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James Burke (science historian)

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James Burke (science historian)

James Burke M.A. (Oxon)
James Burke in 2007
Born (1936-12-22) 22 December 1936
Derry, Northern Ireland
Nationality British
Citizenship United Kingdom
Education Oxford University, Jesus College
Known for Connections, The Day the Universe Changed
from the BBC programme The Infinite Monkey Cage, 23 December 2013.[1]

James Burke (born 22 December 1936) is a British broadcaster, science historian, author, and television producer, who is known, among other things, for his documentary television series Connections (1978), and for its more philosophically oriented companion series, The Day the Universe Changed (1985), which is about the history of science and technology. The Washington Post called him "one of the most intriguing minds in the Western world".[2]


James Burke was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and was educated at Maidstone Grammar School, and at Jesus College, Oxford, where he earned an M.A. degree in Middle English. Upon graduation he moved to Italy, where at the British School in Bologna he was lecturer in English and director of studies, 1961–63. He also lectured at the University of Urbino. Thereafter he was head of school at the English School in Rome, 1963–65. He was also involved in the creation of an EnglishItalian dictionary, and the publication of an art encyclopedia.

Burke explained how he got into television to the US magazine People in 1979: "Television beckoned by chance one day on a Rome bus. Spotting an ad for a reporter for the local bureau of Britain's Granada TV, he says, 'I decided if the bus stopped at the next corner I would get off and apply for the job.' It did, he did, and the next thing he knew 'we went straight off to Sicily to do a series on the Mafia.'"[3]

In 1966 he moved to London and joined the Science and Features Department of the BBC, for which he was host or co-host of several programmes. He also worked as an instructor in English as a Foreign Language at the Regency Language School in Ramsgate.

Connections: Narrator James Burke explains the industrial Haber-Bosch Process for the production of ammonia, to make artificial fertilisers.

Burke established his reputation as a reporter on the BBC science series Tomorrow's World. He was BBC television's science anchorman and chief reporter for the Project Apollo missions, as the main presenter of the BBC's coverage of the first moon landing in 1969. In collaboration with Mick Jackson, he produced the ten-part documentary series Connections (1978), which was first broadcast on the BBC, and subsequently on PBS in the United States. Connections traced the historical relationships between invention and discovery: each episode chronicled a particular path of technological development. Connections was the most-watched PBS television series to that time. It was followed by the twenty-part Connections2 (1994) and the ten-part Connections3 (1997). Connections: An Alternative View of Change was broadcast in more than fifty countries and the companion book Connections: An Alternative History of Technology (1978) sold well.

In 1985 Burke, with Richard Reisz and John Lynch, produced the ten-part series The Day the Universe Changed (revised 1995), which concentrated on the philosophical aspects of scientific change in Western culture. In contrast to the conclusion of Connections, in which Burke said that computing and communications might be controlled by a computer science élite, in the conclusion of The Day the Universe Changed he suggested that a worldwide revolution in communications and computer technology would allow people to instantaneously exchange ideas and opinions.

Burke has also been a regular writer for Scientific American and Time, and a consultant to the SETI project.

Burke has received the gold and the silver medals of the Royal Television Society. In 1998 he was made an honorary fellow of the Society for Technical Communication.[4]

Burke has also contributed to podcasts, such as in 2008, when he appeared on Hardcore History with Dan Carlin,[5] and newspaper articles including two series for the Mogollon Connection by Jesse Horn, one focusing on the nature of morality,[6] the other on the future of our youth.[7]


James Burke is the leading figure of the Knowledge Web Project, the digital realization of his books and television programmes, which allows the user to travel through history and create his or her own connections. Eventually, the Knowledge Web Project will feature immersive virtual-reality historical recreations of people, places, and events.


In an article for the Radio Times in 1973 Burke predicted the widespread use of computers for business decisions, the creation of metadata banks of personal information, and changes in human behaviour, such as greater willingness to reveal personal information to strangers. In an interview on the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 on 30 August 2013 Burke discussed his predictions of a post-scarcity economy driven by advances in nanofactories, which he believes may be viable by the year 2043.[8]

Television credits

Television series and documentaries by James Burke:


  • Tomorrow's World I, with Raymond Baxter, (BBC 1970) ISBN 978-0-563-10162-8
  • Tomorrow's World II, with Raymond Baxter, (BBC 1973) ISBN 978-0-563-12362-0
  • Connections: Alternative History of Technology (Time Warner International/Macmillan 1978) ISBN 978-0-333-24827-0 also published in North America as Connections (Little, Brown and Company, 1978) ISBN 0-316-11681-5 and pbk: ISBN 0-316-11685-8.
  • The Day the Universe Changed (BBC 1985) ISBN 0-563-20192-4
  • Chances (Virgin Books 1991) ISBN 978-1-85227-393-4
  • The Axemaker’s Gift, with Robert Ornstein and illustrated by Ted Dewan (Jeremy P Tarcher 1995) ISBN 978-0-87477-856-4
  • The Pinball Effect — How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburettor Possible and Other Journeys Through Knowledge (Little, Brown & Company 1996) ISBN 978-0-316-11610-7
  • Circles — Fifty Round Trips Through History Technology Science Culture (Simon & Schuster 2000) ISBN 978-0-7432-4976-8
  • The Knowledge Web (Simon & Schuster 2001) ISBN 978-0-684-85935-4
  • Twin Tracks (Simon & Schuster 2003) ISBN 978-0-7432-2619-6
  • American Connections: The Founding Fathers. Networked (Simon & Schuster 2007) ISBN 978-0-7432-8226-0


  1. ^ "James Burke". The Infinite Monkey Cage. 23 December 2013. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  2. ^ Connecting with one of the most intriguing minds in the Western world, Byline: IAN STARRETT, 2005/06/03, News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), The Newspaper / BNETArchive copy at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Tweedy, Ann (29 October 1979). "Technology Is All Connections, Says James Burke—but Between Sleepless Monks and Henry Ford?".  
  4. ^ "Previous Honorary Fellows". Society for Technical Communication. Retrieved 12 January 2012. 
  5. ^ "Hardcore History". A Fly on James Burke's Wall. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  6. ^ "Chasing Demons". The biology of good. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  7. ^ "For the Sake of Our Children". Disconnection. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  8. ^ "Audioboo / James Burke predicted the future in 1973. Now he does it again". Retrieved 2013-09-01. 
  9. ^ VimeoThe Men who Walked on the Moon
  10. ^ The Other Side of the Moon on YouTube
  11. ^ The Neuron Suite on YouTube
  12. ^ from KCSMReConnections on the Internet Archive

External links

  • Burke's KnowledgeWeb Project
  • James Burke at the Internet Movie Database
  • Stranova Interview with James Burke on "The Knowledge Web" 26 September 2006.
  • talk by Burke in the dConstruct ArchiveAdmiral Shovel and the toilet roll
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