Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1617:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1617.

Today, the connections problem. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last week I read some remarks by a distinguished historian -- an expression of disdainful contempt for James Burke's TV series Connections. And that has sent me off to ponder the delicate -- even treacherous -- issue of historical cause and effect.

Burke pursued causal threads across centuries in his series. In one case he began with Jacquard's invention of an automated loom in 1801. Jacquard used a chain of cards with holes punched in them to program the loom. That led to Charles Babbage's unfinished punched-card-driven computer and then to Herman Hollerith's use of punched cards to organize the 1890 census. Hollerith formed the company that became IBM. When IBM finally began making digital computers, they used Hollerith-type punched cards. And so forth!

That chain of events did occur, and the connections among them are valid. Fortunately, PBS viewers are savvy enough to see that countless other causal trains run through any event as well.

For example, one might begin when eighteenth-century landlords brutally replaced most of the Scottish highlanders with lucrative sheep farms, creating a new supply of wool. That leads to weaving processes and to Jacquard. Next, think about the Luddites and their assault on the new textile factories. From there, we might go to the emergence of labor movements. Keep that up and we could find ourselves connecting the highland clearances with the Russian Revolution -- passing through the Jacquard loom along the way.

Any such chain can be valid, but none is unique. The obvious problem is that a thousand causal chains pass through any event. What caused the Civil War? Abolition? Economics? Or a macho urge after too many years of peace? Kenneth Clark began his TV series, Civilization, in the dog days of the Roman Empire. Since he couldn't ignore the fall of Rome, he simply said, "It took Gibbon six volumes to [explain Rome's] decline and [fall]. I shan't embark on that." One current theory says that, by eating on lead dishware, wealthy Romans sterilized the aristocracy. I'd have to be pretty gullible to put the decline of Rome to rest that easily. But it does offer one causal factor in a terribly complex event.

We get into trouble when we try to treat history with the unique causal chains that make good detective stories. We humans are information hubs, acted upon by a thousand forces, conscious and subcutaneous. If any one force is dominant, we're unlikely to know which one it is. History does ultimately deal with causation, but it'd better not offer simple answers to complex questions.

So what about James Burke and his connections? I believe he gave his viewers more credit than that historian did. Any fool knows that many chains of connection flow through any event -- that no chain is unique. Follow one chain, and we catch a glimpse of history. Follow another one, and we catch a different glimpse. Follow enough chains, and we might finally start to see history whole.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Burke, J., Connections, Revised edition, Little Brown & Co., 1995

universal joint connector

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2001 by John H. Lienhard.