Connections

Connections (2007) by James Burke is a superb book about the development of science and technology. Burke was Oxford educated and has an MA in Middle English. He became a science reporter and was the BBC’s chief reporter on the Project Apollo mission. He was a reporter on the Tomorrow’s World program and learnt how to make science and technology interesting. He also had a deep understanding of European History. He made the documentary video series of Connections in 1978 in the tradition Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Connections the book is the adaption of the video series to print. Connections looks at how technology and science developed historically. Each chapter in Connections looks at a modern technology and then traces its development from the past. Burke is brilliant at finding a story that runs through these developments.

Burke’s video series allow him to use his voice, actions and video footage to emphasize the points that he is making. In the book Burke has to write and provide illustrations. He does both well. Video is more spectacular, but with a book the reader can go back and forth over things more easily. Burke makes the point that much technological innovation has not been commissioned by Research and Development offices and planned. Instead an invention somewhere, for instance in weaving technology through paper patterns has led to machinery for automation that led to automated counting for the US census that led to the punch card for computing. Some technological innovation has been directed by government and has come from theoretical underpinnings. The development of improvements in navigation through accurate clocks that worked from springs rather than from pendulums is one example. In modern times atomic power and weapons and the delivery systems for them, the jet aircraft and the missile and rocket, are another.

Science, engineering and mathematics is not taught as it was developed historically and instead tend to be taught axiomatically from the most rigorous start possible. Academics also have a tendency to put forward a view where it is ideas from academies that are then developed by practical people. This may be the case recently for some inventions, such as the transistor and atomic bomb, but for much technological development it has not been the case. Connections makes this case.

Connections has 10 Chapters:

1) The Trigger Effect – that traces the breakdown of the US electricity network to the beginning of agriculture and introduces the book.

2) The Road from Alexandria – that goes from the extraction of gold in North Western Turkey in millenium before christ to the atomic bomb.

3) Distant Voices – Starts with the nuclear fusion and fission and then jumps back to The Battle of Hastings and the stirrup and then returns to the present with the  development of the telephone.

4) Faith in Numbers – Starts with telecommunication and electro-magnetism and jumps back to the monasteries and then goes to the development of punch cards.

5) The Wheel of Fortune – Starts with the computer from the punch card and then goes back to early astronomy and finishes with the development of factories.

6) Fuel to the Flame – Starts with tools and factories and then goes back to Medieval Warm period and the cooling that went for several hundred years and then goes through developments that led to the car and the internal combustion engine and mentions early aircraft development.

7) The Long Chain – Starts with the jet engine and then goes back to Holland being the world’s leading trading and financial power and then moves through history to the invention of PVC.

8) Eat, Drink and Be Merry – Starts with plastics and then leaps back to the development of credit and then the history of muskets and then to the development of refrigeration and rocketry.

9) Lightning the Way – Starts with the Moon Landing, mentions the accelerometer then goes back to forts, cannon and then on to television.

10) Inventing the Future – Summarises the book and talks about how history neglects technology and why we should look at the history of technology.

The book is very clever in the way each chapter sets up the next. The jumps that occur when going backward are natural. The history that Burke looks at is fascinating. The view if euro-centric but does include Arabic mathematics and credits China with inventions that were critical to Western Science and technology, that of the compass, gunpowder and paper and the printing press. But as modern science has developed from European science it is not unreasonable to concentrate on their development. Burke does allude to the Needham Question. It was interesting to see the Medieval Warm period, which since 1995 has been disputed by some paleo-climatologists as being regarded simply as historic fact.

The book also provides an interesting view in contrast to that of A farewell to Alms on development before the industrial revolution. Burke clearly sees life as getting better for many people. He does brush on Malthusian views but describes technology progress as proceeding apace. Burke discusses the impact of the plague and the resultant labour shortage on technological development. Burke also provides short views into finance and talks about banks, providing a view into what The Ascent of Money would explore. This is to be expected, Civilisation and The Ascent of Man also overlap.

The book is fantastic. For anyone who is interested in history or technology it’s a great read. For those interested in both it’s a must read.

4.5/5

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