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James Burke.JPG
James Burke, the creator and host of Connections, explains the Haber-Bosch Process
Genre Documentary
Written by James Burke
Directed by Mick Jackson
Presented by James Burke
Country of origin  United Kingdom
Language(s) English
No. of seasons 1
No. of episodes 10
Running time 50 minutes
Original channel BBC
Original run 17 October 1978 – 19 December 1978
Status Ended

Connections was a ten-episode documentary television series created, written and presented by science historian James Burke. The series was produced and directed by Mick Jackson of the BBC Science & Features Department and first aired in 1978 (UK) and 1979 (USA). It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention and demonstrated how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events built off one another in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology. The series was noted for Burke's crisp and enthusiastic presentation (and dry humour), historical reenactments, intricate working models, skillful use of classical music (most notably "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" ["O Fortuna"] from Carmina Burana), and location shooting from as far afield as Penang (Malaysia).

The popular success of the series led to the production of two sequels, Connections² (1994) and Connections³ (1997), both for TLC.

In 2004, KCSM-TV produced a program called Re-Connections, consisting of an interview of Burke and highlights of the original series, for the 25th anniversary of the first broadcast in the USA on PBS ([1]).


Connections approach to history

Modern soldiers demonstrate the use of steel-tipped pikes by the Swiss against Charles the Bold in one of the many reenactments used in Connections.

Connections explores an "Alternative View of Change" (the subtitle of the series) that rejects the conventional linear and teleological view of historical progress. Burke contends that one cannot consider the development of any particular piece of the modern world in isolation. Rather, the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own (e.g., profit, curiosity, religious) motivations with no concept of the final, modern result of what either their or their contemporaries' actions finally led to. The interplay of the results of these isolated events is what drives history and innovation, and is also the main focus of the series and its sequels.

To demonstrate this view, Burke begins each episode with a particular event or innovation in the past (usually Ancient or Medieval times) and traces the path from that event through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world. For example, the "The Long Chain" episode traces the invention of plastics from the development of the fluyt, a type of Dutch cargo ship.

Burke also explores three corollaries to his initial thesis. The first is that, if history is driven by individuals who act only on what they know at the time and not because of any idea as to where their actions will eventually lead, then predicting the future course of technological progress is merely conjecture. Therefore if we are astonished by the connections Burke is able to weave among past events, then we will be equally surprised by what the events of today eventually lead to, especially events we weren't even aware of at the time.

The second and third corollaries are explored most in the introductory and concluding episodes, and they represent the downside of an interconnected history. If history progresses because of the synergistic interaction of past events and innovations, then as history does progress, the number of these events and innovations increases. This increase in possible connections causes the process of innovation to not only continue, but to accelerate. Burke poses the question of what happens when this rate of innovation, or more importantly change itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle and what this means for individual power, liberty, and privacy.

Lastly, if the entire modern world is built from these interconnected innovations, all increasingly maintained and improved by specialists who required years of training to gain their expertise, what chance does the average citizen without this extensive training have in making an informed decision on practical technological issues, such as the building of nuclear power plants or the funding of controversial projects such as stem cell research? Furthermore, if the modern world is increasingly interconnected, what happens when one of those nodes collapses? Does the entire system follow suit?


Connections (1978)

1. "The Trigger Effect" details the world’s present dependence on complex technological networks through a detailed narrative of New York City and the power blackout of 1965. Agricultural technology is traced to its origins in ancient Egypt and the invention of the plow. The segment ends in Kuwait where, because of oil, society leapt from traditional patterns to advanced technology in a period of only about 30 years.

2. "Death in the Morning" examines the standardization of precious metal with the touchstone in the ancient world. This innovation stimulated trade from Greece to Persia, ultimately causing the construction of a huge commercial center and library at Alexandria which included Ptolemy’s star tables. This wealth of astronomical knowledge aided navigators 14 centuries later after the development of lateen sails and sternpost rudders. Mariners discovered that the compass's magnetized needle did not actually point directly north. Investigations into the nature of magnetism by Gilbert led to the discovery of electricity by way of the sulphur ball of von Guericke. Further interest in atmospheric electricity at the Ben Nevis weather station led to Wilson’s cloud chamber which in turn allowed development of both Watson-Watt's radar and (by way of Rutherford's insights) nuclear weaponry.

3. "Distant Voices" suggests that telecommunications exist because Normans had stirrups for horse riding which in turn led them to further advancements in warfare. Deep mine shafts flooded and scientists in search of a solution examined vacuums, air pressure and other natural phenomena.

4. "Faith in Numbers" examines the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance from the perspective of how commercialism, climate change and the Black Death influenced cultural development.

5. "The Wheel of Fortune" traces astrological knowledge in ancient Greek manuscripts from Baghdad’s founder, Caliph Al-Mansur, via the Muslim monestary/medical school at Gundeshapur, to the medieval Church’s need for alarm clocks (the water horologium and the verge and foliot clock). The clock mainspring gave way to the pendulum clock, but the latter could not be used by mariners, thus the need for precision machining by way of Huntsman’s improved steel (1797) and Maudslay’s use (1800) of Ramsden’s idea of using a screw to better measure (which he took from the turner’s trade). This process made a better mainspring and was also used by the Royal Navy to make better blocks. Le Blanc mentioned this same basic idea to Thomas Jefferson who transmitted this "American system of manufactures" -- percision machine-tooling of musket parts for interchangability -- to New Englanders Eli Whitney, John Hall and Simeon North. The American efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth and his psychologist wife later improved the whole new system of the modern production line.

6. "Thunder in the Skies" implicates the Little Ice Age (ca. 1250-1300 AD) in the invention of the chimney, as well as knitting, buttons, wainscoting, wall tapestries, wall plastering, glass windows (Hardwick Hall [1597] has “more glass than wall”), and the practice of privacy for sleeping and sex. The genealogy of the steam engine is then examined: Thomas Newcomen’s engine for pumping water out of mines (1712); Abraham Darby’s cheap iron from coke, James Watt’s addition of a second condensing cylinder (for cooling) to the engine (1763); John Wilkinson's improving of cannon boring (for the French military) and cylinder making (for Watt; 1773-75). Wilkinson’s brother-in-law, Joseph Priestley, investigated gases, leading Alessandro Volta to invent “bad air” (marsh gas) detectors and ignitors. Meanwhile, Edwin Drake discovered oil (in Pennsylvania) allowing Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach (in Bad Cannstatt) to replace town gas with gasoline as fuel for auto engines (1883). They also invented (1892) the carburetor (inspired by the medical atomizers which also developed from Priestley’s work) and a new ignition system inspired by Volta’s “bad air” detection spark gun. Finally, piano-maker Wilhelm Kress unsuccessfully attempted (1901) to fly the first seaplane on an Austrian lake using the new gasoline engine.

7. "The Long Chain"
8. "Eat, Drink and Be Merry"
9. "Countdown"
10. "Yesterday, Tomorrow and You"

Connections² (1994)

  1. Revolutions
  2. Sentimental Journeys
  3. Getting It Together
  4. Whodunit?
  5. Something for Nothing
  6. Echoes of the Past
  7. Photo Finish
  8. Separate Ways
  9. High Times
  10. Déjà Vu
  11. New Harmony
  12. Hot Pickle
  13. The Big Spin
  14. Bright Ideas
  15. Making Waves
  16. Routes
  17. One Word
  18. Sign Here
  19. Better Than the Real Thing
  20. Flexible Response

Connections³ (1997)

  1. Feedback
  2. What's in a Name?
  3. Drop The Apple
  4. Invisible Object
  5. Life is No Picnic
  6. Elementary Stuff
  7. A Special Place
  8. Fire from the Sky
  9. Hit the Water
  10. In Touch

Related works

All three Connections documentaries are available in their entirety as DVD box sets.

Burke also wrote a series of Connections articles in Scientific American, and published a book of the same name (1995, ISBN 0316116726), all built on the same theme of exploring the history of science and ideas, going back and forth through time explaining things on the way and, generally, coming back to the starting point.

"Connections", a Myst-style computer game with James Burke and others providing video footage and voice acting, was released in 1995.[1]

Burke produced another documentary series called The Day the Universe Changed in 1985, which explored man's concept of how the universe worked in a similar way to the original Connections.


External links

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