TV Review: "For Want of a Nail..."

TV Review: "For Want of a Nail..."

Edward Hudgins

9 Mins
March 18, 2011

June 2007 -- (This is the third in a series of reviews of the seven best classic documentaries of broadcast television. The first review , published in the April 2007 issue of TNI, was of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark. The second installment , which ran in the May issue, was of The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski.)

Connections: An Alternative View of Change, by James Burke. Television series produced and directed by Mick Jackson for the BBC, and first aired in 1978. Written and narrated by James Burke. The five-part DVD set is available from Ambrose Video Publishing Inc., New York City, list price, $149.99. The companion book published by Little, Brown and Company, and revised in 1995, is out of print but widely available from online book distributors.

James Burke’s series, Connections, is subtitled An Alternative View of Change because his perspective on technology and the social change that both spurs and is spurred by it is different from most treatments of the subject. Burke focuses on how individuals, in pursuit of some particular goal, build on advances made by other individuals pursuing completely different goals. He discounts the “lone genius” view of innovation and in this sense might seem to deride individualism. But one sees in his treatment of innovation not only the importance of individuals but also the process of unintended consequences, a theme that was developed so well by F.A. Hayek.

A graduate of Oxford University, Burke started his career teaching languages in Italy. In the 1960s he joined the BBC’s Science Features Department where he reported on science and technology, and where he became the BBC’s principal reporter covering the NASA’s Project Apollo, including the first moon landing in 1969.

Wishing to follow the highly successful and prestigious television series Civilisation by Kenneth Clark and The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, Burke managed to land from the BBC his own ten-part series, Connections, which first aired in 1978.

Burke’s banter is quite different from the more serious and philosophical tones of Clark and Bronowski (though the latter two’s enthusiasm for their subjects, as well as the content of their series, keep one’s eyes riveted to the screen in any case). He is more witty in tone and playful in his use of words; his style reminds one of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


The opening scene in the series strikes viewers today with a significance that Burke never dreamed of. He stands in front of the then-relatively-new World Trade Center and asks us, “Would you do me a favor? I’d like to stop talking for a minute and when I do, take a look at the room you’re in and above all at all the manmade objects in that room that surround you—the television set and the lights, the phone and so on—and ask yourself what those objects do to your life just because they’re there.”

Burke's narration is witty and playful.

A moment later he tells us “that is what this series is going to be all about. It’s about the things that surround you in the modern world and just because they’re there shape the way you think and behave; and why they exist in the form they do; and who or what was responsible for them existing at all. The search for those clues will take us all over the world and 12,000 years into the past because it’s in those strange places and in those long-gone centuries that the secret of the modern world lies.”

Burke then titillates us with what the series will show us about why things are as they are today—for example, “why a sixteenth-century doctor at the court of Queen Elizabeth did something that made it possible for you to watch this screen now; or the fact that because eighteenth-century merchants were worried about ships’ bottoms, you have nylon to wear; or why a group of French monks and their involvement with sheep-rearing helped to give the modern world the computer; or what medieval Europeans did with their fire in winter that led to motor car manufacture.” And in his series he really does make these connections!

The episodes in Burke’s series end with the creation of eight inventions that he sees having the greatest impact on the world as of the late 1970s. His evaluations hold up quite well three decades later. Those inventions are telecommunications; the computer; the jet engine; plastics; rockets; television; the atomic bomb; and the production line.   Into the Dark

But back to the first episode. Burke observes that today we’re wrapped in a warm blanket of technology, and it’s crucial that we understand how it came about because this technology is our life-support system, without which we can’t survive. Today we take it for granted. As he stands atop a World Trade Center tower, he tells us that all this technology is interconnected and the smallest change can be of the greatest consequence.

Burke’s series is, for the most part, an attempt to demonstrate how the world has progressed materially and scientifically. But to demonstrate the importance of such an understanding, he gives us a modern version of the old adage “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

To illustrate the point, he holds in his hand a palm-sized, not-too-complicated-looking mechanical device. The importance of the device? He recalls a November evening years before; it was rush hour in New York City, just after 5:00 p.m. Hundreds of planes were arriving and leaving the local airports In a hospital room, a woman was about to give birth to a baby. The United Nations was in session. People in the subways were heading home.

At Adam Beck Two, an electricity-generating station at Niagara Falls, a relay—that device we were shown—detected an increase in power on one of its north-bound lines above a pre-set limit. Magnets caused a cup to rotate in the device and to make a contact at 16 minutes, 11 seconds past 5:00. This shut down the power to that line, cascading it to another line, overloading it and sending its power to yet another, until all five lines heading north were tripped out. This dumped all of that power onto lines going south, overloading and knocking out systems from Boston to New York. After those systems shut down, they all tried to pull power from New York City, shutting down that system as well.

This was the 1965 East Coast blackout that left 30 million people as well as airports, subways, hospitals, and everything in the city stopped and in the dark.


Burke uses this example to illustrate what he calls a “trigger effect” operating on a grand scale. The example shows how interconnected the technology of our modern society is today and, he goes on to demonstrate, throughout history

He takes us back 12,000 years to a world in which the rains stopped falling and the land got hot—the end of the last Ice Age. The high grasslands probably dried up in four places on earth—Northern India, Syria, Egypt, and Central America—and, to survive, people headed for the water in the great river valleys.

Burke takes up the story of the Nile, which comes from two source rivers. One carried rotten vegetation (compost) and the other carried potash (fertilizer); together, these substances caused crops to grow on the river banks. This food allowed the population to increase to a point where there just wasn’t enough wild food. But planting by hand still wasn’t efficient enough. That resulted in what Burke sees as the first great man-made trigger of change, which created a cascade of other innovations: the plough, pulled by oxen, which were among the animals domesticated by people who were no longer wanderers and nomads.

He traces the "secret" of the modern world to developments 12,000 years ago.

The plough yielded massive increases in food production that, in turn, caused the population to grow even more. The wheat grown would be baked into bread, allowing people to learn about ovens and the effects of heat on mud. This knowledge allowed them to make bricks. Further, they needed somewhere to store grain surpluses. Mud could be formed into container shapes and baked into pots. To make them faster, the potter’s wheel was developed. But who owns which stores of grain? Symbols scratched into pots indicated the name of the owner and contents of the pots. Writing!

Nile floods washed away many markers indicating whose field was whose. Thus people needed to develop ways to measure the land after each flood. Geometry and surveying! And since, between floods, there were long dry spells, it was necessary to store or divert water to fields for irrigation. Engineering and stone working! There needed to be a way to tell when the floods would come. They seemed to coincide with certain stars’ being at certain places at certain times in the night sky. Astronomy and calendars! And there was a need to fight marauders who raided the food supply and the villages that sprung up, and to keep order in the villages. Weapons and metalwork!

This trigger effect, once explained, might seem obvious. But in most of Burke’s episodes, the connections are usually over long periods of time and are more characterized by individuals employing the prior insights and inventions of others in unforeseen ways.


For example, changes in military tactics and weaponry in Europe starting in the late Middle Ages led to growth in the size of armies, which meant that by the time of the French Revolution Napoleon had trouble finding food for his troops. A prize for innovation spurred an inventor to figure out how to sterilize food by boiling it while in tightly sealed bottles, so that troops could carry it on long campaigns. The British tried the same technique with food in cans, which generally worked. But when bad batches turned up in the British army, one explanation was that bad air— “malaria” in Italian—had somehow caused the putrefaction.

Switch continents, to Florida in the 1830s. John Gorrie experimented with curing an illness called malaria that he believed to be caused by “bad air.” Since tropical diseases do not occur in winter or in cold climates, he reasoned that cold air was the curative. (It wasn’t, since malaria is caused by a parasite.) But he wished to avoid the high costs of obtaining ice that had been cut from lakes and stored in New England during the winter for shipment South in the summer. Understanding that compressing air heats the air up and reducing compression cools the air down, he produced the first air conditioning. He could even make ice with his device.

Later in that century, Germans faced a problem. They sought a way around the fact that their bottom-vat brewing of beer required very cold temperatures and thus could be done only in winter. Using Gorrie’s piston approach, as developed by a German named Von Linder, compressed ammonia could be circulated in sleeves wrapped around the sides and bottoms of the vats to keep them cold. The result: refrigeration, as is found in nearly every kitchen today.

But how to refrigerate and keep liquefied large quantities of ammonia and other gasses for industrial use? A Brit named James Dewar, knowing that a vacuum does not transmit heat or cold, invented a flask with two walls containing a vacuum in the space between. The resulting thermos bottle is found in millions of lunch boxes.

Finally, the American Robert Goddard, and the German Herman Oberth (along with his young protégé Werner von Braun), burned huge quantities of liquid hydrogen with oxygen, both chemicals stored in what amounted to giant thermos bottles. This produced the type of rockets that eventually lifted off from Florida and landed on the moon.

Each of Burke’s episodes takes us on these sorts of journeys from connection to connection. Sometimes he stops and observes that a connection could be followed in several different directions.

One episode stands out because the trigger of change was not the global warming that is the obsession of so many today, but rather the cooling that took place starting in the fourteen century. This led to different ways to heat homes and to one of the significant inventions on his list.


Burke emphasizes why his view is an “alternative.” He explains that “Why those inventions happened, where they happened and when they happened, is a fascinating blend of accident, genius, craftsmanship, geography, religion, war, money, ambition. Above all, at some point everybody is involved in the business of change, not just the so-called ‘great men.’ Given what they knew at the time, and a moderate amount of what’s up here [pointing at his head], I hope to show you that you or I could have done just what they did, or come close to it, because at no time did an invention come out of thin air into somebody’s head.”

In this respect, one might regard him as strongly countering the importance of individual innovators who were to a great extent the focus in the BBC series by Clark and Bronowski. And Burke is certainly not the philosopher that those two were.

But his review of the actual history of science and technology can also be taken to confirm the basic insights of F.A. Hayek. Hayek first observed that knowledge is always uncertain in the market. As it is with scientists and inventors, experimentation by entrepreneurs pursuing their own goals and using what knowledge they uniquely possess can best facilitate material progress.

Burke shows how a group of French, sheep-rearing monks helped give the modern world the computer.

Hayek also observed that as individuals pursued their own specific goals, unintended consequences often result. Thus, for example, individuals in early societies who attempted to prosper through trade faced certain inefficiencies. We can see the problems of transporting to another village jars that could break, sheep that could wander off, and wood that was heavy and bulky to carry—in exchange for cattle that could also wander off, wheat that could rot if dampened by rain, iron that would rust in the rain, and small pieces of shining metal that were good for decoration. Eventually, someone hit upon a solution. Why not take back more of that shining metal, which is rare, which doesn’t rust or rot when wet, which doesn’t wander off, and which is easily melted and divided, and then trade that metal for iron, wheat, cattle, and the like in one’s home village? The creation of money, using gold as a medium of exchange, emerged as an unintended consequence of individuals trying to solve certain limited problems. This Hayekian process seems to be exactly what Burke is describing in the progress of technology.

James Burke followed up his original Connections with Connections II and Connections III (which were not as strong as the original), and with a series The Day the Universe Changed, which was generally quite good. One can take philosophical exception to some implications about the role of the individual in innovation. But Connections is a fascinating and solid series that will give the viewer a plethora of fun facts and a more profound understanding of how technology developed throughout human history.

Edward Hudgins


Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.