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Connections [Paperback]

James Burke
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 3 2007 0743299558 978-0743299558 1
  • How did the popularity of underwear in the twelfth century lead to the invention of the printing press?
  • How did the waterwheel evolve into the computer?
  • How did the arrival of the cannon lead eventually to the development of movies?

In this highly acclaimed and bestselling book, James Burke brilliantly examines the ideas, inventions, and coincidences that have culminated in the major technological advances of today. With dazzling insight, he untangles the pattern of interconnecting events: the accidents of time, circumstance, and place that gave rise to the major inventions of the world.

Says Burke, "My purpose is to acquaint the reader with some of the forces that have caused change in the past, looking in particular at eight innovations -- the computer, the production line, telecommunications, the airplane, the atomic bomb, plastics, the guided rocket, and television -- which may be most influential in structuring our own futures....Each one of these is part of a family of similar devices, and is the result of a sequence of closely connected events extending from the ancient world until the present day. Each has enormous potential for humankind's benefit -- or destruction."

Based on a popular TV documentary series, Connections is a fascinating scientific detective story of the inventions that changed history -- and the surprising links that connect them.

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You can make all the plans you will, plot to make a fortune in the commodities market, speculate on developing trends: all will likely come to naught, for "however carefully you plan for the future, someone else's actions will inevitably modify the way your plans turn out." So writes the English scholar and documentary producer James Burke in his sparkling book Connections, a favorite of historically minded readers ever since its first publication in 1978. Taking a hint from Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man, Burke charts the course of technological innovation from ancient times to the present, but always with a subversive eye for things happening in spite of, and not because of, their inventors' intentions. Burke gives careful attention to the role of accident in human history. In his opening pages, for instance, he writes of the invention of uniform coinage, an invention that hinged on some unknown Anatolian prospector's discovering that a fleck of gold rubbed against a piece of schist--a "touchstone"--would leave a mark indicating its quality. Just so, we owe the invention of modern printing to Johann Gutenberg's training as a goldsmith, for his knowledge of the properties of metals enabled him to develop a press whose letterforms would not easily wear down. With Gutenberg's invention, Burke notes, came a massive revolution in the European economy, for, as he writes, "the easier it is to communicate, the faster change happens." Burke's book is a splendid and educational entertainment for our fast-changing time. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"James Burke surely has one of the most intriguing minds in the western world."

-- The Washington Post

"Lively and important."

-- Library Journal

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fun and Quirky Trip from Then to Now March 18 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
History has the tendency of being seen as static and frozen when we view it from a a later time. What happened is what happened, and nothing else could have happened because, again, at that point, it is set in stone. Once upon a time, however, history could have gone any number of ways, and much of the time, it’s the act of change and transition that help drive history through various eras.

James Burke is one of my favorite historical authors, and I am a big fan of his ideas behind “Connected thought and events”, which makes the case that history is not a series of isolated events, but that events and discoveries coming from previous generations (an even eras) can give rise to new ideas and modes of thinking. In other words, change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, or in the mind of a single solitary genius. Instead it’s the actions and follow-on achievements by a variety of people throughout history that make certain changes in our world possible (from the weaving of silk to the personal computer, or the stirrup to the atomic bomb).

“Connections" is the companion book to the classic BBC series first filmed in the late 70s, with additional series being created up into the 1990s. If you haven’t already seen the Connections series of programs, please do, they are highly entertaining and engaging. The original print edition of the book had been out of print for some time, but I was overjoyed to discover that there is a paperback version as well as a Kindle edition of this book. The kindle version is the one I am basing the review on.

The subtitle of the book and series is "an Alternative View of Change”.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Connections March 14 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
James Burke has this uncanny way of making the entire world make sense. The way that he has connected world events to historical inventions is absolutely incredible.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Overstates Remote Connections July 26 2001
Format:Audio Cassette
I have to say that I like the premise behind the book: seemingly random events leading up to a coherent pattern of invention and innovation. I also appreciate all the implications this has for long-term conscious planning by governments and individuals. However, I think that Burke understates the role of great geniuses in scientific and technological history. Not everything we have is primarily due to remote connections. I think that "The Day the Universe Changed" is a better written and more interesting book. This one, however, is also worth reading.
The first part of the book about interconnectedness and mutual dependence for survival in the modern industrial society should be required reading for all types of back-to-nature, anti-technology, sustainable-development eco feminists. It shows that we are not at liberty to simply adopt a Rousseau-esque, crab-like movement back into "natural," pre-industrial world. So for this reason alone, the book is worth the price you pay for it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars informative but too dense March 24 2001
By Eric B.
Format:Audio Cassette
As a teacher, I am always in search of ways to make academics relevant to the real world. Student engagement is always increased when the lesson reminds them of something familiar. I was eager to read Connections in order to teach me about how to make history connect to everyday life. In Connections, James Burke attempts to demonstrate three phenomena: seemingly inconsequential events can lead to major innovations, inventions lead to new discoveries, and technological advancements have had profound effects throughout history on people and society. While Burke does make a valiant effort to make these "connections" between the discoveries of everyday people and/or scientists with inventions such as the loom, printing press, coinage, clock, etc., he spends more time discussing the nature of the inventions themselves, rather than the connections between them. I would have liked more commentary on the coincidences and circumstances of the discoveries and less information about how the invention works and functions. Burke was very successful at illustrating the broad impacts of numerous technologies throughout history. The inventions which he describes such as the plow and compass had fascinating impacts on the way society developed. I believe that these connections would be very interesting to my students by demonstrating how history effects our lives. My primary criticism of this book lies in Burke's style and scope. His writing is incredibly dense with numerous names, dates, and specifics. The information is overwhelming and not clearly focused. The chapters seem poorly organized and without a defined, recognizable theme. More explanation and commentary by Burke himself rather than dry, dense information would have been useful. Read more ›
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3.0 out of 5 stars Book best medium for this message May 24 2009
Maybe it's me, but I found of the three media used by James Buirke to present his lessons, the printed word worked best. The illustrations actually illustrate ( unlike the video Connections 2 series ) and the text is easier to follow than in the audio discs which outline the same approach to science development.
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