I watch a few documentaries a week, but it’s rare for me to come across a series that I need to take notes on to keep up with. The first season of the BBC series “Connections” is one of those. It will blow your mind. James Burke walks us through the history of innovation from a touch stone (used to test the purity gold) right up to the atomic bomb, and explains how these two distant inventions are related. If you can see through the 1970s disco outfits and smoking on airplanes, you will be shocked that documentaries this good were being made 30 years ago.
Connections actually lasted three seasons, each with 10 one-hour episodes, but the first season is the real gold. Expect information overload: You will experience 12,000 years of innovation in less than 10 hours.
James Burke does a good job of laying out each problem as well as the array of solutions that were tried to solve it. Not only does he explain how ancient sea fairing merchants solved the issue of waterproofing the bottoms of their wooden boats, he also tries to deal with the problems these technologies created. The first episode, “The Trigger Effect,” focuses heavily on our modern world breaking down because nobody really understands how everything around them works. After a modern day New York City melts away, we are taken right back to the most basic of inventions: the plow that assisted people in growing enough food to focus on other things besides agriculture.
After season one things go downhill. There is a lot of reused footage and overlapping invention that was already covered in season one. I managed to get halfway through season two and gave up. But no matter: those first 10 episodes are the keepers.