There is always a connection but, if the link has never been made before, nobody knows it’s there.”
–Scientific historian James Burke
In the typical American school, children are taught history in a similar fashion. Since time is a one-way street (unless you’re on Quantum Leap or some other time-travel show), events have a ready-made timeline to be placed upon, making teaching the subject as easy as A, followed by B, followed by C. We’ve all been through this in our lives, and most people generally learn about and relate to the world in this linear fashion.
Then there’s British technical historian James Burke. When he sees history, especially the history of science, he doesn’t see just a straight line of dots, each representing one stop on a line of invention. He sees a web of Connections.
Originally seen on the BBC, Connections debuted on American television on PBS stations in 1978. Rather than the dry, pedantic scientific dirge many had expected out of pure documentaries, Burke’s impish way with words and surprising methods of jumping from one topic to another allowed viewers a new way of seeing traditional science. Connections was a globe-trotting adventure through history, and Burke’s topics ranged from ancient Egypt and Greece to NASA and rockets… and the best part was, they could be in the same show, because Burke didn’t use the old linear way of storytelling. He was the one presenting the Connections you never learned about in school.
To Burke, history is not just the path of a ball as it rolls inevitably downhill from the past to now. It’s more of a crazy pinball, with ideas bouncing to and fro, and success in one arena ultimately causing success in a far different one, with luck and happenstance having as much to do with advancement as planning and preparation. The right mind, in the right place, with the resources and ability to perceive a new way of doing things was much more important than all the libraries and laboratories in the world.
In his first episode, Burke starts out with the stories of numerous New York residents from 1965, each involved in various parts of life. There’s a mother-to-be in the midst of giving birth, a subway train full of workers on their way home, and the typical bustle in the “city that never sleeps”. And then, he shows us how one simple gadget could turn everyone’s lives upside down. A trigger relay, part of an electrical line in upstate New York, was overloaded and sent electricity to another line… which also became overloaded, and a chain reaction started. Within moments, millions of people were without power. Hospitals were without light, and life-saving machinery (which had been taken for granted) was useless. Subways and traffic, and essentially life as normal, ground to a halt in a darkened city.
Burke uses this event to show how fragile our technological ecosystem is, and how dependent upon it we’ve become. Few of us have the ability to fix the problem, we simply rely on the fact that someone out there knows what the problem is and they will fix it for us. But in some future calamity, could any of us really take care of ourselves if the electricity were essentially gone… for good?
In a potential tomorrow where a more permanent disaster occurs, computers and phones would be useless, cars will only go as far as there’s gas, and food won’t be available unless you know something about its growth and rudimentary agriculture. Burke shows us we’re mere months (if that far) from a pre-industrial agriculture age, and that’s assuming we have access to a horse and plow. We’ll have to rebuild the technological world again. And this is where it gets interesting….
“Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.”
Through the 10 episodes of Connections, Burke shows (through both recreations and travels throughout the world) those moments where science and humanity changed, and the oddities that allowed the advancements to happen. Napoleon and his troops actually were important to the development of the computer! Here’s the story: In his conquests of the world, French troops in Egypt took a liking to finely woven silks, creating a fashion craze back home. Local merchants developed a method to weave the intricate designs using perforated paper patterns to control their mechanical looms more precisely. American engineer Herman Hollerith adapted the paper roll to a more portable and interchangeable method, a series of punch cards, which could be used to quickly calculate numbers. And finally, the first computers were developed using punch cards to represent various functions and allow for a wide variety of information to be manipulated with simple holes on the cards representing a large variety of alpha-numeric characters. From Napoleon to the early ’80’s, in just a few steps, but who knew silks in Egypt and an invading army would lead to you being able to read this in your own home on your monitor?
Even an adventurer like Columbus was lucky enough to have a newly popularized style of painting and art be instrumental in convincing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to give him the ships to find a “shortcut” to China. Previously, important items in a painting were either larger, or higher up (as in “closer to God”). The burgeoning idea of “realism” in art, including the use of a “vanishing point” for perspective, was used to convince the royalty that there really was something beyond the horizon, and Columbus believed he was the man to find the long-sought path to the Orient. Just because the riches of the New World were found instead only means Columbus didn’t actually find what he was looking for — he found something better. That’s what Connections is all about.
One of Burke’s main theories is that people created the advancements, not because they knew what would happen, but because of more immediate concerns. Profit, personal theology, individual social mores, and simple curiosity are much more potent than any brilliant thesis about building rocket ships or combustion engines, and those likely wouldn’t exist without so very many inventions by others along the way. The Dutch traders didn’t have plastic in mind back in colonial days, but their search for a method to keep their perishable cargo fresh led to the building blocks that gave us everything from DVDs to Tupperware to heat shields on space capsules. Those are the kinds of Connections Burke presents, and they are unlike any taught in the vast majority of schools.
“Besides making the material accessible, this kind of approach teaches people that they’re not stupid. Everybody has a hundred billion neurons, so did Einstein.”
Like all good teachers, Burke in Connections is not teaching you “what” to think, but teaching you “how” to think. And the radical presentation of Burke is that ALL things are, in some way, interconnected, just as each of the millions of people in New York that day all suddenly had one small piece of machinery that connected them, even if they didn’t know what it was. No one creates ideas in a vacuum; they simply utilize what has gone before, what they are familiar with, and then make a small change or adaptation in some way that sometimes revolutionizes society.
Knowledge, in the past, has always been the province of those in power. Even the idea of literacy amongst the masses is relatively new, if you take the historical view. Human history encompasses thousands of years, the printing press only hundreds. Access to knowledge, and the ability to use it proficiently, is the way for humanity to either grow or be left behind. And a new way of learning is necessary if that’s going to happen.
Burke saw this, even a generation ago when Connections premiered. Home computers and instant communication with smartphones were still fanciful dreams back then, and yet Burke realized that a revolution in learning and information not only was taking place, but that it HAD to take place. The rapidness of change and growth of knowledge was proceeding at an amazing rate (and it continues to do so today). The old linear model simply couldn’t stand up to the pace, and significantly specialized knowledge would simply be beyond the ability of most to acquire… unless a new model was developed.
“The so-called technology revolution will enfranchise people because it will make material accessible in this webbed, networked way I’m trying to do on these programs. This approach invites people in because it’s easy. You don’t need a Ph.D. In fact, we’ve got to stop teaching people to have Ph.D.’s. Specialism and reductionism was fine up to yesterday, but it will not do for the future.”
Long before the pervasiveness of the World Wide Web, James Burke imagined a similar construct for this necessary new way of learning and thinking. Like hyperlinks in a webpage, links between similar ideas can be established in a non-linear manner, and the modern version of “surfing the web” is a far cry from the kinds of dedicated and specific search for knowledge previously available. The democratization of the Web experience is almost exactly what Burke envisioned, where a visit through the ideas of history are more like a pinball game instead of a simple slide with a beginning and end. The unique and almost serendipitous path from idea to idea is strengthened through experience, and new ideas are happened upon by accident, paralleling the way they were discovered in the first place. This “pinball” effect is the best way to synthesize all the various ideas being developed as we speak with the knowledge we already have, incorporating all we know with all we discover.
Burke, and Connections, was already there three decades ago…. And he’s always been willing to help light the way.
JAMES BURKE earned his first Master’s Degree in Middle English, and has always believed that his importance was in studying people and not just history. After teaching in Italy, he became a reporter on the BBC series Tomorrow’s World, and later was the chief presenter during their Apollo coverage, including the first landing on the moon. His writings for both Time and Scientific American magazines emphasized the human dimension of invention over the purely scientific, and he developed his ideas much more fully in both his television presentations and his many books. Known for his impish sense of humor and delight in puns, he has no problem making fun of himself, and even appeared in, of all things, a country-rock music video parodying his own television persona in Confederate Railroad’s Elvis and Andy. Now retired from both television and academia, his efforts are put towards development of The K-Web Project, from which the picture above was taken.
“When you read a book, you hold another’s mind in your hands.”
If you want to see Connections, it is available in many ways. The original episodes are available both in chunks on YouTube, and as a remastered DVD set. There were two sequel series done for The Learning Channel, Connections² and Connections³, each episode half the length of the original but with a faster pacing and just as many interesting and amazing bounces through history. Burke used to write a column for Scientific American magazine, and many of those articles have made their way into his books, including companion tomes for his TV series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. Other books include The Pinball Effect (a most unique book, in that it was designed deliberately NOT to be read in the traditional cover-to-cover manner), The Knowledge Web, Circles, and American Connections (which uses the signers of the Declaration of Independence as the starting point for each journey). Finally, there is Burke’s project of The K-Web, an outgrowth of the publication of The Knowledge Web, showing in a more demonstrative form just what kind of learning and growth is available if Burke’s ideas about the World Wide Web are used effectively.
“We’re on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that’s going to make that [access to knowledge] more possible than ever before. Or, if that’s not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us that don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb, and blind.”
“But maybe a good start would be to recognize. within yourself, the ability to understand anything because that ability’s there, as long as it’s explained clearly enough. And then go and ask for explanations. And if you’re thinking right now “what do I ask for”? ask yourself if there’s anything in your life that you want changed. That’s where to start.”
–James Burke, in the final episode of Connections
We live in what has been called “The Information Age”, where there is more knowledge and discovery going on around us than ever before. And yet, there are a great many who almost actively disdain the pursuit of science and the gathering of fact in favor of their own small world, collectively acting like an ostrich with its head in the sand, believing they are safe and comfortable. It’s merely an illusion. And it’s not that the comfort isn’t there, it’s just that those who act in such a manner would rather not have to do the work involved in learning and gaining the facts discovered every second of every day. But as James Burke and Connections showed, no one has to learn everything all at once. Just ask yourself what in your life you want changed…
…and once that journey starts, like the Connections portrayed on-screen, it never really ends.
10 original episodes, plus two sequel series
PBS Network in America, originally a BBC production in Great Britain
First aired episode: October 17, 1978
Final aired episode: December 19, 1978
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? The PBS series was originally broadcast on Tuesday nights, but local PBS stations had the right to air all programs on their own schedule. In some areas it was paired with other science documentaries like Nova and Cosmos, but in others it was paired with fellow British series Doctor Who.
(A quick aside, just because it didn’t fit in the article: In Connections, James Burke is almost always seen in the same cream-colored suit throughout the ten episodes. The reason for this is that the scenes were filmed out of order, in locations around the world, so all the “Paris” shots would be photographed at the same time, no matter what episode they were from. The same “costume” was used so all the shots would match up in the final editing!!)
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.