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Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
Do you want to learn how Chinese women abort their baby girls today because the Titanic sank in 1912? Or how the bikini trend owes its existence to the Chicago sewer system of the 1860s? Or, say, how mirrors started the Renaissance?
Then you will enjoy Steven Johnson’s “How We Got to Now.”
Who Should Read “How We Got to Now”? And Why?
If you’ve ever wondered how big ideas are born, then you’ve probably come across Steven Johnson’s popular TED Talk. If you liked it – then you’ll love this book.
In fact, anyone curious about innovation and related topics will love this book. The links it continually makes are so mindboggling and implausible that you are bound to be left guessing until the very end. When we predict an inevitable “Wow.”
About Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson is a bestselling American author whose books mainly focus on the intersections between different human endeavors, especially in science and technology.
A contributing editor to “Wired,” he has also founded three now-defunct websites you may know: “FEED” (one of the earliest online magazines), Plastic.com (a popular internet forum), and outside.in (acquired by AOL in 2011).
Johnson has written nine books, and most of them have received rave reviews. “
Entertainment Weekly” included his take on the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, “The Ghost Map,” among its top 10 non-fiction books of 2006. Four years later, “The Economist” named “Where Good Ideas Come From” one of the best books of the year.
Steven Johnson himself has received similar accolades: in 2010, “Prospect” magazine chose him as one of the “Top Ten Brains of the Digital Future.”
“How We Got to Now Summary”
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again:
However, evolution isn’t merely “the survival of the fittest.” It’s also often “the survival of the interconnected.”
You see, nothing evolves in isolation. And, consequently, symbiotic relationships are, by definition, all around us. So much so that Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis in “The Origins of Sex,” wrote quite aptly that “life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”
Just take for example the problem ancient flowers might have had. Especially those that were living in areas bereaved of winds. With insects their only way to reproduce, they had to develop a system by which to attract them better.
Consequently, about 150 million years ago, they evolved colors and scents! And once they did that, they didn’t have to spend too much energy to be big. They were visible enough to allow themselves to be undersized.
But, this was great for insects as well – now they were able to find pollen much more easily. So, they had a better chance to reproduce themselves as well.
But it doesn’t stop there!
Because the evolution of flowers affected one specific nectarivore – the hummingbird. Because now that the flowers got smaller, the insects had an unfair advantage over them.
So as to be able to compete, the bee hummingbird – the smallest bird on earth – evolved to dwarfism. And even better – they developed metabolism and wings which allowed them to hover the same way insects do.
Before you scroll back to read the subtitle of “How We Got to Now” once again – no, this isn’t a book about the evolution of the natural world. It is about the evolution of human societies.
And the unsung heroes who made it possible.
Steven Johnson uses the story above to explain his central premise.
And to name it – appropriately – the Hummingbird Effect.
You already understand what it is intuitively.
Namely, that one simple innovation may open the doors to an entirely new world and launch a hundred more changes, most of them utterly unexpected.
Sometimes, making the connection between the last and the first of them may seem far-fetched; but, even so, it gives the right perspective.
And if you have an hour or so, you can have Steven Johnson explain to you his theory and few chains of unexpected connections to you in detail here:
Of course, if you have six hours, you can watch the six-part BBC series, “How We Got to Now,” which is, obviously, based on this book.
As for us – we’ll use our “Key Lessons” section to retell you the book, and, consequently, the series.
So, spoiler alert!
Key Lessons from “How We Got to Now”
1. You Would Have Known Less About Yourself If It Wasn’t for Glass
2. The Future of Families Goes Back to the Discovery of Frozen Fish
3. There Are More Chinese Baby Boys than Girls Because of the Titanic
4. Fashion Changed in the 1960s Because Chicago Was Raised in the 1860s
5. The Railway Network Transformed the Idea of “Being on Time”
6. Light Bulbs Saved the Whales and, in Time, Transformed the Slums
You Would Have Known Less About Yourself If It Wasn’t for Glass
Glass is so ubiquitous nowadays that you don’t even stop to think how the world would have looked without it.
Steven Johnson has:
“A world without glass would strike at the foundation of modern progress: the extended lifespans that come from understanding the cell, the virus, and the bacterium; the genetic knowledge of what makes us human; the astronomer’s knowledge of our place in the universe. No material on Earth mattered more to those conceptual breakthroughs than glass.”
You see, glass mirrors – as you know them today – didn’t exist before the 1400s. Consequently, the idea of the self-portrait didn’t exist either. And mirrors gave artists another advantage: they were now able to study perspective better.
In other words, the Renaissance owes a lot to glass and mirrors. And the Renaissance, coincidentally, was the first period of history when people became self-reflective.
Fast forward, and you have lenses and glasses – which made it possible for some people to read even deep into their old age. And for others to build telescopes and microscopes and see the invisible world all around us.
The Future of Families Goes Back to the Discovery of Frozen Fish
Clarence Frank Birdseye is not a name you hear very often. Chances are – you don’t even know who he is. And yet – soon enough, the human societies may move in a previously unforeseen direction because of his invention.
You see, Birdseye is the father of the modern frozen food industry. He discovered fast freezing while ice fishing with the Inuit.
Now, we use the same method to preserve human eggs and semen, which makes it possible for people to plan for a family even when biologically they can’t have one.
There Are More Chinese Baby Boys than Girls Because of the Titanic
Talking about the unexpected, right?
You all know the story of the “Titanic,” right? How could you not – you’ve heard it millions of times and watched at least two or three films and documentaries about it.
Neither of them mentioned Reginald Fessenden, i.e., the Canadian who was inspired by the sinking of the Titanic to invent the sonar.
Imitating the echolocatory practices of some marine animals (whales, dolphins), the sonar would have helped the Titanic locate the iceberg before hitting it.
And it also helps modern mothers to see how their babies are doing before they are even born.
However, in China, where there was a strict one-child policy until three years ago, this resulted in a 118:100 ratio between boys and girls. Meaning: people were using the ultrasound to practice sex-selective abortions.
Fashion Changed in the 1960s Because Chicago Was Raised (Literally!) in the 1860s
People tend to forget that until about a century and a half ago, every glass of water was a game of Russian roulette. The water wasn’t clean – and people died merely by drinking polluted water.
So, after six percent of Chicago’s population died from cholera in 1854, an engineer by the name of Ellis S. Chesbrough made a plan to install a citywide sewerage system, the first of its kind in the world.
To physically raise the city on hydraulic jacks!
We’re not joking: this actually happened!
A century later, people were finally able to bathe in city rivers. And the bikini became “the atom bomb of fashion.”
The Railway Network Transformed the Idea of “Being on Time”
It may be unimaginable nowadays, but up to the middle of the 19th century, there was no way you can go from coast to coast and orient yourself in time with a single clock.
That’s because most cities had a different time, which they adjusted locally. Ten or twenty minutes between neighboring cities was not an issue back when there was no industry, working hours, or international companies.
However, once rail transport and telecommunications conquered America, “being on time” became both essential and unattainable concept.
So, William F. Allen lobbied exhaustively for a standardization. And after hundreds and hundreds of letters, he finally made it.
On Sunday, November 18, 1883 – “The Day of Two Noons” – each railroad station clock in the United States was reset and standard-time noon was reached within each of the newly devised five time zones.
A year later, the world followed.
And now – you can be somewhere “on time.”
Light Bulbs Saved the Whales and, in Time, Transformed the Slums
Before the light bulb was invented – by, basically, everybody in the world – people used candles. And these were made from wax found in the skulls of sperm whales.
Do you really have to know the rest of the story?
Fortunately, the light bulb didn’t need whales to function. And even better – it led to inventions such as flash photography. This helped Jacob Riis – a muckraker – take some photographs of the impoverished parts of the United States, specifically the Five Points neighborhood in New York.
And soon enough, the government bought the area, and instead of a neighborhood, there was a park there already by the end of the 19th century.
Scientists say that this may have saved New York from an epidemics of cholera.
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How We Got to Now QuotesMost discoveries become imaginable at a very specific moment in history, after which point multiple people start to imagine them. Click To Tweet Innovations usually begin life with an attempt to solve a specific problem, but once they get into circulation, they end up triggering other changes that would have been extremely difficult to predict. Click To Tweet The march of technology expands the space of possibility around us, but how we explore that space is up to us. Click To Tweet Humans had proven to be unusually good at learning to recognize visual patterns; we internalize our alphabets so well we don’t even have to think about reading once we’ve learned how to do it. Click To Tweet The larger question is, as virologist Jonas Salk once asked, ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“How We Got to Now” is a vintage Steven Johnson. Beautifully written, it reads like a chain of interconnected stories with unexpected twists. “The New York Times Book Review” said it best:
“You’re apt to find yourself exhilarated… Johnson is not composing an etiology of particular inventions but doing something broader and more imaginative… a graceful and compelling book.”
Also published on Medium.