Lightbulb Moments in Human History: From Cave to Colosseum by Scott Edwin Williams [A Review]

Scott Edwin Williams Lightbulb Moments in Human History From Cave to Colosseum is an absorbing exploration of the most intriguing aspects of human development that will delight those readers who enjoy the popular history genre. Williams examines human development over a geologically brief span of time, striving to explain and celebrate human accomplishment by focussing on those ‘lightbulb moments’ that changed the world and set humanity on a new course.

Cover image of Lightbulb Moments in Human History

The book spans Pre-history through to Classical Antiquity and interspersed between the chapters are Williams’ own recounts of those influential moments that shaped his own view of human history. The moon landing of 1969 establishes the motif of Williams’ book – the wonder and awe at what humankind can accomplish – and how these become shared experiences of hope and aspiration, watershed moments for generations.

A human was on the Moon. Humanity had succeeded in its greatest technological achievement. At that moment, a small but significant part of my brain was frozen in time.

The opening chapter of Lightbulb Moments is lengthy but necessary as Williams sets up his main premise that humankind has been able to advance so rapidly by building on the discoveries and ideas of predecessors and the importance of collective learning to facilitate this. Thus, as people shared information and sought ways to preserve it, specifically through spoken language, the devising of writing, and the practice of teaching, there has been, and continues to be, a process of the refinement of knowledge that propels humanity forward. Thus, Williams provides a strong basis for the reader to understand his selection of material for examination.

Having set up the basis of his argument, Williams proceeds to explore a range of examples that support his thesis. From the development of farming during the Neolithic period, the invention of Sumerian cuneiform in Ancient Mesopotamia, the use of papyrus in Ancient Egypt, the education system in Ancient China and balls games in Mesoamerica, Williams produces a deep dive into a variety of topics that have been carefully selected to be of keen interest to the casual history enthusiast. This book is extensively researched and very accessible for those who are keen to dip in and out of a range of historical periods.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Ancient Egypt which explores the religious beliefs of the time and its connection to practices such as burial and writing, the use of cosmetics by the Egyptians, their education system, their development of beer brewing and the building of the pyramids. Williams begins this chapter by sharing a fascinating story of his exposure to the outlandish theories of Erich von Däniken via the film Chariots of the Gods? that posited extra-terrestrial assistance in the creation of the pyramids. Not only did these ideas diminish Williams’ enthusiasm for Egyptology but they reveal that History is a contested space.

Williams declares that he is taking a light-hearted approach to this recount of lightbulb moments in history and the humour, both visual and written, is abundant. There is frequent use of visuals that reflect different styles of humour – satire, dark comedy, popular culture – and Williams’ own myriad of quips throughout the writing. While humour is often not a feature typical of historical texts, it does add a tone of levity to the book. However, I can’t help but feel that quite a few of the jokes, particularly those that rely on popular culture, will fall flat with readers in a few years’ time. For example, when discussing the Hammurabi code, Williams jokes  “Of course, if you were proved guilty, you could have your eyes gouged out or your balls cut off, so it was more Law and Order: Special Victims Unit than Ally McBeal.”

Ultimately, Williams Lightbulb Moments in Human History, the first of an intended series, shines a light on some of the more fascinating achievements of humanity and will be a worthy read for those who are interested in the development of human civilisation.

Lightbulb Moments in Human History is being published today – 24 February 2023. We received an advanced copy by John Hunt Publishing Ltd in return for an independent review. For more information see their book page here.


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