Six Things

Quick! Name 6 things we take for granted, but without which our world would be quite different! Read all about it here.

I’ve been racing through a great read: How We Got To Now, by Steven Johnson. He describes 6 innovations that shaped our world. I wish I had a job writing about stuff like that! Making connections from hither and yon. It reminds me of the series “Connections,” with James Burke, on TV long ago. (Johnson’s stories are also from a series: on PBS.)

Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342
Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342

The first chapter is about glass. It’s impact in everything from windows to lenses, to fiber optics. The writing is loaded with fascinating facts. Johnson proposes that while Gutenberg’s printing press made books available to the populace at large (making them affordable, both to buy and to print), it was lenses that made it possible for the majority of people to read. Up until then, with more than half the population far-sighted, it would not have been practical to buy a book and bring it home and read it. This assumes one had already gone to the trouble of learning to read, which was not taught in schools, there being no public schools in the sixteenth centuries!

One aspect of glass that Johnson glosses over (pardon the weak attempt at a pun), is how glass made possible windows. Not windows in homes, which he does describe. But windows in vehicles.

I propose that, although the steam engine and the internal combustion engine made possible long distance travel, none of that would have gone far (okay, a better pun) without glass for windows. One can make a powerful engine, a vehicle, even a carriage way (for trains and then cars). But without windows one would be limited to about 20 miles per hour. Beyond that, the force of wind – and inclement weather – would have made piloting the vehicle impossible. And what about air travel? I suppose one could have an aircraft with a periscope.

There would have been no need for an interstate highway system. No aircraft industry. No long distance vacation travel, except for the wealthy.

It’s fun to contemplate such a world. Maybe a good plot line for a sci-fi novel. Or on a world not made with a silica crust.

So, the next time you look out the car window at the rain pouring down, think about the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Confused? Read the book.

P.S. I noticed this on YouTube (of course): World without Glass. Hah!

P.P.S. Johnson writes that glass making would not have been possible without 1,000 degree furnaces. Those would not have been possible without ceramic bricks. From whence did furnaces evolve? Although no one knows, it may have been from ceramic glazing or metalworking.