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How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World 1st Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 485 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594632969
ISBN-10: 1594632960
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Editorial Reviews


Praise for Steven Johnson

“A great science writer.” — Bill Clinton, speaking at the Health Matters conference

“Mr. Johnson, who knows a thing or two about the history of science, is a first-rate storyteller.” — The New York Times

“You’re apt to find yourself exhilarated…Johnson is not composing an etiology of particular inventions, but doing something broader and more imaginative…I particularly like the cultural observations Johnson draws along the way…[he] has a deft and persuasive touch…[a] graceful and compelling book.” — The New York Times Book Review

“Johnson is a polymath. . . .  [It’s] exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even ecosystem science.” — Los Angeles Times

“Steven Johnson is a maven of the history of ideas... How We Got to Now is readable, entertaining, and a challenge to any jaded sensibility that has become inured to the everyday miracles all around us.” — The Guardian

“[Johnson's] point is simple, important and well-timed: During periods of rapid innovation, there is always tumult as citizens try to make sense of it....Johnson is an engaging writer, and he takes very complicated and disparate subjects and makes their evolution understandable.”  The Washington Post

“Through a series of elegant books about the history of technological innovation, Steven Johnson has become one of the most persuasive advocates for the role of collaboration in innovation….Mr. Johnson's erudition can be quite gobsmacking.” – The Wall Street Journal

“An unbelievable book…it’s an innovative way to talk about history.” — Jon Stewart

"What makes this book such a mind-expanding read is Johnson’s ability to appreciate human advancement as a vast network of influence, rather than a simple chain of one invention leading to another, and result is nothing less than a celebration of the human mind." — The Daily Beast

“Fascinating…it’s an amazing book!” — CBS This Morning

“A full three cheers for Steven Johnson. He is, by no means, the only writer we currently have in our era of technological revolution who devotes himself to innovation, invention and creativity but he is, far and away, the most readable.” — The Buffalo News 

"The reader of How We Got to Now cannot fail to be impressed by human ingenuity, including Johnson’s, in determining these often labyrinthine but staggeringly powerful developments of one thing to the next." — San Francisco Chronicle

"A rapid but interesting tour of the history behind many of the comforts and technologies that comprise our world." — Christian Science Monitor

"How We Got to Now... offers a fascinating glimpse at how a handful of basic inventions--such as the measurement of time, reliable methods of sanitation, the benefits of competent refrigeration, glassmaking and the faithful reproduction of sound--have evolved, often in surprising ways." — Shelf Awareness 

"[Johnson] writes about science and technology elegantly and accessibly, he evinces an infectious delight in his subject matter...Each chapter is full of strange and fascinating connections." — Barnes and Noble Review

"From the sanitation engineering that literally raised nineteenth-century Chicago to the 23 men who partially invented the light bulb before Thomas Edison, [How We Got to Now] is a many-layered delight."— Nature Review

“A highly readable and fascinating account of science, invention, accident and genius that gave us the world we live in today.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune


About the Author

Steven Johnson is the author of the bestsellers Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Mind Wide Open, Emergence, and Interface Culture, and is the editor of the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites and writes for Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Johnson lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and three sons.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; 1 edition (September 30, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594632960
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594632969
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (485 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,455 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Metallurgist TOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 9, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I found this book to be well written, entertaining and very informative. I have not previously read any of Stephen Johnson's books, but now I will be on the lookout for them. This book reminded me of the books by James Burke, "The Day the Universe Changed" and "Connections", which discuss the complex evolution of technology, and the interactions of events leading to our modern world. "How We Got To Here" focuses more on innovation than Burke's books, but like them it is also written for a general audience and requires little or no technical background.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in history, science and technology and to anyone interested in the strange interconnected tales of how the things that we take for granted were developed. My only minor quibble is that the book is a bit light on technical details. For instance, it discusses pendulum clocks and then pocket watches, but does not describe the difference in their operation, or anything about the development of naval chronometers. I would have liked a bit more technical detail, but this was not a big enough problem to reduce my rating from 5-stars.

What is in the book -
The book describes six innovations that follow the author's contention that - "An innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field end up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether." This idea can best be understood by examining the six innovation chapters and the short conclusion chapter that make up the book. These chapters are as follows:

1. Glass - The first innovation, the development of glass and how it impacted society, starts with the natural pieces of glass found in the Libyan Desert, and goes on to how men eventually learned to make glass.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As a scientist and inventor, I found "How We Got to Now" to be a delightful book on invention and innovation. The author focuses on six area of innovation: glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. For instance, he describes the accidental discovery of glass in the desert and traces the development of lenses, eyeglasses, telescopes, and microscopes.

The stories of invention and how society has been changed is fascinating. For instance, ice cutting from frozen lakes leads to cooling machines to population growth in areas of hot climate. Clocks and railroads give us time zones and standardized time based on atomic transitions, not on the rotation of the Earth. The author does miss the role played by glass (silicon oxide) in integrated circuit chips, where the glass is used as an insulator. There are few other omissions in this book.

In the section on light, the author reveals a little-known secret about invention. Edison's most important innovation was the organization of groups of scientists and engineers to find solutions to technical problems. Of my 118 issued United States patents, there are a small number for which I am the sole inventor. These represent the flash-of-genius type of invention. The majority were inventions-by-committee, where typically three or four people of different backgrounds combined their knowledge to come up with new solutions.

The final chapter deals with the work of Ada Lovelace (software), and Charles Babbage (hardware), who designed the first programmable computing machine. This short section could easily have been expanded into a complete chapter on calculation. However, the author uses the story to illustrate an unusual invention that preceded its enabling technology.

The book is full of illustrations and interesting anecdotes. It does a good job of telling the story of technology development and how it can transform the way we live.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I've been a Steven Johnson fan ever since "Everything Bad is Good for You": much like Malcolm Gladwell, he finds interesting, surprising angles in unexpected places. "How We Got To Now" offers essays on serendipity and unexpected connections, unintended consequences, and the not-infrequent phenomenon of innovations emerging from a confluence of similar ideas in a short span of time (rather than from the lone inventor of lore). Each chapter covers the emergence of a basic product or idea (like glass,artificial light, or manufactured cold), the problem it solved, the players and ideas in motion behind it, and the unexpected reach it has had. There are stories of familiar names and unknown backstage figures, punctuated equilibrium and coevolutionary interactions, networked ideas, chaos and change, the social ramifications of innovations, and simple ah-ha moments that proved significant. For instance: the search for a better method of freezing foods links to dehumidification, both of which are tied to air conditioning, which by the mid-20th century was facilitating disruptions in human migration patterns.

Working from a premise outlined in the introduction, "How We Got to Now" provides an intriguing look at history not from the point of view of human accounts -- which would factor in human events like war and political upheavals -- but rather the story that would be recorded by a robot historian. (Or, as Johnson says, what you would get "if a lightbulb had written the story of the past 300 years".) This book is a readable, satisfying,fascinating tour de force long-zoom view of technologies that proved revolutionary -- and how they got that way.
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