How We Got To Now

How we got to nowIf you like learning about how big ideas have shaped human history, and want a great summer read, I’ve got a book for you.

How We Got To Now is precisely what this wonderful book describes. The now includes our current state of technology, population and who we have become as human beings. How did much the stuff we now have and take mostly for granted come about and why?

The book’s table of contents tell us the subjects author Steven Johnson will tackle 1. Glass, 2. Cold, 3. Sound, 4. Clean, 5. Time, and 6. Light.

If they all sound like very broad topics, they are. Each of these inventions, like fire much earlier, changed human history. Johnson shows us the ripple effect of each of them and how they changed much more than the narrow problem they were first intended to solve. In fact the real value of the book is in Johnson’s demonstration of seemingly completely unrelated effects coming from a single cause.

One example is the chapter on cold. We take ice cubes for granted, but 200 years ago, people living in the temperate climates had no idea of ice cream or a cold drink. The book traces the history of a great entrepreneur named Fredrick Tutor as he shipped huge blocks of ice from Walden Pond and other New England bodies of frozen water to the Bahamas, South America, Cuba and other warm-weather places. Johnson tells us the story of how introducing ice (cold) to the people of warm climates led to the invention of artificial cold air (air conditioning) and then to flash freezing invented by none other than Clarence Birdseye (Birdseye Foods) and beyond.

The ‘beyond’ is where I most enjoyed the book. Where flash freezing of vegetables leaves off, freezing of other kinds starts. In fact, at the end of this particular story, we are reminded of the flash freezing of human eggs and sperm. What Frederick Tutor started in the early 1800s has had a huge impact on family size, fertility rates, and the earth’s population!

The stories behind all the other topics are equally fascinating. At the end of the book, Johnson talks about the timing of great inventions and the curious fact that in each of these cases, coincidentally there were others working to solve the same problem at the same time. For example, Thomas Edison was not the only one trying to invent a working light bulb at the time. In fact, he didn’t even invent it – no more than Steve Jobs invented the MP3 player. There were many people all over the world trying to discover the best filament material and vessel for the light bulb. So why is the timing for a particular invention right at that particular moment in history?

These and many other interesting questions await you in How We Got Here. I highly recommend it for technology and history buffs alike. And you’ll seem so much smarter at that next cocktail party this summer!


About Mike Lake

Mike is the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Evergreen Trading. When not playing jazz trombone he is probably obsessing about writing content that will capture the attention and interest of business people and fellow learning junkies everywhere.

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