How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
The modern American home is a veritable wonderland of technical innovations: clean water on demand, central heating and air conditioning, wireless Internet and telephony, flat screen electronics, and inexpensive lighting, to name just a few. “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World” by popular science writer Steven Johnson describes, at a high level, how that wonderland came together over the centuries.
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.