This fall author and media theorist Steven Johnson will debut a new series on PBS in association with the BBC called “How We Got to Now.” The series has been produced by Jane Root’s award-winning company, Nutopia, and is funded by the CPB/PBS Challenge Fund. As part of the launch, Knight Foundation is supporting the development of a complementary community and news site on how to make better cities, and partnering with Johnson on sharing his expertise through Knight’s national network of ideas. Photo credit: Nutopia.
Shortly after the fall of Constantinople, a small community of glassmakers from Turkey sailed westward across the Mediterranean and eventually settled in Venice, where they began practicing their trade in the prosperous new city growing out of the marshes on the shores of the Adriatic Sea.
Their skills at blowing glass quickly created a new luxury good for the merchants of the city to sell around the globe. But lucrative as it was, glassmaking was not without its liabilities. The melting point of silicon dioxide required furnaces burning at temperatures above 500 degrees, and Venice was a city built almost entirely out of wooden structures. And so in 1291, in an effort to both retain the skills of the glassmakers and protect public safety, the city government sent the glassmakers into exile once again, only this time their journey was a short one—a mile across the Venetian Lagoon to the island of Murano.
Unwittingly, the Venetian doges had created an innovation hub: By concentrating the glassmakers on a single island the size of a small city neighborhood, they triggered a surge of creativity, giving birth to an environment that possessed what economists call “information spillover.” The density of Murano meant that new ideas were quick to flow through the entire population. They perfected a new kind of clear, durable glass that would turn out to be one of the most important materials of the next 800 years, used in spectacles, telescopes, microscopes, test tubes, and eventually cameras and projectors. The scientific revolution might have unfolded on a much slower timetable had the glassmakers of Murano not invented the crystal-clear glass that became their trademark.