How we got to NOW – Steven Johnson

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Normally, I read books very fast. Once in a while you stumble upon a book which is so insightful, you “study” instead of reading. One such book is a book by Steven Johnson’s  How we got to NOW 

I am amazed by the clarity with which Steven has weaved multiple strings of science history into coherent and yet simple 6 streams, which changed modern world.

Here is a quick summary of 6 inventions which changed everything for modern human society.

1. Glass – The natural pieces of glass were first found in deserts of Libya Desert and the processes how merchant families of Venice figured how to make glass. That was the real “silicon valley”. Surprising link from glass to printing press is amazing reading. From there on a series of innovations like books, telescope and so on all starts with glass.

2. Cold  – Who would know that in 1800’s the biggest export from Boston was ice and the largest and most profitable market for ice was Mumbai, India?? Thats an amazing piece of history there. Ice-trading was mastered by a guy named Fredric Tudor who eventually figures how to export frozen ice from lakes of Boston around the world. He went bankrupt twice and arrested during this process. He made $100M (in todays dollar terms) finally. Ice making paved way to refrigeration and hence frozen food which eventually changed US and world.

3. Sound – Interesting reading about how Thomas Edison patented his “phonograph” while a french man named Eduard Leon Scott who was a great scientist but not a marketing genius like Edison has already patented “Phonautograph”. I am sure he died poor. Inventors never make money, but inventors with a marketing streak makes it all. There are some interesting connections between how invention of recorded sounds lead to sonograms and eventually to ultrasound which changes the male-female ratio in china due to male obsessed societies. A little far fetched, but when you see in scientific context, it sounds true though.

4. Clean – Its amazing to read about a New Jersey doctor John Leal, who came up with the idea to chlorinate the water to kill bacteria.  Can you imagine anywhere in the world drinking safe clean water without chlorination? This man must have single handedly changed the course of human history by saving millions may be billions of babies since 1908. And he did not patent his invention, or build a product and sold it etc. He made this the first true “open-source” invention for the benefit of human kind. What an amazing story.

5. Time – How many times in a day do we look at our iphones and watch to see time. I did not know that all the clocks in all the cell phones are linked and connected to a series of low altitude geo synchronous satellites, which maintain the global timing!! A lot of history about time keeping. Steven doesn’t discuss many other cultures which kept time tracking very accurate. However he writes about a railway engineer William Allen, how he creates the US time zones to manage the railroad traffic!!
6. Light – This is a heart wrenching story. 

Did you know that Manhattan of New York was a very big slum – Half a million people living in 15,000 units. Almost like Dharavi of Mumbai. I pondered if Dharavi could be transformed someday like Manhattan. How an experiment called “BlitzLicht” (aka flash light) in 1888, lead to flash lights of photographs which showed the plight of poor immigrants living in the slums of NYC!! This chapter goes on to describe how the experiment of usage of a wasted gas to be used in Neon lights which changed the face of Las Vegas 🙂

7. Added Bonus of Time travel : – Where do we go from here. Almost 150 years back, Charles Babbage and surprisingly Lord Byron’s daughter (who was a “programmer” in those days!!) predicted what today’s google, iTunes or hyper text – all that too in one footnote.

I started pondering after finishing this book….my 3 questions,

  1. Where we came from – Human life’s origin
  2. What is the purpose of life?
  3. Who created life?

If you have answers for these 3 questions, you know how to reach me!

Cheers,

Giri Devanur

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About giri_devanur

I am a technology entrepreneur-CEO, raised multiple rounds of capital, executed M&As and created successful companies. I am a passionate futurist and practitioner of innovation. I have lived in India, California, Kansas, Princeton and a bunch of other places in Europe
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