Saturday, June 10, 2017

How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson

The prevailing myth of invention is that it is the product of a solitary genius. Steven Johnson takes on this myth in How We Got to Now.

Johnson’s book is a history of invention with a focus on six particular innovations. He demonstrates that simultaneous invention is common, suggesting that societal knowledge, norms and expectations play a part in invention—at least in providing an environment in which certain types of inventions can be created and flourish.

Thomas Edison and the light bulb is the classic myth challenged by simultaneous invention. Humphrey Davy demonstrated an incandescent electric light in 1802 and Frederick de Moleyns received the first patent for a light bulb in 1841. By the time Edison got involve, people had been working on light bulbs for 30 years, and the potential for electric light had been now for 70 years. Edison and his team of collaborators deserve a lot of credit for creating a commercially successful electric lighting system, inventing solutions to many problems along the way, but is a story of systematic hard work.

Edison’s electric lighting system depended on a lot of prior technology, which relates to another of Johnson’s points: clusters of inventions. An invention can illuminate a previously unnoticed problem (or create a new one). For instance, the availability of affordable books that follow Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press revealed that many people were farsighted. This sparked a demand for reading glasses. The tinkering with lenses led to the invention of telescopes and microscopes. Galileo took up the telescope and made discoveries in astronomy that reshaped how people saw the world. Robert Hooke used the microscope to explore a seemingly alien world of the very tiny thing all around us, though the revolution he inspired took longer to bloom.

Johnson explores other aspects of invention and society. I think it is fair to say that his view of how invention works is a lot messier than the myth. Inventors are at the right place at the right time, with open minds that are prepared (likely by accident) to make a connection and a willingness to do the work of thinking, testing and making something new. They probe the boundaries of their fields, tinker and throw themselves into hobbies that bring them, often with companions, to crossroads that challenge their notions of where they can go and how they can get there.

On the whole, Johnson presents a vision of hope in our history. We are not dependent on genius or serendipity; human creativity is both a social and an individual process in which the collision of ideas leads to new ideas. We live in an era where the collision of ideas may be more possible than ever.

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Steven Johnson also wrote

Johnson, Steven. How We Got To Now: Six Innovations that Make the Modern World. New York: Riverhead, 2014.