For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted the power to travel through time. In college I realized that the closest I’d ever come was to study history, and so I decided to make that my profession. I was interested in big history, in the forces driving human progress through the ages. I entered Stanford University’s PhD program in the history of science and technology in 2008, and over the next seven years I learned the skills of scholarly due diligence.
I researched and wrote on many different topics in graduate school, from the historical economics of corporate R&D to the history of popular misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. My dissertation covered the history of plastics engineering and its shifting feedstocks over the last 150 years. The further I ventured into the land of academic scholarship, however, the more I felt I might be leaving my family’s and friends’ historical interests behind, for the deeper I studied any particular topic, the narrower the appeal of my writing seemed to become. Was I to spend my professional life writing only for my colleagues? This question motivated me to consider podcasting as early as 2012.
A couple of years later, and still several months before graduating, I decided to seize an unforeseen opportunity to join a technology startup in San Francisco as director of operations. I worked at the tech company on weekdays and finished writing my dissertation on nights and weekends. And after graduating Stanford in the spring of 2015, I devoted myself to the tech company full time. But as the books on my shelf began to collect dust, I found myself yearning for that mental time travel once more. The idea of the podcast beat ever louder in my brain. So, in the summer of 2016 when our startup disbanded, I decided it was time for How It Began to begin.
This show is my best attempt to obliterate the boredom that all too often infects people’s experience of learning history. Far from a catalog of dead men and dates, How It Began offers a cinematic-like immersion into the stories behind some of our species’ greatest achievements. Topics are kept as broad as possible, and chosen according to their influence in shaping modern life. Specialists in any of the topics I choose who listen to the show may at times wish I’d included more detail, but I do my best to balance nuance and accessibility. I approach each show as I would approach a graduate seminar-level essay, reading up to a dozen books and as many articles on the topic, and often consulting specialists, in preparation for writing the script. My scholarly training focused on the history of science and technology in the European and American contexts, and so the scope of my show is mostly limited to those areas.
The overall theme? Celebration! We are privileged to be descended from men and women who dared to dream big and even die for the cause of progress. Their work is unfinished, and some parts of modernity are even worse than before. But most are better, much better. And we have more tools than ever to fix what’s still broken. How It Began celebrates that progress, and presents a history of the modern world to help inspire its long lasting continuation.
Join me on an exhilarating aural ride of mental time travel, and let the goosebumps flow and the eyes dilate as we venture together to the origins of progress!
Bradford Harris, PhD.