Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World

by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books    2014
293 pages     Nonfiction

Steven Johnson has created an eminently readable adventure into the history of innovation with How We Got to Now. Johnson has a unique way of looking at all the scattered fragments of innovation that come to the point that something new is created. He looks at six concepts that we pretty much take for granted: glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light and shows how inventions and innovations, logical and technological, came from those basic concepts.  
  For example, Johnson connects the invention of the printing press to the invention of glasses to the microscope to the invention of fiberglass to fiberoptic cables. See the connection? Or, how the invention of the mirror turns society from outward looking to inward looking. He tells the story of a man who built ships to take ice to the Caribbean in the early 1800s, and then he explains how that need for cold created the air conditioning and refrigeration that we now take for granted. I am old enough to remember the ice chest that we had at our cabin and the ice house on the other side of the island where we went to get blocks of ice, cut out of the lake in the winter by the iceman. 

Have you ever thought about how your city got their sewers? Not something that we tend to think about, or how the development of new toilet design is changing the culture of third world countries? Johnson tells us all about it. One of the most fascinating stories discusses how the invention of flash photography led to the antipoverty programs of the early 20th century. Jacob Riis used his camera with its flash to take pictures inside the tenements of New York. Riis had been appalled by the conditions and had been writing about them for a long time, but it wasn't until he published pictures created with flash photography that the world took notice. 

Johnson shows us that progress is seldom linear, that little bits and pieces connect together in a seeming hodgepodge of relationships that fit together to create the world we know now. The people he talks about are for the most part obscure—Dennison and watch making, Birdseye—frozen food, Gorrie—artificial ice, or Babbage—computers. However, their innovations led to other innovations which led to the modern world.

My husband and I read about these miracles of innovation every morning. How We Got To Now is science for novices, extremely easy to read aloud and understand. There is also a connecting six part series on PBS, each episode covering one of Johnson's concepts. You will love this book. Suddenly the world becomes clear—just like putting on a pair of glasses!

Here is a penetrating review in the New York Times.

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