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

By Larry Schmitt

By Steven Johnson

In his most recent book, Steven Johnson, the author or the well-regarded Where Good Ideas Come From, takes a deep, historical look at six broad themes of human invention and innovation — Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, Light — to show the interconnectedness of diverse artifacts and how ideas emerge and evolve.

The Clean section illustrates Johnson’s ability to weave a good story and connect seemingly disparate dots. He follows the evolution of the human relationship with disease from before anyone could conceive of a micro-organism to the discovery of single-cell organisms (which required development of the microscope, covered in Glass) on through modern clean rooms where humans are the source of contamination.

Two underlying concepts Johnson explores throughout the six themes are the “slow hunch” and the “simultaneous invention.” Slow hunch refers to the fact that major inventions are never the result of a sudden epiphany. They are, instead, the outcome of deep immersion over long periods of time. In addition, things get invented “when they are ready.” Virtually every major invention has multiple authors who did not know other inventors were developing the same thing. This phenomenon of simultaneous invention Johnson attributes to the concept of the “adjacent possible,” explored in his previous book.

Johnson is an entertaining writer in addition to being able to make subtle connections and tease out underlying patterns and themes. This is a book well worth reading by those who want to understand the nature of invention and innovation.