You can make all the plans you will, plot to make a fortune in the commodities market, speculate on developing trends: all will likely come to naught, for "however carefully you plan for the future, someone else's actions will inevitably modify the way your plans turn out." So writes the English scholar and documentary producer James Burke in his sparkling book Connections, a favorite of historically minded readers ever since its first publication in 1978.
Taking a hint from Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man, Burke charts the course of technological innovation from ancient times to the present, but always with a subversive eye for things happening in spite of, and not because of, their inventors' intentions.
Burke gives careful attention to the role of accident in human history.
In his opening pages, for instance, he writes of the invention of uniform coinage, an invention that hinged on some unknown Anatolian prospector's discovering that a fleck of gold rubbed against a piece of schist--a "touchstone"--would leave a mark indicating its quality.
Just so, we owe the invention of modern printing to Johann Gutenberg's training as a goldsmith, for his knowledge of the properties of metals enabled him to develop a press whose letterforms would not easily wear down.
With Gutenberg's invention, Burke notes, came a massive revolution in the European economy, for, as he writes, "the easier it is to communicate, the faster change happens." Burke's book is a splendid and educational entertainment for our fast-changing time.
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