Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Article excerpt

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Steven Johnson (New York: Riverhead Books, 2014)

Stepping outside, you are met by 98 degree heat, 98 percent humidity, and the blinding Florida summer sun. It is 22 steps to the mailbox and 22 steps back. Even that short trip generates a visible all-body sweat and you feel the beginning of sunburn on your nose. Who would choose to live in this environment? The answer is that almost no one chose to before the widespread availability of air conditioning. Without the safe comfort of a temperature- and humidity-controlled home, it was not only uncomfortable but unsafe to live in Florida's summer heat. Our comfortable indoor climate is a relatively new invention, stemming from the entrepreneurial efforts of Fredric Tudor who, in 1835, shipped New England lake ice to the sweltering inhabitants of Savannah, Georgia. He simply wanted to put ice chips in their drinks and give them an essential tool for making ice cream and similar treats, but these blocks also offered the localized comfort of cooler air. That got some creative people thinking, eventually leading to the invention of the first air conditioners. The central air conditioning that followed from that in the mid-1940s changed the nation's population patterns and allowed the economic potential of America's southern states to be harvested.

In How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson explores the history of climate control and five other innovations that have had a significant impact on the shape of society and the fortunes of countries. Johnson's "long zoom of history" perspective integrates invention, application, society, and politics to illuminate the wide-ranging effects key technologies have had on entire societies. In just six chapters--Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light--he illustrates the role these pivotal innovations played in the emergence of modern society. In the process, he explores the unique, surprising, and thought-provoking family lineage of these key technologies.

The result is an engaging, illuminating narrative with unexpected twists. For instance, how does a meteor strike in Russia contribute to the invention of the telescope? How does ice exportation change the political landscape of a country? How do primitive cave paintings inform the invention of military sonar? …

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