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April 2, 2015 / Leslie

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

HowWeGotToNowPublisher: PenguinAudio, Riverhead | Sept 2014
Format: Hardcover, 255 pages
Format: Audio Download | 6 hours
Rating: 5 stars

From the Publisher:

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—How We Got to Now investigates the secret history behind the everyday objects of contemporary life.


This was a fascinating look at innovation and discovery. Concentrating on just six areas – glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light – and using what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” the author demonstrates how discoveries build upon one another and bring about changes in seemingly unrelated ways, leading us in directions we never imagined.

For example, glass: before the 15th century, most people were farsighted and never knew it; most couldn’t read and had no need to see tiny shapes formed into words. Therefore, spectacles remained rare and expensive items. The invention of the printing press changed that when it brought the written word to the masses, creating a market for spectacles. People began experimenting with lenses; microscopes, telescopes, and cameras were invented, creating a multitude of new discoveries in the sciences as a result.

The author discounts the lone genius theory where one person magically came up with an idea and “invented” it. He demonstrates how most innovations were collaborations. An example was the light bulb: multiple individuals were working on developing a light bulb, and many “invented” it, but the person known for the light bulb was the one whose bulb outperformed the others and was most successful in bringing it to market. And that was Thomas Edison.

I could babble on a lot about this book and how much I enjoyed it. But instead I’m going to encourage you to give this a read or a listen and have fun learning about how all the things we take for granted became part of our daily lives. And no, you do not need to know one bit about science to enjoy this – just curiosity about the world around us.

Audio production

Audio Listening Level: Easy

I can be a bit of a science nerd and once I started reading this I didn’t want to stop and switched between audio and print so I could keep going. The audio was competently read by George Newbern in a very listenable but documentary-like style. For those who prefer the visual, there were some very cool drawings, photos, and illustrations that make having a print copy worthwhile. But in either format it was an enjoyable read.

Source: Review copies provided by Penguin Audio and Riverhead Books.
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Leave a Comment
  1. BermudaOnion / Apr 2 2015 6:21 pm

    How interesting! Since I’m nearsighted, I thought that was more common. This book sounds fascinating.


  2. Sheila (Book Journey) / Apr 2 2015 7:38 pm

    I enjoyed this one too!


  3. Worlds Biggest Fridge Magnet / Apr 3 2015 2:24 am

    Now this sounds like another book I may well like. Just like this blog!


  4. stacybuckeye / Apr 12 2015 2:32 pm

    I was going to getthis one for Jason but our library doesn’t have it on cd 😦



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