Kirkus Reviews QR Code
CONNECTIONS by James Burke



Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 1979
ISBN: 0743299558
Publisher: Little, Brown

When the Empress Eugenic appeared at the Paris Opera in a dazzling green silk ball gown that didn't turn blue in gaslight, the fashion world was rocked. It was the result of a new coal-tar dye derived from the wastes abundant at every gasworks. When the chimney was invented as a more efficient conserver of heat during Europe's Little Ice Age, it meant rooms could be heated separately, scribes could work at night, lovemaking could be private, lords and ladies no longer huddied with their staff around a central hearth. . . and class divisions grew. Thus does Robert Burke embellish and spark his tour de force on technology, the subject of ten BBC television programs to be broadcast on PBS in fall 1979--and this fine companion work which, more than most such, stands on its own. The author, a career TV journalist, has marshaled myriad discoveries and inventions that pay tribute as much to chance, religion, war, and disease as to necessity, design, genius, and the propinquity of men, ideas, and elements. Burke's approach is clearly in the V. Gordon Childe tradition centering on how technology shapes destiny. Burke, however, connects events over time. A chapter which begins with a discussion of computers, for instance, flips back to the astrolabe, waterclocks, pendulums, the need to cast more durable steel, to incise precise divisions on chronometers--and eventually comes round to automated looms and standardized gun parts, both of which found fertile ground in the textile mills and armaments industry of New England. Carried on by these connective wheels-within-wheels, the reader enjoys a kind of what-will-happen-next experience, telegraphed only in one of the last chapters in which the arc light, Edison's incandescent bulb, the invention of celluloid and sprocketed film, and the use of light-sensitive metals to coat glass in evacuated containers all lead to--yes--television. One can quarrel that social losses are glossed over and that too seductive an optimism about technological fixes prevails. Let that be a matter for ongoing discussion. In the meantime the book delights with its scholarship, anecdote, minutiae--and the excellent diagrams and photos which may whiz by on the screen.