Book Review: ‘How We Got to Now’ by Steven Johnson

Jakob Pallesen

A couple of days ago I switched my thermometer to “cooling,” set the temperature at 70 degrees, and proceeded to grab a chilled drink from the fridge and added a few ice cubes for good measure. On most days, I take each of those little things for granted. But on that day, I felt a much deeper sense of gratitude for these cold features in my life.

The reason for this particular appreciation was that I had just wrapped up another chapter in a phenomenal book — “How We Got To Now” by Steven Johnson. In it, he lays out six innovations and the stories behind them. One of those innovations being the stories behind refrigeration and air conditioning that cool our lives today. The other five innovations are glass, sound, clean, time and light.

Johnson dives into the impact the products and resources in those six areas have had over time. He weaves the stories of people, opportunities and challenges that drove inventions and innovations of things we often take for granted but would find almost impossible to live without now. Things like drinking cups, windows, Internet run through fiber optics, watches, phones, speakers, toilets, clean running water and so much more.

Could you imagine going to the movies on a hot and humid July day without the wonder of air conditioning cooling it down? AC got its start at a printing company in Brooklyn in 1902 where a young engineer was tasked with finding a way to keep the ink on the paper dry during hot days. His invention turned out to also have the ability to cool down an entire room. This led to the innovation of the air conditioner. But due to the large size of the first AC machines, it was first used in movie theaters and then later at large office buildings and department stores. As the technology improved and led to smaller devices, the AC unit we see hanging out windows in many buildings today was finally introduced in the 1950s. That’s a five-decade run at inventions and innovations that fundamentally changed the world we live in.

It’s not your usual business book. But in a world of “overnight success” stories and fast-paced tech development, this book offers some valuable insights into how new ideas take form and shape over time. Johnson calls it the “slow hunch.” He’s one of my favorite historians of innovation, science and interesting people. I find a book like this insightful for the historical perspectives it takes, the deeper understanding of how innovation happens and how much we have to be grateful for the incredible things we have that make everyday life significantly more pleasant than at any other point in time. As a bonus, the book was also turned into a documentary series with the same name.

Jakob Pallesen is the director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) program at Southeast Missouri State University.