How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
by Steven Johnson. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014. 293 pp.
Steven Johnson is the author of nine books, the founder of multiple websites, and the host and co-creator of PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now.
How We Got to Now traces six basic ideas ( glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light) along the uneven path from scientific discoveries to product innovation to technology to business to a changed society. He shows that while scientific discovery is the foundation of this process, it is not enough to bring value in and of itself. Innovation begins to address what that science might mean, and it is a very messy, experimental, failure prone process. Innovation is not enough to bring value to society. Building reliable technology with quality, cost effective manufacturing, and is not enough. There are issues of reliability, manufacturability, quality control, and so many other things that must be handled well to create a useful and practical product. A business is necessary to create markets and distribution channels.
Businesses then need to deal with disruption as new products and services replace the old. Meanwhile science is advancing creating new innovative opportunities leading to new technology and perhaps entirely new business models.
As Johnson takes us on these six paths, there are some common themes. But success depends on timing, supportive infrastructure, and collaboration with others working in seemingly unrelated areas . His view of how innovation works was a part of a previous book. Johnson summarizes that view in an insightful video that you can watch here.
Johnson takes us deeply into the whole chain to see that at the beginning there is no clear understanding of the end, and no clear path from one step to another. Sometimes the people who were very good in one phase of the process were not able to move to the next phase. The inventor was not always the person who profited from his or her work.
Johnson gives us an entertaining history lesson as he illustrates these points. In the fascinating chapter on Cold, we see Clarence Birdseye discovering how to create frozen food that tastes good through an ice fishing incident. We have Birdseye frozen food to this day. Developing insulation methods allowed ice from the Northeast to be preserved into summer, and gave rise to a transport company and a fleet of ships to move and sell ice in the south. Then the invention of ice creating machines through the technology of refrigeration led to the demise of the transport business ( though the company held on for a while with a campaign that artificial ice was harmful to health!). And who would have predicted the process of making things cold would ultimately lead to frozen embryos?
In the chapter on Light we learn that Thomas Edison did not create the first light bulb. Prototypes existed long before Edison put out his product. Timing and marketing tied Edison to the light bulb. For example, his marketing savvy helped him in orchestrating attention from the press. He had writers go through his lab one at a time, to believe there was a light bulb that could last for hours. Between each person, he changed the bulb, since at that point they only lasted five minutes.
This well-written, entertaining book offers good insight into today’s business climate and the challenges of dealing with innovation and disruption. It offers specific insight on the six ideas central to the book, but also provides understanding of the more general process from idea to the delivery of products in the marketplace.
I highly recommend this book.
Reviewed by Al Erisman