How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world, by Steven Johnson

Author Steven Johnson explores how once groundbreaking innovations have changed the course of history.

Glass. Cold. Sound. Clean. Time. Light.

These are things we take for granted in the 21st century. But as Steven Johnson’s compelling new book reminds us, many of the conveniences that make our lives better today were once groundbreaking innovations that changed the course of history. They resulted from trial and error, great genius, risk taking, fortunate accidents, scientific research, hard work and symbiosis.

World-changing innovations, he argues, do not come from one idea alone, but spring from a combination of these factors, called "simultaneous invention clusters."

Take sound, for instance. Employing the long view, Johnson starts his history of sound engineering at the Burgundy caves in France, where it has been shown that prehistoric cave dwellers painted in areas where their voices most reverberated. It took another 30,000 years to get to acoustic amplifications in medieval cathedrals. Around 1500 AD, scientists began to understand the workings of sound waves.

In the 17th century, anatomists gleaned a pretty good understanding of how the human ear works. In 1857, Parisian printer Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented the phonautograph, the first device that recorded sound. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented a device that could transmit sound. Then Thomas Edison figured out how to record and play back sound. In 1912, Canadian Reginald Fessenden was exploring technology that could "see sound," which would lead to the world’s first functional sonar.

From the cave dwellers of France to the rock ’n’ roll of the 1960s, Johnson connects the dots, plotting points that have been forgotten or overlooked in our understanding of the evolution of sound technology and its effect on society.

He does the same for cold, taking us through breakthroughs in thermodynamics as we move from ice-filled ships in the 1830s to ice-powered refrigeration that revolutionized the transportation of food to the refrigeration machine of Ferdinand Carré. Another bit of Canadian content explains how US naturalist Clarence Birdseye learned about flash freezing while fishing with the Inuit in Labrador, an insight that eventually led to freezers that would be packed full of TV dinners.

Johnson has a firm grasp of the dozens of technologies he explores — from computers to photography to water treatment — but he never veers into the technical jargon that would have made this book less fun to read. He is foremost a storyteller, giving us just the right amount of information to understand the technologies without bogging down the compelling narratives.

If you read this book, the next time you switch on a light, pull some peas from the freezer, search the web or turn on the radio, you may find yourself thinking, "I know how we got here."