provide clean drinking water may be one of the greatest public health contributions in history. A recent study found that chlorinated water reduced the total mortality in the average American city from diseases like dysentery and cholera by 43% and reduced infant mortality by as much as 74%.
In the 1850s, Aaron Dennison, “the Lunatic of Boston,” mass-produced an inexpensive ($3.50) pocket watch, branded the “Wm. Ellery,” that was “the must-have consumer gadget of the late nineteenth century,” according to Johnson. Richard Sears, a Minnesota railroad agent, found that he could turn a nice profit selling the watches to other station agents. He partnered with Chicago businessman Alvah Roebuck to produce a mail-order catalog showcasing a range of watch designs, and Sears. Roebuck was born – and so was another example of the hummingbird effect.
A major theme of the book is that Johnson is deeply suspicious of the “great man theory” and “eureka moment” of invention. Consider the case of electric light. People had been tinkering with incandescent light for more than half-a-century before Thomas Edison’s breakthrough at Menlo Park in 1879. More than ten different inventors had earlier hit upon the same basic formula of a carbon filament suspended in a vacuum. “There was no lightbulb moment in the story of the lightbulb,” Johnson writes. Instead, the lightbulb, like most other technical innovations, was the result of a “slow hunch” that took years, sometimes decades, to germinate and mature. In Johnson’s estimation, “Edison invented the lightbulb the way Steve Jobs invented the MP3 player.” He made it reliable, easy to use, and widely available. If anything, Johnson says, Edison should be remembered for his contribution to the process of innovation, his efforts to collect a cross-disciplinary team to conduct a wide range of related research and development. The “invention” of Edison’s lightbulb was thus mostly about sweating the details and what Johnson calls “a bricolage of small improvements.” He acknowledges that Edison was a “true genius” and “a towering figure in nineteenth century innovation,” but that he should most be revered for his ability to build creative teams: “assembling diverse skills in a work environment that valued experimentation and accepted failure, incentivizing the group with financial rewards that were aligned with the overall success of the organization, and building on ideas that originated elsewhere.”
“How We Got to Now” is a fun, light read. Each chapter is colorfully illustrated and chopped up into several parts, each highlighting a part of the innovation chain that leads to the modern day. A week on your nightstand is probably all that it will take to enjoy this book.
Though we may deem some knowledge as random, no knowledge is truly random when you pull back far enough. Everything is interconnected in some way and many times they are connected in very unexpected ways.
In How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson you get a fascinating image of our world. The butterfly effect is a popular notion used to describe how one seemingly arbitrary event can have a significant impact across the planet. Johnson, however, uses a more accurate and more powerful notion: the hummingbird effect. As he puts it, we can understand a world with flowers but no hummingbirds, but we cannot comprehend a world with hummingbirds but no flowers. The anatomy of a hummingbird exists because the flower exists, the flower does not depend on the hummingbird.
Technology is similar to a hummingbird, most technologies could not exist without something else. Ideas for computers, batteries, and engines have been around for ages but without existing technology the ideas had to stay dormant.
This book is flat out one of the most interesting books I have ever read. It is amazing how simple ideas have given way to technological revolutions. It is amazing to see how much technology has evolved in a matter of two centuries. For millennia light only came in one form: fire. For millennia information only travelled at the speed of a man’s gait. For millennia a man never saw his reflection. Today, that and so much more has changed.
It is so easy to forget how simple innovations have changed the world, and it is easy to forget how much the world has changed.
This is a fascinating journey of discovery as, together with him, we explore ideas and thoughts, re-evaluate preconceptions and learn loads of interesting stuff along the way.
Well-written, immediately engaging and very enjoyable, this book gets us to reconsider the development of history through everyday things and look at life from a different perspective.
I am all the better informed from having read it - great stuff.