One thing we learn from the new PBS series How We Got to Now is that most of us have no idea how the modern world really came to be. We’ve all heard of famous inventors such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Eli Whitney, but our modern society is a wonderland created by, as host Steven Johnson describes, “Hobbyists, garage inventors, and obsessive thinkers” that put their minds to problems and didn’t give up until they solved them, often in the face of ridicule and, in some cases, financial ruin.
Most of the inventors and innovators whose stories are told in this series are not household names. Here is Frederick Tudor, who developed a way to transport ice across long distances; Willis Carrier, who created modern air conditioning, and William Allen, who developed watches that could be purchased by middle class citizens.
Each episode is built around a central concept: “Clean” describes the development of our modern clean water systems; “Time” tells the story of our modern concept of timekeeping and the innovations necessary to do such a simple thing as to get us to work on time. “Cold” details how refrigeration came to be, leading to revolutions in food preservation and allowing the large-scale settlement of the American Southwest. Along the way we learn how “Ideas are networks of other ideas” and we see the relationships between innovations that make further innovations possible.
We also learn about great societal shifts that resulted from the development of these technologies: how clean water solved public health crises and food preservation led to an explosion in the growth of cities. Little things we take for granted now changed forever the way the world operated.
Acclaimed writer Steven Johnson is our guide along this journey and proves himself an able storyteller, bringing to life the very personal tales of these inventors. He also has a sense of humor, injecting life into a subject that in could in other hands have digressed into tedium. These episodes are entertaining as well as informative: they don’t feel like homework.
How We Got to Now will make you see the world with new eyes. It will stick with you every time you get a glass of clean water out of the tap or turn down the air conditioner. And you’ll remember the forgotten heroes who made our world possible.
How We Got to Now debuts with two episodes Wednesday, October 15th at 9:00 p.m. on KIXE Channel 9.
Chad Grayson has been a gas station attendant, sold video games over the phone, and even was the person who cuts the mold off the cheese in the cheese factory, but spent most of his career as a middle school Language Arts and History teacher. He is now a full-time stay at home dad and writer. You can find him on twitter at @chadgrayson and on his blog at cegrayson.wordpress.com.