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

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

Steven Johnson (New York: Riverhead Books, 2014)

Stepping outside, you are met by 98 degree heat, 98 percent humidity, and the blinding Florida summer sun. It is 22 steps to the mailbox and 22 steps back. Even that short trip generates a visible all-body sweat and you feel the beginning of sunburn on your nose. Who would choose to live in this environment? The answer is that almost no one chose to before the widespread availability of air conditioning. Without the safe comfort of a temperature- and humidity-controlled home, it was not only uncomfortable but unsafe to live in Florida's summer heat. Our comfortable indoor climate is a relatively new invention, stemming from the entrepreneurial efforts of Fredric Tudor who, in 1835, shipped New England lake ice to the sweltering inhabitants of Savannah, Georgia. He simply wanted to put ice chips in their drinks and give them an essential tool for making ice cream and similar treats, but these blocks also offered the localized comfort of cooler air. That got some creative people thinking, eventually leading to the invention of the first air conditioners. The central air conditioning that followed from that in the mid-1940s changed the nation's population patterns and allowed the economic potential of America's southern states to be harvested.

In How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson explores the history of climate control and five other innovations that have had a significant impact on the shape of society and the fortunes of countries. Johnson's "long zoom of history" perspective integrates invention, application, society, and politics to illuminate the wide-ranging effects key technologies have had on entire societies. In just six chapters--Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light--he illustrates the role these pivotal innovations played in the emergence of modern society. In the process, he explores the unique, surprising, and thought-provoking family lineage of these key technologies.

The result is an engaging, illuminating narrative with unexpected twists. For instance, how does a meteor strike in Russia contribute to the invention of the telescope? How does ice exportation change the political landscape of a country? How do primitive cave paintings inform the invention of military sonar? How do the disposal practices for human waste open the doors for underground rail transportation? How do clocks and lights come together to create an entirely new circadian pattern for human beings?

Johnson explored some of the same inventors and innovations in his previous book, Where Good Ideas Come From. There, though, he used these examples to distill seven properties of idea generation. In How We Got to Now, Johnson looks at these key developments in their historical context, producing a book that ties small technical discoveries to larger technologies and trends and maps their impact on society and politics. The inventors' personal stories are linked to wider forces and the connections that tie individual ideas together, and allow small inventions to become world-changing forces, are explored. The narratives vividly demonstrate how little is actually accomplished in an individual Eureka moment, and how truly game-changing technologies require decades-long experiments with many unproductive branches to perfect. Using Johnson's own analogy, these technologies have required hundreds of Steve Jobses--people who did not invent the MP3 player, but turned the technology someone else invented into something that met a societal need.

Avid readers of science history will already be familiar with the stories of Galileo Galilei, Willis Carrier, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. But How We Got to Now pays tribute to the contributions of dozens of lesser-known inventors who are just as interesting and worthy of historical recognition, and perhaps provides perspective on the way that truly revolutionary technologies emerge in tiny steps. My favorite chapters were the first, on the evolution of glass, and the last, on the importance of artificial light. The chapters between, although they are still interesting, generally focus on a much narrower range of ideas tied into a much shorter shared history. As a result, they do not provide the same revelatory insight as the opening and closing sections. If you find yourself losing interest in these middle chapters, jump to the light before putting the book aside.

Roger Smith

CTO/Florida Hospital Nicholson Center
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Author:Smith, Roger
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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