Connections

On 10/11/2012, in Uncategorized, by wouter

Connections is a ten-episode documentary television series created, written and presented by science historian James Burke. The series was produced and directed by Mick Jackson of the BBC Science & Features Department and first aired in 1978 (UK) and 1979 (USA). It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention and demonstrated how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events were built from one another successively in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology. The series was noted for Burke’s crisp and enthusiastic presentation (and dry humour), historical reenactments, and intricate working models.

The popular success of the series led to the production of The Day the Universe Changed, a similar program but showing a more linear history of several important scientific developments. Years later the success in syndication led to two sequels,Connections² (1994) and Connections³ (1997), both for TLC. In 2004, KCSM-TV produced a program called Re-Connections, consisting of an interview of Burke and highlights of the original series, for the 25th anniversary of the first broadcast in the USA on PBS.[1]

1. “The Trigger Effect” details the world’s present dependence on complex technological networks through a detailed narrative of New York City and the power blackout of 1965. Agricultural technology is traced to its origins in ancient Egypt and the invention of the plow. The segment ends in Kuwait where, because of oil, society leapt from traditional patterns to advanced technology in a period of only about 30 years.

 

2. “Death in the Morning” examines the standardization of precious metal with the touchstone in the ancient world. This innovation stimulated trade from Greece toPersia, ultimately causing the construction of a huge commercial center and library at Alexandria which included Ptolemy’s star tables. This wealth of astronomical knowledge aided navigators during the age of discovery 14 centuries later after the development of lateen sails and sternpost rudders. Mariners discovered that thecompass‘s magnetized needle did not actually point directly north. Investigations into the nature of magnetism by Gilbert led to the discovery of electricity by way of thesulphur ball of von Guericke. Further interest in atmospheric electricity at the Ben Nevis weather station led to Wilson’s cloud chamber which in turn allowed development of both Watson-Watt‘s radar and (by way of Rutherford‘s insights) nuclear weaponry.

 

3. “Distant Voices” suggests that telecommunications exist because Normans had stirrups for horse riding which in turn led them to further advancements in warfare. Deep mine shafts flooded and scientists in search of a solution examined vacuums, air pressure and other natural phenomena.

 

4. “Faith in Numbers” examines the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance from the perspective of how commercialism, climate change and the Black Deathinfluenced cultural development. He examines the impact of Cistercian waterpower on the Industrial Revolution, derived from Roman watermill technology such as that of the Barbegal aqueduct and mill.

 

5. “The Wheel of Fortune” traces astrological knowledge in ancient Greek manuscripts from Baghdad’s founder, Caliph Al-Mansur, via the Muslim monastery/medical school at Gundeshapur, to the medieval Church’s need for alarm clocks (the water horologium and the verge and foliot clock). The clock mainspring gave way to the pendulum clock, but the latter could not be used by mariners, thus the need for precision machining by way of Huntsman’s improved steel (1797) and Maudslay’s use (1800) ofRamsden’s idea of using a screw to better measure (which he took from the turner’s trade). This process made a better mainspring and was also used by the Royal Navy to make better blocksLe Blanc mentioned this same basic idea to Thomas Jefferson who transmitted this “American system of manufactures” – precision machine-tooling ofmusket parts for interchangeability – to New Englanders Eli WhitneyJohn Hall and Simeon North. The American efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth and his psychologist wifelater improved the whole new system of the modern production line.

 

6. “Thunder in the Skies” implicates the Little Ice Age (ca. 1250-1300 AD) in the invention of the chimney, as well as knittingbuttonswainscotingwall tapestrieswall plasteringglass windows (Hardwick Hall [1597] has “more glass than wall”), and the practice of privacy for sleeping and sex. The genealogy of the steam engine is then examined: Thomas Newcomen’s engine for pumping water out of mines (1712); Abraham Darby’s cheap iron from cokeJames Watt’s addition of a second condensing cylinder (for cooling) to the engine (1763); John Wilkinson‘s improving of cannon boring (for the French military) and cylinder making (for Watt; 1773–75). Wilkinson’s brother-in-law, Joseph Priestley, investigated gases, leading Alessandro Volta to invent “bad air” (marsh gas) detectors and ignitors. Meanwhile, Edwin Drake discovered oil (inPennsylvania), allowing Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach (in Bad Cannstatt) to replace town gas with gasoline as fuel for auto engines (1883). They also invented (in 1892) the carburetor (inspired by the medical atomizers, which also developed from Priestley’s work) and a new ignition system inspired by Volta’s “bad air” detection spark gun. Finally, piano-maker Wilhelm Kress unsuccessfully attempted (1901) to fly the first seaplane on an Austrian lake using the new gasoline engine.

 

7. “The Long Chain” traces the invention of the Fluyt freighter in Holland in the 16th century. Voyages were insured by Edward Lloyd (Lloyd’s of London) if the ships’ hulls were covered in pitch and tar (which came from the colonies until the American Revolution in 1776). In Culross, Scotland, Archibald Cochrane (9th Earl of Dundonald) tried to distill coal vapor to get coal tar for ships’ hulls, which led to the discovery of ammonia. The search for artificial quinine to treat malaria led to the development of artificial dyes, which Germany used to produce fertilizers to grow wheat and led to the advancement of chemistry which in turn led to DuPont‘s discovery of polymers such as nylon.

 

8. “Eat, Drink and Be Merry…” begins with plastic, the plastic credit card and the concept of credit, then leaps back to the time of the Dukes of Burgundy, the first state to use credit. The dukes used credit for many luxuries, and to buy more armor for a stronger army. The Swiss opposed the army of Burgundy and invented a new military formation (with soldiers using pikes) called the Pike Square. The Pike Square, along with events following the French Revolution, set in motion the growth in the size of armies and in the use of ill-trained peasant soldiers. Feeding these large armies became a problem for Napoleon, which caused the innovation of bottled food. The bottled food was first put in champagne bottles then in tin cans. Canned food was used for armies and for navies. In one of the bottles the canned food went bad, and people blamed the spoiled food on “Bad Air”, also known as swamp air. Investigations around “bad air” and malaria led to the innovation of air conditioning and refrigeration. In 1892 Sir James Dewar invented a container that could keep liquids hot or cold (the thermos) which led three men – TsiolkovskyRobert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth – to construct a large thermal flask for either liquid hydrogen and oxygen or for solid fuel combustion for use in rocket propulsion, applying the thermal flask principle to keeprocket fuel cold and successfully using it for the V-2 rocket and the Saturn V rocket that put man on the moon.

 

 

9. “Countdown” connects the invention of the movie projector to improvements in castle fortifications caused by the invention and use of the cannon. The use of the cannon caused changes in castle fortifications to eliminate a blind spot where cannon fire could not reach. This improvement in castle defence caused innovation in offensive cannon fire, which eventually required maps. Thus a need arose to view and map locations (like a mountain top) from a long distance, which led to the invention of limelightlight source, and later the incandescent light. Burke turns to the next ingredient for a movie projector, film. Film is made with celluloid (made with guncotton) which was first invented as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. Next was the invention of the zoopraxiscope which was first used for a bet to see if a horse’s hooves all left the ground at any point while galloping. The zoopraxiscope used frame by frame pictures and holes on the side to allow the machine to pull the film forward. Communication signals for railways using Morse‘s telegraph led to Edison discovering how to speak into a microphone creating bumps on a disc that could be played back—the record player. This final ingredient gave movies sound. In summary, Burke connects the invention of the movie projector to four major innovations in history: the incandescent light; the discovery of celluloid; the projector that uses frame by frame pictures on celluloid; and finally, recorded sound.

 

10. “Yesterday, Tomorrow and You”A bit of a recap; change causes more change. Start with the plow, you get irrigationpotterycraftsmencivilization and writing,mathematics, a calendar to predict floods, empires, and a modern world where change happens so rapidly you can’t keep up. What do you do? Stop the change? Throw away all technology and live like cavemen? Decide what change will be allowed by law? Or just accept that the world is changing faster than we can keep up with?

 

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