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4 Big-Picture Lessons In Innovation From Steven Johnson And “How We Got To Now”

The PBS series–and Johnson’s new book of the same name–tell the fascinating stories of mostly unsung innovators whose inventions have shaped modern life.

4 Big-Picture Lessons In Innovation From Steven Johnson And “How We Got To Now”
[Photos: courtesy of PBS]

Innovation is one of the buzzwords of the century. Everyone is talking about it, and our consumer culture is set up to celebrate it. But the talk often centers on the latest and greatest innovations coming out of Silicon Valley, popular science author Steven Johnson tells us.

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Steven Johnson

And he understands why. Known for bestselling books including Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and The Invention of Air, Johnson freely admits that he is just as obsessed with the latest high-tech gadgets–the Apple Watch in particular at the moment–as so many other people are. “But there’s another kind of innovation that’s out there that’s part of our history,” he says. “We should know about that as well.”

Johnson is talking about the revolutionary innovations that allow us to drink clean water, read even if our eyesight isn’t so good, and tell time accurately. While the inventors whose work led to many of these innovations have largely been forgotten, Johnson pays them their due by telling their stories in the epic new PBS series How We Got to Now produced by Nutopia.

Premiering on October 15, the program is divided into six episodes focusing on the themes of cold, time, light, clean, glass and sound, and Johnson, the host, shares the stories of innovators like John Leal, who tested his theory that chlorine could make water safe to drink by adding it to Jersey City’s water supply in the early 1900s (without permission, by the way) and railroad engineer William F. Allen, who lobbied to establish four standard time zones in the United States in the 1880s to make train travel less chaotic for passengers.

“We really didn’t want to tell the stories that people had heard before,” Johnson says, noting, “Even when we did Thomas Edison in the light episode it was to undo the traditional telling of his story–he didn’t really invent the light bulb in the way that you expect from your grade school education.”

Johnson actually finds rather creative ways to share stories of innovation in How We Get to Now, visiting sites ranging from an indoor ski slope in Dubai to a clean room at Texas Instruments. He even dares to descend into the San Francisco sewer. “That was really tough, but I am glad I did it,” Johnson says, though he wouldn’t mind if the memory of the rat-filled experience fades in time.

How We Got to Now has also led to a book of the same name–Johnson wrote it while he was shooting the series–as well as the creation of How We Get to Next, a news and opinion website exploring and encouraging innovation in both the developed and, notably, the developing world. There are still billions of people who don’t have access to clean drinking water or proper sanitation, and it is Johnson’s hope that a new generation of innovators will provide everyone with the conveniences most of us take for granted.

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Here, Johnson shares four of the key lessons he learned about innovation while working on How We Got to Now:


One Thing Leads To Another

There are almost always unintended consequences of innovation, leading to further creations that could have never been imagined. In other words, innovation begets innovation.

One of Johnson’s favorite examples of this is Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which unexpectedly created a widespread need for spectacles. “All over Europe everybody’s like, ‘I can’t see to read. I need glasses!’ People hadn’t noticed before that they were far-sighted because other than monks, people really didn’t have much of a need to read,” Johnson says. “The printing press set in motion the need for spectacles, which created a market for lens makers, which then makes people start tinkering with lenses on a larger scale, which then leads to telescopes and microscopes and revolutions in science.”


The Best Ideas Spring Not From Eureka Moments But Slow Hunches

Brilliant ideas don’t just come to people in a sudden flash, for the most part. In fact, most innovations are the result of what Johnson calls a “slow hunch,” which he defines as the process of an idea coming into focus over a period of years, maybe even decades.

Take the case of Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen food. While temporarily living with his family way up north in Labrador, the naturalist would go ice fishing with the Inuit. Given the bitter cold temperatures, the fish they caught would freeze almost instantly after it was pulled to the surface. Later, when the fish was thawed out and eaten, it retained its freshness and tastiness unlike other frozen food of the time, and Birdseye wondered how this could be. When he returned home to New York City, he started experimenting with various methods of freezing food. Driven by curiosity, he spent years conducting tests, ultimately realizing that a speedy flash freezing process was the key, and he went on to launch his frozen food business. “The part of the story that I love is not that he became immensely wealthy but that he had the ability to keep up with an interest and follow a hunch that was so intriguing to him for such a long period of time,” Johnson says.


Innovation Arises From Collaboration

The most successful innovators tend to work with and bounce ideas off of others.

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Unfortunately, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville didn’t do this. Ever heard of him? Probably not. He was a Parisian who created the phonautograph, a machine that recorded sound, two decades before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. The only problem: Scott de Martinville’s device could record audio but couldn’t play it back, so no one was interested in it. “It never occurred to him that it should also include playback. He was really on the cutting edge there,” Johnson says, “and yet he couldn’t conceptualize this one extra feature. He couldn’t even think of that as a possibility.”

In Johnson’s mind, Scott would have benefited from working with other tinkerers who could have helped him expand upon his original intention. “I think there is a cautionary tale about the lone genius myth here. The lone genius can often come up with a lot of great things if they really are a genius. But they’ll often have that kind of blind spot where there’s something that they just can’t see that seems so obvious with hindsight. I think if Scott had been in a team of people–Edison had his people that he worked with–someone on the team would have said, ‘I’ve got an idea: What if we could also listen to the audio after we record it?’ And he might have gotten there and actually had a successful product.”

Altruism Has Inspired Some Crucial Innovations

There are, of course, innovators who come up with new ideas in the hopes of hitting on something big and cashing in.

But let’s not forget–and let’s appreciate the fact–that some of the greatest innovations have been made by people who were simply motivated by the idea of making life better for others. “We have this default assumption that innovation just comes from private sector entrepreneurs who are motivated by a vast fortune. Certainly, that’s part of it, but it’s only a part,” Johnson says. “A lot of the people that are in this series did things in the public sphere and were really motivated to help people and make life better like Alan with the time zones. He was just a railway clerk who wanted to solve a big problem. There wasn’t a business in it for him.”

About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com.

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