The Invention Of Air

Back when we were deciding to make the investment in, I had a chat with founder Steven Johnson. He had a book he wanted to write and wanted to run the company and write the book at the same time. That didn’t make sense to me. I asked him if he’d hold off on writing the book for one year, allow the company enough time to find a CEO, at which time he could become chairman and go back to writing books.

That plan worked out well, Steven hired Mark Josephson to be CEO this spring, and got busy writing the book he had in his head the year before. That book is now done and is called The Invention Of Air.

The book is available for pre-order on Amazon now and will ship on December 26th. Steven was nice enough to give me a signed copy to read in advance of commercial release and I read half of it last night on the plane ride to Paris. I wanted to sleep, but couldn’t put it down.

The book is about Joseph Priestly, an amazing man who discovered oxygen while at the same time being a full-time clergyman and political activist and advisor and collaborator with Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Like all of Steven’s books, this is about science, history, and how all this stuff is inexorably linked.

Like I do with most of the books I read, I’ll quote from this book here while I read it. I’ll leave you with this nugget of truth:

When something big happens in culture – when a man in Leeds goes on a streak of pioneering natural philosophy; when several nations clustered together in a small subsection of the planet simultaneously reinvent science and government – that event is rarely the exclusive result of a single layer: one man’s genius, say, or the rise of a new economic class. Epic breaktroughs happen when the layers align: when energy flows and settlement patterns and scientific paradigms and individual human lives come into some kind of mututally reinforcing synchrony that helps the new ideas both emerge and circulate through the wider society.

I think we may be in that kind of moment right now.

#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Stu Rich

    I hope we are in that kind of moment right now Fred.

  2. gregorylent

    yes, a paradigm shift is underway .. steve’s writing first caught my attention with his article on the cognition advantage of computer game playing .. glad he was able to go further with this interest of his .

  3. fredwilson

    Yup. He was a seriously talented individual. You should get this book steve. You’ll enjoy it

  4. Steven Kane

    Priestly was a unique individual, a devoted evangelical Christian theologian who also avidly supported religious tolerance and scientific inquiry, whose house and church was burned down by a mob forcing him to flee his country, owing to his vehement defense of the French Revolution.If anyone wants further reading and viewing, Priestly figures prominently in the books and videos of one of our great modern science historians (and one of my all time favorite authors and filmmakers) James Burke:

    1. $10074

      There’s a statue in Birstall Leeds, not more than 50 yards from where I’m sat to the memory of Joseph Preistly erected from ‘public subscription’…

  5. fredwilson

    They are doing well

    1. Riaz Kanani

      interesting quirk in disqus here.. I wrote the comment 10 minutes ago and you are showing as replying 1 hour ago..

  6. aarondelcohen

    Good Stuff Fred and even better stuff Steve. Fred, this reminds me of one of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about Interregnums. Literally between kings or regimes. He used that word to describe the time old decaying institutions’ (in his case Italian Fascism and Aristocracy) death and the rise of something new. I’m going to connect Steve and my Mom and make sure he speaks at Politics and Prose in DC although he might be already.Aaron

    1. aarondelcohen

      Update;Steve is speaking in DC at Poltics and prose bookstore Monday, January 5, 7 p.m. STEVEN JOHNSONTHE INVENTION OF AIR (Riverhead, $25.95) AudioJoseph Priestley was a radical eighteenth century scientist who discovered oxygen, but he was more than a “mere” scientist. He was an outspoken advocate of the American and French Revolutions and had to flee to the new United States. Science writer Steven Johnson (Mind Wide Open) is the perfect biographer for this polymath.

  7. Riaz Kanani

    Hopefully the company is doing well too! The book sounds like an interesting read.. <added>

  8. Ethan Bauley

    Joseph Priestly reminds me of another brilliant renaissance-man, the 20th century American composer Charles Ives.Ives was a child musical prodigy, became incredibly wealthy as an entrepreneurial insurance executive at Mutual Life, and composed dozens of brilliant pieces, including full-on symphonies that rival any (Beethoven, etc) in terms of innovation and sheer beauty.This post also reminds me of a thought I had this weekend, which was: the Constitution is a beautiful work of design.Thanks Fred! Enjoy Paris…

  9. fredwilson

    Please move along? To where? I am all ears

    1. Brian

      I was paraphrasing Officer Brady from South ParkThe quote is “Nothing to see here. Please move along.” A way of saying tongue in cheek “Not going to happen.” We are not going to make any great strides of changing humanity like the founders did.If I accept your premise, Obama would be the Washington of this outfit.Where are the Adams, Jeffersons, Franklins, and Hamiltons?There are none of these figures in our government and none in the public media sphere.I blame campaign finance reform.

  10. Brian

    I am assuming you mean “Epic Breakthroughs” as a new and positive thing.I do not think we are in that kind of moment now. Our public intellectuals and government leaders need to get their act together. No renaissance men (or women) here. Please move along.

  11. gerry campbell

    I can’t wait to read the book. I have been boring my friends and family about Cholera since I read Ghostmap last summer.And I completely agree with your take on the times we’re in. There’s no doubt in my mind. Many of our institutions and approaches we have relied on for the past who-knows-how-many-years are transforming. The foundations of our economic, political and social world are changing.There is a precedent in science, philosophy, etc that new ideas are often thought up at the same moment in different places (that’s what the quote is about…). Good time to be in emerging technology and media. Huge positive impact to be made.Props to Mark and Steven. Very impressed with what you’re doing with and fun travels to you Fred.Gerry

  12. Aruni S. Gunasegaram

    Funny how Joseph Priestly was able to discover oxygen while being a clergyman, political activist, and advisor to three great men…yet you advised Steven Johnson to wait to write his book because you felt he should not write a book and be CEO of a company at the same time. Some people do things sequentially and some do things in parallel.It’s true that epic breakthroughs happen when ‘energy flows’ and often in the spaces between the notes.Bon Voyage! Have some great wine and cheese while you are there…Aruni

  13. gruvr music map

    oooh! Is this about the un-discovery of Phlogiston?? I am always telling that story to illustrate how beliefs and paradigms shift to fit new facts, prior to which all facts supported the now invalidated belief system.But that story comes from Kuhn’s STructure of Scientific Revolutions, which is a classic but a bit tedious reading to recommend it. I would love a more recent look at the whole philosophy of science and maybe this is just the book. Wishlisted, thanks!

    1. fredwilson

      Yes, it’s about that for sure, but also about a lot more, like all ofSteven’s books

  14. Michael Lisse

    I’ll second Steve Kane’s comment; James Burke has written extensively and eloquently on the subject of history and technology advances…his best is still the original Connections.

  15. Matthew Putman

    Thanks for giving him this support. I just finished reading “Invention of Air”, and found it inspiring, especially as a rational, creative solution to the creation of a society is something that we can all learn from.

    1. fredwilson

      Yeah. Its a good read in the context of what’s going on now