Connections (1978– )

TV Series  -   -  Documentary | History
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Ratings: 9.2/10 from 626 users  
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Follow James Burke through the history of science and technology. In this collection of 10 1-hour episodes, starting with "The Trigger Effect".

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Series cast summary:
James Burke ...
 Himself - Presenter (10 episodes, 1978)


This series explores the various paths of how technological change happens and the social effects of these changes on Western society. To illustrate this, James Burke follows various timelines of how one innovation lead to something seemingly totally unrelated in the future such as how a 17th century Dutch cargo ship design lead to development of plastic in the 20th century. Written by Kenneth Chisholm <>

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Release Date:

17 October 1978 (UK)  »

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Followed by Connections 2 (1994) See more »

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A Brilliant Alternative Presentation of Historical Change That Puts Most History Text Books to Shame
9 January 2010 | by (Oakland, CA) – See all my reviews

Did you know that the invention of nautical devices in the 16th and 17th century by European seafarers is a link in an historical chain that will directly lead to the Nuclear Age of the 20th century? That the invention of move-able type printing in the mid-15th century was in part due to the devastating plague of the 14th century? That Henry VIII's breaking from the Roman Catholic Church to form England's own church is a distant link that will eventually lead to the invention of limelight used to light theatre stages in the 19th century? That the need for tar for cargo ships in the 17th century will eventually lead to the invention of a new kind of fertilizer in the late 19th century? Or how innovations in the textile industries of the 18th and 19th century were an essential component for the beginning of Information Technology in the 20th century? Or, my favorite, how some exploding billiard balls of the late 19th century will become part of a puzzle that leads to mass media entertainment. These are just a handful of the strange seemingly unrelated "connections" between people, inventions, motivations, places and eras that have led to some of the most extraordinary innovations of the modern age. And yet, every link, every "connection", is not only essential but often had nothing to do with the original intent of the inventors and/or innovators at the time.

It is almost a cliché that most of the greatest inventions and innovations of the modern age were found by accident as a result of the inventor or innovator trying to solve an entirely different problem. History textbooks often present this material as a survey of end-products whose result was preordained: light bulbs, televisions, mass transit, and the like are often made to seem as inevitable outgrowths of linear progress. James Burke's "Connections" takes an entirely different route of explanation that is anything but linear. His hypothesis which is based on a vast assortment of historical record is that significant technological change is the result of a myriad of strange circumstances and unforeseen consequences throughout history in which, at the time, no one could have guessed the end result.

In the first episode, Burke outlines the form in which each of these "stories" will take place. The viewer will be a kind of detective along with Burke to discover the many twists and turns that will eventually lead to nine major scientific inventions of the 20th century. But the viewer will not know the invention with which the story will lead until the very end. And the beginning of the trail will seem very far from the end result. For example, the second episode begins with how people 3000 years ago began adapting metal for coinage as a better means to stimulate trade and commerce will eventually lead to an invention that Burke says "affects every man, woman and child on the planet." Another episode begins with seafaring in the ancient world. Yet another begins with medieval cannon balls.

Throughout his series, historian-commentator Burke takes us behind-the-histories of these greatest of innovations of the modern world. He often begins in the Middle Ages, sometimes earlier, in which people were simply trying to solve a particular problem at a particular moment. In one episode for example, Burke describes the European Ice Age of the Middle Ages which meant that castles and chateaus needed to be redesigned as an answer to the cold weather. Instead of large drafty high-ceilinged rooms, smaller rooms came into being along with central heating systems in which a fireplace could heat several rooms. And this also had an impact on culture. Indoor games like chess and backgammon, indoor art such as tapestries, and reading books came into vogue along with the physical stratification of the classes. Upper class people resided in the rooms upstairs while the working class occupied the lower rooms.

Burke takes the conventional wisdom of "history" which is too often presented as linear and inevitable and turns it on its head. This is possibly one of the most fascinating series of the late 20th century. And he also makes a "story" out of history. Only school textbooks could make a subject as fascinating as history so boring, and Burke shows us that this is not the case at all.

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