How We Got to Now

Published: 2022-03-26

Summary and Review

Phenomenal book. There are so many interesting lessons on creativity, innovation, and history that I've never read elsewhere. I will be coming back to this book constantly and excited to read more from Steven Johnson. There hasn't ever been a book I liked so much where I thought, "I wish I wrote this" other than this one. Really, really enjoyable.

Why glass is transparent

Most materials absorb the energy of light. On a subatomic level, electrons orbiting the atoms that made up the material effectively “swallow” the energy of the incoming photon of light, causing those electrons to gain energy. But electrons can gain or lose energy only in discrete steps, known as “quanta.” But the size of the steps varies from material to material. Silicon dioxide happens to have very large steps, which means that the energy from a single photon of light is not sufficient to bump up the electrons to the higher level of energy. Instead, the light passes through the material. (Most ultraviolet light, however, does have enough energy to be absorbed, which is why you can’t get a suntan through a glass window.) But light doesn’t simply pass through glass; it can also be bent and distorted or even broken up into its component wavelengths. Glass could be used to change the look of the world, by bending light in precise ways. This turned out to be even more revolutionary than simple transparency.

What early glasses were called

Those early spectacles were called roidi da ogli, meaning “disks for the eyes.” Thanks to their resemblance to lentil beans—lentes in Latin—the disks themselves came to be called “lenses.”

The Hummingbird effect of Gutenberg's printing press and glasses

Hummingbird Effect - When an innovation in one field exposes a flaw in some other technology. In the case of the printing press, that "technology" was our anatomy.

But Gutenberg's great breakthrough had another, less celebrated effect: it made a massive number of people aware, for the first time, that they were farsighted. And that revelation created a surge in demand for spectacles.

What followed was one of the most extraordinary cases of the hummingbird effect in modern history. Gutenberg made printed books relatively cheap and portable, which triggered a rise in literacy, which exposed a flaw in the visual acuity of a sizable part of the population, which then created a new market for the manufacture of spectacles. Within a hundred years of Gutenberg’s invention, thousands of spectacle makers around Europe were thriving, and glasses became the first piece of advanced technology—since the invention of clothing in Neolithic times—that ordinary people would regularly wear on their bodies.

The creation of fiber optics

Scientists at Bell Labs then took fibers of this super-clear glass and shot laser beams down the length of them, fluctuating optical signals that corresponded to the zeroes and ones of binary code. This hybrid of two seemingly unrelated inventions—the concentrated, orderly light of lasers, and the hyper-clear glass fibers—came to be known as fiber optics. Using fiber-optic cables was vastly more efficient than sending electrical signals over copper cables, particularly for long distances: light allows much more bandwidth and is far less susceptible to noise and interference than is electrical energy.

On the benefit on transporting commodities

The history of global trade had clearly demonstrated that vast fortunes could be made by transporting a commodity that was ubiquitous in one environment to a place where it was scarce. To the young Tudor, ice seemed to fit the equation perfectly: nearly worthless in Boston, ice would be priceless in Havana.

"Multiple Invention"

Those patents rippling across the planet are an example of one of the great curiosities in the history of innovation: what scholars now call “multiple invention.” Inventions and scientific discoveries tend to come in clusters, where a handful of geographically dispersed investigators stumble independently onto the very same discovery.

This happened with the light bulb, relativity, ice, flight, and so much more.

Breakthrough innovations are a collection of ideas repackaged in new ways

To imagine a world of flash-frozen food, Birdseye needed to experience the challenges of feeding a family in an arctic climate surrounded by brutal cold; he needed to spend time with the Inuit fishermen; he needed to inspect the foul containers of cod-fishing trawlers in New York harbors; he needed the scientific knowledge of how to produce temperatures well below freezing; he needed the industrial knowledge of how to build a production line. Like every big idea, Birdseye’s breakthrough was not a single insight, but a network of other ideas, packaged together in a new configuration.

Fifty-eight years in the making, his [Galileo] slow hunch about the pendulum’s “magical property” had finally begun to take shape. The idea lay at the intersection point of multiple disciplines and interests: Galileo’s memory of the altar lamp, his studies of motion and the moons of Jupiter, the rise of a global shipping industry, and its new demand for clocks that would be accurate to the second. Physics, astronomy, maritime navigation, and the daydreams of a college student: all these different strains converged in Galileo’s mind.

The invention of Sears, Roebuck catalog

With watches spiking in popularity across the country, a Minnesota railroad agent named Richard Warren Sears stumbled across a box of unwanted watches from a local jeweler, and turned a tidy profit selling them to other station agents. Inspired by his success, he partnered with a Chicago businessman named Alvah Roebuck, and together they launched a mail-order publication showcasing a range of watch designs: the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Those fifteen pounds of mail-order catalogs currently weighing down your mailbox? They all started with the must-have gadget of the late nineteenth century: the consumer-grade pocket watch.

Why timezones zig-zag

Allen designed the map so that the divisions between time zones zigzagged slightly to correspond to the points where the major railroad lines connected, instead of having the divisions run straight down meridian lines.

How satellites triangulate your position

Those satellites are sending out the most elemental of signals, again and again, in perpetuity: the time is 11:48:25.084738 . . . the time is 11:48:25.084739. . . . When your phone tries to figure out its location, it pulls down at least three of these time stamps from satellites, each reporting a slightly different time thanks to the duration it takes the signal to travel from satellite to the GPS receiver in your hand. A satellite reporting a later time is closer than one reporting an earlier time. Since the satellites have perfectly predictable locations, the phone can calculate its exact position by triangulating among the three different time stamps.

Like the naval navigators of the eighteenth century, GPS determines your location by comparing clocks. This is in fact one of the recurring stories of the history of the clock: each new advance in timekeeping enables a corresponding advance in our mastery of geography—from ships, to railroads, to air traffic, to GPS. It’s an idea that Einstein would have appreciated: measuring time turns out to be key to measuring space.

How our idea of innovation affects our policies

If we think that innovation comes from a lone genius inventing a new technology from scratch, that model naturally steers us toward certain policy decisions, like stronger patent protection. But if we think that innovation comes out of collaborative networks, then we want to support different policies and organizational forms: less rigid patent laws, open standards, employee participation in stock plans, cross-disciplinary connections.

Why it's important to learn about the past

Learning from the patterns of innovation that shaped society in the past can only help us navigate the future more successfully, even if our explanations of that past are not falsifiable in quite the same way that a scientific theory is.

The greatest innovator's were time travelers, making discoveries years before they were sometimes useful. This is how they did it:

If there is a common thread to the time travelers, beyond the nonexplanation of genius, it is this: they worked at the margins of their official fields, or at the intersection point between very different disciplines.

The garage is the space for the hacker, the tinkerer, the maker. The garage is not defined by a single field or industry; instead, it is defined by the eclectic interests of its inhabitants. It is a space where intellectual networks converge.

Real innovation comes when you get lost in your craft

But if you want to be like Ada, if you want to have an “intuitive perception of hidden things”—well, in that case, you need to get a little lost.

But those disciplinary boundaries can also serve as blinders, keeping you from the bigger idea that becomes visible only when you cross those borders.