Telecommunications can pinpoint somebody—like that did—all because he picked up a telephone, or because he’s on a computer databank. We organize ourselves better because of that. The question is: how well organized will we become? Too well? To a certain extent, the modern world would fall apart without that organizational ability. The new community of nations that has grown up from the bits and pieces of the old European empires—the French, the English, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese—is held together because we can organize. But what will that organizational network, that communications network, do to us next?

from Faith in Numbers (1978)

Portrait of James Burke

James Burke

Broadcaster, Science Historian, and Author
Born: December 22, 1936

James Burke is a British broadcaster, science historian, author, and television producer. He was one of the main presenters of the BBC1 science series Tomorrow's World from 1965 to 1971 and created and presented the popular television series Connections and its more philosophical sequel The Day the Universe Changed, about the history of science and technology. The Washington Post has called him "one of the most intriguing minds in the Western world".

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Cover image for Connections, Episode 1: The Trigger Effect

The Trigger Effect

Connections, Episode 1

Both the beginning and the end of the story are here. The end is our present dependence on complex technological networks illustrated by the NYC power blackouts. Life came almost to a standstill: support systems are taken for granted failed. How did we become so helpless? The technology originated with the plow and agriculture. Each invention demands its own follow-up: once started, it is hard to stop. This segment ends in Kuwait, where society has leaped from ancient Egypt to the technology of today in 30 years.

Cover image for Connections, Episode 2: Death in the Morning

Death in the Morning

Connections, Episode 2

How did a test of gold’s purity revolutionize the world 2500 years ago and lead to the atomic bomb? Standardizing precious metal in coins stimulated trade from Greece to Persia, causing the construction of a huge commercial center and library at Alexandria. This wealth of nautical knowledge aided navigators 14 centuries later. Mariners discovered that the compass’s magnetized needle did not point directly north. Investigations into the nature of magnetism led to the discovery of electricity, radar and to the atomic bomb.

Cover image for Connections, Episode 3: Distant Voices

Distant Voices

Connections, Episode 3

Telecommunications exist because the Normans wore stirrups at the Battle of Hastings, a simple advance that caused a revolution in the increasingly expensive science of warfare. Europe turned its attention to making money to wage wars. As mine shafts were dug deeper, they became flooded, stimulating scientists like Galileo to investigate vacuums, air pressure and other natural laws to mine deeper silver. This led to the discovery of electricity and magnetism’s relationship and to the development of radio, and deep space telecommunications that may enable contact with galactic civilizations.

Cover image for Connections, Episode 4: Faith in Numbers

Faith in Numbers

Connections, Episode 4

Each development in the organization of systems (political, economic, mechanical, electronic) influences the next, by logic, by genius, by chance, or by utterly unforeseen events. The transition from the Middle ages to the Renaissance was influenced by the rise of commercialism, a sudden change in climate, famine and the Black Death, which set the stage for the invention of the printing press.

Cover image for Connections, Episode 5: The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune

Connections, Episode 5

The power to see into the future with computers originally rested with priest-astronomers who knew the proper times to plant and harvest. The constellations influenced life spectacularly, particularly when the ailing Caliph of Baghdad was cured by an astrologer using Greek lore. His ancient medical secrets were translated and spread throughout Europe, ushering in an era of scientific inquiry. The need for more precise measuring devices in navigation gave rise to the pendulum clock, the telescope, forged steel and interchangeable machine parts—the basis of modern industry.

Cover image for Connections, Episode 6: Thunder in the Skies

Thunder in the Skies

Connections, Episode 6

A dramatically colder climate gripped Europe during the thirteenth century, profoundly affecting the course of history for the next seven centuries. The changes in energy usage transformed architecture and forced the creation of new power sources. The coming of the Industrial Revolution, spurred on by advances in the steam engine, scarred England indelibly; but a moment in history later, gasoline-powered engines opened the way to the heavens.