A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions by Susan Denham Wade

Praised by Stephen Fry, A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions by Susan Denham Wade is a fascinating examination of sight’s central role in the evolution of human civilisation.

By Gwyneth Rees

Cast your minds back to 2015, and the unlikely internet phenomenon known as #thedress. As you may recall, it was a social media post that went viral concerning a striped dress which some people saw as black and blue while others swore it was white and gold.

Among those drawn in by this global public debate was author Susan Denham Wade. Already fascinated with sight and visual technologies due to having extreme short-sightedness from childhood, she wondered if - given that two people standing together can see the same thing differently - could it be the case that our ancestors saw the world differently from ourselves?

That initial question led to four years of extensive research covering the whole of human history (and prehistory), as well as the fields of evolution, science and psychology.

The result is A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions, an engrossing read that will prove the perfect book for armchair time-travellers.

Praised by no less than Stephen Fry as “A remarkable achievement”, A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions is an ambitious and utterly compelling work of history and ideas that reframes the rise of humanity through its primary sense: sight.

It is, undoubtedly, a broad and immersive topic, but one which Denham Wade has handled with aplomb, touching upon many subject areas in a rigorous yet fully accessible way.

Approaching the material as a writer rather than an academic, she shares with readers the stories and insights that have fascinated her along her journey into the world of seeing, rather than presenting a dry, scholarly thesis.

As we learn from the book, which is presented in self-contained chapters that are perfect to dip in and out of, seeing has been connected to our mindsets, worldviews, and attitudes since humankind first learned to master fire.

Furthermore, what may seem like incidental ideas, discoveries or inventions have, in fact, had a profound and permanent impact on the course of human history.

A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions by Susan Denham Wade provides a captivating new take on human history and advancement through the lens of sight.

The book begins with Denham Wade answering her initial query: why seeing is subjective (apparently, it’s down to the human brain’s highly complex information processing systems).

This section, entitled ‘You See Tomayto, I See Tomarto’, contains a wealth of interesting facts about the peculiarities of our vision. Did you know, for instance, that the Himba tribe of northern Namibia only see blue, and cannot identify green as a distinct shade? Or that obese people judge distances differently to thinner people?

The next chapter, ‘Perfect and Complex: Eyes in Evolution’, explores the origins and development of eyesight itself, discussing how primitive vision stems from a light-sensitive spot on a body, with this rudimentary act of ‘seeing’ leading to the act of ‘looking for food,’ which in turn led to some creatures becoming predators and others, correspondingly, prey.

This section is fascinating, not just in its detailing of experiments that demonstrate how quickly sight has evolved in certain organisms but also its summary of the Light Switch theory which, supported by fossil and genetic evidence, shows that eyes were not only the product of evolution but, perhaps, the spark that prompted the evolution of life on Earth as we know it. 

Denham Wade also reveals how human eyes are remarkably similar to the eyes of lamprey eels (with a camera-type eye structure), which developed 500 million years ago and have remained remarkably unchanged ever since.

She also discusses gaze experiments which show that human babies stare at their carers’ eyes during feeding, while apes follow head movements, essentially implying that looking into eyes is a very human trait most likely linked to survival.

After this engrossing introduction, the author surveys in historical order the key visual inventions that have had an impact on the growth of humanity and civilisation.

For A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions, Denham Wade selects 11 primary inventions that have contributed to our advancement: making fire, art, mirrors, writing, spectacles, the printing press, the telescope, industrialised light, photography, moving images, and the smartphone.  

These are neatly divided into four sections, each covering a different historical era, with each chapter delving into the origins of the invention and its lasting impact.

Here we find out, for instance, about how the arrival of cave art—around 50,000 years ago  towards the close of the Palaeolithic Era—took humanity from merely surviving in their environment to taking control and adapting it, and provided the first means for people to communicate their ideas and experiences when they weren’t physically together.

Mirrors, meanwhile, first appeared around 8,000 years ago in the Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk, located in modern-day Turkey. The new-found ability to see our own faces began to change our concept of identity, leading to people transitioning from identification as part of a tribe to self-identification as individuals.

And as this occurred over the following centuries, so too did concepts about the notion of femininity also begin to alter, as can be seen in the evolution of sculptures of females that moved from faceless, abstract totems of fertility to representations of real-world women.

To take a third example, Gutenberg’s printing press, which was unveiled to the world in the mid-15th century, reshaped a world that had until that point passed on knowledge and information largely via spoken words.

In telling this story, A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions carries the reader from East Africa to Mesopotamia, and from Western Europe to present-day USA, covering a time span of 500 million years.

Author Susan Denham Wade spent four years researching her fascinating new book, A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions.

Denham Wade’s account is highly detailed and is further illuminated through references to a vast array of academic studies and social commentaries of artists, writers and thinkers through the ages.

Combining it all into an entertaining read is no mean feat, but Denham Wade can be added to the list of authors in the field of ‘smart thinking’ —a loose genre of books that explore the why, when and where of human behaviours—that achieve this, such as Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Bryson.

There is so much to savour, but the last section of the book, ‘Showing: Mass Media and the Conquest of Seeing’, is, perhaps, of most relevance to our lives today.

Here, Denham Wade emphasises how modern inventions such as photography, TV and the smartphone, have made sight the undisputed dominant sense and have crowned our obsession with all things visual.

While these inventions have, in one way, brought people together when separated, they can also be viewed as having made us more isolated.

The author writes with concern about how we are now largely sedentary beings absorbing imagery—be that a soap opera or the latest celebrity social post replete with photo-shopped, pixel-perfect photo—at the great expense of actual human interaction.

As a TV executive who, among many other things, helped steer the BBC’s introduction of digital round-the-clock broadcasting, Denham Wade’s astute observations about our overwhelming need for screen time speak loudly.

This leads her to closing the book with a well-considered recommendation for us to dial back on our overreliance on the visual.

As small screens, advertising, branding, and social platforms have made us all into observers, and the observed, so too has our wellbeing taken a pronounced hit.

She writes: “Our bodies and brains evolved to interact with the natural environment and each other through all our senses. I believe it is possible that the modern world’s relentless channelling of the functions of day-to-day life through our eyes alone is causing some of the desperation and disconnection people feel.”

Without wishing to come across as promoting a “hippy’s charter”, she urges us to make more use of our other senses—hearing, touch, smell, taste—and as throughout the book, which runs to more than 400 pages in total, she provides plenty of third-party research to inform and support her assertions, such as a 2016 academic study that found a strong link between loss of the sense of smell, called ‘anosmia’ – and depression.

Perhaps our visual world, that has made us who we are today, is now finally coming back to haunt us.

It’s a fitting and thoughtful end to a remarkable book that takes readers on a journey like no other, expanding our knowledge and appreciation of sight’s central role in the story of humanity.

A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions by Susan Denham Wade is published by Flint Books (The History Press)  and is out now on Amazon in hardback priced at £20, in paperback priced at £12.99, and as an eBook priced at £2.84.

EXCLUSIVE Q&A INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN DENHAM WADE

Author Susan Denham Wade discusses her new book, A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions, including its genesis, why our sense of sight has been fundamental to shaping humanity, and why she personally identifies the printing press as the most important visual invention, among other things.

Q.  How did the internet’s disagreement over the colour of a dress inspire you to write A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions?

A. Dreadful eyesight since childhood means I have had a long personal entanglement with vision and visual technologies. If I’d been born a few centuries earlier, I would be blind!

In my previous career at the BBC I was immersed in contemporary visual culture for many years.  But it was the phenomenon of #thedress in 2015, an internet photo of a striped dress that people randomly saw as different colours, that provoked me to research the history of seeing. 

If two people standing together can see the same thing differently, I wondered, did our ancestors see the world differently from ourselves?  That was the genesis of this book.

And just for the record, I saw the dress as white and gold.

Q. What is the relevance of sight to human advancement?

A. Throughout human history, discoveries, technologies, and inventions that have changed the way people see each other, themselves, and the world around them—things like mirrors, art, writing, the telescope, spectacles and, more recently, film, television and social media—have all had a momentous impact on the human story.

Writing made language visible and enabled people to communicate privately and remotely, capture stories and histories in a permanent form, and to structure thoughts and arguments in a systematic way. Mirrors allowed us to see ourselves as others see us and develop a sense of ‘self’ that no other species has. The telescope helped us realise that we are not the centre of the universe but part of a great cosmos that works according to physical laws.

Q. The book has clearly taken a great deal of research to bring to fruition. Tell us about the writing process?

A. I wrote the first half of the book in the course of a Creative Writing MA at City, University of London. The second half I wrote from my office at home, deep in the Sussex countryside.

In terms of sources, I spent many hours in the British Library perusing first-hand accounts of adventures and discoveries made in the last few centuries. I studied the diaries of Henry Rawlinson, for example, the Victorian ‘Indiana Jones’ who made a huge contribution to deciphering the first writing system. And Galileo’s wonderful ‘Starry Messenger’ that described the amazing things he saw through his revolutionary telescope.

I visited galleries and museums to see the artefacts and works of art that reflected the times and mindsets of their creators. Wonders like the Rosetta stone, cuneiform tablets and a Roman mirror in the British Museum; Giotto’s masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, described by art historians as a trailblazer for the Italian Renaissance; and optical devices in the Museum of the College of Optometrists. And I conducted experiments at home to see for myself how much light a rudimentary oil lamp might give, and what the reflection in a metal mirror would have looked like.

Q. What are you most proud of in terms of how A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions has been received?

A. I am really proud that the great Stephen Fry—one of the most well-read people on the planet!—loved my book. He recognized that the book is not just a history but, in his words, a “survey of so much that in the human experience is profound and profoundly important to us”.  Couldn’t have put it better myself!

Q. If you could only select one of the eleven inventions in terms of its importance to humanity, which one would it be and why?

A. I think I would say the printing press. It’s not an obviously ‘visual’ invention like spectacles or the telescope, but it transformed the way we exchange and spread knowledge and information forever, from the spoken to the written (printed) word, from voice to text.  In doing so, it shifted our primary mode of communication and education from the ear to the eye.

Author Susan Denham Wade believes that the development of the printing press in the 15th century is, perhaps, the most important visual invention to positively impact the progress of humanity.

Q. While the eleven inventions have undoubtedly progressed humanity, some have also had negative sides to them, especially the smartphone. Can you explain more?

A. This is a huge question! So just a couple of thoughts. Smartphones are an absolutely amazing invention. They put the whole world into our pockets. But most of us don’t realise how much we are manipulated by them, and how much information about our private lives is being harvested and commercialized by unseen companies, without our permission.

In terms of social media, while it has many positives it can be a source of great unhappiness for many people who feel left out of the apparently ‘perfect’ lives they see played out online. 

Q. Towards the close of the book you warn about the cultural dominance of sight at the expense of our other senses. Why is this a problem, and how can it be challenged?

A. We evolved to use all our senses—not just sight but sound, smell, touch and taste—to survive and adapt to our environment. They all played vital roles in our lives in the premodern world. 

In the 21st century we don’t tend to use those senses for practical purposes any more—think of a day sitting at a desk working from home on a computer. Your whole day could be spent without hearing, smelling, tasting or touching (apart from the keyboard).

But we ignore our other senses at our peril. Multiple studies demonstrate that sound, smell, touch and taste all make different but vital contributions to our wellbeing.  I believe that the present tendency to neglect our non-visual senses may be contributing to the overall decline in happiness seen in advanced societies.

But the solution is simple! Take time in the day to enjoy your other senses. Phone a friend rather than text them. Squeeze someone’s hand. Stroke a pet. Go outside on a wet afternoon and let yourself feel, smell, and hear the rain. Take your food out of the fridge for a couple of hours before eating it. There are so many simple ways to appreciate our other senses, and I believe you will be happier for it.

Q. While your book fits into the ‘Smart Thinking’ category, it is quite a departure from other titles in the field. Who were your literary heroes while writing the book, and how did you choose to depart from what has come before?

A. I love all the books by Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Bryson, Jared Diamond, Tim Marshall and, of course, Noah Yuval Harari. All those books that tell you fascinating things that you didn’t know you wanted to know. Tristan Gooley writes wonderfully about the joys of observation, and Peter Moore, Kate Somerscale, and Sarah Bakewell are brilliant at making historical events and characters come alive.

I hope my book reflects all those influences. A sweeping scope—the whole of human history—a big idea (the profound influence of seeing on the human story)—and myriad characters, stories, facts and ideas that bring the history to life. 

Q. A large proportion of your career has been in broadcasting, including overseeing the BBC’s move into digital television. With the subsequent rise of new competitors such as Netflix, and changing viewing habits, how do you see British TV evolving in the coming decades?

A. I did a piece of work at the BBC more than 20 years ago that forecast broadcast television would eventually become the platform for live events: news, sporting events, and other live ‘moments’.  Everything else would move to on demand.

I still think that’s where we’re headed, but you might be surprised how many people still watch broadcast TV.  The trouble is they tend to be older, so will sadly die out. My own children hardly know what broadcast TV is despite my enduring love for the medium.

Q. What do you think readers will gain most by reading your book?

A. It’s become a cliché to say that a book will change the way you see the world, but in the case of A History of Seeing in Eleven Inventions I can pretty much guarantee it!

I hope it will make readers think—and know—a bit more about how and why our world is the way it is.  

And, as a bonus, they will be armed with literally hundreds of fascinating ‘did you know’ snippets they can share at dinner parties or the pub!

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