The Connected James Burke

September 2007

 

One of my favorite books by British science historian James Burke is called Circles: 50 round trips through history, technology, science, culture. As the book title indicates, each tale makes a round trip. Burke begins with a ubiquitous modern-day invention and then travels backward to the inventionís origins. Amazingly, at the end of the story, heís right back where he started. This is hard to believe given our linear concept of history, so Iíll share one round trip.

 

Burke begins one tale riding on a smooth-going modern train, drinking a cold beer. He notices the name Linde on the refrigerator and remembers thatLinde was one of the inventors of the refrigerator, for just that purposeĺto keep beer cold. Burke sets up the initial connection of the train to beer to the refrigerator to Linde. He continues from Linde to Diesel to Hiram Maxim to the Red Baron to Ferdinand von Richthofen to Karl Ritter to J.G. Herder to Humboldt to Thomas Jefferson to Charles-Louis Clerisseau to Robert Adam to Matthew Boulton and lastly to Bernedetto Pistrucci who developed the steel alloy railroad tracks to make Burkeís train ride as smooth as his cold beer.

 

Early in his career Burke was science anchor and chief reporter for the BBC during coverage of the moon landing in 1969. Burke was fascinated by the role television could play to broadcast educational programs worldwide. He began by developing a 10-part series called Connections that first aired in 1979. In each one-hour episode, Burke wears the same fantastic 70s white suit and brown shirt. One wonders why he always wears the same outfit until it becomes apparent that this was integral to the programís seamless jumping across 150 locations in 19 countries. Burke can begin a sentence in one part of the world and finish the sentence 12,000 miles away, dressed exactly the same. Burke didnít time travel of course; this is just the magic of television, which Burke utilized to perfection. The wardrobe trick mimics how invention and change work together. Different people in different parts of the world could be working on different pieces to the same puzzle, and then something brings the pieces together and we get something amazing, like refrigeration.

 

Burke also created 20 Connections2 half-hour programs in 1994 and 10 one-hour Connections3 programs in 1997. The Connections series and Burkeís books are available at libraries everywhere. Not surprisingly, Burkeís material has been included in over 350 college curricula. Donít miss out on following Burke along on his amazing journeys of discovery. Or interact directly by contributing to Burkeís ambitious web project at http://www.k-web.org.