The Hummingbird Effect

Topics: Printing Press

The book, How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson is about six innovations that made the modern world. This book focuses on the “hummingbird effect.” It’s an innovation or group of innovations, in one field that ends up triggering changes that are all in a way connected. These can be big and chaotic, while others are more subtle. One example is, Johannesburg Gutenberg’s printing press created a demand for spectacles, which led to the invention of the microscope, and then the discovery of human cells.

Significant as it is, people often mistake this with the butterfly effect. The difference is that it’s “beyond our capacity to parse those connections or, even harder, to predict them in advance” (5). The innovations from glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light, impacted our society greatly.

In 1204, a small community of glassmakers in Turkey sailed to Venice where their skills created new luxury goods for merchants. To make them, it required furnaces burning at about 1,000 degrees, and Venice was built out of wooden structures.

These glassmakers brought wealth but were dangerous because accidents have burnt down houses. It wasn’t until 1291 that efforts were made for the protection of public safety. The government sent the glassmakers away to the island of Murano. This place would become known as the Isle of Glass. Angelo Barovier, a Murano glassmaker, mixed the ingredients of burnt ashes from seaweed with molten glass. When cooled, it created a clear type of glass. This is the birth of modern glass.

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The invention of the printing press in the 1440s made people aware that they were farsighted. The revelation created a massive demand for spectacles. This is a case of the hummingbird effect. Spectacle businesses were very profitable and glasses became an advanced technology that everyday people could wear. Due to the printing press, Europe was suddenly populated by people who could manipulate light through convex pieces of glass. This led to the inventions of microscopes and telescopes as well.

On the other hand, physicist Charles Vernon Boys built a special crossbow and lightweight bolts to go with it. To one bolt, he attached the end of a glass rod with sealing wax. In one of his shots, he produced a thread of glass. This experiment created a breakthrough that you can use glass for strength. Therefore, glass fibers made a new material called fiberglass. Fiberglass was everywhere, from our clothes to surfboards.

In more recent history, humans began exploiting the quantum behavior of silicon electrons. With the manipulation of carbon, we can make durable transparent materials that can do the job of glass. Many objects we use daily rely on silicon dioxide for their existence. Glass is very important to the development of human civilization. It’s hard to imagine a world without windows or mirrors. Because of glass, we have the understanding of cells, the knowledge of what makes us human, and telescopes that give us the best comprehension of our place in the universe.

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The Hummingbird Effect. (2022, Aug 08). Retrieved from

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