...............reviews Steven Johnson's new book. An excerpt:
And compared with political and military history, the history of innovation is not just “one damned thing after another”; it chronicles genuine, irreversible and magnificent changes in society. Take the story of a New Jersey doctor named John Leal who got a job managing water supplies for Jersey City and set out to do something to make them safe. In secret, without permission and against the law, he decided to try adding a strong poison called calcium hyperchlorite, a procedure known as “chlorination” today. When dilute, it killed bacteria but not people. Fortunately he got the dose right and nobody died. Interrogated in court, he adamantly insisted that his experiment had worked, that Jersey City’s water was now the safest in the world and that he was not in it for the money: his refusal to patent it led to the adoption of chlorination all over the world. The court agreed and exonerated him of wrongdoing.
The impact of Leal’s innovation was extraordinary. Between 1900 and 1930 chlorination cut total mortality in the average American city by 43 per cent and infant mortality by 74 per cent. Almost nothing has done more to reduce misery. Chlorination went on to make swimming pools safe and popular which led, Johnson argues, to changes in fashion, reinventing attitudes towards how much of the shape of the female body could be revealed in polite society. A hummingbird effect.