The meteorologist Edward Lorenz famously asked, in the title of a lecture in 1972: “does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”, and the phrase “the butterfly effect” entered the language. If Steven Johnson’s book How We Got to Now catches on — and it deserves to — then the “humming bird effect” will also become common parlance.
Humming birds exist because flowers needed to find a way to spread pollen over long distances, and they invented nectar to attract insects. Birds were not part of the deal at all until much later. That the evolutionary emergence of flowers would lead to a radical redesign of the anatomy of some birds could not have been foreseen.
Likewise, the history of human innovation is riddled with examples of unexpected consequences of new technologies. As Johnson tells it, Gutenberg made printed books cheap, which triggered a rise in literacy, which created a market for spectacles, which led to the invention of microscopes and telescopes, which led to the discovery that the earth went round the sun. Then, during the American Civil War, the Union blockade of southern ports led to a shortage of ice, which created a market for the newly invented refrigeration machine, which later enabled a man named Clarence Birdseye to get very rich after inventing flash-frozen food. The invention of the railway led to the standardisation of time. The invention of flash photography led to campaigns for improving the living conditions in New York tenements.
Johnson is one of the world’s best chroniclers of innovation and in this book he brings a plethora of insights to the history of glass, refrigeration, sound, hygiene, time and light. The unintended consequences, for good and ill, that follow each innovation form only one of these insights.
He points out that inventions are nearly always “ripe” or inevitable in the sense that many people come up with the same idea around the same time. The basic idea behind the light bulb, for example, occurred to more than 20 different people; Edison proved best at turning it into a business success mainly because he understood that innovation is about bringing together different ideas and skills.
From this Johnson then draws the conclusion that “the more we build up vast repositories of scientific and technological understanding, the more we conceal them”. For instance, your ability to tell the time today depends on somebody understanding how electrons circulate within cesium atoms; the knowledge of how to send signals to satellites; the ability to trigger steady vibrations in blocks of silicon dioxide; and much more. None of which you need to know as you glance at your watch or smartphone.
Johnson is a fluent writer and knows the value of telling stories about people to bring history to life. Inventors make for a rich cast of characters. This book is written to accompany a television series, which is perhaps why it consists of a series of discreet episodes, but they all illustrate similar themes, so the whole hangs together well.
In the telling, the history of technology has tended to be the poor relation of the history of science. Brilliant geniuses had great ideas and clumsy tradesmen put them into action. Johnson is one of a new breed of authors who are turning this upside down by showing just how independent of science most innovation was. More often than not it enabled science, rather than sprang from it.
And compared with political and military history, the history of innovation is not just “one damned thing after another”; it chronicles genuine, irreversible and magnificent changes in society. Take the story of a New Jersey doctor named John Leal who got a job managing water supplies for Jersey City and set out to do something to make them safe. In secret, without permission and against the law, he decided to try adding a strong poison called calcium hyperchlorite, a procedure known as “chlorination” today. When dilute, it killed bacteria but not people. Fortunately he got the dose right and nobody died. Interrogated in court, he adamantly insisted that his experiment had worked, that Jersey City’s water was now the safest in the world and that he was not in it for the money: his refusal to patent it led to the adoption of chlorination all over the world. The court agreed and exonerated him of wrongdoing.
The impact of Leal’s innovation was extraordinary. Between 1900 and 1930 chlorination cut total mortality in the average American city by 43 per cent and infant mortality by 74 per cent. Almost nothing has done more to reduce misery. Chlorination went on to make swimming pools safe and popular which led, Johnson argues, to changes in fashion, reinventing attitudes towards how much of the shape of the female body could be revealed in polite society. A hummingbird effect.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com. This article was first published the The Times.