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

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]


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 headmaster of 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's entry into television was explained by the American People magazine 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.

Burke established his reputation as a reporter on the BBC1 science series Tomorrow's World and went on to present The Burke Special. He was BBC television's science anchorman and chief reporter for the 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 up 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 1980, Burke and Jackson produced the six-part BBC series The Real Thing, about perception.

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.

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 in 2016 on Common Sense with Dan Carlin,[6] and to newspaper articles including two series for the Mogollon Connection by Jesse Horn, one focusing on the nature of morality,[7] the other on the future of our youth.[8]

Burke presented a monologue James Burke on the End of Scarcity, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 26 December 2017, in which he predicted nanotech-manufacturing would revolutionize the world economy and society.[9]

Knowledge Web

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

Connections app

Burke is developing a mobile app called Connections which aims to allow users to make searches in Wikipedia in ways that could lead them to develop mind associations and connections of apparently unrelated fields of knowledge or topics. Surprises, anomalies, and unexpected perspectives on a search can emerge from using the app. According to Burke, the Connections app is an alternative and innovative method to more linear internet search engines such as Google.[10]


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.[11]

Burke posed at least one of his predictions within a question. In Connections, he pointed out that the increase in possible connections over time causes the process of innovation to not only continue, but also to accelerate. So, what happens when this rate of innovation, or more importantly 'change' itself, becomes too much for the average person to handle, and what does this mean for individual power, liberty, and privacy?

In the conclusion of Connections, Burke said that computing and communications might be controlled by a computer science élite. Later, in contrast to this, he suggested in the conclusion of The Day the Universe Changed that a worldwide revolution in communications and computer technology would allow people to instantaneously exchange ideas and opinions.

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 Carburetor 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 / BNET
  3. Tweedy, Ann (29 October 1979). "Technology Is All Connections, Says James Burke—but Between Sleepless Monks and Henry Ford?". People. 12 (18).
  4. "Previous Honorary Fellows". Society for Technical Communication. Archived from the original on 10 June 2015. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  5. "Hardcore History". A Fly on James Burke's Wall. Archived from the original on 7 June 2012. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  6. "Common Sense". Reconnections with James Burke. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
  7. "Chasing Demons". The biology of good. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  8. "For the Sake of Our Children". Disconnection. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  9. "James Burke on the End of Scarcity" at BBC Programmes
  10. "James Burke's new project aims to help us deal with change, think connectively, and benefit from surprise". Boing Boing. 2016-11-17. Retrieved 2016-11-20.
  11. "Audioboo / James Burke predicted the future in 1973. Now he does it again". Audioboo.fm. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  12. "The Impact of Science on Society" (PDF). NASA. 1985. p. 2. Retrieved 2016-05-28.
  13. "'Inventing of America' poses, answers queries". Eugene Register-Guard. June 27, 1976. Retrieved 2016-05-28.
  14. The Men who Walked on the Moon Vimeo
  15. The Other Side of the Moon on YouTube
  16. The Neuron Suite on YouTube
  17. ReConnections from KCSM on the Internet Archive
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