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The silicon valley of the 13th century
Silicon Valley, a tiny stretch of land in California, is, by some definitions, quite a boring place. It doesn't have the vibe of megacities like New York or the charm of small European cities. Yet, if you look beneath, you will find that it is unrivaled in terms of innovation and creativity. It has changed the world we live in a few times over. Perhaps, to foreshadow what was about to come, it was the largest exporter of apricot and prunes in the years following the second world war1.
There have been many theories floated to explain what makes silicon valley so prolific in innovating, and here's what I think: it acts as a hub for people to move from one company to another, thus allowing ideas to flow freely. Yes, there is fierce competition, but it is also friendly. People start start-ups, fail, and then work for other companies or start more start-ups.
Now let's go back several centuries, searching for a similar place if it ever existed.
From the 5th to the 10th centuries, Europe was trudging along at a pace stinking by modern standards. This period was called the dark ages — but that's from Europe's perspective. Elsewhere, other places like Egypt and Syria were sauntering along and making steady progress. For example, Syria was the world's largest exporter of glass in the 8th century. They invented glass blowing around this time as well. Of course, we couldn't compare it to what we have today (sprinting).
Syria was part of the Byzantine empire, which fell in 1204 with the sacking of Constantinople. Many people skedaddled, and some settled in Venice. And that's how a lot of glassmakers happened to call this beautiful water city their home.
Except, glass making involves playing with fire, a natural consequence of which was setting buildings ablaze. Thus the government decided one day to move all of the glassmakers to a nearby island called Murano.
The fact that almost all the glass experts landed in a dense community helped foster friendly competition, and the pace of innovation quickened. Murano became the dominant player in making glass and the leading glass exporter. The merchants became wealthy, which positively helped fuel the industry's growth. Murano was producing exquisite vases and intricate glassware, which became status symbols, very much like owning an iPhone in many parts of the world today.
All the glass produced thus far was beautiful indeed, but not transparent. Angelo Barovier, a Murano glassmaker, invented clear glass when he burned seaweed — rich in potassium and manganese — and added it to molten glass. Clear glass changed the world.
You are probably thinking: "Sure, Murano sounds like silicon valley, in terms of a small community of people sharing ideas leading to innovations, but you can't surely be comparing Murano's impact to Silicon Valley's." The fact is, clear glass indeed changed the world.
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Think about all the places we use glass. It is used so widely in buildings. You are reading this on a screen made of glass. These words were transferred via fiber optic cables made of glass. Without glasses, a lot of us couldn't see properly and couldn't read. Of course some of the glass is being replaced by plastic, but we couldn't have reached this point without using glass.
Funnily, many people were far-sighted when clear glass was invented and hadn't the faintest clue about it since reading wasn't popular. Only after the invention of the printing press did peering into text become more popular, and many people suddenly realized they were hopelessly far-sighted.
This spurred the creation of reading glasses. Reading and glasses had a positive feedback loop, lifting the overall literacy rate. And then, Zacharias Janssen, a Dutch spectacle-maker, realized that if you stack multiple glasses, the magnification multiplies. Thus he invented the microscope (which, to drive the point home, was made of glass). Robert Hooke used the microscope to identify the cell, the building block of life, thereby changing medicine forever.
If you want to learn more about the role of glass and to learn more about other factors that contributed to where we are today, check out the book “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World” by Steven Johnson.