Every schoolchild learns about inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Robert Fulton, Eli Whitney and their ingenious world-changing innovations. But for every famous name in the history books, there’s an unsung hero who made significant breakthroughs that changed the way we live. Beginning Oct. 15, the PBS series “How We Got to Now” spotlights these unknown figures and explains how one great idea launched a chain reaction that led to many others.

The series is hosted by Steven Johnson, author of “Everything Bad Is Good For You,” “The Ghost Map,” “Where Good Ideas Come From” and a new same-titled companion book to the program. “How We Got to Now” is divided into six parts, kicking off with two back-to-back episodes entitled “Clean” and “Time,” followed by “Glass,” “Light,” “Cold” and “Sound.”

“Each episode has some amazing twist that you have either never heard of, or you didn't see coming,” says Johnson. “What we are trying to do with this show is remind people that there is a different kind of innovation out there that all of our lives benefit from, but often a problem didn’t exist until a technology came along to expose it. It wasn’t until the railroad and the telegraph that people realized they needed to coordinate their schedules on a minute-by-minute level, and that’s what led to standardized time.”

The “Light” episode somewhat startlingly announces that Thomas Edison did not invent the incandescent light bulb.

“There were 20 or 30 rival inventors who were all working on variations of the light bulb for decades before Edison, and a number of them hit on the exact same combination of core elements that Edison did in his light bulb,” Johnson explains. “Edison was the first person to create the means to sell light bulbs and meter them and sell the current that powered them, and so he deserves credit for what he did. But the condensing of that story down to ‘Thomas Edison invents the light bulb in 1880’ is just not accurate. Almost always, somebody comes up with part of the deal. Somebody else comes up with another part of the idea. And it's through the combination of all of these different, great ideas that the innovation eventually happens.”

There are other examples in the series “where the same phenomenon or the same technology is simultaneously and independently discovered or hit upon by sometimes five or six different people within a year of each other at different points in the world with no communication. Oxygen is isolated and discovered three different times simultaneously between 1773 and 1774. This happens because every idea is building on the ideas that have come before it, and there are certain thoughts you simply can't have until the building blocks are in place.”

The non-famous inventors may have remained so because they lacked fortunes or backers, says Johnson. “They solve problems kind of in the background. We tend not to hear about those people because they don't become rich and because there's a tendency not to celebrate them, and we are trying to change that balance.”

Johnson’s favorite story is in the “Sound” episode, about how Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press created a demand for spectacles. “People suddenly realized they couldn’t read. They hadn’t noticed that before. All of a sudden, all these lens makers started to pop up selling people glasses so they could read. That eventually led to the invention of the telescope and the microscope.”

Steven Johnson in sewer for PBS series on inventions

Johnson went deep into the sewers of San Francisco while researching inventions for the PBS series. (Photo: Diene Petterle)

The “Cold” episode examines the far-reaching ramifications of refrigeration and air conditioning, which started with the ice trade in the 19th century with ice magnate Frederick Tudor, “who made a fortune selling New England ice to people in hot places. Before they had artificial refrigeration, they would just stuff big blocks of ice in these railcars, and that was what enabled Chicago to ship meat from the stockyards back to the East Coast.” In the early 20th century, air conditioning enabled a mass migration to the South, and caused a shift in the Electoral College, which changed the way that we elect our politicians.”

“Cold” also includes a visit to an indoor ski slope in Dubai, “just to show how insane we've gone with our pursuit of artificial cold, that you can ski in the middle of the Arabian desert,” says Johnson, pointing out a few examples of the series’ light and playful tone. “I go down into the sewer systems in San Francisco. That was literally the worst thing I've ever done in my life. It was an incredibly compressed space and unbelievable smells and cockroaches everywhere and rats. It was terrible, and I'm glad I did it, but I wish I could erase that experience from my memory.”

Johnson says he hopes the series will entertain, inform and convey that “the world is full of problems that can be solved, and if we apply ourselves and follow these hunches that we have and collaborate with interesting people we can solve these problems.”

He’s eager to continue exploring the topic in a sequel to the series. “We've got lots of stories. We would love to keep doing it. There are some things that we just ran out of episodes for that we already had worked on, and we've got a bunch more ideas, maybe a bit less science and technology and more cultural history,” he envisions. “Showing how all these things are connected is a way of telling history and connecting it to the present, and I think there's a lot more of it to be done for sure.”

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Celebrating the unsung fathers of invention
PBS series 'How We Got to Now' shows how one great idea can change the world.