Modern invention is often conveyed as a march toward progress, led by diligent workers trying to make the world a better place. But in his new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson argues that many of society’s greatest advancements started as jokes and games.
Consider the mechanical flutes and peacock-shaped soap dispensers that scholars say were popular in the Middle Ages; the gadgets were trivial, but the mechanical processes invented to power them would later be used to make robots, steam engines and more. Similarly, the technology behind automatons like dancing dolls, popular around the turn of the 19th century, inspired Charles Babbage to invent the Analytical Engine, widely considered to be the first programmable computer.
Looking for a glimpse of the future today? More often than not, Johnson concludes, you will find it “wherever people are having the most fun.”
This appears in the November 14, 2016 issue of TIME.