The connected book (and how to make soda water)

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site


One of the major themes of The Invention of Air, and one that will have special appeal to BoingBoing readers, is how committed Joseph Priestley and the American Founders (particularly Franklin and Jefferson) were to the open flow of ideas. Priestley used every available information network of the day to share his discoveries and insights: he published nearly five hundred books and pamphlets over the course of his life, and wrote endless correspondence to his colleagues, documenting in exhaustive detail the techniques behind his experiments.

When you read through those original documents and letters, there's a distinctly open source vibe to the approach that they all took. Franklin argued for sharing his scientific discoveries–sometimes before he was even convinced of their accuracy–because releasing early and often would "attract the attentions of the ingenious" who would then go on to improve his original discoveries. Priestley famously invented soda water during experiments at a neighboring brewery, and then happily gave away his formula to anyone who would listen. (Anticipating Cory's wonderful OpenCola project by a couple of centuries.)

I've been talking about this quite a bit on the various stops on the book tour, and it's naturally caused some people to ask about my own research method. And it turns out there's a pleasing symmetry between the story the book tells and the information networks of our own time, because this is the first book that I have written where Google Books played an absolutely indispensable role. An amazing number of Priestley's original writings (along with other texts from that period) are available from Google as downloadable PDFs, with scans of the original page design and typography, along with full-text searching. Many of these are texts that would be very hard to find even in a major research library, and of course, even if you could find them, you wouldn't be able to search them. (You'd barely be able to turn the pages, given how old the books are.) There are also some fantastic archives of correspondence available online, most notably the site, which has a searchable database of every surviving letter Franklin wrote or received.

One thrilling thing about these Google Book resources is that you can now link directly to an individual page of a book that has potentially been out of print for centuries. We need to think a bit more about how to standardize these links, given multiple editions and multiple library sites that might have digital copies. But what you can see happening, slowly but surely, is the Memex and Xanadu and the Information Superhighway — all those inspiring dreams of information utopia — finally crossing crossing over into the vast universe of books. Slowly, over time, a page typeset in 1771 might start to get a whole new life, thanks to the growing authority we grant it through that elemental gesture of making a link.

So to bring things full circle, I offer up a link to the page where Priestley describes his discovery and technique for manufacturing soda water. I think he'd be delighted to know his words were still in circulation more than two centuries later.