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amy denmeade

Congratulations on another wonderful book! I've always enjoyed the way you pull together examples and ideas from different disciplines and this book does that exceptionally well. What makes an idea imaginable at a certain time is such an interesting question to ponder. Thank you!


I am super excited for your book! Great interview on the Daily Show,too!

Both "Where Good Ideas Come From" and "How We Got To Now" provide meaningful context to anyone who is wrestling with innovation and change in their organization - whether to create it, adapt to it, or adopt it. It's great storytelling and sense-making that helps us see the world of innovation a bit more clearly. If you're ever in Austin, TX, as the City's Chief Innovation Officer, I would love to invite you to a breakfast taco and a talk!


In your show you called Noon, 12 p.m. I think that it's just Noon, or Midnight instead of 12 a.m.


Steven, Sir Sanford Fleming (a Canadian) not Allen invented international time zones. Allen only did the U.S. and the whole world needed implementing because of the worldwide operations of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The U.S. is not the centre of the universe.

linda carder

I agree with the comment that Sir Sanford Fleming invented Standard Time for the world in 1876. He established O as Greenwich Mean Time in London England and you can go & have a pictlure taken at 0. He was scottish by birth but canadian by residency & died here. he was a surveyor by trade..look him up...again the u.s. is not the centre of the earth that is was you have 5 or 6 time zones time zones all as a result of Fleming not Allen.

Allan M. Doyle

Steven - Sir Sandford Fleming INVENTED Standard Time - Where is your researh ? Fleming died here in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1915 at his daughter's estate 'Blenheim.' Sir Sandford Fleming Park here faces that estate - with its ten storey stone Tower to Democracy : 'Canada's National Memorial Tower' - along a fiord area lined with North America's first yacht club and hundreds of multi-million dollar homes Come for a visit Steven.
Nova Scotians have Invented World Changing Items : Simon Newcomb - the electric air-conditioner for the White House, Kerosene & asphalt paving - by Abraham Gesner, America's First oil refinery ( Standard Oil ) in NJ - by A. Gesner - again, the non glare car headlight & floodlighting - by Walter Ryan ( Friend of Thomas Edison - Ryan was First to floodlight NYC's first skyscrapers, the Lincoln Memorial, Niagara Falls, etc.), the Hydrofoil by Alexander Graham Bell ( buried here ), the Odometer, Modern Steel Edged Skates, Hockey, modern paper from wood pulp - by Charles Fenerty, airplane position indicator, modern tempered steel rails for train tracks, folding ironing board, skyscraper to use ocean water for air-conditioning - 1985, Lidar - used on the Mars Rover, DNA - by Oswald Avery at Rockefeller Research, DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY - by Willard Boyle - at Bell Labs, - NJ. NOBEL PRIZE !, modern lie detector & questionaire - by Dr. Larson, etc., etc.
All the Best : Allan M. Doyle - a Haligonian - forever !

Don Reid

Enjoy the series. However, in "Light" no mention is made of Kerosene which once was once the major source for lighting in the U.S. and made John D. Rockefeller a rich man. After the invention of the incandescent bulb it quickly lost that status but led to the development of gasoline which was once a useless byproduct of Kerosene.

Connie Morrison

This is a fascinating PBS series and I will be reading the book; however, the resemblance to James Burke's "Connections" is uncanny. It would be marvelous if Mr. Johnson would acknowledge his predecessor's skill at revealing similar links in the progress of technology.

John Gardner

I have enjoyed the series very much Steven, and love your sense of humor! Can't wait for the next PBS episode. Being from Chicago myself, I was fascinated to learn about how the city was lifted by jack screws, a fact which I was not aware of! Thank you!
I look forward to getting your book!
John Gardner

David Ringlein

Steven, I'd like to tell you about a website (soon to be released) where an idea is given birth so the world can evolve it... and the site will "record" the evolution!! Can you contact me?

Coleman Colla

Page 180, last paragraph:
"Trains moving east or west - longitudinally - travel faster than the sun moves thru the sky."
I found this sentence hard to understand. The sun moves across the earth's surface at the equator at approx 1,000 miles per hour. Even at higher latitudes, it moves at several hundred miles per hour. How could "trains...travel faster..."?

Paul Dougherty

Steven, my son Luke is a B former at STA. He just completed your book. We were in his parent teacher conference this week and Mr. Wilkerson told us you are a STA alum! He was very excited to hear this. Luke is especially interested in science and spends all of his limited free time researching on the web and reading. It would be great is you would send him an email ldougherty@cathedral.org.
Paul Dougherty


Steven, I listened to your presentation on C-Span. Your presentation is captivating but continually disturbing when you pepper your speech with "You Know". I hear "You Know" and then I go into a self-examining mode to find the thing that I am supposed to know, when that's not what was intended. Just cut out the You-Knows from your presentation method and deliver the ideas without challenging the listener to fill in the not-yet-said words.

David Janzen

Sheven, I liked your how we got to here show on pbs about sound. The first recordings of sound where mentioned as the Phonautograph... however I will propose that this may simply be the first intentional recordings of sound. I believe that in the future we will find unintentional sound recordings which far predate these. If you will allow me to explain one of my ideas as a somewhat odd thinker... My thoughts on this; If you where to find an object made with a continuous or repeating process that has stood the wear of time (a strand of gold wire, a piece of pottery made on a wheel)... when our technology gets there, you will find etched ever so small into the object by the tooling the sounds and voices which were occurring in the area and were carried as vibration through the tooling to the object. One day we may be able to glean and hear from the surfaces of the cells on a paper like a Constitution, the voices occurring in the room at the time it was signed, carried by sound vibrations through the moving pen and recorded as yoctoetchmarks (I just created that word writing this comment) on the document itself! David Janzen, Ontario. Canada


Good day Steven, I've caught three parts of your series on PBS. It's quite educational. One comment: I'd rather call it How we Got to Do.

Natasha Aristov

Steven, I've been pondering the origins of things, too (at a chewing-the-fat level). I've figured out how scissors might have come about (having a finger caught between a few sticks tied in a bundle, for example) -- but here's one I have no decent ideas on: what could have led to the invention of the screw (which could have eventually led to a worm gear)? No screws -- no technologically nothing, basically... It'd be great if you could steer me to some revelations.


It seems that it's a really mind expanduing read. I'm especially interested in what you call a 'hummingbird effect'. Indeed, the innovations might as well have negative effects on our lives and it would be nice to learn more about them.


I post this here because there is no way to contact you other than this it seems.

I just read this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-02b44e78-2da1-4a27-bcc5-dd0de5f38b20

It was interesting, but I hope you are aware that Artificial Ice and Cold was used in around 400 BC in Persia?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakhchal is just one reference.

In your article, it is, as if it was "invented" in the 1800; this is not true!

This is the conclusion people will draw however, when reading your article.

I suggest you either change the article so that people will not draw false conclusions, or include where it originally was "invented" for the first time. It wont harm to be accurate.

Tudor wasn't using anything self-innovative, he was simply applying the same old techniques used in Persia (and India as well) a very long time ago. Only he was importing the ice, whilst in Persia they made the Ice there which is actually even more innovative if you think about it.

The building you suggest Tudor made, was made first also in Persia, same technique there.

Thanks for your time and good articles.

John Zube

I became interested in your website because of the term you used: "peer progressivism", which I entered as an alternative term for panarchism, polyarchism and competing governance of the P. E. de Puydt kind. Insofar our interests overlap and also in the aim of unifying all knowledge. So I thought you might be interested in what the website of Gian Piero de Bellis has to offer on panarchism in www.panarchy.org - including contributions by me and 2 books on the unification of all significant knowledge, e.g. my father's book on the Ideas Archive and my own on its libertarian equivalent in my PEACE PLANS No. 20 and my proposals in my NEW DRAFT book of 2010, zipped down to 306 Kbs, all offered free upon request as email attachments by myself. I would have sent them already to you - if I had seen your email address. But you do, probably, get excess email and do not want to mention it. My own old website offers only part of my literature list for my PEACE PLANS series, 1779 issues to 2002, most of them only on microfiche. - Here is a list of related terms: CONTRACTARIANS: Contractarians and Associationists, in a so far largely neglected meaning, do, just like Libertarians, believe that freedom of contract, association, experimentation, competition, individual sovereignty or self-ownership, self-responsibility, self-management, self-governance, self-determination, free enterprise and consumer sovereignty, freedom of exchange, property rights, freedom of action, freedom of movement and migration, voluntarism, tolerance for the tolerant and peaceful coexistence options can be rightfully and rationally applied in every sphere now compulsorily monopolized by territorial statism and that they were already partly realized in history and can be fully developed – under personal law or full exterritorial autonomy for volunteers and their associations, provided only that the participants are mature adults, with moral sense, a conscience and enough knowledge and appreciation of all individual rights and liberties. It would also mean a fully free market and sufficient publicity for all such efforts and organizations, as well as agreements on arbitration or adjudication systems for conflicts between some members of different personal law societies, communities and governance systems. – If you can state this more clearly, comprehensively and yet much shorter, please, do! - JZ, 18. & 20.2.15. – PANARCHISM, POLYARCHISM, ASSOCIATIONISTS, CONTRACTARIANISM, ASSOCIATIONISM, LIBERTARIANS, LIBERTARIANISM, COMPETITION, VOLUNTARYISTS, VOLUNTARISM, INDIVIDUAL SOVEREIGNTY & SECESSIONISM, COMPETING SOCIETIES, COMMUNITIES, GOVERNANCE SYSTEMS, ADJUDICATION, LEGISLATION, POLICE-, PROTECTION-, INSURANCE- & DEFENCE SERVICES, ALL ONLY FOR THEIR VOLUNTEERS, PERSONAL LAW, EXTERRIORIAL AUTONOMY, MINORITY AUTONOMY AS WELL AS MAJORITY AUTONOMY, ALL DOING THE OWN THINGS AMONG THEIR MEMBERS, TOLERANCE, PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE, FREE EXCHANGE & FREE MARKETS, FREE TRADE, FREE ENTERPRISE & CONSUMER SOVEREIGNTY, SELF-GOVERNANCE, SELF-DETERMINATION, SELF-MANAGEMENT, SELF-RESPONSIBILITY & SELF-HELP, FREEDOM TO EXPERIMENT AMONG LIKE-MINDED VOLUNTEERS - IN EVERY SPHERE, ALWAYS ONLY AT THE OWN RISK & EXPENSE. – ALL KINDS OF ANARCHISM, LIBERTARIANISM & STATISM ONLY FOR ALL KINDS OF ANARCHISTS, LIBERTARIANS & STATISTS, ALWAYS WITHOUT A TERRITORIAL MONOPOLY. ABOLITION OF COMPULSORY MEMBERSHIPS & OF IMPOSED LOYALTIES, DUTIES, TAXES, SERVICES & OF FORCED LABOR OF ANY KIND FOR INNOCENT PEOPLE - John Zube

Joe Bernard

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book and I am halfway through downloaded the PBS series. I do have two comments to share:

First, in the chapter on Cold you describe some of the physical chemistry of water but don't discuss it's biggest ramification. That is, when water freezes it expands and becomes less dense. That is why water pipes burst when they freeze in the winter, but it is also why lakes and ponds freeze on the surface. This anomalous expansion of water is certainly a key part of your story. Imagine how different life on earth would be if water behaved as almost all other molecules and became more dense as ice. Water on the surface of a lake would begin to freeze (it is colder there due to evaporation) and the crystals would sink. As they sank they would exchange heat with subsurface water and melt but cooling the liquid water. Eventually the entire volume of water would get cold enough the the crystals would settle on the bottom and the lake would freeze from the bottom up. Imagine the impact that would have on aquatic life! Totally frozen lakes would have made it difficult if not impossible for enterprising men like Frederic Tudor who might never have thought to harvest it and ship it south. I'm not suggesting we wouldn't have gotten to now but my guess is that it would have been a very different route.

Second, in your chapter on time you make no mention of John Harrison and his invention of the marine chronometer for determining longitude at sea. I did note that you made a passing remark in the PBS series but I believe he is very much a part of the story of time as he fundamentally changed the way ships at sea navigated, speeding their transoceanic trips and allowing them to alter their traditional course which pirates and enemy navies knew only too well. I also believe that his story is a corollary to your hummingbird theory of shared knowledge. Harrison worked in total seclusion for 40+ years perfecting his time piece and fighting with the Royal Society over its efficacy. The Society was made up almost entirely of astronomers who were convinced the answer lay in the moon and stars. There was a large monetary prize at stake for whoever could develop a reliable method for determining longitude so he worked alone for all those years and finally claimed his rightful prize. Imagine how much faster this problem could have been solved and how many lives would have been saved had he been able to share his knowledge with other watchmakers of his era. His inventions were used extensively by navigators aboard ships and later on airplanes into the present day and only recently was it replaced by Global Positioning Systems aboard satellites.

Dan Jones

I've just read the comments above and agree, that the omission of key non American events leads one to question everything else that is factual.

During episode on time of "how we got to now", there is no reference to the fact that the British had standardised time 40 years before the USA, and because of the same reasons. This is a bizarre historical omission. The USA was just copying. And the lack of serious mention of the truly inspirational lifetime effort of Harrison, which is merely a footnote compared to 7 months effort of Dowd, does history no justice. In your episode on water, there is minimal if any reference to Bazalgette, instead a lengthy part of Chicago's sewage system, which may be interesting, but specific to that city. Your dramatisation of the chlorination of water is clearly wrong it its significance, coming years after Maidstone in England was the first town to be fully chlorinated, after experiments in Hamburg.

You need to re-title the book to something more US centric. I have stopped watching.

Aaron Lerner

Am currently reading How We Got to Now. My copy is a third edition.

The caption with the photo on page 101 says that the Moscow–Washington hotline was installed in the White House. Rather, the hotline was installed in the Pentagon. The photo provides a clue: Notice the hall sign "Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Upon receipt of a message, the Pentagon would translate it and transmit it to the White House Situation Room.

Bernardo Fourcade

I'm just watching the PBS series and loving each one of the chapters. Until I watched the "Light" one. I got surprised and dissapointed with the role given to Thomas Edison on that episode. It completely ignores Nicolai Tesla as the real inventor that transformed our lives in terms of how we use electricity (and light produced with electricity) that made our modern life as we know it. It keeps perpetuating the big lie around Thomas Edison as the iconic inventor that revolutionized modern life bringing electricity and light to everyplace. Tesla needed to fight the big corporation (GE) for the better solution to prevail. Alternate Curent. If there was an opportunity to revindicate the work of Tesla was exactly that episode. Is interesting how other non-American inventors are included in the series, but not Tesla, maybe because it desmitifies the already over exaggerated role given to T.Edison as the image for "American inventor"
A missed opportunity to teach about how the "right thing" prevailed over the "business". It could have been done even protecting "Edison" image anyways.


Congratulations on another wonderful book! I've always enjoyed the way you pull together examples and ideas from different disciplines and this book does that exceptionally well. What makes an idea imaginable at a certain time is such an interesting question to ponder. Thank you!

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My Photo
I'm a father of three boys, husband of one wife, and author of nine books, host of one television series, and co-founder of three web sites. We split our time between Brooklyn, NY and Marin County, CA. Personal correspondence should go to sbeej68 at gmail dot com. If you're interested in having me speak at an event, drop a line to Wesley Neff at the Leigh Bureau (WesN at Leighbureau dot com.)

My Books

  • Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

    Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
    A history of innovation accompanied by a 6-part TV series on PBS and the BBC, this was the first of my books to crack the top 5 on the NY Times bestseller list. Appropriately for a book that celebrates diverse networks, this was the most collaborative of any of my books. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

    Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age
    My first book-length attempt to organize my writings about emergence and networks into something resembling a political philosophy, which I called Peer Progressivism. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

    Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
    An exploration of environments that lead to breakthrough innovation, in science, technology, business, and the arts. I conceived it as the closing book in a trilogy on innovative thinking, after Ghost Map and Invention. But in a way, it completes an investigation that runs through all the books, and laid the groundwork for How We Got To Now. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Invention of Air

    The Invention of Air
    The story of the British radical chemist Joseph Priestley, who ended up having a Zelig-like role in the American Revolution. My version of a founding fathers book, and a reminder that most of the Enlightenment was driven by open source ideals. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Ghost Map

    The Ghost Map
    The story of a terrifying outbreak of cholera in 1854 London 1854 that ended up changing the world. An idea book wrapped around a page-turner. I like to think of it as a sequel to Emergence if Emergence had been a disease thriller. You can see a trailer for the book here. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

    Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
    The title says it all. This one sparked a slightly insane international conversation about the state of pop culture -- and particularly games. There were more than a few dissenters, but the response was more positive than I had expected. And it got me on The Daily Show, which made it all worthwhile. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

    Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
    My first best-seller, and the only book I've written in which I appear as a recurring character, subjecting myself to a battery of humiliating brain scans. The last chapter on Freud and the neuroscientific model of the mind is one of my personal favorites. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

    Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
    The story of bottom-up intelligence, from slime mold to Slashdot. Most of my books sold more copies than this one, but Emergence has influenced the most eclectic mix of fields: political campaigns, web business models, urban planning, the war on terror. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate

    Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
    My first. The book I wrote instead of finishing my dissertation, predicting the growing cultural significance of interface and information design. Still relevant, I think. But I haven't read it in a while, so who knows what's in there! (Available from IndieBound here.)

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