Watch James Burke’s TV Series Connections, and Discover the Unexpected History of Innovation

Even if we did­n’t grow up as sci­ence fans, all of us caught at least the occa­sion­al tele­vi­sion show on sci­ence his­to­ry. Some came expert­ly pro­duced. Oth­ers packed the infor­ma­tion to a very high den­si­ty (by TV’s stan­dards, at least). Oth­ers cracked jokes to keep our wits engaged. Oth­ers got us intrigued enough about a par­tic­u­lar dis­cov­ery to per­form our own fur­ther research at the library or on the inter­net. But those of us who came of age dur­ing a run of one of James Burke’s Con­nec­tionsseries got all of that at once, exe­cut­ed on a high­er plane, and with quite dif­fer­ent philo­soph­i­cal premis­es. Design­ing each of his pro­grams to exam­ine a dif­fer­ent nexus between sev­er­al ele­ments of sci­ence, nature, and  engi­neer­ing, Burke premis­es these nar­ra­tives on the insep­a­ra­bil­i­ty of human inge­nu­ity, his­tor­i­cal coin­ci­dence, and sheer acci­dent. How, for instance, did we end up in a world of film pro­jec­tors (cur­rent­ly being dis­placed by dig­i­tal pro­jec­tors though they may be)? For the answer, Burke argues, you’ve got to start with medieval cas­tle for­ti­fi­ca­tions. Then you work your way through can­nons, map­ping, lime­light, bil­liard-ball ivory, gun­cot­ton, the zooprax­is­cope, Morse code, and the phono­graph. These tech­no­log­i­cal threads all con­verge to give us the cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ence we enjoy today — or enjoyed in 1978, any­way.

If you enjoyed that episode of Con­nec­tions back then, know that you can now relive it on a Youtube chan­nel ded­i­cat­ed to Burke and his shows. If you nev­er watched any in the first place, you can now catch up on not just the ten episodes of the orig­i­nal Con­nec­tions, but 1994’s twice-as-long Con­nec­tions2, and the final series, 1997’s Con­nec­tions3I rec­om­mend begin­ning at the begin­ning, with Con­nec­tions’ first episode, “The Trig­ger Effect,” embed­ded above. It gets you into the mind­set of Burke’s “alter­na­tive view of change” by break­ing down and illus­trat­ing the very con­cept of human reliance on com­plex­ly con­nect­ed net­works. The pro­gram’s clear and fast-mov­ing but no-stone-unturned method­ol­o­gy of expla­na­tion takes you through the New York Black­out of 1965, ancient Egypt­ian agri­cul­ture, and the oil fields of Kuwait. Reach the end of the third series, and you wind up learn­ing just how much the Eif­fel Tow­er has to do with the Elgin Mar­bles, Ben­jamin Franklin, Lon­don Bridge, and the ZIP code. Burke empha­sizes that none of the his­tor­i­cal agents involved in all these scat­tered small inno­va­tions that enabled the big ones — the ones with such effects on our mod­ern lives — could have planned for things to go the way they did. His sto­ries thus grant us more than a bit of humil­i­ty about pre­dict­ing the inno­va­tions of the future, built as they will be atop the kind of com­plex­i­ty that not even Con­nec­tions ever described.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Exquis­ite Paper Craft Ani­ma­tions Tell the Sto­ries of Words

The Sci­ence of the Olympic Flame; Ancient Style Meets Mod­ern Tech­nol­o­gy

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Felicia says:

    I loved this show grow­ing up. It’s one of the few sci­ence shows that has remind stuck in my mind all these years. So hap­py to know I can find some of the episodes on youtube. I know what I am doing tomor­row!

  • Stephanie says:

    .…Me too! I had always enjoyed the shows and searched for them in the TV guides (remem­ber those?…the paper ones?). I had been mean­ing to search the inter­net for this for quite a while and just got around to it today. I know what I’ll be doing on my next day off!

  • David Howe says:

    Video unavail­able
    This video is unavail­able.

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