How We Got To Now

How We Got to Now:

Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Steven Johnson

Non-fiction, science, history


This book is more then just a history of six innovations; glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. How We Got to Now makes connections between those six inventions and the world at large.

For example, the first technology that Steven Johnson talks about is Glass. As simple as an idea as it is, and as ubiquitous as glass is, we most likely don’t think about how much impact glass has on our lives.

Ancient Egyptians used volcanic glass and other natural forms of naturally occurring glass used as decorations and tools. Roman craftsmen found how to use heat to melt sand and turn it into glass. They created semi-opaque windows and containers for wine. After the fall of Constantinople, a group of Turkish glass makers settled in Venice. They continued to practice their craft, but the fires that the glass makers needed to make glass (reaching to more then 1000°C) were not a welcome tool on the wooden islands. At the end of the 13th century, the leaders of Venice exiled all the glass makers to the nearby island of Murano.

They set up shop and stumbled upon one of the key ingredients of innovation, a rich, dense community. With all the Venetian glass makers in a single place, ideas spread through the community rapidly. Collaboration between experts was common, and the whole community benefited. Murano is still called the Glass Island today, and you can still visit the descendants of those same glass makers. One of the inventions that came from Murano is crystal, the first clear form of glass.

From this new form of glass, people began to notice that different shapes of glass absorbed and bent light in different ways. Monks in monasteries used large chunks of glass as rudimentary reading aids. At some point in northern Italy, an unknown craftsman made the first pair of eyeglasses. Eyeglasses were a specialized tool, restricted used by monks and others who needed to read. Without the need to focus on tiny scratches on parchment, many people at the time could have gone through life without realizing that they were farsighted. That changed in the 1440’s when Johannes Gutenberg created movable type and started the printing revolution. As text became cheaper and more accessible to the masses, many people discovered the efficiency in their sight, and as books and reading spread, so to did eyeglasses.

As eyeglasses became more and more common in different places around the world, people started trying to apply the technology to other disciplines. People studying biology and the natural world started using the lenses to look at the world to small for the eye to see. Astronomers discovered that you could uses lenses to observe distant bodies in the heavens. Microscopes and telescopes were technologies that grew in concert with the printing press. Lenses led to photography, photography led to a revolution in the media.

More then just lenses, glass allows for other inventions that Johnson talks about. He discusses glasses use as fiber form as a building material as fiberglass and also as a communication device as fiber-optics. Mirrors changed how people saw themselves in the Reniassance. They have also changed how we see space using reflective telescopes to move beyond the limits of lenses.

This is a good read, that moves around the world, forward and backwards in time. You move between Neanderthal caves in Burgundy and modernizing Baltimore waterworks. You see how Las Vegas is connected to Boston whalers. You learn how a thrice bankrupt shipper changed the demographics of the 20th century.

Some of the chapters are more in depth then others, but they are all intriguing reads. This is a companion to a PBS/BBC piece, and at times it does seem like the topic would make for a better show then book. Overall, I think that this is a good introduction to look at history in a different way, to move beyond thinking only of economic or political or social, but to see how they are linked and interconnected.

I enjoyed it, and it was a good read. I think that I’m going to go off to see if I can find the miniseries that goes with it.

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