Wonderland | Steven Johnson

Summary of: Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
By: Steven Johnson


Dive into the world of ‘Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World’ by Steven Johnson, and discover the surprising role that play and curiosity have had in human history. The book explores unique inventions and breakthroughs that have evolved out of our desire for leisure and entertainment such as automated machines, musical legacies, stimulating global trade, captivating optical illusions, and the formation of social and political movements. ‘Wonderland’ sheds light on how the human brain is naturally inclined towards discovery through play, showcasing the power of combining fun, creativity, and surprise in shaping the world we know today.

Playful Innovation

Throughout history, many important inventions were born from play, rather than necessity. Take the Banu Musa brothers, for example, two Islamic scholars who built frivolous toys and trinkets, yet went on to publish groundbreaking work on mechanics and hydraulics. Play has shaped human history for a good reason: the human brain is wired to engineer discovery through play. Our brains love surprises, releasing dopamine when encountering novelty, which leads to important discoveries through curiosity or happenstance. When we’re playing, our brains work differently, making previously unimagined associations and being at their most creative.

The Unexpected Roots of Computing

Thousands of years ago, early humans explored the qualities of sound, leading to the creation of musical instruments that are still recognizable today. Interestingly, playing with sound eventually led to more inventions, including the creation of the first programmable computer by the Banu Musa brothers. Their machine played the flute and had a rotating cylinder covered with pins that operated the holes of the flute. This cylinder could be swapped out with a new one that played a different tune, making it the first programmable device in history. This simple mechanism eventually evolved into the complex technology we use today.

The Curious Origins of the Industrial Revolution

4,000 years ago, Mediterranean fashionistas prized purple dye, a color secreted by a sea snail. This created a craze for purple clothing, driving brave sailors to venture into the Atlantic for more snails. Centuries later, the demand for colorful clothing launched the Industrial Revolution as British entrepreneurs sought to mass-produce cotton fabrics as cheaply as possible, leading to the invention of the steam engine. All this on the back of a foppish fad!

The History of Global Trading

Spices have a long history and have shaped global trade since ancient times. Today, we take for granted the easy availability of different spices, but years ago, one would have had to travel around the world for a whole year to find them. Spices were originally grown and traded in specific locations, such as cloves that only grew on the Spice Islands in Indonesia. The trading of spices helped to create the first global trade routes, and in the Middle Ages, the fiery taste of the peppercorn was more valuable than gold and was even used as currency. Along with their taste, spices were believed to have medicinal properties and were used to treat everything from gas pains to depression. The spice trade was a significant factor in the rise of Venice as a powerful city and affected human history in countless ways.

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