How We Got to Now

howI couldn’t put down How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson’s six-part book on “innovations that made the modern world.” The book is an exposition on the theory of the “hummingbird effect,” which occurs when “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” The theory is so named because of how hummingbirds evolved a new way to float midair while extracting nectar from flowers, thus having one phenomena (plant reproduction) effect change in another seemingly unrelated one (bird anatomy).

Johnson illustrates this theme in six realms: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout with pictures of inventors, innovators, and their creations—famous and obscure—whose intuitive leaps of imagination and engineering influenced the world in ways they could never foresee. Fifteenth-century Italian glassmakers displaced by the fall of Constantinople experimented with new kinds of glass, which found use as proto-lenses for scribes in monasteries (their lentil-like shape inspiring the name lens, from the Latin lentes for lentil), which, along with Gutenberg’s printing press allowing for cheaper and portable books, contributed to the rise in overall literacy, which exposed the farsightedness of these new readers, who suddenly realized they needed lenses to read, thus creating a new market for eyeglasses. As Johnson points out, Gutenberg didn’t set out to create a new market for eyewear: the hummingbird effect simply made it happen step by step.

It’s more complicated than that, and Johnson takes care to paint a much richer and fascinating portrait of this phenomenon in action over centuries. I had a lot of fun reading How We Got to Now because Johnson lays out a continuous string of tasty knowledge nuggets from beginning to end. On every page I learned something that I wanted to write down and share with others. We’re living in a big, beautiful, deep world that has a great story to tell. How We Got to Now helps explain why.