How We Got to Now

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson traces the development of six innovation that shaped modern times: glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. Each innovation is a series of discoveries and inventions that changed how we live.

Glass is a solid that can be transparent, allowing light to pass through the solid. After the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, some Turkish glassmakers journeyed to Venice, where they were moved to the island of Murano after their furnaces ignited the wooden buildings of Venice. Glassmaking enabled eyeglasses, telescopes, and microscopes. Eyeglasses enabled more people to read books from Gutenberg’s printing press. Glass led to mirrors, steel-clad skyscrapers, and fiberoptic cables.

Cold started with storing and exporting ice to chill drinks and preserve food. After ice shipments were delayed, a Florida physician invented and patented a mechanical cooler, but he died penniless, smeared by the ice industry. Living in Labrador, Clarence Birdseye discovered that flash-frozen fish are much better than slowly-frozen fish. Air conditioners enable population growth of otherwise-hot places like the American Sun Belt, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia.

Perhaps the first use of amplified sound goes back to Neanderthals in a French cave where painting are densest in chambers with the highest reverberation. In one chamber you can hear seven distinct echoes of your voice, lasting almost five seconds. Voices were recorded and transmitted. During World War II, England and the US encrypted and transferred voice transmissions that Germans intercepted but were never able to decrypt. Sonar was invented to listen for icebergs in the north Atlantic, and ultrasound led to almost 110 boys being born in China for every 100 girls around 1990.

Clean deals with water — our need for clean water and to dispose of wastes while preserving clean water. The core of the city of Chicago was built before sewers. In order to accommodate sewers and water lines, downtown buildings were raised ten feet using jacks. After sewer water began fouling drinking water in Lake Michigan, the flow of the Chicago River was reversed to flow south and flush Chicago sewage into the Mississippi watershed. This and further iterations of clean water and wastewater are the subject of Water 4.0. Clean water enabled cleanrooms used in chip foundries.

The measurement of time started with Galileo, who discovered that the period (time it takes to swing) of a pendulum depends only on its length. Measuring time led to watches, chronometers, latitude, navigation, and GPS location.

Artificial light enabled people to see and read after dark. Lighting evolved from candles to lamps to electric lightbulbs to flash photography to lasers and universal product codes (UPC) bar codes. The UPC and laser scanners enabled larger stores with a broad inventory to edge out independent, family-run stores.

The last chapter covers the invention of the computer and programming, personified by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. Computers and programming is the subject of Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators.

How We Got to Now discusses innovations that shaped the modern world, based on work of Europeans and North Americans as the author notes. It’s well-written. Those who want to go deeper on water or computers should read Water 4.0 or The Innovators. All three books were published in 2014.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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