The Trigger Effect

Connections, Season 1, Episode 1

October 17, 1978

Both the beginning and the end of the story are here. The end is our present dependence on complex technological networks illustrated by the NYC power blackouts. Life came almost to a standstill: support systems are taken for granted failed. How did we become so helpless? The technology originated with the plow and agriculture. Each invention demands its own follow-up: once started, it is hard to stop. This segment ends in Kuwait, where society has leaped from ancient Egypt to the technology of today in 30 years.



Would you do me a favor? I’d like to stop talking for a minute, and when I do, take a look at the room you’re in, and above all at the manmade objects in that room that surround you—the television set, the lights, the phone, and so on—and ask yourself what those objects do to your life just because they’re there. Go ahead.


Well, that is what this series is going to be all about. It’s about the things that surround you in the modern world and, just because they’re there, shape the way you think and behave, and why they exist in the form they do, and who or what was responsible for them existing at all? The search for those clues will take us all over the world and 12,000 years into the past. Because it’s in those strange and in those long-gone centuries that the secret of the moern world lies. And you’ll never believe the extraordinary things that led to us being the way we are today. Things like, for instance, why a sixteenth-century doctor at the court of Queen Elizabeth did something that made it possible for you to watch this screen now? Or the fact that, because eighteenth-century merchants were worried about ship’s bottoms, you have nylon to wear? Or why a group of French monks and their involvement with sheep-rearing helped to give the modern world the computer? Or what medieval Europeans did with their fire in winter that led to motorcar manufacture?


The story of the events and the people who, over centuries, came together to bring us in from the cold and to wrap us in a warm blanket of technology is a matter of vital importance, since more and more of that technology infiltrates every aspect of our lives. It’s become a life support system without which we can’t survive. And yet, how much of it do we understand? Do I bother myself with the reality of what happens when I get into a big steel box, press a button, and rise into the sky? Of course I don’t.


I take going up in the world like that for granted. We all do. And as the years of the twentieth century have gone by, the things we take for granted have multiplied way beyond the ability of any individual to understand in a lifetime. The things around us—the manmade inventions we provide ourselves with—are like a vast network, each part of which is interdependent with all the others. I mean, cross the road: whether or not a car coming around the corner knocks you down may have something to do with a person you’ve never met fitting the brakes correctly. Change anything in that network and the effects spread like ripples on a pond. And all the things in that network have become so specialized that only the people involved in making them understand them. I don’t mean use them—anybody can use them. Down there is one of the biggest, most complex cities in the world, full of people using things as if they understood them, and sometimes not even knowing they’re doing it.


New York City, like all the other major high-density population centers scattered across the Earth, is a technology island. It can neither feed nor clothe nor house nor warm its inhabitants without supplies from outside. Without those supplies, the entire massive structure and the teeming millions it encloses would die. And yet, in cities everywhere, we act as if that were not so. We have no choice. The pace of life in New York is set by the pace of the technology that serves it—you just have to hope it’ll stay that way.


I’d like you to meet a few people who were in or near New York City on a November evening over a decade ago. And the reason I’d like you to meet them is because they all have one thing in common: they were all brought to a sudden and catastrophic realization of how vulnerable they were, how dependent on one aspect of that technological network I was talking about, because of what this did to their lives. Now, until I was told what this is, I was no more able to recognize what it is than you are now. But watch what it did to those people, and if you look very carefully, you’ll see evidence of what this does in every second of what follows… now.


It’s one minute past five in the evening. Rush hour in downtown Manhattan. 800,000 people crowd onto subways, looking forward to home, to the end of this journey. For most of them, the technology carrying them doesn’t exist; they take it for granted.


5:02 pm: Kennedy Airport. The usual evening departure rate. Passengers with appointments in New Delhi, London, Tokyo; appointments they expect to keep. And two hundred planes due to arrive in the next five hours. No delays expected.


5:03 pm. At the energy control center downtown, nothing special is happening. It’s the standard rush hour condition in the main control room. The time of day when power consumption started to come up to a maximum as people headed for home and meals get cooked. It’s cool outside. After a high of 58°F, the temperature’s falling to an expected low of 39°F, with a predicted wind chill factor of 5°F. The energy levels are more than enough to cope, even on a chilly November evening.


5:10 pm: Mount Sinai Hospital. The patient, Mrs. Marcano, is expecting twins.


5:12 pm: the UN General Assembly in session. The speaker is President Roosevelt’s son. In their boxes: the interpreters, the invisible support structure of the debate—whatever the language. At the UN, that’s taken for granted.


In the subway, Herbert Friedman, a lawyer, reads his paper on his way home to suburban Jamaica. Al Haynik works for a publisher on Fifth Avenue; he passes the time doing a crossword. Marjorie O’Shaughnessy also works for a publisher, looking forward to spending a quiet evening at home. Steve Bewetti, late; been to a movie. Bruce Singer, works in Greenwich Village. Bill Palmer is a student, just been playing basketball. And, Hans Kramer, insurance broker. All these people take the subway every evening. They expect to get home. They always do.


5:15 pm in Kennedy Airport. At one of the international terminals, on the board, Scandinavian Airlines 911. Scandinavian 911 is on its way into Kennedy. The pilot is veteran captain Carl Lofsted. A clear moonlit night. The flight manifest lists 89 passengers. The descent into Kennedy is so far uneventful. It’s now 15 minutes and 30 seconds past five.


Mount Sinai Hospital, Mrs. Marcano is in labor. The anesthetic being used at the time is a mixture of gases, including one called cyclopropane. It’s potentially explosive—but everybody knows that. It’s now exactly 16 minutes and 10 seconds past five.


One second later, several hundred miles northwest of New York City, this did what it was built to do—with disastrous consequences. You may have already guessed what kind of technological network this is part of. It’s a bit of a power station: the power station known as Adam Beck Two, here at Niagara, where electricity is generated by the tremendous power of falling water. The water turns turbine blades that make a shaft spin. At the top of the shaft are magnets, and they spin inside a cylinder up there that has copper wire coils on its inner wall. The interaction between the spinning magnets and the copper coils makes electricity.


That’s where this comes in. It’s a relay, and its job is to detect changes in power going onto a transmission line—these up here. Power flows north along these lines, and on the particular evening in question, this relay detected an increase in power on one of those lines that was above a preset limit. When that happened, magnets set around this metal cup caused it to rotate, and that brought this arm to make a contact like this.


That contact was made on the evening of November the 9th, 1965, at 16 minutes and 11 seconds past five. The effect was to cascade power off the overloaded line and onto another, which overloaded and tripped the next, until all five lines going north had tripped out, dumping their entire load onto lines going south. Within seven seconds, the tremendous overload began to take out generating stations all over northeastern America from Boston to New York as the network fell apart. As each area went, it overloaded the next. Within ten seconds, the only major system left was the great energy island of New York.


As the network fell apart, links between one energy center and another broke. Instead of 300,000 kilowatts coming into New York to help meet demand, 1,500,000 kilowatts were draining out of the city to supply areas now cut off from the network but still connected like leeches to the New York generators. As the overload hit the New York generators, they too began to trip out.


As the lifeblood of the city drained, it went into spasm. At the UN—chaos. The power to keep the lights on also served the interpreters. And without interpreters, trapped in their darkened boxes, deprived of access to the ears of the delegates, the United Nations was suddenly and totally disunited as completely as if at war. The city’s elevators stopped. Perhaps the subways were the only technology that people expected to fail. 800,000 people were now deep in the ground under New York, caught in a technology trap most of them had never thought twice about.


As light went, so did the one in Mrs. Marcano’s operating theater. It was now only ten minutes since the crisis had been triggered by the relay at Niagara more than 500 miles away. The generators continued to trip out. And at the Kennedy Airport, the radar screens went blank and flight 911 was in trouble.


By 5:28, the time had come to protect the system by deliberately switching what was left off. Over an area of 18 million square miles, 30 million people were now in darkness. Isolated from each other in small groups, millions of people were still unaware of the extent of the blackout, in the subway especially.

People started chatting. But for the most part, no one really got into it yet, because we thought it was just another typical rush hour delay. But it was dark, and that was kind of uncertain to be in such a crowd, but not to be able to see anybody. So one of the women had candles in her bag.

You know, I have some candles; maybe we can light them.



This abnormal business of actually talking to anybody on the subway caught on briefly all over New York.

Let’s put some light on the situation. It’s my birthday anyway. Anybody feel like singing happy birthday to me? Make a happy situation out of a terrible one.



But while this journey had taken on a meaning nobody expected, so too at the hospital, at Mrs. Marcano’s delivery of twins—thanks to the anesthetic.

There was, then, a general scurry around to find flashlights. And I immediately commanded one so I can see what was happening. One of the nurses, whom I shall never forget, walked into the room carrying a lighted candle. I’m scared out of my mind, but especially with the anesthetic agent, I had visions of all of us, the whole place blowing up in one great conflagration.



The phone system was the only thing working—if you could get a number. And captain Lofsted was learning the full extent of his predicament. ILS, the landing aid that guided him in, wasn’t there anymore. The extraordinary thing in the subways was that, a full hour into the crisis, nobody was trying to escape from the trap.

I just assumed that something went wrong with the particular train that I was riding on. There was a feeling of: it’s being something we all just had to wait out together. There was nothing anybody could do about it. No one knew anything about anything.



Put yourself in this position. Would you do any different? Here they were, one hour into a major disaster, and still trying to laugh their way out of it.

People began to be very jovial, and began to sing Show me the way to go home and everything that people could think of that related to our plight.



At the hospital, darkness made no difference.

Well, the baby was delivered without the lights, because you didn’t need the lights for the delivery. That’s manipulative, remember: you’re reaching up into the uterus, grabbing a foot (which is strictly by feel), erupting the membranes and you bring the foot down. The second baby was vigorous, and we prepared the babies.



Captain Lofsted had only a few seconds left to make his decision. He was at 2,000 feet, past the airport, and heading straight for Manhattan in the darkness. There was only one thing he could do. Lofsted and 200 other jets that night landed with the help of radio working on planes sitting on the ground.


In the subway, people were still coping.

But after an hour or an hour and a half, people became very restless. It was not pleasant, it was not very congenial, but everybody felt scared.

Never been this late before. You sit here and wonder and wonder, and sent nobody down to help us.

Somebody knocked on the window. After about an hour and a half of this, train employees would pass outside, but not look at us and not answer us when we were banging on the windows and called out. They just ignored us.



Gradually, finally, people began to realize where they were: lost under the ground, helpless unless help came.

Well, we have a major power blackout and it hit at least the entire city. Let’s all relax. We’ll be trying to get you off as soon as possible, okay?

I don’t know how long this will take, it’s Con Edison and it affects the entire city. We have people coming by evacuating the trains now. Please relax.



Mrs. Marcano found out what had happened to her, though not the way she expected.

Mrs. Marcano, como estas?

When I woke up and I saw all the candles lit around the room, I thought I was dead. And there was a priest standing nearby. And for a minute there I thought he had come to give me my last rites, and I was afraid that all my family knew that I was dead, and they came to light candles for me.

Don’t be frightened now. You’re going to be okay.



And finally, as in all good fairy stories, it was over.

And exactly 5 hours after the train stopped—about 10:30—the train began to empty by having all the passengers walk out singly upon the catwalk.



A few days later, people were back at their daily routine as if it had never happened. The night New York became a trap—forgotten.


This is one of the more perfect examples of the kind of technological trap that we set for ourselves: the lift, the elevator. I mean, what is it? It’s a steel box with some buttons in it, and maybe a trapdoor for emergencies. But whoever looks that close? Except when this happens. Where is it? And even in this situation—closed in, with an escape route that we can’t handle—we behave like many of those New Yorkers did. We strike a light and we look around to see how badly things are. And if we find, in this case, an emergency button? Absolutely great! We sit back and we wait for help to come. We wait for technology to come back and save our lives. Because it’s inconceivable that it won’t, isn’t it? I mean, if you admit that, you’ve got to admit that every single day of your life, in some form or other, you unconsciously walk yourself into a technology trap, because that’s the only way to live in the modern world. So you don’t admit it. You say, “Oh. Well, in this situation, we’ll cope.” But what happens when the effects become widespread, irreversible, devastating? What happens when what little resources you have to help you cope give up? Then what?


Well, in all the disaster scenarios you read, what happens is that, without power, technologically based civilization cracks up rapidly. Without enough auxiliary power (and most major cities don’t have it) organization is impossible. It’s every man for himself. Looting and arson follow. And in a city not prepared to be a fortress, supplies run out fast. And however frightening the thought of leaving your technological room, sooner or later, there is nowhere to go but out; away from the danger.


The minute you decide to move, you’re on your own in a way that no modern twentieth-century city dweller has ever been in his life. And then the traps begin to close. To start with, do you even know where to go in order to survive? Did you manage to get a map before you left? And if you did, how do you get out? Walk? Drive until you run out of fuel? Are you ahead of the millions of other people pouring down these roads, trying to do just what you’re trying to do? And if they catch up with you, have you got something they need? And if you have, can you protect yourself? Did you bring enough food and drink to last as long as necessary? And if you didn’t, where will you get it? Steal? How far out will you have to push on until you’re far enough out to be safe? And can you be sure that’s far enough? And even if, by some miracle, you finally make it, do you know enough to recognize a place to stop when you see it? I mean, what does survival without technology look like? There’d be no signs up.


So let’s say that, finally, somewhere far out into the country, you come across a place that looks right. And let’s say that you’ve had the good sense and the good luck to look for a farm, because that’s where food comes from, doesn’t it? Okay. So it’s a farm, so you decide to stop. Has anybody got there first? Or are the owners still here? Because you’re going to need shelter. And people don’t give their homes away, they barricade themselves in. So, sooner or later, exhausted and desperate, you may have to make the decision to give up and die, or to make somebody else give up and die because they won’t accept you in their home voluntarily. And what in your comfortable urban life has ever prepared you for that decision?


Okay, let’s say by some miracle the place is empty and it’s all yours. Is there enough food in the house? How long will it last? How will you cook it? Wood fires? Are you fit enough to chop all the wood you need before winter comes? If you’re lucky, you’ve got livestock on the farm. Great: meat. But can you slaughter and bleed and butcher an animal? Okay, supposing you manage that. You’ve got enough meat to eat until you’ve eaten all the cows. But at least you can start running a farm. But it’s a modern farm, remember? It’s mechanized. There’s a gasoline pump, but it’s empty. So you can’t use the tractor. What you need is a horse and cart. But when did you last see a horse and cart on a modern farm? And everything else here—the saw, the power drills, the light, the sterilizer, the water supply, the sewage system, the hoist, the milking parlor, the pumps, and everything on this control panel—demands the one thing you don’t have: electric power. Everything on this farm that you found doesn’t work. The place is a trap.


But there’s nowhere else to go. The only way you’re going to survive is if you find the one thing you need to keep on providing the food you’re going to have. And you don’t need a mechanized version of that thing. You need the kind people haven’t used in a hundred years. Ah! You need that kind of plow. You’re saved. Or are you? Because what it comes down to at this point is this: can you use a plow? It’s taken a series of miracles just to get you this far, and here you are, with the biggest miracle of all: a plow, and animals to pull it. So maybe, after few days of fumbling around with the harnesses and the bits and pieces, you manage to yoke up the oxen and plow the land. And then, and only then, can you say that you have successfully escaped the wreckage of technological civilization and lived off the land and survived—if you know how to use the furrow, you plow. I mean, can you tell the difference between an ear of corn and a geranium seed? Do you know when to sow whatever it is you think it is? Do you know when to harvest it, and eat the bit that you think isn’t poisonous?


I mean, it’s no accident that the chain of events triggered off by that relay in the power station back there in Niagara falls ends here with the plow. The relay itself doesn’t matter. I mean, any one of a million things could fail and cause our complex civilization to collapse for an hour, for a day—however long. Because that’s when you find out the extent to which you are reliant on technology and don’t even know it. That’s when you see that it’s so interdependent, you take one thing away and the whole thing falls down, leaves you with nothing—unless you can plow, and survive, and start the whole process off again from scratch. And it’s no accident that, to do that, you have to have a plow. Because it was the plow that triggered everything off, a long way back in the past, after a different set of people also found out that their comfortable life was falling apart; in a world where events came to a point where a fundamentally new way of life had to be found.


That’s exactly what happened about 12,000 years ago in maybe four places on the Earth: Northern India, Syria, Egypt, and Central America. It stopped raining and got very hot. The result of that change in the weather was to lead to an invention that would trigger the development of a civilization that ends with us in the modern world. Let me explain that.


You see, the high grasslands started to dry out, became like this place, and the plants and the animals that had sustained the wandering tribes started to disappear. People began to die. There was only thing the survivors could do: head for water. And so down they came, into the great river valleys.


Here in Egypt, that river was the Nile. And the Nile was an extraordinary river. It rose in two places. From one it brought rotting vegetation, and from the other potash. And any gardener will tell you what that means. When it flooded every year, it dumped compost and fertilizer onto the land, and the land bloomed—too well. With easy food, the population grew to where not even the Nile could support it without help. Faced with starvation, the river dwellers tried planting grain by hand. Not enough. What solved their problem was an invention that triggered off a series of events which ends with us, in our modern technology trap. Because that invention was to trigger the beginnings of civilization.


This is the first great man-made trigger of change: the plow. Because with it you know how much harvest you’re going to get next year. And because of that you know you’re going to be here next year. And because of that you can plan for the future. And after a while, when you can produce surplus food, then that’s when things really start to move in the tiny settlements. With regular food supplies, the population explodes. The village expands. There are more buildings, and they’re bigger for bigger families, and they’re more permanent. You domesticate animals for their milk and their meat and their skin, because they’re not there to hunt anymore. And basket weaving and the twisting of grass to do it teaches you how to spin flax, and that makes linen.


But it’s the grain that causes the fundamental change. Because with it, you bake the bread that is the staple diet on which everybody lives. And you learn about ovens, and about the effects of heat on mud and brick. But, above all, you have to have somewhere to store the grain surplus—in pots. But there’s so much surplus by now, you need the pots to be made faster, and you need them to last longer. So the potter’s wheel happens. Then comes the problem of: who does it belong to? And the only answer to that is this: writing. And the very first writing takes that form. A name and a symbol for what’s inside this pot, or a lot of pots, or an entire village granary.


And so the little villages grew with their huts and their granaries. And then, almost out of nowhere, it seems, that happened. The oldest stone building in the world. The step pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara near Cairo. Built around, oh, 2,700 B.C. Instant sophisticated architecture from mud huts in one jump. How did they do it? Because of what they’d had to do to feed themselves: irrigate. Because the river flooded every year, and destroyed landmarks, and then retreated, leaving the soil to dry out. They had to do two things: find a way of measuring the lands so the farmer got his own fields back, and a way of channeling the water away for use after the flood had gone. The kind of measurement you need to do those things involves geometry and the type of mathematics a civil engineer uses. And building canals teaches you to work stone. If you know stonework and geometry and mathematics, you can build pyramids. Especially if a strong central government that was developed to run the irrigation schemes in the first place tells you to. If the pharaoh said he wanted a pointed stone monument, that’s what he got.


Funny thing is, the same drought that drove everybody down to the Nile also preserved the things they built, like their tombs, for thousands of years. The stuff on the walls in this tomb, for example, is 4,500 years old. A kind of cartoon view of the civilization the plow created. I mean, look: here’s the irrigation. Here are these people carrying water pots. You see them? And they carry them across and they pour the water into a garden that has wall around it. And then, over here, look: there’s a fellow doing a bit of weeding. There’s the plow. They domesticated oxen. They tried to domesticate any animal that they could get their hands on. I mean, take a look at this: animal flat on its back, tie its back legs, hang on to its front legs, stuff food down its throat, and hope it’ll learn to love you. Didn’t get too far with that one. It was a hyena.


Well, you’ve got a growing community and plenty of spare food, and you’ll need to protect yourself. So making weapons becomes very important. And here, on this wall, is a whole thing about handling metals. Look: here are the weights and measures people checking on how much metal’s going to be used. Next to them, the furnace men. You see the way they’re raising the temperature? They’re blowing on these tubes to create a draft in the furnace, to get the temperature high. Next to them, here’s the molten metal being poured into a mold. And here a fellow’s beating it flat.


Okay. You get yourself a kingdom, you get what you deserve. You get bureaucrats. Here they are: the scribes writing everything down. See the pens behind their ears? In this case, they’re noting taxes. Here are the people coming in to pay their taxes, led persuasively by the local police. Here’s a policeman, with the rod of office. More policemen. Here’s an Egyptian scruff of the neck. He obviously doesn’t want pay. If you end up not paying, they get out their whips and they tie you to a pole. And that’s what you get for not coming up with the money.


So, you have a busy sophisticated society. You have to have people at the top in charge. This is the tomb of one of them. He was a kind of Egyptian chancellor, responsible directly to the king. There he is. His name was Mereruka. By sometime around 3,200 B.C., the entire 700-mile length of the Nile, from the Mediterranean to Aswan, was united and administered by officials like Mereruka, each one running what was called a water province, a section of the irrigation network and of the river under his command.


What held it all together was the king’s magic ability as a god to come up year after year with an inundation of the Nile, and to know exactly how high the waters would go. Of course, it wasn’t magic, it was his astronomers. They observed that one particular star, Sirius, rises just before dawn on one particular day, the 17th of July, every year. And that day is one day before the flood begins. They also saw that, on average, the flood itself came once every 365 days. Now, you put those two facts together—the star before dawn and the flood—and you’ve got yourself a calendar. Under the calendar you can organize people. You can give them a date to do something on.


And as for the king’s ability to predict how high the water would go, well, you record the level of the flood every year with a scratch on the wall. And after a while your experience will tell you early on how high the water’s going to be later. Now, in Egypt, where water is life, that kind of knowledge and the ability to control gives you the power to build empires.


These are the great ancient temples of Karnak on the edge of the Nile, about 450 miles south of Cairo. They were the center of Egyptian religion, built in the imperial city of Thebes, when the Egyptian empire was at its height; the greatest power in the world. This was the New York of the time. The temples were built over a period of about 2,000 years, each pharaoh adding his bit, leaving his name in stone to last forever.


Inside the temple domain, there were 65 towns, 433 gardens and orchards, 400,000 animals, and it took 80,000 people just to run the place. Small wonder that, centuries afterwards, the Greeks and the Romans came here and gawked like peasants at a civilization that made their efforts look like well-dressed mud huts. It still has that effect today. You come here from the great modern cities full of the immense power of modern technology at your fingertips—press a button, turn a switch—and this place stops you dead.


And then, just when you think you’ve got the measure of Karnak, you come here at dawn, to the hall of columns, one of the most massive structures ever built. And anything I was going to say isn’t enough. Look at it! The Egyptians built an empire and ran it with a handful of technology—the wheel, the irrigation canals, the loom, the calendar, pen and ink, some cutting tools, simple metallurgy, and the plow; the invention that triggered it all off. And yet, look how complex and sophisticated their civilization was, and how soon it happened after that first man-made harvest.


The Egyptian plow, and those of the few other civilizations that sprang up around the world at the same time, gave us control over nature, and at the same time tied us for good to the things that we invent, so that tomorrow will be better than today. The Egyptians knew that. That’s why they had gods: to make sure that their systems didn’t fail. Karnak was the first great statement of what technology could do with unlimited manpower and the approval of the gods.


Ironically, the modern equivalent lies, again, in the desert. This time the nomads also settled by a river—a river of oil. But what it took the pharaohs 4,000 years to build took the Kuwaitis 4,000 days. What’s happened in Kuwait—the change from a nomadic existence to being able to buy and use everything modern technology has to offer—has come in much less than one generation. Kuwait represents the immense power of technology used in a way most of us have never experienced, because we’ve lived with a kind of change it can bring for more than a 100 years. Here, it’s been focused. Change has been instant and total.


Kuwait has suddenly become like New York, or any other of the great urban islands of technology: totally dependent on that technology. Like them, without it, Kuwait would return to the desert.

Hello? Hi, how are you? Hey listen; I’m coming to spend my Christmas in New York, okay?



You see how, increasingly, the only way we in the advanced industrial nations with our bewildering technology network can survive is by selling bewilderment and dependence on technology to the rest of the world. Or is it not bewilderment and dependence, but a healthier, wealthier, better way of living, than the old way? And yet, whether or not you dress up technology to look local, the technology network is the same. And as it spreads, will it spread the ability to use machines as we do, without understanding them?


Somebody said a few years ago about the way our modern world affects us all: “If you understand something today, that means it must already be obsolete.” Or, to put it in another way: never have so many people understood so little about so much. So why are we in this position? Why is our modern industrialized world the way it is, and not some different way with different technology, doing different things to us? Well, that’s what the rest of this series is going to look at.


You saw, just now, that the plow and irrigation kicked us all off, and that an invention acts rather like a trigger. Because once it’s there, it changes the way things are, and that change stimulates the production of another invention, which in turn causes change, and so on. Why those inventions happened between 6,000 years ago and now—where they happened and when they happened—is a fascinating blend of accident, genius, craftsmanship, geography, religion, war, money, ambition. Above all, at some point, everybody is involved in a business of change, not just the so-called great men. Given what they knew at the time, and a moderate amount of what’s up here, I hope to show you that you or I could have done just what they did, or come close to it. Because at no time did an invention come out of thin air into somebody’s head, like that. You just had to put a number of bits and pieces that were already there together in the right way.


Following the trail of events from some point in the past to a piece of modern technology is rather like a detective story with you as the detective, knowing only as much as the people in the past do and, like them, having to guess at what was likely to happen next. So the trigger that sets off the first of those detective stories is that. And I’d like to leave you with one question before next time: why does a modern invention that fundamentally affects the lives of every single human being on this planet begin 2,600 years ago, with somebody doing this?

The Trigger Effect

James Burke

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