I love history and I love innovation. So what Steven Johnson has done with this book is he has combined both history and innovation.

He traces back to history and looks at six innovations that shapes the modern world.

Basically what Steven Johnson says is:

Hold on, every time we talk about innovation, we always refer to these cool technologies and gadgets that shapes how we do things today and going forward. How about we go back and look at how some of the historical innovations that shaped our world today.

So he goes back and looks at some of the very key innovations that often we take for granted.

Take for instance water.

Are you aware that clean drinking water is one of the coolest innovations ever and every time we drink a glass of water, we often don’t understand that there was a point in time in humanity where they didn’t have clean drinking water.

How about sound, the recording of sound, storing it and transmitting of it from one device to another, resulting in making it possible to have and use of telephones today is one other thing we often to appreciate. Yes we marvel at our cool mobile devices and what they can do but we forget or are not even aware that prior to that, someone had to innovate capturing and storing of sound into a device.

Other cool innovations Stephen Johnson focuses on are:

  • Timezones: When you look at your watch for time, you hardly ask yourself how the concept of universal time-zones was innovated;
  • Glass: From Venetian glassblowers to telescopes and microscopes;
  • Hygiene: The key innovations that let cities grow without being destroyed by disease, the germ theory of medicine, and clean rooms in microprocessor factories;
  • Light: From candles to whaling; the changes to human sleep cycles thanks to artificial light, lasers and electron microscopy.

But another amazing aspect that Steven Johnson focuses on in this book is a concept he calls the hummingbird effect. Loosely paraphrased the hummingbird effect looks at the spin-offs, or follow on or connections that flows from one innovation leading to or resulting in another innovation.

For instance, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, resulting in books, the hummingbird effect is that books enabled lots and lots of people to start reading, and only then did some people realized how short-sighted they were.

This then resulted in the innovation of glass leading up to reading glasses, and flowing from there, the innovation of microscopes and telescopes, and from there we learned about the existence of other planets through telescopes and we could also study bacteria through microscopes.

All this resulting from Guttenberg’s innovation of the printing press.

This hummingbird effects is similar to one of the DNAs that Clayton Christensen et al refers to in their amazing book The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

In the The Innovator’s DNA, one of the key traits/DNA of successful innovators is associational thinking: connecting the unconnected to get innovative solutions. Instead of just focusing on one innovation, look at the spin-offs of that innovation, the next bounce of the ball, and go innovate there.

Stephen Johnson does an amazing job of taking this associational thinking further and deeper through the Hummingbird Effect.



I love Stephen Johnson, I follow his work, I watch his TED talk and other talks online. I think he is a cool dude.

Oh and by the way, there is a documentary that he and his team produced when he was doing research of this book. I have watched a couple of episodes online and that’s even way more insightful. Check it out.

If you love history and innovation, this book is for you, otherwise, you may be bored if you are not into history.

I learned so much this book and I will re-reading soon.

Favourite quotes

  • “Most discoveries become imaginable at a very specific moment in history, after which point multiple people start to imagine them.”

  • “A world without glass would strike at the foundation of modern progress: the extended lifespans that come from understanding the cell, the virus, and the bacterium; the genetic knowledge of what makes us human; the astronomer’s knowledge of our place in the universe. No material on Earth mattered more to those conceptual breakthroughs than glass.”
  • “Innovations usually begin life with an attempt to solve a specific problem, but once they get into circulation, they end up triggering other changes that would have been extremely difficult to predict.”

  • “Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens.”
  • “…if your great-great-great-grandfather wanted to read his book after dark, some poor soul had to crawl around in a whale’s head for an afternoon.”

  • “The garage is the space for the hacker, the tinkerer, the maker. The garage is not defined by a single field or industry; instead, it is defined by the eclectic interests of its inhabitants. It is a space where intellectual networks converge.”
  • “Edison invented the lightbulb the way Steve Jobs invented the MP3 player: he wasn’t the first, but he was the first to make something that took off in the marketplace.

  • “Every time you glance down at your smartphone to check your location, you are unwittingly consulting a network of twenty-four atomic clocks housed in satellites in low-earth orbit above you.”
  • “The lightbulb was the kind of innovation that comes together over decades, in pieces. There was no lightbulb moment in the story of the lightbulb.”




2 thoughts on “Book Review: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

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