James Burke: Connections

James Burke: Connections

1978, Technology  -  Playlist 64 Comments
Ratings: 8.12/10 from 161 users.

James Burke: ConnectionsConnections explores an Alternative View of Change (the subtitle of the series) that rejects the conventional linear and teleological view of historical progress. Burke contends that one cannot consider the development of any particular piece of the modern world in isolation.

Rather, the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each one consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own (e.g., profit, curiosity, religious) motivations with no concept of the final, modern result of what either their or their contemporaries' actions finally led to. The interplay of the results of these isolated events is what drives history and innovation, and is also the main focus of the series and its sequels.

To demonstrate this view, Burke begins each episode with a particular event or innovation in the past (usually Ancient or Medieval times) and traces the path from that event through a series of seemingly unrelated connections to a fundamental and essential aspect of the modern world. For example, The Long Chain episode traces the invention of plastics from the development of the fluyt, a type of Dutch cargo ship.


Connections (1978)

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.

2. Death in the Morning examines the standardization of precious metal with the touchstone in the ancient world.

3. Distant Voices suggests that telecommunications exist because Normans had stirrups for horse riding which in turn led them to further advancements in warfare.

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 Death influenced cultural development.

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).

6. Thunder in the Skies implicates the Little Ice Age (ca. 1250-1300 AD) in the invention of the chimney, as well as knitting, buttons, wainscoting, wall tapestries, wall plastering, glass windows, and the practice of privacy for sleeping and sex.

7. The Long Chain traces the invention of the Fluyt freighter in Holland in the 1500s. 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.

8. Eat, Drink and Be Merry begins with plastic, the plastic credit card and the concept of credit then leaps back in time to to the Dukes of Burgundy, which was the first state to use credit.

9. Countdown connects the invention of the movie projector to improvements in castle fortifications caused by the invention and use of the cannon.

10. Yesterday, Tomorrow and You. A bit of a recap: change causes more change. Start with the plow, you get craftsmen, civilization, irrigation, pottery and writing, mathematics, a calendar to predict floods, empires, and a modern world where change happens so rapidly you can't keep up.


Connections² (1994)

1. Revolutions - What do all these things have in common: 3 grandfathers' lifetimes, 2 revolutions, 1750 Cornwall tin mines, water in mines, pumps, steam engines, Watt's copier, carbon paper, matches, phosphorus fertilizer, trains and gene pool mixing...

2. Sentimental Journeys - What do these have in common: Freud, lifestyle crisis, electric shock therapy, hypnotherapy, magnetism, frenology, penology, physiology, synthetic dyes, the Bunsen burner, absorption, Fraunhofer lines, astronomical telescopes, chromatic aberrations, and surveying?

3. Getting it Together - James Burke explains the relationship between hot air balloons and laughing gas, and goes on to surgery, hydraulic water gardens, hydraulic rams, tunneling through the Alps, the Orient Express, nitroglycerin, heart attacks & headaches, aspirin, carbolic acid, disinfectant, Mabach-Gottlieb Daimler-Mercedes, carburetors, and helicopters.

4. Whodunit? - This episode starts with a billiard ball and ends with a billiard ball. Along the way, Burke examines Georgius Agricola's De Re Metallica, how mining supported war, the role of money, the Spanish Armada, large ships, problems posed by a wood shortage, glass making, coal, plate glass, mirrors, the sextant, barometers...

5. Something for Nothing - How do shuttle landings start with the vacuum which was forbidden by the Church? Burke takes us on an adventure with barometers, weather forecasting, muddy and blacktop roads, rain runoff, sewage, a cholera epidemic, hygiene, plumbing, ceramics, vacuum pumps, compressed air drills, tunnels in the Alps...

6. Echoes of the Past - The past in this case starts with the tea in Dutch-ruled India, examines the Japanese tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism, porcelain, the architecture of Florence, Delftware, Wedgwood, Free Masons, secret codes, radio-telephones, cosmic background radiation and - finally – radio astronomy.

7. Photo Finish - Another series of discoveries examined by Burke which include Eastman's film Kodak Brownie, the disappearing elephant scare of 1867, billiard balls, celluloid as a substitute for ivory, false teeth that explode, gun cotton, double shot sound of a bullet, Mach's shock wave, aerodynamics, nuclear bombs...

8. Separate Ways - Burke shows how to get from sugar to atomic weapons by two totally independent paths. The first involves African slaves, Abolitionist societies, Sampson Lloyd II, wire, suspension bridges, galvanized wire, settlement of the wild West, barbed wire, canned corn, and cadmium.

9. High Times - The connection between polyethylene and Big Ben is a few degrees of separation, so let's recount them: polyethylene, radar, soap, artificial dyes, color perception, tapestries, far East goods, fake lacquer furniture, search for shorter route to Japan, Hudson in Greenland, the discovery of plentiful whales...

10. Deja Vu - James Burke provides evidence that history does repeat itself by examining the likes of black and white movies, Conquistadors, Peruvian Incas, small pox, settlements that look like Spain's cities, the gold abundance ending up in Belgium, Antwerp, colony exploitation, the practice of burying treasure to avoid pirates...

11. New Harmony - A dream of utopia is followed from microchips to Singapore, from the transistor to its most important element, germanium, to Ming Vases and cobalt fakes, which contribute to the blue in blue tiles used in special Islamic places, and Mosaics in Byzantium, the donation of Constantine, Portuguese navigation by stars...

12. Hot Pickle - Burke starts out in a spice market in Istanbul where you can find hot pickle, recounts the retaking of Istanbul by the Turks in 1453, follows the trail of pepper and tea and opium and the exploitation of addicts, moves to the jungles of Java, then to zoos, the use of canaries as carbon monoxide detectors...

13. The Big Spin - is a California lottery which is basically gambling. From here Burke takes us through Alexander Flemming's chance discovery of penicillin, to Vierschoft's observation that contaminated water is related to health, to Schliemann's search for City of Troy, the theft of discovered treasure, and to Vierschoft's criminology.

14. Bright Ideas - Gin and tonic was invented to combat Malaria in British colonies like Java, which leads us to Geneva where cleanliness is an obsession. Here tonic water was sealed with a disposable bottle cap, and razors became disposable, leading us to Huntsman's steel, invaluable for making clock springs and chronometers.

15. Making Waves - a permanent wave in ladies' hair is aided by curlers, and this leads us to explore borax, taking us to Switzerland, Johan Sutter's scam, and the saw mill, and that means the discovery of gold leading to the 1848 California gold rush.

16. Routes - Jethro Tull, a sick English lawyer, recuperates sipping wine and contributes the hoe to help fix farming problems. Farm production is not going so well in France, either.

17. One Word - The one word that changed everything was "filioque" but we must make a trip to Constantinople, visit the Renaissance, meet Aldus Manutius of Venice, explore abbreviations, learn about Italic print, which resulted in an overload of books, requiring the development of a cataloging system.

18. Sign Here - Murphy's Law says you need insurance from Lloyd's of London, so pack your bags to study international law and protect yourself from piracy by calculating the probability. You better study Pascal's math for that, but you might find yourself jailed for free thinking.

19. Better Than the Real Thing - starts in the 1890's with bicycles and bloomers and then takes a look at boots, zippers, sewing machines, and infinitesimal difference. Speaking of small, we look at microscopic germs, Polarized light, sugar, coal, iron, micro-bubbles, the spectroscope, night vision...

20. Flexible Response - is a whimsical look at the myth of the English longbow, Robin Hood, sheep, the need to drain land with windmills, the effect of compound interest, decimal fractions, increased productivity, the Erie Canal, railroads, telegraphs, department stores, Quaker Oats, X-ray diagnostics...


Connections³ (1997)

1. Feedback - Electronic agents on the Internet and wartime guns use feedback techniques discovered in the first place by Claude Bernard, whose vivisection experiments kick off animal rights movements called humane societies that really start out as lifeboat crews rescuing people from all the shipwrecks happening because of all the extra ships out there...

2. What's in a Name? - Remember the cornflakes from last episode? Thanks to the fact that corncobs make adhesives to bond Carborundum, otherwise known as silicon carbide, to grinding wheels used to grind light-bulbs.

3. Drop the Apple - At the Smithsonian, we learn of electric crystals that help Pierre and Marie Curie discover what they call radium, and then Langevin uses the piezo-electric crystal to develop sonar that helps save liberty ships (from German U-boats) put together with welding techniques using acetylene made with carbon arcs...

4. An Invisible Object - Black holes in space, seen by the Hubble Telescope, brought into space with hydrazine fuel, which was a by-product of fungicidal French vines, fueled by quarantine conventions and money orders, American Express and Buffalo Bill, Vaudeville and French battles, Joan of Arc and the Inquisition...

5. Life is No Picnic - Instant coffee gets off the ground in World War II and Jeeps lead to nylons and stocking machines smashed by Luddites, who were defended by Byron, who meets John Galt in Turkey, avoiding the same blockade that inspires the "Star-Spangled Banner,"...

6. Elementary Stuff - Alfred Russel Wallace, who studied beetles, Oliver Joseph Lodge and telegraphy, a radio designed by Reginald Fessenden, which was used by banana growers, studied by Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, who got the Swiss to use stamps on postcards with cartoons of Gothic Houses of parliament, which in turn had been inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder's Romantic movement...

7. A Special Place - Professor Sir Alec Jeffries of Leicester University in England develops DNA profiling and schlieren photography used by Theodore von Karman to study aerodynamics and Anthony Fokker's airborne machine guns and the Red Baron and geography and Romantic ideas that start in Italy...

8. Fire from the Sky - Thanks to Continental Drift and Alfred Wegener's passion for mirages, magic images from the sister of King Arthur, whose chivalry supposedly triggers the medieval courtly love answer to adultery, which were in turn inspired by the free love ideas of the mystical Cathars, who lived next to the mystical cabalists...

9. Hit the Water - Thanks to napalm, made with palm oil, also used for margarine, stiffened with a process using kieselguhr that comes from plankton living in currents studied by Ballot bbefore observing the Doppler Effect that caused Fizeau to measure the speed of light speed. Fizeau's father-in-law's friend, Prosper Mérimée, who wrote "Carmen"...

10. In Touch - Starting from an attempt for cheaper fusion power using superconductivity, which was discovered by Onnes, with liquid gas provided by Cailletet, who carried out experiments on a tower built by Eiffel, who also built the Statue of Liberty with its famous poem by the Jewish activist Emma Lazarus...

More great documentaries

Notify of

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joe Sain
2 years ago

Where can I find “Connections” today? Is it on the BBC network? Any premium channel?

5 years ago

I discovered "the day the universe changed" by Mr Burke and was fascinated, Finally history made interesting and tangible. "Connections" is the logical and even more delightful progeny of that original series. Thank you for enlightenment Mr Burke!

5 years ago

thank you for this show . i like this program and mr. James Burke .

5 years ago

So far I watched only few episodes but I find it really good, informing and entertaining at the same time. And I especially like the idea of having still so many episodes ahead of me (meaning, many nice evenings). Thanks a lot for this and for this great website in general!

Rob T
5 years ago

... And don't forget the full frontal nudity!
(no, not James, it was a girl for a couple of seconds in the first series).
Oh, and the educational component of the series wasn't half bad either.

Carl Bennett
6 years ago

Made before I was born but is such an intelligent way of understanding the core problems of our modern age. It's interesting that the 1970s were in many ways the peak of our civilization, and one wonders "why did we not change direction when we saw the writing on the wall in terms of environmental sustainability". This series answers that neatly, and the same dynamic plays out today in 2017.
This is as important as the Limits to Growth to work out why we're here and what to do about it.

Neal Pritchett
7 years ago

This is one of my favorite series of all time. I saw it in my teens, and it literally changed the way I looked at the world. It combined the interest I already had in science, with a new found interest in history. It is entertaining, insightful, and It is also forgiving - yes forgiving. Though this wasn't the primary theme, Burke reveals us with all of our faults, weaknesses, cruelties, and missteps, yet still finds us to be fascinating, wonderful, and entirely worthwhile. It is an optimistic view of how the spirit of humanity overcomes all obstacles - even that of human frailty. A wonderful series.

Yam Yaryan
8 years ago

Fantastic insight on how interconnected everything is.

8 years ago

I saw this series in a "marathon" back when the Learning Channel was about learning. I have been hunting it ever since. I still can't find the first series (1978) as it seems that the BBC has blocked it. Understandable, but bubble bursting for me. Anybody know where I can find it?

Zombie John Gotti
8 years ago

THis was one of my all-time favorite documentaries. It amazed me at the number of things that are connected without me realizing it.

Lori Marx-Rubiner
9 years ago

I remember watching these in HS science class. I thought it was "science light" and my teacher was slacking. But...I don't remember a single experiment from that year. I DO remember these! And they have formed how I think about far more than science... I am SO glad I FINALLY found the google search that led me here. Can't wait to share these with now HS-aged son!!

10 years ago

I had the thrill of hearing one of his lectures in person about 25 years ago. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. And both physically and mentally exhausted by the end of it! What a great man!

10 years ago

I watched this in the 1970's when I was in school and it had a huge influence on my way of thinking as a doctor and scientist. To this day I try to connect all the dots backward and forward in my field of laser refractive surgery (focusing the eye). I would have loved to see a documentary by Mr Burke on the science of lasers and the biology of focusing the eye spanning from Max Planck to Einstein to Barraquer to Trokel to Marshall etc.etc.

10 years ago

The first series is incredible.

10 years ago

This series changed the way I understood the world.

10 years ago

Just thought I'd add my praise for this wonderful series. I've thoroughly enjoyed every episode I've watched so far. Even in the rare event that the "connections" are a bit questionable or less than convincing, the enormous amount of interesting historical details weaved into the stories is more than redemptive. And of course Burke's fantastic story-telling ability keeps the viewer fully and constantly engaged.

Vlatko, my sincerest thanks for finding this series and sharing it with the rest of us.

11 years ago

Burke fought to covince people to let him make his show. He had things to say, and he said them brilliantly in 10 episodes. After it was all done, the marketing people came to him and said, "Hey, why don't you make us 30 more of these? Pull stuff out your a$$, if you have to, we don't care. Sign here!". That's how all great things beget sequels, till you throw up.

11 years ago

Very good made, realy interesting, You always learn something new, we all are connected to each other and also we used to technology but we don't recognised it in every single day. Enjoy watching

11 years ago

CONNECTIONS. 35 years old, yet still fascinating. And what does that say about Burke's talent?

11 years ago

SIMILAR link-focused mindset documentaries:

The Day Universe Changed (10 episodes)
Engineering an Empire (13+ episodes)
The Ascent of Man (13 episodes)
How the Earth Changed History (4 episodes)
The Life of Mammals (6 episodes)
Becoming Human (3 episodes)
Civilisation (14 episodes)

LESS SIMILAR (i.e minor: link-focused, major: loads of data) docu:

The Life of Birds (10 episodes)
The Private Life of Plants (6 episodes)
How the Earth Made Us (5 episodes)
Life (10 episodes)
Musical Minds (1 episode)
Weapon Races (8 episodes)
Tales of the Gun (38 episodes)
The Machine that Changed the World (5 episodes)
Triumph of The Nerds (3 episodes)
Download - The True Story of the Internet (4 episodes)
Victory at Sea (26 episodes)
The Rome (4 episodes)
Commanding Heights (3 episodes)
The Story of Science (6 episodes)
Barbarians (3 episodes)
Baseball (9 episodes)
Jazz (10 episodes)

Fred Bazzeeda
11 years ago

all of these series are so cool!

11 years ago

For those who wonder what foolishness Hallu and Fiatcurrency are on about here's what wikipedia says about Fomenko's take on history...

"Fomenko is a supporter of drastically revising historical chronology. He has created his own revision called New Chronology, based on statistical correlations, dating of zodiacs, and by examining the mathematics and astronomy involved in chronology. Fomenko claims that he has discovered that many historical events do not correspond mathematically with the dates they are supposed to have occurred on. He asserts from this that all of ancient history (including the history of Greece, Rome, and Egypt) is just a reflection of events that occurred in the Middle Ages and that all of Chinese and Arab history are fabrications of 17th and 18th century Jesuits.

He also claims that Jesus lived in the 12th century A.D. and was crucified on Joshua's Hill; that the Trojan war and the Crusades were the same historical event; and that Genghis Khan and the Mongols were actually Russians. As well as disputing written chronologies, Fomenko also disputes more objective dating techniques such as dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating (see here for an examination of the latter criticism). His books include Empirico-statistical Analysis of Narrative Material and Its Applications and History: Fiction or Science?.

Most Russian scientists considered Fomenko's historical works to be pseudoscientific.[2][3]"

Talk about someone making stuff up. Somehow that doesn't likely meet the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" benchmark. But of course to them it's all a vast Illuminati conspiracy.

11 years ago

Amazing. Free! Great stuff. Thank you for the excellent detailed examples this is a great series. I will continue to highly recommend to others.

hale yildiz
11 years ago

Soo...the Lydians invented the atomic bomb? (alternative causality)


12 years ago

I love this series, it is simply exciting and fun to watch, I frequently have to rewind the show, as I tangentally think about all the concepts Mr. Burke provides, then my mind wanders and I realize I have just missed something that I need to understand ,to understand that next connection.

What a fantastic series, I place it probably one of the best documentaries ever made, well worth the time to watch it, and massively educating on the history of the mundane that quickly becomes the history of great achievement through a series of small events and connections.

12 years ago

Am I the only one who's having a hard time understanding most of the descriptions:

"suggests that telecommunications exist because Normans had stirrups for horse riding which in turn led them to further advancements in warfare"

like wtf ?

12 years ago

so whats the truth is nothing connected , can nobody be right? plus better to learn from a dummed down version than from no version at all. I love conspiracy i eat for breakfast yum. seriously though if we tried to know everything that ever happened id be like a subatomic particle eating an omni-verse or a phento second understanding infinity , turn brain into mush. In reality we don't really exist, there is no comment here, you are not reading this at all. Any body with enough balls have an answer to everything please feel free to post anybody ? any number or word or idea to top them all? or something so great i can waste another word to attempt to decipher please help brain mush

12 years ago

Excellent series! Thank you so much

12 years ago

@Alex Lolololol. Nicely said at the end there ;)

12 years ago

One of the most entertaining series, ever; a trend setter. The muss and fuss, smoothed through a historical lobe is a message all of us can learn from.

12 years ago

The ability to draw links between seemingly disparate facts and amusing asides to form a compelling narrative is very strong in this one.
Although he must, by necessity, pare down some of his explanations due to time constraints, the entire approach that he uses speaks volumes as to the caliber of the mind at work here.
A must watch for those with an interest in historiography and a refreshing departure for one tired of the current crop of dumbed down History Channel docs narrated by the Beer Commercial Guy.

Fiatcurrency and Hallu: stay in the Conspiracy playpen and play nice while the adults talk, m'kay?

jonny thumbs
12 years ago

HAHAHA the comments made me smile there. It is always nice t5o know that there are newcomers to this valuable series. Well, maybe I should say Series 1 and possibly Series 2 but I wouldn't count the third series, it was not the same and a bit of a let down/sell out.

Now, one comment above sticks out in particular for it's naivety and paranoia!

Hey fiatcurrency you assume people who listen to Burke and idiots (you likely call them 'sheep' or worse still, 'sheeple'...) and of course those that read Fomenko are better. Oh yes and you may struggle to compare such different actors. It is ludicrous!

Illusion my friend! YOU wake up instead of assuming you have the slightest ability to inform others when your language alone steers others clear! If you are so well informed wherefore art thou grammar?

Let me reprint your enlightening quote:

'I used to think James Burke’s work amazing also…then I woke up. He is just another flavor of Illuminati propoganda.'

Heh, yes, then you woke up and realised how to spell...or used a spellchecker thus negating the need for intelligence in the spelling department but, oh no, too lazy.

Paul Ryan
12 years ago

The time period of the "Little Ice age" is wrong.

12 years ago


Uh... I don't think Burke checks up on pirated versions of his video...

12 years ago

Burke the schizophrenic! This is great stuff. This "Connections" series is almost as good as the UNA bomber manifesto.

12 years ago

I used to think James Burke's work amazing also...then I woke up. He is just another flavor of Illuminati propoganda. The only comment on this board that makes any sense is from Hallu so I will repost it here...

Read FOMENKO, instead of another theoretical historical BS, real history is based on astronomy and mathematics, not another historian trying to piece s**** together out of his a$$.

12 years ago

light bulbs are good for lighting the home but stay away from incandescent lamps because they generate so much heat .~:

12 years ago


would love to buy the full set of DVD's but can't find them available in Australia...


April Needham
13 years ago

Dear Mr. Burke,

My niece has an assignment due for virtual school. We need someone that works in the field that she is interested in perusing as a career. We have been searching for a few weeks now and have not found anyone that will answer the 10 questions she has submitted and had approved by her instructor. Would you be willing to help an underprivileged girl with this assignment. She has had all the bad luck a 16 year old should ever have to endure. Both parents abandoned her and her grandparents abandoned her because they felt like they were too old to take care of a teenager. She lives with me now and she calls me mom. It's just her and I together so it's a struggle. So can you please help her out with this assignment? It shouldn't take too long. Please let me know either way. It would be ashame if she got kicked out of this class because she can't get her last assignment done because she can't find a professional to help her out. One student got Stephen King to answer her questions about becoming a writer. That's pretty amazing. Thank you for you time in reading this.

April Needham

13 years ago

I watched the first series when it was aired on PBS in... 1979 and was totally blown off by the incredible historical intricacies Burke conveyed. The Second Series is more difficult to grab, for he brings up so many more links, it's hard to follow at such a pace. These are certainly among the best and challenging documentaries ever produced.

13 years ago

michael you should have watched the first series from episode 1, you cant just pick a page in book and review it based on that one page in the MIDDLE of book

Benett Beckenstein
13 years ago

While I enjoyed Connections3 for entertainment value it seem Burke has moved from connections to mere segue.

13 years ago

I only watched one episode(1st episode of 3rd season), so maybe i got a bad impression, but I was hugely disapointed.

I failed to see why this show is called "Connections" and not "Randomness". I was expecting that the subjects discussed would be related because one historical event, discovery, invention etc. would be dependent upon another, but for the most part the topics were related by minor random details not imperative to the topic, such as people both happened to be vegetarian or share someone they knew, hardly something that makes one event dependent or connected to another. If you're gonna relate things so loosely, you could relate any topic to anything else.

I was looking forwards to this show from the description and rave reviews, but by jumping around as if its presented by rainman, this show doesn't stay on any topic long enough to give much insight beyond a little random trivia. Since the topics are so loosely connected there's no benefit to jumping from one topic to another and doing so makes it harder to retain the info, which should be obvious from the fact the Burke has to recap everything he's said every 5 mins.

I think time would be much better spent watching another history show/documentary

Ken Romanowski
13 years ago

James Burke changed the way that I look at the Universe. He indeed has combined science with history and humor and produced spellbinding programs. My wife and I went on withdrawal symptoms after "The Day The Universe Changed" concluded.

13 years ago

If I was Gay, I'd second the entirety of Isabella's notion.

13 years ago

Whenever someone says to me, "Thank God It's Friday!", I always reply, "Did you know that the wooden horse collar led to the invention of the weekend?" And they look at me with a twinkle in their eye and say, "Really?"
Great conversation starter.

13 years ago

@hallu war and political strife and the current worldwide movemener toward a one world government cannot be explained by math nor astronomy. goofy mathmeticians. Catch the next shuttle craft back to earth why dont ya...

13 years ago

Read FOMENKO, instead of another theoretical historical BS, real history is based on astronomy and mathematics, not another historian trying to piece s**** together out of his a$$.

13 years ago

I learned more throughout the first Connections miniseries about the history of our planet and why things are the way they are than I did throughout all of high school. HIGHLY recommended.

13 years ago

Fast paced facts delivered by the macdaddy boffin James Burke.