Connect the Dots

Everything is related at James Burke's Knowledge Web

Connect the Dots

James Burke is a pretty happening guy for a historian. On his seminal Connections TV series, the Oxford-educated scholar zigzagged his way around the globe, demonstrating how, for instance, Napoleon was important to the development of the computer. The show found hidden links among cultures, disciplines, and historical eras, untangled the thread of technological development, and exploded the "Great Man" view of history. And he racked up a lot of frequent-flyer miles along the way.

Now, Burke -- who, incidentally, ranks up there with Cookie Monster in the pantheon of my childhood TV friends -- is taking this project into the Information Age. It's called the KnowledgeWeb (, a Web site that assumes the Herculean task of showing how all knowledge is related to all other knowledge. Instead of 60-minute guided tours from continent to continent, users will be able to start from a single event, technology, or idea and find their own way through the relationships among seemingly disparate ideas.

It's the perfect match: a connective medium (the Internet) for a connective approach to history. According to the KnowledgeWeb site, the first edition will include nearly 2,000 separate entries that will be cross-referenced in tens of thousands of ways, and it will continue to grow from there. Users will be able to choose their path through the site, keep a log of the connections they made along the way, and see maps of the constellations of nodes related to each entry.

The best part? It's going to be completely free. The KnowledgeWeb team works pro bono, and they're always looking for volunteers. If you are a UI expert, Web application and XML genius, ontologist, content editor, a whiz in educational applications of information technology, or you have an abnormally large frontal lobe, and you want to be a part of this project, e-mail

And for those of you who were wondering: "Napoleon's troops in Egypt buy shawls and start a fashion craze. In Europe the shawls get made on automated, perforated-paper-control looms. This gives an American engineer Herman Hollerith the idea to automate calculation using punch cards. Which gets used to control ENIAC, the first electronic computer." -- Burke, The Pinball Effect (1996)

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