PREPARATIONS: the background to the series

     The original meeting with David Dugan, a television producer and  Chairman of Windfall films, a small production company took place at 2 pm. on June 8th 1998 in my room at King's. The meeting, which I had expected to last an hour or so, could not have lasted more than two hours. It was a chancy and fortuitous event.

      For some months David had been trying to find an 'angle' on the industrial revolution. Channel Four wanted to make a special series of films to celebrate the 2000 Millenium. David Dugan describes his involvement as follows. ‘I had been in discussion with the Commissioning Editor for Science (Sara Ramsden) about making a series. One of the subjects discussed was the Industrial Revolution. I was given some research money to decide whether to tackle this subject or switch to something else. The budget for the series (£1.2 million) was worked out much later – after we had decided how to make the series.’

      He  talked to a number of historians but they had failed to provide the way in to the subject that he needed. They had, I gather,  explained that there was no such thing as an 'industrial revolution' ; it had been deconstructed away into a gradual growth of GNP over a number of centuries. Or, if it had occurred, then they suggested that all attempts to explain why it had happened in England, why it had happened then, and why it had happened at all, had not come to any firm conclusions. It was still a mystery. Furthermore, there was the problem of how one could possibly make it stretch out to six programs? People with memories of  'O' level history were hardly likely to be riveted by six hours of spinning jennies and steam engines and interchangeable names such as Cartwright and Arkright and Boulton  and Watt and Darby.

         David Dugan was on the point of giving up the subject when he talked to Professor Patrick O'Brien, then Director of the Institute of Historical Research. He suggested that the two people David Dugan should meet were in Cambridge, namely Simon  Schaffer and myself. Simon Schaffer is Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and an expert, among other things, on Robert Boyle and the air pump. He has long been interested in anthropology, having written on W.H.Rivers the early anthropologist, and being married to the anthropologist and museum curator at Cambridge, Anita Herle. So David rang and asked for a meeting. I am pretty sure I was fairly reluctant to spend time on this since previous experience, like that of many academics, was of giving advice, time and effort, and it coming to nothing for funding or other reasons. But he obviously persuaded me against my better judgement and I may well also have had a desire for a diversion.

     David (as I shall hereafter call him) came after  lunch and on first meeting I was not enormously impressed - which may have been mutual. Casually dressed, balding, quiet, a dry sense of humour, not enormously charismatic I probably thought. But he had already been excited by a morning with Simon who tried to persuade him that he could base his series around the history of the fridge - an approach that was later transferred to the steam engine with great success.

     We talked for a couple of hours and I remember that he was a good questioner and a good listener. I think I told him about the contents of my last book, The Savage Wars of Peace , of tea, excrement, mixed bathing and other things, and also perhaps about the manuscript of my current book 'The Riddle of the World', on great thinkers. I also told him about Sarah my wife and my joint anthropological fieldwork in the Himalayas and other aspects of our work together. I'm not sure that he had ever met a historical anthropologist before and he was clearly intrigued.

       He later told me that he had driven back to his home south of Oxford with his head buzzing with ideas. As David writes at the start of the Acknowledgements in the book which accompanies the television series, 'The inspiration for this project came from a meeting with two remarkable Cambridge scholars, Alan Macfarlane and Simons Schaffer…. (they and the other three historians involved)… generated many of the ideas on which the television series and this accompanying book are based.'

      I think that it was during that journey that, based partly on Simon and my ideas of comparison and deconstruction, that he began to see how the series could be made much broader and wider. It was through this conversation and his analytical ability that he began to see how one could make the programs by starting with one event (the journey of the Rocket on 15 Sept. 1830) and work backwards in time and outwards in space. This concept of inverting history was the one which I had employed in 'The Origins of English Individualism', working from the known to the unknown, and it fitted with interests I had developed in the analytic method used in detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes etc) and the philosophy of history of the great French social historian, Marc Bloch. 

     Anyway, David was sufficiently excited to ring on Saturday 13th June. My personal diary records under that date (hereafter all quotes are from that diary) 'David Dugan rang again: he is very enthusiastic about making a 6-part series, partly around my ideas.'  I was obviously flattered, and maybe pleased that he already hinted on a collaboration in which he would take a number of my ideas and would also base some of the series around my experiences as an anthropologist working in Nepal.

     We met again and talked further and I wrote an outline of what I thought the series might look like on 15th July, some five weeks after our first meeting. The outline I sent David was as follows.


Thoughts 15 July 1998

Programs 1-3: Outcomes

Part 1. The Rocket.

Time period: September 15, 1830

Duration: One day

Place, Area: Liverpool, Manchester and area

Contrast (space): industrial/urban Britain vs. Rest

Contrast (time): new industrial world vs. Rest

Theme/story: a journey through the first industrial civilization on the Rocket, the amazing nature of what had been born for the first time on this planet. Establishing the ‘great transformation’, the move from living off current energy to stored energy, the new organization of labour, the dependence on machines, the growth of huge cities, the new class structure, a world of consumption etc. this would give the feel of that world and also pose the puzzle of how it could possibly have emerged. In particular one will ‘deconstruct’ the physical machine, the ‘Rocket’ itself, to see how its various parts (rather as in the piece by Fanny Kemble) not only resembled an animal, but had different roots or origins.

Part 2. The Great Transformation.

Time period:  1770-1830

Duration: 50 years

Place, Area: England and southern Scotland

Contrast (space): Britain vs. Rest of World

Contrast (time): a new civilization vs. all agrarian past

Theme/story: the key elements of the Industrial/Urban civilization etc, and including textiles & whole utilization of power machinery in general. The development of coal industries, canals etc (as in previous piece).

Part 3. The Conquest of Nature and Man

Time period: c.1600-1850

Duration: 250 years

Place, Area: Western Europe

Contrast (space): Western Europe vs. the Rest

Contrast (time): A new expanding Europe vs. the past

Theme/story: there could be two major themes.

  1. the conquest of nature would outline some of the major developments in the understanding of the natural world, i.e. from Galileo to Darwin in scientific knowledge. The invention of the method of invention (Galileo/Bacon) etc. and the development of theoretical methods in all the sciences and social sciences. This is the ‘conquest of nature’. This happened only in western Europe and the early promise of China and Islam and India petered out. It was on this basis that the later developments became possible.
  1. the conquest of man would look at the outward expansion of Europe over this period – the development of ships and naval power, the increasing tilting of the balance of power until Europeans had ‘discovered’ and explored all the continents and the British Empire had become the largest the world will ever know. All of this was epitomized and summarized in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the temple to science, technology and Empire. All this poses the double (and inter-connected) questions of why this happened in western Europe and why it happened then.

Programs 4-6: Long-term roots

Part 4. The Medieval Machine: tools of thought

Time period: 1350-1850

Duration: 500 years

Place, Area: Western Europe and Japan

Contrast (space): Europe and Asia

Contrast (time): the last five hundred years vs. earlier periods

Theme/story: the development of new ways of perceiving nature, ordering relations etc. as explored through the development of clocks and glass in Europe and their non-development in China and Japan. The clock represents the will to power and control which leads straight into industrialism, as well as making the maritime exploits of Europe possible. It also provides the model of a clockwork universe that make science possible. Glass represents the will to knowledge which makes science possible, it also led through Boyle and the vacuum to the steam engine.

Part 5. The Medieval Machine: tools of power

Time period: 900-1900

Duration: 1000 years

Place, Area: western Europe, eastern Asia

Contrast (space): western and eastern ends of Eur-Asia

Contrast (time): history before and after the last millenium

Theme/story: this would basically tell of the divergence of the two types of civilization that emerged at opposite ends of the Eur-Asian continent through the examination of:

  1. the development of tools of destruction and force, that is of various weapon systems and in particular gunpowder and cannon, this would take one through iron smelting to an iron civilization which leads naturally ends up to industrialism and the rocket etc. The different course in Japan and China, which more or less gave up the use of gunpowder (except for fireworks) and guns would be explored.

  1. the development of tools of producing large agricultural surpluses by the use of animals, wind and water power which leads directly up both to the agricultural revolution and the idea of an industrial revolution. The divergence between a rice and hard-grain civilization, with its consequences on population density, on social structure, on innovation, on milling.

Part 6. Civilization: the first ten thousand years

Time period: 8,000 B.C. to 2000 A.D.

Duration: ten thousand years

Place, Area: Eur-Asia and the rest of the world

Contrast (space): Eur-Asia and the rest

Contrast (time): the period before and after writing/farming

Theme/story: the question would be why it was in Eur-Asia that the developments described in the first five programs occurred. The answer would be approached through two final threads.

  1. communication systems, from the discovery of writing and its implications, through printing, to the age of television, computers and multi-media. Changing communication systems. The writing revolution occurred only widely in Eur-Asia – why? The printing revolution only had a radical effect (at first) in western Europe – why?

  2. The development of advanced agrarian systems capable of producing very large surpluses, from the domestication of animals and plants and the use of the wheel and pottery, up through developments discussed in previous programs, to the world of the replacement of agriculture by machines, chemistry and now its fully artificial manipulation directly modifying genes.

Finale: Return to the Rocket. The rocket has been taken to pieces through the programmes and we have seen that each part is basically an extension of the human body and mind. It was extraordinary that it ever emerged, the result of numerous chains of causation stretching back thousands of years, only a few of which have been described here. But it symbolizes the second great change in history, the first of which was dealt with in this program. In the last tenth of a second in the twenty-four hours of life on earth, mankind has transformed this planet through the extensions to his mind and body. In this process all the different civilizations have played their part and we are now heirs to discoveries and ideas from every part of the globe – as was the Rocket.

     What is surprising about this is that this is almost exactly how the series turned out some two years later. The general structure is almost identical, and most of the major themes overlap. It seems likely that having a firm outline from the very beginning, based on some years of meditating on these questions, was of considerable help to the production company.


     I think it was quite early on also that I described to him a seminar I had been running for two years in King's  College (funded by the Research Centre there and by my co-worker, Gerry Martin), whose third meeting was going to take place a few weeks after his visit. This was on the central theme of comparing the two ends of Eur-Asia and trying to understand why the industrial and scientific revolutions had occurred for the first time at one end and not the other.  Each seminar was informal and involved about eight experts on Japan, China, Europe, and in history and philosophy of science. It was out of this seminar that many of the themes we covered in the series emerged and I think it was this which gave David one of his central organizing devices, that is the idea of a team of scholars who gathered at King's round a table and tried to solve the puzzle or riddle of the origins of the modern world.

    It was clear that if it were going to be done properly there would have to be some location shooting, with members of the small group of investigators.  These included the above four (Alan, Simon, Maxine, Christopher) and also Professor Joel Mokyr of Northwestern  University, whose name I had suggested largely because his 'Lever of  Riches', a history of technology, had been the text for my lectures on the history of technical change.  David had also been to talk to Jared Diamond (who thought he might be involved in a series about his book) and Marshall Sahlins, whom I had recommended, but who said he had moved on a long way beyond 'Stone Age Economics', which was the area he might have covered.

     In relation to location shooting there were some fixed points. Simon was on study leave and trying to finish a book so his time was particularly precious, so he said that he could only film in England (and in France if visiting there). Maxine could go to Germany.  Joel would cover America, though his time was also extremely constrained and he was reluctant to leave Chicago. At the start it was only a possibility that I would film outside Britain. We very much hoped we might be able to film in the Himalayan village where I had been undertaking anthropological fieldwork for thirty years, and this happened. Japan was an extra, made possible by combining it with our return from a visit to family in Australia. Later we decided to spend a short holiday in Venice with Gerry and his wife - and David and Carlo (his assistant producer) came as well with  a small digital camera. Jim Burge, who was the producer for the second and third films, arranged for a lightning visit to Istanbul - delayed because of the earthquake. I also went to the northern tip of Scotland (by way of an old print works in southern Scotland) to film in the northernmost (and oldest)  Benedictine Abbey in Britain.  The rest of the filming was in England.


      One of the most difficult problems was how the material was to be presented. Would there be a presenter or presenters, voice over, or what? The whole series nearly foundered on this point. The commissioning editor, Sara Ramsden, at C4, as well as the Director of Programs, Tim Gardam, had strong views on the subject. David, who had met us, seemed to have a hunch from the very start that Simon and I would be reasonable as presenters.  So he arranged very early on, as noted above, for a camera person to take some sample footage. Unfortunately, as far as I was concerned, it was at the end of a long day when I was tired, when I had had no preparation or warm up as to the questions that would be asked, and I think that the performance was mediocre. The people at C4 reputedly said that what I said was interesting, but there was no way in which I should appear on the screen.

      David then retreated for a while and wondered whether someone else could present and perhaps occasionally interview me. That was when a former student, Mark Turin, was temporarily brought in. He was flown in from Amsterdam on 4 September and  the following  day ‘wet and dark. Nevertheless, we persevered and filmed in teahouse and in King’s. Shot about 4 hours of film on glass, clocks, universities, science etc. with Mark asking questions and me answering. Also went and filmed in Lode Mill – fascinating to be shown around the workings and learnt a great deal from the day as a whole and made me think on my feet. They seemed happy with it and we’ll see if it does the trick.’  I thought that was better, but in the event I think C4 thought the Holmes (Macfarlane) and Watson (Turin) approach did not solve the problems. So there was talk of getting in someone like Michael Frayn as a presenter (who turned it down – because he felt he had not a deep enough knowledge of the background).

      David’s account of this crucial period is as follows. ‘We discussed with Channel Four different options based around individual presenters. Channel Four were very worried about lack of authorship and originally insisted that we at least bring in someone to chair the discussion. Eventually, they relented, but the round-table format made it more or less impossible to raise foreign co-production money. Finally, Tim Gardam, the Director of Programmes, agreed to finance the entire production; but made it clear that he thought this was a high risk strategy, which he did not think would work.’

     So the question of the presenter was left hanging, which enabled David, notwithstanding  to smuggle me (and Simon and the rest) back in, until C4 were either gradually seduced, or realized it was too late to do anything about it. The major concession was that I should see a charming voice therapist in Hampstead for a morning to have breathing exercises and learn to project my voice better. She was most re-assuring and I learnt a good deal from this about calming the nerves and voice control.

      The tensions between the various parties over voices to camera and the seminar are well expressed in a set of production guidelines issued early on in the process which become easier to understand given the politics. The are as follows.

Industrial Revolution: Production Guidelines

(issued by Windfall at an early stage of planning)

These basic ground rules may help to convey the tone of the series:

No-one will speak to camera.

There will be a small group of five or six contributors who will all attend a meeting at King’s College, Cambridge.

Each of the specialists will have a defined role, but Macfarlane will act as the ringmaster and the person who confronts us with the riddles.

The narration will have a very specific function: to set up and comment on the progress of the investigations. It will be pithy, clipped and slightly irreverent. The idea is that is should put the heroic efforts of our investigators into context.

Although there will be a lot of historical information, this will NOT be carried by the narration. (The commentary will be very sparse throughout each programme.)

The history and background information will be carried by first hand accounts read by actors, and scripted voice-overs from our investigators. (One element missing from this current script is the first hand accounts… the require a lot of research… but they will be there.)

The group meeting at Cambridge will be a regular feature in the programmes. We will not be lingering on sync discussions, which will be too slow and obscure. The idea is to use the meetings as a launch platform for a new area of investigation. It is important to emphasise these scenes will be very short and are part of the device, rather than the content of the programmes.

Graphic/live action time line sequences will chart the evolution of individual technologies over several hundred years.

The first hand accounts will be dramatised. Obviously, as the time frame widens, the number of first hand accounts and dramatisations will diminish.


      The weeks and months passed as David tried to get a firm commitment from C4 and tried to keep up the interest and confidence of those like myself who had expressed an interest. On 17 October ‘... heard today that the Windfall film series is still possible’. ON the 31st ‘talked to D.D. about the C4 film series, which seems to be going ahead.’ On 12 November, ‘went to London early as had a meeting with DD in the morning...’  On 14 Nov, ‘... a talk to DD about the C4 series, now probably called ‘The Riddle of the World’. On 7 December, we had a day’s meeting in King’s with Simon, David, Carlo, Jim Burge and others. The diary records ‘Seems like a brain dump session for Alan and Simon feeding the filmmakers. Alan a little frustrated afterwards.’ On 30 December we looked back over things: ‘Watched the 3 hours of interviews done by DD in the summer. Although technical quality of films was pretty bad, the content interesting and it might be worth editing down at some point’.

      My impression was that there was no formal contractual moment, but just that one drifted into a trusting assumption that it was happening, the balance of probability that it would come off slowly changing, presumably as a result of lots of careful work by David.   I think the  definite realization that it would go ahead happened in January 1999, leaving only about a year for all the filming to be done for 6 hours of television. Compared to the time scale and budget of the other ‘Millennium’ projects (e.g. ‘Millenium’ funded by Ted Turner at one million dollars per episode, or Peter Jay’s ‘Road to Riches’ which Jay claims took some three years), it was a very tight budget and schedule. Especially as our plan, to cover the whole planet over 10,000 years was pretty ambitious.