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'How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson' review: Fascinating facts

Steven Johnson, back in the sunlight after his

Steven Johnson, back in the sunlight after his walk in the San Francisco Sewer System, in PBS' "How We Got to Now." Credit: PBS / Diene Petterle

THE SERIES "How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson"

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on Steven Johnson's "How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World," this six-parter begins Wednesday night with "Clean" (9) and "Time" (10). What are those inventions that made our world cleaner or made the trains -- and hence us -- run on time? Answers tonight. Future installments will explore "Sound," "Cold," "Glass" and "Light."

MY SAY "How We Got to Now" is really about two major subjects -- the infinitude of forgotten inventions that led to the modern world, and the guy who writes and talks about them, Steven Johnson. Depending on your tolerance for authorial intervention -- and this author intervenes a lot -- that's good or not so good.

What's good: Johnson is likable and erudite (and has an extensive body of work as proof of that erudition).

The not so good: As a host, he can be glib and chatty -- sort of like that science teacher we had in high school who tried just a little too hard to make quantum mechanics lovable ("Aren't quarks cute?!").

In fact, Johnson is an immensely interesting fellow and has produced several books that have explored the ways technology has transformed modern life. This series (and the book) are the corollaries to his obsession -- how modern life has been transformed by stuff (and people) we've entirely forgotten.

Example: Ellis S. Chesbrough, creator of the Chicago sewer system (a subject of tonight's first hour). Mr. Chesbrough and his beloved sewers? Sure, easy to forget, but imagine Chicago without his invention.

That's Johnson's theme over and over again: Your entire world was influenced, even created, by something as simple . . . as the invention of a train timetable. As such, "Now" is a veritable banquet of factoids that would stump a "Jeopardy!" champ: Did you know (I didn't) that there was once a day with two noons? (Nov. 18, 1883, when standard time was established.) Or that time was essentially "democratized" during the Civil War when 160,000 Ellery watches were sold? The practical impact of that -- battles could begin on time.

BOTTOM LINE Fascinating primer (that occasionally begs for more details and explanation).


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