Get the key ideas from

The Alchemy of Us

How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

By Ainissa Ramirez
15-minute read
Audio available
The Alchemy of Us by Ainissa Ramirez

The Alchemy of Us (2020) offers a history of some of the most important technologies ever developed, from clocks to glass to the steel rails used to make railway tracks. It explains how these technologies were created and explores how they shaped human culture.

  • People curious about the innovations that paved the way for computers
  • Those who want to know how technology has changed our brains and our bodies
  • History buffs interested in the great inventions of modern times

Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and science communicator. She has written for Time, Scientific American, the American Scientist, and Forbes. She makes regular appearances on PBS's SciTech Now.

Go Premium and get the best of Blinkist

Upgrade to Premium now and get unlimited access to the Blinkist library. Read or listen to key insights from the world’s best nonfiction.

Upgrade to Premium

What is Blinkist?

The Blinkist app gives you the key ideas from a bestselling nonfiction book in just 15 minutes. Available in bitesize text and audio, the app makes it easier than ever to find time to read.

Discover
3,500+ top
nonfiction titles

Get unlimited access to the most important ideas in business, investing, marketing, psychology, politics, and more. Stay ahead of the curve with recommended reading lists curated by experts.

Join Blinkist to get the key ideas from
Get the key ideas from
Get the key ideas from

The Alchemy of Us

How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

By Ainissa Ramirez
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
The Alchemy of Us by Ainissa Ramirez
Synopsis

The Alchemy of Us (2020) offers a history of some of the most important technologies ever developed, from clocks to glass to the steel rails used to make railway tracks. It explains how these technologies were created and explores how they shaped human culture.

Key idea 1 of 9

Improved timekeeping technology deepened our obsession with time.

Elizabeth Ruth Naomi Belville made her living by selling a rather odd commodity. Every week, she’d travel to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. There, she’d set her pocket watch – it was nicknamed “Arnold” and had once belonged to the Duke of Sussex – to Greenwich Mean Time. Once this had been done, she’d visit the dwellings of the people subscribed to her service.

What was that service? Allowing them to set their clocks to Arnold. This is how Belville made her living for almost 50 years, from 1892 until her death in 1940: she sold the time. People called her the Greenwich Time Lady.

The key message here is: Improved timekeeping technology deepened our obsession with time.

Belville was successful because Arnold was accurate – very accurate. Made of the finest materials, Arnold kept the time better than other clocks, even though it’d been made in the eighteenth century. But in the twentieth century, even Arnold’s accuracy was surpassed.

In 1939, a new kind of clock was displayed in the window of a shop on Fulton Street, in Manhattan, New York. Soon enough, hundreds of passersby were using this extremely accurate clock to set their own timepieces.

The clock was so fantastically accurate because it contained a special kind of crystal: quartz. Quartz is special because, when exposed to an electrical current, it begins to vibrate. In 1927, a Canadian scientist named Warren Marrison figured out how to use this quality to improve the precision of clocks. He fashioned a small, thin ring out of quartz. Then, using electrical signals, he caused the ring to vibrate at a steady rate of 100,000 vibrations per second. This mechanism could be used to measure time with stunning precision.

Improved time-keeping methods only served to reinforce certain time-related ideologies. Puritan settlers, who arrived in America in the seventeenth century, strongly believed that time should not be wasted. This view was perpetuated by Benjamin Franklin’s capitalist notion that “time is money.” Throughout the nineteenth century, as the United States industrialized and the factory became the main driver of the economy, timekeeping and time management assumed even greater importance.

Factories relied on clocks to tell workers when to start working and when to stop. It wasn’t long before the rhythm of the factory pervaded all of modern life – dictating when people awoke, when they ate, and when they slept.

This certainly improved productivity. But it’s been argued that this rhythm, which is still with us today, is also at the root of many sleeping disorders.

Upgrade to continue Read or listen now

Key ideas in this title

Upgrade to continue Read or listen now

No time to
read?

Pssst. Sign up to your secret to success: key ideas from top nonfiction in just 15 minutes.
Created with Sketch.