Technology Is All Connections, Says James Burke—but Between Sleepless Monks and Henry Ford?

updated 10/29/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1979 01:00AM

It features no sherry-hour chat with Alistair Cooke or grand tour of chateaux with Lord Clark, but Connections, the new 10-week British export series on technological history, is at least as riveting, not to mention jolting. It starts with BBC science reporter James Burke, 42, in a courtyard, trench coat flapping in the wind, his voice sterner than Karl Maiden's, as he assaults the camera with questions. What if there really were a gas crisis and you had to flee the city? Where would you go, a farm? Ha—and what would you do once you got there? Would you know how to plow? Could you indeed survive? After a few minutes, audiences begin to feel uneasy in their comfortable living rooms. Or so Burke hopes.

Strand by strand, from the oil wells in the Kuwaiti desert to a tiny black box near Niagara Falls that triggered the massive 1965 New York blackout, Burke tugs away at the "warm blanket of technology." But the correspondent didn't trek to 23 countries in two years (and write the complementary book of the same title) just to bait urbanites. As the title suggests, Burke's true intention is to chart the 120 centuries of links that have made man both a master and slave of technology.

Burke downplays the accepted inventors like Gutenberg, Eastman and Edison. "What they were able to do," he says, "was fit together things that were already lying around. The idea of lonely geniuses inventing new things in isolation is simply ignorant." Their breakthroughs would not have occurred, Burke argues, except for the pragmatic adaptiveness of generations of anonymous craftsmen. The mother of invention, he maintains, "is a fascinating mixture of accident, climatic change, genius, craftsmanship, careful observation, ambition, greed, war, religious belief, deceit and a hundred other factors."

Ever the provocateur, Burke begins his discussion of computers with medieval sheep-rearing. Similarly, he believes insomniac monks in the 12th century may have been as responsible as Henry Ford for the modern assembly line. And one of the most formative developments of all to Burke was the stirrup. Without it, he submits, "Not only would William have lost to the Saxons in 1066, but Alexander Graham Bell might never have gotten around to inventing the telephone." (Tune in November 18 to make that connection.)

The son of an Irish construction worker and a psychiatric nurse, Burke grew up in England playing the clarinet, acting and singing. "Science was not my bag at all," he says. He studied literature on a scholarship at Oxford and then drifted to Italy to teach English.

Television beckoned by chance one day on a Rome bus. Spotting an ad for a reporter for the local bureau of Britain's Granada TV, he says, "I decided if the bus stopped at the next corner I would get off and apply for the job." It did, he did, and the next thing he knew "we went straight off to Sicily to do a series on the Mafia." When Granada closed its Rome bureau, Burke was hired by the BBC and serendipitously went on to co-host a science series and become the network's anchor for the Apollo moon missions. Ironically, his new aerodynamic expertise left him with a fear of flying: "I don't worry much about take-off and landing—which are the most dangerous parts—it's the in-flight stresses on the aircraft at cruising altitude that scare me."

Yet, with other ambitious TV works in progress, Burke spends as much time on the wing as he does with his wife, Madeline, 44, at their homes in suburban London and southern France. Burke says that is just as well. They have a mutual need for independence—a desire which led to an agreement not to have children. When they are together they enjoy having friends for Sunday lunch "which tends to go on till Monday morning." He can cook, he says, but defers to Madeline: "Why stand between Michelangelo and his ceiling?"

Such divisions of labor fit into Burke's theory of historical connections. "You simply can't divide humans into leaders and lemmings," he contends. "Everyone—whether he realizes it or not—is significantly involved in the process of change."

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