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Did air conditioning play a role in Reagan’s election? Searching for ripple effects of history-making tech

In the new book and PBS series “How We Got to Now,” Steven Johnson presents six game-changing innovations and how they shaped the modern world. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Johnson about surprising connections between invention and American society.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Finally, an unconventional look at big ideas and how they lead to unintended and transformative consequences.

    That's the subject of a new book and PBS series that debuts tonight called "How We Got to Now."

    The host is a popular science writer, author and theorist, Steven Johnson.

    Here's a clip from an episode about what air conditioning set into motion after Willis Carrier designed the first modern system.

    STEVEN JOHNSON, Author, "How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World": In 1951, Carrier's company introduces an air conditioning unit that is miniaturized and affordable for a mass market.

    And that's when A.C. starts to go crazy. Now, just see what this does to where people are living. Tucson, Arizona, grows 400 percent in 10 years, Phoenix 300 percent, Tampa, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, population double, triple. And it's the same story everywhere you look. Carrier's invention is circulating people, as well as air, changing lives, changing America.

    But then something even more interesting happens. You see, people moving to the hot states are older and tend to vote Republican. And the growing population in the conservative South means more Electoral College votes there. So, check out what happens to the political map of America. Between 1940 and 1980, Northern states lose an incredible 31 Electoral College votes, while Southern states gain 29.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Hari Sreenivasan sat down with Johnson recently in our New York studios.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The book is called "How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World."

    Steven Johnson, why did you pick glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light? What is it about these innovations?

  • STEVEN JOHNSON:

    Well, we didn't want to just have stories about the things that we think of as high technology today, right?

    So there's no chapter on the smartphone or something like that, right? What I was really interested in is basically objects and innovations that are so ubiquitous now that we don't even think about them as technology or a scientific breakthrough.

    And I also wanted to have things that have had a really interesting history and that involved kind of characters that were interesting and that had interesting stories, and that led us to a series of unanticipated consequences once they got unleashed in the world.

    And so there was the long process of trying to figure out what to include. But we ended up with these six.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, draw — connect the dots for us between Gutenberg's press and the selfie.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • STEVEN JOHNSON:

    Yes, right.

    Well, everybody — you think you know the story of Gutenberg, right? He invents the printing press, books get into circulation, there's this revolution in theology and science because of this.

    But there's this other funny side effect of the printing press which no one really talks about, which is that, as soon as people started to read in large numbers, as soon as literacy become — became a part of kind of European life, all of a sudden, all across Europe, people started to say, I can't read this because I'm farsighted. I can't actually like make this out on the page.

    And it was a problem that people basically just hadn't had before. They hadn't noticed it, because they didn't have any need to kind of look at small little forms on a page. And so, because of this, all across Europe, people started making spectacles. And lens making becomes this very important craft.

    And because of this expertise with lenses, all of a sudden, people started thinking, hey, we could put these two lenses together, and we could make a telescope or we could make a microscope. And then you have this amazing scientific revolution because of this lens making. So Gutenberg actually leads to, in this very indirect way, because of glass, because of lenses, he leads to the scientific revolutions in astronomy and biology and health.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right. And then eventually even mirrors become more common in the Renaissance, and really those are the first kind of selfies that we see, right?

  • STEVEN JOHNSON:

    Well, there's an explosion in self-portraiture that happens in the Renaissance.

    Basically — and it's funny to think about this now — mirrors really didn't exist in their kind of modern form, where you could see a very clear image of yourself, until right at the beginning of the Renaissance. So, most people just walked around their entire lives never really catching a full glimpse what they looked like as a person.

    And then all of a sudden, you get — these advanced mirrors get created. And artists embrace it completely. People like Rembrandt do endless self-portraits, the kind of early selfie. But it also — people get — the culture gets more introspective. And the idea of selfhood becomes important to art and to philosophy. And I think the mirror is part of that story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, in your chapter on cold, you draw basically a line between our ability to control the cold or refrigeration and Reagan's electoral win. How is that?

  • STEVEN JOHNSON:

    Yes. Yes.

    It seems crazy, but there's a direct line. So, air conditioning gets invented in the — in the beginning of the 20th century. There's a printing shop in Brooklyn that's trying to do these high-quality magazine prints. And in the summer, the humidity is so bad that the ink is smearing.

    And so they hire this young engineer named Willis Carrier, who goes on to found the Carrier Corporation. And he solves this by dehumidifying the air, but it has this side effect, which it also makes the air cooler. And so everybody in the printing shop was like, I'm going to have my lunch there, where the — like, it's really — the air is really nice in there.

    And so he decides to build this whole technology. And about 50 years later, it gets popularized in terms of home air conditioning, the small window units and then home central air. And it triggers one of the single largest migrations of human beings in the history of the United States, where everybody moves to the Sun Belt, everybody moves to Florida, people move to Vegas and Phoenix and places that basically just weren't inhabitable without air conditioning.

    And that triggers a huge swing in the Electoral College, about 50 or 60 votes that swing towards the South. And that Sun Belt coalition is crucial to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Now, it's possible that Reagan could have gotten elected without air conditioning, but he would have had to have built a completely different political coalition to do it. So A.C. is absolutely a part of that story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, there's a quote in here that sort of summarizes an idea that you keep coming back to in the book, is, when we think of ideas, we tend to constrain ourselves by the scale of the original invention.

    So, what you're doing is really saying — looking at these concepts and all these ripple or what you call hummingbird effects.

  • STEVEN JOHNSON:

    Yes.

    When we tell history, right, we tend to tell the story of great men and women or great social movements or great kind of military conflicts. And that's an important part of our historical story. And we need to tell those stories.

    But what this book and the show we have is trying to do is to basically show how these objects and these ideas in a sense had a life of their own. And so someone is trying to solve this one problem, but that ends up creating all these unintended consequences in all these other fields. And that's a big part of who we are now.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Steven Johnson.

    The book is called "How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World":

    Thanks so much for joining us.

  • STEVEN JOHNSON:

    My pleasure.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you can watch "How We Got to Now" tonight on most PBS stations.

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