October 02, 2014

Sometimes seemingly simple inventions can have impacts far beyond their intended use. Take air conditioning — and its indirect role in helping to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Home air conditioning units that became popular after WWII caused a massive population shift from the North to the South. “A very important component of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is the Sunbelt block of conservative voters that just would not have existed without air conditioning," says Steven Johnson, author of How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.

Original Intentions

History is filled with inventions that solved problems that people didn’t even know were problems. The air conditioning that we take for granted today actually has its roots in a printing shop.

In the early 1900s, a publishing house in Brooklyn faced a sticky problem: trying to stop ink from running off the page during times of peak humidity in the summer. Willis Carrier came up with a solution — but while his device successfully removed the water from the air, it also chilled the room. Workers were drawn to cool off near the new machine, and the rest is history. Soon, air conditioners were common in formerly furnace-like movie theaters, and eventually, in homes across the country.

And important innovations don't always have to come in shiny, high-tech packaging. Something as simple as adding chlorine — poisonous in large doses — to drinking water supplies revolutionized daily life for many.

“If we have to choose between our iPhones and water that doesn’t give us cholera, I hope most of us would choose the water,” says Johnson.

The Catch-22 of Progress

“One technology gets invented, which is wonderful and solves a local problem that it’s trying to solve — but it inadvertently creates a new problem that we didn’t think about, which then requires more technology to solve that problem.”

Everyone knows that the Gutenberg Bible kicked off the printing revolution, but there’s a twist in this story too. After print democratized reading, “a significant portion of those people said, ‘I can’t read this cause I’m far-sighted,’” Johnson explains. “It’s a problem that kind of didn’t exist before because people just didn’t have the need to look at tiny little letter forms on a page.” This awareness led to the development of corrective lenses, which in turn aided the development of the telescope and the microscope.

Before the advent of mirrors made of glass, the average person had little sense of what they looked like. As mirrors became more common, there were massive changes in art (the growth of the self-portrait) and, perhaps more importantly, human behavior — as anyone taking a selfie right now can attest.

An Innate Curiosity

Great inventors are separated by time and space, but they have one thing in common. “They just have this incredible curiosity about the world. A lot of the things that they developed did not start with a clear vision,” says Johnson, and it was “that desire to just know a little more and…to keep following those threads wherever they might lead."

Culture, Steven Johnson, history

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