Our world shaped by linked innovations
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