Our world shaped by linked in­no­va­tions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ron Kir­byson

Hbooks as From and You, de­fines the term “hum­ming­bird ef­fect” as re­fer­ring to “clus­ters of in­no­va­tions in one field that cause changes in other fields that ap­pear to be part of a dif­fer­ent do­main.” He or­ga­nizes his pre­sen­ta­tion of th­ese “strange chains of in­flu­ence” ac­cord­ing to six ar­eas of in­no­va­tion: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light. Th­ese ar­eas are de­vel­oped with ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ters and events. The seg­ment about cold, for ex­am­ple, be­gins with an ac­count of a re­mark­able en­tre­pre­neur known to his­tory as “the Ice King.” Fred­eric Tu­dor, a Bos­to­nian, grew up in the late-19th cen­tury next to a frozen lake on the fam­ily’s coun­try es­tate. Like many wealthy fam­i­lies, the Tu­dors stored blocks of frozen lake wa­ter in ice-houses. Th­ese huge ice cubes re­mained un­melted un­til the warmth of sum­mer ar­rived. One of John­son’s anec­dotes il­lus­trates how nat­u­ral ice went, in less than a cen­tury, from a cu­rios­ity to a lux­ury to a ne­ces­sity. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to Cana­dian read­ers is the story of Clarence Bird­s­eye. As a young nat­u­ral­ist, he moved his fam­ily in the win­ter of 1912 to the tun­dra of Labrador. In seek­ing to find some va­ri­ety in their food, Bird­s­eye be­gan ice-fish­ing with the Inuit. When they thawed out trout which had been frozen at -40 C, they found it much tastier than their usual food. Puzzling over the dif­fer­ences, Bird­s­eye used his ex­pe­ri­ences in Labrador to de­velop what be­came known as the flash-freez­ing process. “Bird­s­eye’s ad­ven­tures in ice-fish­ing made him a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire,” John­son ex­plains. His name has ap­peared on frozen-food pack­ages ever since. In the sec­tion on sound, Guglielmo Mar­coni’s pi­o­neer­ing in the field is de­scribed. He was re­spon­si­ble for wire­less teleg­ra­phy, a ma­jor step in the in­ven­tion of ra­dio, which be­gan with the send­ing of Morse code. The most in­ter­est­ing in­ven­tor — at least in North Amer­ica — was Lee De For­est. De­scribed by John­son as the most poetic of mod­ern in­ven­tors, he cre­ated the first live pub­lic ra­dio broad­cast, a per­for­mance of Tosca by New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera. Much to his dis­may, Duke Elling­ton’s band broad­cast­ing from the Cot­ton Club and Satchmo’s trum­pet blasts played more suc­cess­fully on the ra­dio than the sub­tleties of De­bussy, and the ef­forts of the Noise Abate­ment So­ci­ety proved to be fu­tile. The chap­ter deal­ing with “clean” in­cludes fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial on sew­ers. George Pull­man is best-known for man­u­fac­tur­ing rail­way cars, but his ex­pe­ri­ence with projects in­volved in us­ing jackscrews to raise the city of Chicago is de­scribed as one of the “most am­bi­tious en­gi­neer­ing projects of the 19th cen­tury.” Not only does the con­tent im­press, so does the style. Steven John­son presents the most com­plex ma­te­rial with clar­ity and in­ter­est, car­ry­ing the reader on a smooth and stim­u­lat­ing ride.

We Got to Now is or­ga­nized neatly around au­thor Steven John­son’s idea of the “hum­ming­bird ef­fect.” John­son, the Cal­i­for­nia-based New York Times best-sell­ing au­thor of such Where Good Ideas Come Ev­ery­thing Bad is Good for

Ron Kir­byson is a Win­nipeg writer.

How We Got to Now: Six In­no­va­tions that Made the Mod­ern


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