Six Innovations That Changed The World
In Steven Johnson’s book, “How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Shaped The Modern World”, he takes you on a journey through the fundamental materials and inventions we take advantage of in everyday modern life.
I’ll be going over the six innovations in this piece, but if you’d like to read the full book, you can get it here.
One fun concept Johnson highlights in this book is what he calls the “humming bird effect”. It’s related to the chaos theory of the butterfly effect. If you’re unfamiliar with the butterfly effect, it’s basically the idea that history can dramatically change from something as minor as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.
In contrast, the “humming bird effect” is when wildly random inventions appear due to previous inventions. For example, the fact that glass has a direct correlation with the rise of books, literacy and writing is not an easy connection to assume. But as Johnson exposes in his book, the increase of manufacturing glass, the material, led to a rise in the production of spectacles. This in turn, pioneered the democratization of reading which in turn, did many other amazing things.
That is an example of the humming bird effect. It’s drawing the non-revealing parallels between different industries and inventions and how they impact the world.
The humming bird is a relevant mascot for this idea because it evolved in a peculiar way. Where most birds adapted their physiology to increase their chances of feasting on bugs and insects, optimized for the natural design of a tree, hummingbirds were unique in that they evolved based on the natural design of the flower.
This representation is how Johnson invites the connections of certain inventions. Some inventions evolved out of the more natural inevitability of the current needs of the consumers and inventors at the time they were invented, but some sprouted out of a more serendipitous fray. This is what makes tracking the path backwards into time so exciting. You’ll realize how many of our most beloved products and inventions come from almost awkward and unimagined beginnings.
What I love about this book is how well Johnson articulates the relation between the listed innovations and how they impact us today. He does an amazing job getting the reader excited and surprisingly, grateful for all the curious and ambitious minds that came before us. We often take for granted how we got to now and Johnson doesn’t let you forget it.
Here are the six innovations that Johnson highlights in his book:
Glass is a huge part of our world today in that it’s embedded in each one of our computers, phones and most electronics. Not only that, it allowed us to enhance our skill as a species to read, write and pass information. We also indulge in the luxury of glass innovations by having access to zoom in on things as small as molecules and as large as galaxies.
I wrote a piece about one influencer with this innovation in particular, Frederic Tudor. He was determined to sell a manipulated cold, otherwise known as ice, to the tropical climates of the Caribbean. Johnson does a great job explaining how we often don’t realize how much power we have over our temperature and comfort in today’s age. People now get to colonize the hottest and driest climates of the world due to inventions that manipulate cold.
The fact that our voices can be recorded and amplified has dramatically changed the spread of ideas, music and culture. There once was a world without a microphone. Now, because of voice recording technology, ideas can spread like wildfire. The inventions that focused on sound gave us the ability to listen to babies while their still in the womb and record secret messages underwater during war.
Sanitation keeps you alive. Johnson emphasized how advanced it is to be able to drink water that comes from a pipe and not get majorly ill. For many centuries communities suffered to figure out how to keep their cities clean enough to have a decent life expectancy. We don’t think about it often but sewer technology is arguably some of the most advanced and important forms of technology. It keeps people alive and healthy.
It took a few ambitious minds to start measuring time. Think about it. It’s invisible but you know it’s there. You can feel it in the rise and fall of the sun and in the way gravity changes the body. Creating a time schedule for the world to cooperate with took a lot of logistics and well, a lot of time!
There is a reason why the lightbulb signifies the spark of a new idea and Johnson mentions it. The manipulation of light literally brought a brightness to the world. People got to take advantage of more hours to work on things they were excited about and read things they wanted to learn. We hardly appreciate the impact light has today but it’s good to stop and think about it once in a while.
Those were the six innovations that shaped the modern world. Thanks for exploring this with me. Even though you’ve read my review, I still recommend you read the full book and soak up all the tiny stories and connections Johnson makes in his writing.