Radio Times 14 October 1978
Connections Tuesday 7.29 BBC 1
What are the links between an Austrian piano-maker and Concorde? Between "frilly" knickers and the invention of printing? What has the recipe for Chicken Marengo got to do with air conditioning? James Burke answers these questions and many more in his new ten-part series, which demonstrates the bizarre chain of events which have led to 20th-century technology. Here, Burke talks enthusiastically of the project to Gordon Burn.
'There is always a connection but, because the link has never been made before, nobody knows it's there."
Eight in the morning and, already, stoked up on strong black coffee brought in a vacuum flask from home, James Burke was revving, soon to be firing on all cylinders.
The enthusiasm which is the Burke stock-in-trade was undiminished by its being Saturday; the urge to explain, which seems at times to possess him, appeared all the stronger In a building that was otherwise quite deserted.
The walls of the office in which he had chosen to meet me were papered with planning-charts as densely packed, and as Indecipherable, as front pages of the Telegraph; and the charts, he said, explained his long absence from Britain 's television screens. For three years, in 20 countries, and in 150 locations as varied as Kuala Lumpur and Coney Island, the Temple of Karnak in Egypt and the Oval Office in the White House, he has been planning, writing and filming a series that, in Its scope, Is as ambitious as those other BBC blockbusters, Lord Clark's Civilisation, Dr Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and Alistair Cooke's America.
Connections (subtitled An Alternative View of Change) is a continuation of the attempt that he says began with a previous series, The Burke Special, to relate science and technology to the everyday lives of ordinary people. In essence, each programme in the series will trace, through 1,500 years of history, the unexpected, and not infrequently bizarre, chain of discoveries and inventions—the 'connections' of the title--that have paved the way to a single piece of modem technology without which life in the second half of the 20th century wouldn't be the same. Exactly what that piece of technology is-- the telephone? the production-line? the atom bomb?-- will be revealed only at the programme's end, although clues will be dropped along the way. The end result, burke hopes, will be as much Raymond Chandler as BBC Science Features. He likes to think of it as a sort of detective serial, every episode a cliff-hanger right up to the last minute that the credits roll.
[But here's a clue to the end: One of the biggest frights of Christopher Columbus's life was when he was well on the way in 1492 and discovered that his compass needle wasn't pointing where he thought it ought. The same thing happened to a lot of other people heading for the mysterious West (' East? North? South? Help! ). Help came in the form of a German major who was rubbing a sulphur ball to see if it was attractive when he noticed something shocking that got everybody looking at the sky and, in particular, Irish fog. As a result a bunch of philanthropic Scots spent a dreadful day climbing Ben Nevis for tea and cakes. It was there that somebody saw an inside out rainbow and decided to make his own clouds. If he hadn't succeeded the Battle of Britain might have been lost, and it would have taken longer to make something that frightens the living daylights out of anybody who thinks of it. ]
‘For instance,' he said, his impatience to get going as ill-concealed as the organiser of a parlour game's, 'French cannon in the 18th century, and an Austrian piano maker, and soda water helped to make, . . Concorde! Seventeenth-century ships' bottoms, and a raincoat, and German bread are vital to why the First World War lasted four years and not one.' With his tongue, he dampened the lead of his pencil. With his pencil he started to sketch a network of connecting squares. ‘Massing 6,000 men in a square and giving them a pike each, if you put that together with the recipe for Chicken Marengo, you get… air conditioning! And oh yes, yes, the nicest one, this: If you put the loom and the spinning wheel together, and French bread, and frilly knickers, you get,.. No good, you'll never guess. Printing!' And for my next trick . . .
As long ago as 1974 James Burke says be was thinking about a series on the history of technology that would ask the question: by examining the ancestry of major pieces of modern invention, is there any way we can second guess the future? It was turning up a book by a man called White, Emeritus Professor of History at UCLA in California , that finally opened his eyes to possibilities. The book was about the invention of the stirrup, and Burke says it hit him like a bombshell.
‘Because what White was saying, and he went a long way towards proving it, was that stirrup changed the entire structure of English society. You know, the knock-on effect: dominoes falling on other dominoes. So what I did was, I got a bloody big piece of paper and covered the whole of one wall with it, and started then, very arrogantly, with the plough in about the Sixth Millennium BC. By reading ancient history I started seeing what plough had done, and I built up a family tree which rapidly covered the entire wall. So I took it down and did it again, only this time more selectively, and ended up with four branches that went from about 1,500 years ago to the present time.
‘Having threaded that first. lot through to the end, and got a modern invention, that was when it struck me that the only to handle the series was to say: OK, we have this particular problem with this particular piece of technology in modern world; what is there in the past that is analogies? I then looked around for a historical analogy, and then came forward from there.'
Not, of course, that it was always that simple. The trails had a tendency to turn into blind alleys. ‘But always,' Burke says,' as you read in ever-widening circles looking clues, you'd find one. Always. There is always a connection. And it's not necessarily spurious. It's just that, because link has never been made before, nobody knows it's there.
'It goes without saying, I hope, that all our links have been checked out with professional historians, and they are valid because, as several of them said, there's no such thing as an arbitrary link: It happened. I mean, when you're looking for a path through the past, there are a thousand ways you can go, each one as valid as the next. But If the purpose of your exercise, as ours was, Is to say “ Isn't this fascinating? ", then you choose the exciting routes.'
[Another clue: Ever feel you want to smash your alarm clock In the mornings? That your life is ruled by the infernal tick tock? That you wish they'd invented more hours in the day? Never used to be like that. Until a bunch of medieval monastic insomniacs got hold of some Arab ideas on how to get some sleep at night. Now, their invention was good enough for them, but not good enough for sailors crossing the Atlantic . So a clockmaker watched what some glass furnace-men were up to and sorted things out so precisely that people started measuring things down to a thousandth of an inch. That was terrific news for some American gun-makers. The new muskets they manufactured used an idea that puts the washing-machine in your house today. And the television set. And the knives and forks. And almost everything. - -They're all connected. Even the family car.]
[Yet another clue: Next time somebody raises an eyebrow as you reach for yet another gin and tonic, mumble' medicinal purposes' and all you'll be doing is telling the truth. That's where the ‘tonic' part came in, a hundred years ago, when they were looking for a fever cure. Funnily enough, a lot of other things came out of the search for that cure. Like this colour picture. And it came from everybody looking in the wrong place--in a lump of coal. That only interested them all because ships' bottoms used to be covered with something that came from the Baltic, where they grow pine trees. and then the supplies stopped. And that's where coal came in. What happened to coal because of the search for a fever cure made Germany great, and clever at juggling molecules, which is what somebody was doing in 1896 when he tried to make diamonds and ended with a pile of sludge that turned out to be just what your potted plant needs today. ]
[Clue: Did you know that the soda siphon started life because an incompetent preacher lived next door to a brewery in Leeds and thought he'd found a cure for scurvy? And got so excited about the bubbles he started heating up muck in gun barrels to see what would come out, and nearly set fire to himself. And if you'd taken the waters at the fashionable German spas about 90 years ago you'd have seen a couple of men getting steamed up about what our hero had done with his gun barrels and what other people had got up to because of his soda water. And if they hadn't done what they did, a piano tuner in Austria would have beaten the Wright Brothers into the air by two years. ]
Two things came out of his investigations very clearly: the kind of history he was taught at school was wrong; history does not, and never has, run in straight lines. Secondly, most people credited with inventing things, didn't. 'Over and over again in this series one kept finding these little guys, very often craftsmen, ordinary people, who did things for which the biggies in history took the credit. I mean, most of the great inventors didn't invent any thing. James Watt didn't invent the steam engine, Edison didn't invent the electric light bulb, Eastman didn't invent celluloid film. All they did, all of these people, was fit the bits together that were already lying around. Now, I'm going to get people saying “You're wrong", of course, who don't know. And that's most people.'
From his early days with Tomorrow's World, through the Apollo missions and The Burke Specials, Burke has regarded himself as an educator, a role he clearly loves. He's quite candid about it: telling somebody something they don't know, he says, excites him, and excitement is the basis of his aggressively street-speak screen style. He's been criticised for it in the past, of course, and he expects he'll be criticised for it again, but he promises he won't be losing any sleep, 'It's always been unfashionable,' he says, 'to be enthusiastic. And I suffer for it like everybody else does. But if I'm a sixth.form schoolboy, let me tell you so are half the scientists and other experts I've talked to. And they're changing people's lives because of their enthusiasm. The single thing most of the greatest people their fields have in common is this tremendous enthusiasm about what it is they are and do, and they are willing to tell you every thing, because they know there's plenty more where that came from.'
It' was only in 1972, with the demise of the space programme which he had become closely associated, that Burke says he started to think at all seriously about the wider implications of modern developments in science and technology. Part of his job, he came to realise, was to make clear to the wider audience the innumerable ways in which science affects their lives.
Political decisions,' he says, 'are increasingly made about material that is basically scientific: the inter-relationship between politics and science so tight as to be indissoluble. That being the case, part of the purpose of this series must be to get people to understand more and more the scientific and technological under-pinnings of what looks ordinary life, ordinary politics,. ordinary jobs, ordinary life. If you don't know how the machinery works, when something goes wrong with it and the oxygen stops coming, you die.'
‘The purpose of television in general, it seems to me, is to teach people the vocabulary of what's around them. And what Connections is basically saying Is that you can't know where you are you know where you've been. It's the old dictum: the organism that best survives is the one that is most aware of its environment. 1
In other words, what I'm hoping the programmes will do is to make people reflect on their own lives, and on the strange connections that exist and that have brought them to that point which they find themselves now. I mean, it's made me enormously more aware of what's around me, and I hope it'll alert an audience to the time they're living in, why it is and what it is.'
[Last clue: This is one of the stranger connection in history that make it possible for you to be reading this copy of RADIO TIMES. You wouldn't be doing if it hadn't been for a goldsmith in Germany getting the date wrong. And there wouldn't have been any point in him doing anything at all if it hadn't been for frilly knickers. They became very fashionable all over Europe just after the Black Death. So did bedsheets. And hats. And blouses. And it was because everybody was wearing that particular kind of cloth that our goldsmith was pushed into doing his thing. How did they all manage to get frilly knickers In the first place? Well - if you look very carefully at the picture of this loom, you'll see something that made life easier for the weavers. It came from China and it produced cloth so fast everybody wanted it. So flax became very popular, because you don't have to feed it. And all the weavers went for flax in a big way, and that was good for underwear
lovers. If you look very carefully at what you've just read, you'll see the connections. If not: they come to life as part of one of the historical detective stories that form the new series. The one where you find out the extraordinary events that followed what that German goldsmith did. ]