Steven Johnson writes a lot about the Hummingbird effect in his amazing book: How We Got to Now.

It is through  nectars provided by flowers that we have birds extracting nectar midair.

Despite the restrictions placed on them by their skeletal structure, hummingbirds evolved a novel way of rotating their wings, giving power to the upstroke as well as the downstroke, enabling them to float mid-air while extracting nectar from a flower.

One thing in one sector [flowers and nectars] led to another thing in another sector [birds and hummingbirds]

The history of ideas and innovation unfolds in a similar way. Consider Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.

Gutenberg invented the printing press at a time when 96% of society was illiterate. He identified a problem and created a solution that the world didn’t know it needed.

Everyone knows that the printing press changed the way information was stored and shared, triggering multiple revolutions in science and theology and art.

But it also had a less celebrated, but crucial, effect on a seemingly unrelated field:

The printing press created a surge in demand for reading spectacles, as the new practice of reading made people suddenly realise that they were farsighted.


The hummingbird effect in one field [printing press] led to the invention of reading glasses.

Before books came along, most people had no need to discern tiny figures on a page.

The market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells.

It is important to always be on the lookout for the hummingbird effect when new innovations come into the industry.

2 thoughts on “Hummingbird bird effect in innovation: Printing press and reading glasses

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