Steven Johnson on 'Six Inventions That Made the Modern World'

'How We Got to Now'
'How We Got to Now' by Steven Johnson
Book cover courtesy of publisher

How did we create the modern world? In his new book and TV show "How We Got to Now," relentlessly curious writer Steven Johnson explores the surprising connections that lead to innovation.

Forget about the lone genius laboring in a lab as the driver of change; Johnson argues that invention happens incrementally and in surprising ways. The printing press forges the path to the creation of the telescope. A homemade cross-bow eventually leads to fiber-optic cables.

Johnson joined The Daily Circuit to discuss three of the six innovations we often take for granted.

"We need to be able to understand how innovation happens in society; we need to be able to predict and understand, as best as we can, the hummingbird effects that will transform other fields after each innovation takes root," he wrote.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

1. Cold

"We take it for granted in the modern world that an ordinary day will involve exposure to a wide range of temperatures," Johnson wrote.

Today in Minnesota, we mostly leave our lake ice where it is. But the transportation of lake ice led us to create refrigeration and changed the food industry.

Frederic Tudor's idea to ship ice to warmer climates led to his title as "Ice King."

2. Glass

Glass was the single most transformative material of the last 1,000 years, Johnson said. Glass is now such a central part of our everyday lives, he said we often forget to think of it as an invention. Just think about what glass led to: Spectacles, telescopes, microscopes, TV screens and fiber optic internet.

The episode about glass airs tonight on PBS at 10/9c. Here's a preview:

3. Clean

Johnson looks at the history of "clean" through the incredible growth of Chicago in the 1800s. The city grew so quickly and lacked public infrastructure and a sewer system, which lead to human and animal waste piling in the streets and the spread of disease.

The city was too flat, so there was no natural slope into Lake Michigan like other cities built near bodies of water. Ellis S. Chesbrough can be credited for coming up with the solution: He had the downtown area lifted 10 feet.

We didn't get to these other innovations on The Daily Circuit, but they are also elements of Johnson's book:


5. Sound

From Motherboard:

Though Johnson delights in showcasing these brilliant insights from individual thinkers, he also repeatedly emphasizes the collaborative nature of innovation history. "A big part of the message is that the lone genius is kind of a myth and almost every innovation comes out of a kind of a collaborative network," he told me.

Thomas Edison, who is featured in the "Light" episode, is perhaps the ultimate example of that interplay. Though Edison cultivated the image of the lone genius, his real talent was anticipating how existing inventions could be combined and commercialized. "That is the way that we're starting to understand innovation now," Johnson said.

6. Light