In 2014 we live pretty comfortable lives, free of rampant disease and inconvenience that plagued our not-too-distant ancestors. The people who helped us get to this point are not necessarily rich or famous but they're no less important for it. PBS celebrates these folks in its new series, How We Got To Now, hosted by author Steven Johnson.
If you feel like TV is a little too full of people who can't move their eyebrows saying I'm not here to make friends, but you really enjoyed the Ken Burns' Roosevelt docu-series that aired on PBS earlier this fall, How We Got To Now is definitely worth your time. It's like one of those movies you used to watch in high school when you had a substitute teacher, but it's actually good. You'll find yourself learning all kinds of Hey, I didn't know that! facts.
Each episode explores a particular area in which we've advanced, and in it as you may have guessed by the title, How we got to now. The first episode explores the subject of cleaning and cleanliness. Sound like a boring mom topic. It's not! And that's exactly the point of this series—to show you that what you may think of as mundane is actually interesting and important.
Johnson takes us all over America to show off clean tech, beginning the series in San Francisco, visiting its thousands of miles of sewers built more than 100 years ago to demonstrate how much a city needs sewers. Five generations ago, they didn't even exist, and filth just festered away on the streets. Until a man named Ellis Chesbrough stepped in and designed the sewer system for the city of Chicago. And it caught on in other American cities—20 of which followed with their own sewer systems in the next three decades. Hey, we all just learned something.
Ok, so, sewers, check! Now, we have to tackle trash. By 1914, cities had started municipal refuse collection, and by the 30s, sanitation companies were going door to door to pick up people's trash. Then we had to do something about water—because the existence of sewers didn't mean the eradication of dirty water. And the kind of water people were getting from their sinks in the early 19th century would literally kill you.
There's a scene where Johnson is sitting in a bathroom with a bathtub full of fish—this isn't an exaggeration. People in Chicago at least actually ended up with fish in their tubs (hey, I didn't know that!), so better infrastructure to keep dirty water and drinking water separate was built. People didn't understand that clean drinking water was a life or death situation. Needless to say there were many more steps from there to developing totally sanitary clean rooms, and How We Got to Now walks you through them all.
The first episode of How We Got to Now opened in a sewer and it ends in the clean room of Texas Instruments. Johnson demonstrates how small the particles are we can identify now. And that's a fabulous visual reminder of how far we've come, thanks to a bunch of little advancements from a bunch of guys you'd never heard of.
Tune into How We Got to Now's two-hour premier tonight at 9pm EST on PBS