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How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made The Modern World by Steven Johnson

This book traces the history and applications of everyday things.

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I learned a lot from reading this book.

  • Jul 14, 2014

The six innovations that Steven Johnson discusses in this book are not new.  Glass, sound, time light, the cold, the state of being clean and cold have been around forever.  What makes this book special is how Stephen Johnson traces the development of each subject.  He starts from the very beginning uses of each innovation, and then he discusses how each application is being currently used today.

I don’t like to be cold, but I enjoy reading about the history of it.  There is a picture of Willis Carrier in 1939.  He invented air conditioning. This picture shows him in an air conditioned igloo.  I have never seen an air conditioned igloo before, so I think this picture is very neat.  I need to find an easier way to keep cool in the car that does not include turning on the air conditioner and drinking water.  I know that people freeze their eggs until they are ready to become pregnant.  I wonder how long human organs and blood can be preserved as effectively as eggs.

I learned that glass can be made from cooling a chemical compound called silicone dioxide.  I love reading about the applications of glass in this chapter. There is a picture of a fourteenth century monk wearing a pair of glasses.  There is a picture of the Keck observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii.  It has thirty-six mirrors.  I live in Hawaii and have never seen this observatory.  There is also a picture of a flea as seen through the lenses of a microscope.    There is another picture of a glass pasted statue of a beetles surrounded by stones.  This is a beautiful photo to look at.   One of the first applications of glass happened in the art world.    There is a lovely seventeenth century painting by Diego Velazquez in the book.  It shows maids of honor getting ready for a wedding.   This chapter is the most interesting visually because of the pictures.

The first sources of light came from candles from animal fat.  I also learned that candles can be made from the oil from whales. This led to the invention of the electric light by Thomas Edison.  Other inventors used different elements like platinum and iridium to create the electric light bulb, but Edison is credited for bringing it to the public. The development of light is currently being continued by researchers in Livermore California.  They are working on a laser source of energy with nuclear capabilities.  I have experienced laser surgery while undergoing dental work.  I am curious to learn about new innovations in light.

The chapter on cleanliness talks about how the city of Chicago became the first to create a sewer system to eliminate waste.  Having chlorine added to water in the late 19th and early 20th century purified the water making safe to drink.  This is interesting history, but I have travelled to places and countries like Taiwan and Las Vegas, where I am still concerned about the quality of water today. One innovation discussed in this book is a new kind of toilet. This toilet does not need a sewer line or electricity.  It operates by using photovoltaic energy from the sun.  It has an electrochemical reactor powered by the sun, which treats the contaminated water from the human waste.  This can be turned into a fertilizer for crops.  The toilet is disinfected with table salt. 

The chapter on sound begins with the discovery that caves in France.  They produce sound vibrations.  The invention of vacuum tubes led to the development and radio, which led to the ability to record the spoken word.  My fondest wish in regards to sound has not happened yet.  I would like to live in a home where all of the appliances are activated by the sound of my voice.

The most interesting aspect on the chapter about time is the idea of an atomic clock.  I know that atomic clocks are supposed to keep precise time.   They are used in navigation and synchronizing computers I have never seen one or used one  I want to know if I can use it.  I want to learn more about the different elements that atomic clocks are made of and the difference between them.

Steven Johnson mentions the work of mathematician Ada Lovelace.  She is credited as being the first computer programmer.  She wrote an algorithm for number theory in the mid nineteenth century.  She also predicted that the computer would have more applications than just number crunching. This book is a great read.

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July 14, 2014
Fascinating stuff!
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