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

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  11,969 ratings  ·  1,248 reviews
From the New York Times–bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new look at the power and legacy of great ideas.In this illustrated history, Steven Johnson explores the history of innovation over centuries, tracing facets of modern life (refrigeration, clocks, and eyeglass lenses, to name a few) from their creation by hobbyist ...more
Hardcover, 293 pages
Published September 30th 2014 by Riverhead Books (first published September 25th 2014)
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Always Pouting
Mar 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm a sucker for books that incorporate interdisciplinary thinking and then weave them into a narrative about history. It was fun to see the way innovations in one area could set off subsequent innovations that seem totally unrelated. The unpredictable consequences of new discoveries is interesting and explaining it through history made it resonate much more, it really humanized the people being talked about. I really appreciate the author's discussion about what actually helps people make these ...more
B Schrodinger
I picked this book up on holidays on the north coast right in the middle of one of the worst cold's I have ever had. So this review comes with a drugged up warning. Lots and lots of psuedoephidrine.

The title's promise of "Six innovations that made the modern world" was probably stamped by some marketing schlep rather than the author. The book rather consists of six technological avenues that shaped how we live. These are divided by chapter and consist of concepts like 'cold', 'light', 'clean' an
Dec 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1audio, 2non-fiction
Johnson's long view of how innovations in 6 different fields shaped our civilization takes traces them from their original uses & discoveries through their current uses. It's an often amazing journey as he points out huge changes made possible by them & the odd consequences in other portions of our lives that we normally wouldn't associate with them.

The Wall Street Journal did a good review here:

1. GLASS - from King Tut's jewelry to dishes to lenses, glas
Jan 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
History is most frequently told from the perspective of hero protagonist or the victorious civilization or as if everything was part of an inexorable and clear plan of progress. History writing is by definition hindsight, and we are wont to weave all details into one clear narrative. The genius of this book is to show the chaos of history and juxtapose it next to the inevitability of basic chemistry and physics. Steven Johnson succeeds exceptionally well in this enjoyable and delightful read abo ...more
Mar 07, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2015
In this book Steven Johnson considers six innovation that the modern world really cannot live without. These are cold, glass, sound, light, time and clean. Slightly obscure you might think, but these six objects have given us so many things like air conditioning, microscopes, clean water, time zones, lasers and the telephone.

As he writes about each subject, he reminds you of life before these inventions, with no artificial light, drinking water that could kill you in 48 hours and food that spot
Jason Anthony
Feb 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
When reading nonfiction, I have two set rules:
(1) Did I learn something new?
(2) Did I enjoy the writing (and/or material)?

Steven Johnson's "How We Got to Now..." led me to strong YES responses for both.

In this book (which isn't short, but feels very short because you want to race right through it), Johnson tracks how some of our most important inventions (glass, water treatment, electricity) changed the world in both predictable and unpredictable ways. The writing is quick and entertaining;
Fred Forbes
Jul 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
I find it interesting to read the history of trends and technology that have impacted our lives, enjoy it even more when it is delivered in energetic and amusing fashion. Beyond the "butterfly effect" wherein the interaction of the air of the flap of wings of a butterfly in California, say, leads to the formation of a storm in the Atlantic. While this is an interesting aspect of chaos theory, the author prefers the "hummingbird effect" where the changes in on thing can be directly linked to anot ...more
May 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: e-books
Bookclub pick by: Good Mythical Morning book club.

The most important thing with nonfiction books like this one is to learn something new, and that's what happened after reading this book.

This book takes a different approach, as Johnson calls it "The Hummingbird effect" which is different from the butterfly effect, as in he looks at inventions that had their effect on other innovations in completely different fields, in an almost not intentional or intentional way.

He also talks about some of the
Dec 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, business
How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

“How We Got to Now" is a fascinating history on how six major innovations caused strange chains of influence. Contributing editor to Wired magazine and best-selling author of seven books, Steven Johnson, provides the readers with a real treat. Brilliant storytelling and a keen eye for patterns of intersection of science and technology results in a wonderful reading experience. This captivating 304-page book includes t
Marianne Morris
Nov 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I love stuff like this - like that old British tv series Connections - that tell you how one discovery or technological improvement in the field of printing, for example, led to another discovery or great leap forward in the field of art, or rapid progress in science, etc. Anyway, that's what this book is about and it is fascinating. There's also a PBS series that brings it to life, but the book by itself is great.
David Quinn
An odd reading experience for me in that it felt like I was reading this short book for a month and yet I read it within a week. And while I liked the general concept and a couple of its ideas I was disappointed by its sweeping superficiality. It was like visiting those foreign lands at EPCOT - sort of interesting but lacking in depth (not nearly what it’s made out to be).

The book was written in conjunction with the PBS series by the same name but I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was thrown
Jun 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
A must read book!
It's very interesting to look for the origins of things.
Johnson discussed in his book six innovations, started with glass, cold, sound, clean then time and light.
And he spotlighted the development of each one Until it reached what it is now.


I love this quote at the end of book.
" Don't be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people's thinking
Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your inner voice and most important, have the courage to follow
Nov 05, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-nonfiction
I guess I will be the black sheep and give this one a bad review :)

The good news is that the stories about technological innovations are fascinating. The author (as advertised) draws several interesting connections between seemingly unrelated technologies, and points out several cases where the environment and context of the invention played a much larger role in its success than the genius of the inventor.

So what's not to like? For me, the problem is the commentary between these anecdotes. The
Nov 13, 2017 rated it liked it
How We Got to Now is a reasonably entertaining and easy to read survey of six topics which shaped the world we live in now, in various ways. The main benefit is that Johnson tries to look across disciplines and from different angles, and tries to capture the whole of the picture. The six topics he picked make sense: glass, (artificial) cold, (the understanding of) sound, hygiene, time (and the accuracy thereof) and (artificial) light — they’re summarised under six headings: glass, cold, sound, c ...more
Aug 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
I received this book compliments of Riverhead Books through the Goodreads First Reads program.

In the late 1970's James Burke hosted a television show called Connections in which he demonstrated how one innovation led to another in a seemingly unrelated way. Steven Johnson's How We Got To Now, which is the companion book to his PBS programs, quickly reminded me of that earlier series. Thankfully it is less frenetic and more focused. Johnson has chosen to explore the importance of six topics and u
Jan 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating! The author looks at the topics of glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light and explains how one discovery led to others, with very unpredictable results. For example, the invention of the printing press led to more books which led to more people realizing they needed spectacles which led to an improvement of the glassmaking process to make corrective lenses which led to the invention of microscopes which opened a new world to scientists studying disease. Sometimes many inventors wo ...more
Phil Simon
Oct 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business
Johnson again paints a rich tapestry of innovation, much of it unexpected and not linear. His stories often begin in odd places before they coalesce. I've enjoyed just about all of his books and this one is no exception. I was familiar with a few of the stories (Babbage, Edison) but certainly not all of them. This book is informative and very enjoyable to read.
Mark Bao
Oct 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars. Glass, which started as a novelty and an ornament, exploded when the printing press, a coevolutionary/symbiotic factor, created a desire to read more, but also exposed the fact that many people were farsighted and needed glasses. The economic incentive to produce glasses led to improvements and discoveries in glass, leading to the development of microscopes and biology, and the invention of fiber optics which is at the backbone of the internet today.

The key idea in this book is that i
Aug 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites, nonfiction
Completely fascinating look at how we got to today. I was enthralled reading about innovations and inventions through the lens of the butterfly effect.

The only thing keeping this book from reaching a 5 for me is because I often got lost in the science jargon. It frequently took me a moment to reorient myself to what was being talked about.
May 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
What does the printing press have to do with germ theory? How did glass give rise to the selfie? And what’s the deal with time? If you are wondering about the answers to these questions then you’re going to want to pick up How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. It’s a brief but comprehensive book, covering a wide range of topics in just enough depth to give the reader a glimpse into how the technology of today is rooted in some pretty basic and amazing discoveries.

The boo
Bob H
Jul 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a brilliant, but simply-written, story of where our civilization is now, or at least, six of the things we take for granted: glass, cold (refrigeration and more), sound, clean (that is to say, cleanliness), time, light.

Some of it seems fairly obvious: glass, of course, and the profound changes it would cause once people could make it -- a printing press meant more with eyeglasses which people could read by, not to mention lenses for microscopes and telescopes with which to study everythi
Aug 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a fascinating look at innovation and discovery. Concentrating on just six areas – glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light – and using what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” the author demonstrates how discoveries build upon one another and bring about changes in seemingly unrelated areas, leading us in directions we never imagined.

For example, glass: before the 15th century, most people were farsighted and never knew it; most couldn’t read and had no need to see tiny shapes formed into
An accessible, interesting and well-written book which reminded me very much of the Connections series that James Burke wrote and presented in the late 1970s. There's the same method of choosing a subject and taking it for a walk through history, technological advances, human endeavour, imagination and frailty. Johnson does an excellent job of walking the line between "too technical" and "talking down to the reader".
Dec 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book is an extremely fascinating look at key innovations and the many ways they shaped our modern world. Johnson does an amazing job of explaining complex paradigm shifts in technology and culture, blending different elements into a cohesive narrative. It was especially interesting to discover how the 'adjacent possible' opened the door for change and how most inventions emerged from networks of people, incremental changes and were invented simultaneously in various different areas around t ...more
Nov 16, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A rushed birth this was: great book in chapter one (Glass), feels more and more rushed with each incoming chapter. The principal idea is highlighted early - new technology creates fresh needs (abundance of books kickstarts optical science) and has unexpected lateral effects. After that the text is concerned with reinforcing the idea by repeating it over and over with examples, interspersed with inspirational passages.

One thing of note in the latter part is the recognition of Thomas Edison not as
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Kind of like the old book connections and any other history of invention book you've read. Not one of Stephen Johnson's better works. A little too lightweight on the treatment of the history of invention.


Actually on second reading. It is a little better than I thought. But it is still kind of short.
Apr 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Tammy by: NPR
Johnson brings the history of civilization to life through 6 seemingly common and simple innovations. It's easy to read and Johnson's writing style is engaging and interesting. Want to look at our modern world in a fresh way, this will do it.
Noah Goats
Feb 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
In How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson explores what he calls the “hummingbird effect.” In chaos theory the butterfly effect describes the way that one seemingly insignificant event can, through the unfathomable interconnections of complex systems, create a major event elsewhere that appears to be unconnected. The hummingbird effect, on the other hand, describes the way that one innovation can lead to a series of other innovations in a variety of fields, and even to changes in culture. And unlike ...more
Shane Garland
Feb 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Interesting but very broad account of a few of the most important concepts that have advanced the world. He does claim there are 6 innovations which is a bit misleading, because they are more of general ideas (ie light, cold, time) which encompass a large amount of technologies. Instead of focusing on one game changing technology, he gives himself latitude to take a broad view and talk more in general terms.
Dec 06, 2017 rated it liked it
How We Got to Now is a funny, accesible, mostly accurate presentation of how networks of inventors, researchers, and innovations have allowed the creation and mass use of certain things that define life in the modern world. Johnson has a gift for weaving together disparate stories from a variety of time periods and disciplines while explaining how those stories create a cohesive and relevant whole. In that sense, I think How We Got to Now is a great book. However, I have a few big problems with ...more
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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of twelve books, including Enemy of All Mankind, Farsighted, Wonderland, How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You.
He's the host of the podcast American Innovations, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California,

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