Which Events Really Mattered in World History?

article | November 13, 2014

    Levi Tillemann

A casual reading of human history (or a high school textbook) might suggest the crucifixion of Jesus, Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan, and D-day as fairly significant events. But in his new book How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson argues that this perspective on human progress is, at some profound level, wrong. These events, he says, are peripheral –a mere flash in the pan – when seen in the context of overall human development.  More consequential, he argues, was the moment a 19-year-old Galileo Gallilei spied a swinging censer (a liturgical incense burner hung on chains) during a church service. This eventually led to his groundbreaking work on pendulums, which in turn changed humanity’s ability to measure time. Quartz clocks, time zones, microprocessors and a sundry other inventions could not function without a concept of exact timing that was ultimately derived from Galileo’s discovery.

Johnson’s book and the eponymous PBS miniseries retell numerous such stories of technical innovation in a way that is always light and approachable. While Johnson’s technologically deterministic view of the world history is not necessarily original, his book still offers a nicely written, succinct, even breezy overview of some of the key technologies shaped modern civilization

In a sense, Johnson’s book falls within the tradition of historians of technology and things like Mark Kurlansky (author of Salt: a world history) and Barbara Freese (Coal: a human history), or even Daniel Yergin’s The Quest. But Johnson’s approach covers a wider range of inventions and uses much less text – and more pictures. He ties things together with a few key concepts that recur throughout the book (long view history, the adjacent present and the hummingbird effect) which serve as a useful conceptual sinew in what could otherwise be a relatively disjointed narrative.

The major organizing theme for the book is what he describes as “long-view history.” This means that rather than focusing on a specific battle or speech, one should view history through the lens fundamental societal shifts that enable social progress. Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum represents one of these.

The “hummingbird effect” is another of Johnson’s premises. The exquisite evolution of a hummingbird’s anatomy, he explains, is a second order effect of the co-evolution of insects and flowers – yet in many ways it is more complex than either the aforementioned flower or insect. But it was flowers and insects that created the conditions that enabled the hummingbird to exist – hummingbirds would almost certainly not have developed their dramatic hovering capabilities (with wing beats has fast as 200 times a second) without flowers. Just like hummingbirds, many technologies spring from prior innovations that are serendipitous and fundamental to evolutionary change.

Johnson succeeds in painting vivid portraits of inventions that have played a major role in the development of human society and largely conform to these three principles of innovation.

A final, and somewhat related, concept put forth by Johnson is that of the “adjacent present,” which he sees as a set of technological and social conditions that are prerequisite for certain advances. Some ideas and inventions, says Johnson, would simply be impossible to build – or even conceive of – in the absence of various technological foundations. For instance, without the widespread diffusion of glass lenses for reading spectacles – itself the result of increased access to printed books – it is much less likely that anyone could have conceived of the telescope or microscope.

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Johnson succeeds in painting vivid portraits of inventions that have played a major role in the development of human society and largely conform to these three principles of innovation. Some of the stories he tells are just outside mainstream knowledge (e.g. the story of Frederic Tudor who started the ice trade), and others are well known (e.g. Edison’s so-called “invention” of the light bulb). But even when Johnson is traversing topics that are part of the popular argot, he does a good job summarizing and using them to illustrate his anti-great man theory of history.

That’s the good. Still, in some ways Johnson’s book is wanting.

While the profiles of technologies and characters are generally well drawn, there is something arbitrary about his typology for these innovations (glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light) and also the geographies he focuses on (North America and Europe).

His explanation of why the book hews so closely to Western civilization is not completely convincing. The European/North American experience, he says, is “of wider relevance” because certain innovations happened in Europe “first.” But China’s Four Great Inventions (papermaking, gunpowder, the compass and printing) and a number of inventions from the Islamic world are clear contenders for inclusion in a list of innovations that brought us to “now.”

A second problem is that many of Johnson’s “innovations” are not things that would generally be considered an “innovation.” For instance, it is dubious to call “clean” or “light” an innovation – those concepts are too amorphous for that.

Finally, some of the book’s most compelling material pushes against the book’s anti-leadership paradigm – in other words, stripping people of their power and agency in introducing innovation. Johnson’s discussion of clean drinking water is a powerful demonstration of an “adjacent present” where numerous scientific and industrial achievements combined create the foundation for a solution that would have otherwise been impossible: advances in glass led to better understanding of germs, and new measurement techniques improved the field of epidemiology. But that was not enough: someone needed to make the leap toward implementation.

Some of the book’s most compelling material pushes against the book’s anti-leadership paradigm – in other words, stripping people of their power and agency in introducing innovation

Chlorine was poisonous, but Dr. John Neal made the daring decision to add it to New Jersey’s water supply in an attempt to staunch a rolling epidemic of cholera and other waterborne disease. Knowing that his move would be enormously controversial, he did so secretly – and was literally put on trial for his efforts. Where else has this experiment been tried? His accuser quizzed him.  Full of confidence, Neal retorted that, thanks to his efforts, New Jersey’s drinking water was the safest in the world. Subsequent data proved him right – urban mortality plummeted by 43 percent after chlorination and infant mortality by a stunning 74 percent.

Neal’s audacious research and practicum on clean drinking water highlights an element that Johnson seems to downplay throughout: leadership. His determinism may be overdrawn and the individualistic contribution of a pioneer like Neal casts doubt on the clockwork logic of the “adjacent present” as a fundamental motivator for innovation.

Nonetheless, Johnson’s book is still a worthwhile read. In comparison to certain other histories of technology, Johnson’s is light – which is not necessarily a bad thing. The PBS miniseries can’t compare to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s recent remake of Cosmos, and sometimes the central conceit of the book (the anti-great man/eureka moment narrative) bumps up against the need for storytelling – not to speak of reality. Still, in many senses, Johnson’s long view of history is both correct and useful.

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    Levi Tillemann