How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
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From the New York Times–bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new look at the power and legacy of great ideas.
In this illustrated history, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation over centuries, tracing facets of modern life (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few) from their creation by hobbyists, amateurs, and entrepreneurs to their unintended historical consequences. Filled with surprising stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes—from the French publisher who invented the phonograph before Edison but forgot to include playback, to the Hollywood movie star who helped invent the technology behind Wi-Fi and Bluetooth—How We Got to Now investigates the secret history behind the everyday objects of contemporary life.
In his trademark style, Johnson examines unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated fields: how the invention of air-conditioning enabled the largest migration of human beings in the history of the species—to cities such as Dubai or Phoenix, which would otherwise be virtually uninhabitable; how pendulum clocks helped trigger the industrial revolution; and how clean water made it possible to manufacture computer chips. Accompanied by a major six-part television series on PBS, How We Got to Now is the story of collaborative networks building the modern world, written in the provocative, informative, and engaging style that has earned Johnson fans around the globe.
the rituals of pollination. Bees and other insects evolved the sensory tools to see and be drawn to flowers, just as the flowers evolved the properties that attract bees. This is a different kind of survival of the fittest, not the usual zero-sum competitive story that we often hear in watered-down versions of Darwinism, but something more symbiotic: the insects and flowers succeed because they, physically, fit well with each other. (The technical term for this is coevolution.) The importance of
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Works began producing new microscopes in the early 1870s—devices that for the first time had been constructed around mathematical formulas that described the behavior of light. These new lenses enabled the microbiological work of scientists such as Robert Koch, one of the first scientists to identify the cholera bacterium. (After receiving the Nobel Prize for his work in 1905, Koch wrote to Carl Zeiss, “A large part of my success I owe to your excellent microscopes.”) With his great rival Louis
Sea. Circa 1900: Roman civilization, first–second century AD glass containers for ointments It was one of a thousand migrations set in motion by Constantinople’s fall, but looking back over the centuries, it turned out to be one of the most significant. As they settled into the canals and crooked streets of Venice, at that point arguably the most important hub of commercial trade in the world, their skills at blowing glass quickly created a new luxury good for the merchants of the city to sell
some peculiarity in my nervous system, I have perceptions of some things, which no one else has . . . an intuitive perception of hidden things;—that is of things hidden away from eyes, ears, and the ordinary senses. This alone would advantage me little, in the discovery line, but there is, secondly, my immense reasoning faculties, and my concentrative faculty. In the late months of 1841, Ada’s conflicted feelings about her domestic life and her mathematical ambitions came to a crisis point, when