Skip to Main Content

About The Book

Twin Tracks is a landmark book of real-world stories that investigates the nature of change and divines as never before the unlikely origins of many aspects of contemporary life. In each of the work's twenty-five narratives, we discover how the different outcomes of an important historical event in the past often come together again in the future.

Each chapter starts with an event -- such as the U.S. attack on Tripoli in 1804 -- that generates two divergent series of consequences. After tracking each pathway as it ranges far and wide through time and space, Burke shows how the paths finally and unexpectedly converge in the modern world.

Twin Tracks pinpoints the myriad ways the future is shaped, whether by love, war, accident, genius, or discovery. For instance, in "The Marriage of Figaro to Stealth Fighter," Burke's twin tracks start with the composer of the opera and the French spy from whose play he stole the plot. The tracks then encompass, among other things, freemasonry, the War of Independence, Captain Cook, jellyfish, Jane Austen, and audio tape. Ultimately, the convergence of the two Figaro tracks sets the stage for the development of Gulf War Stealth aircraft.

Wonderfully accessible and lucidly written, Twin Tracks offers an amusing and instructive new view of the past and the future.


Chapter One: 1804: Attack on Tripoli to Fish Sticks

The first time the United States directly attacked Tripoli was at 9:47 P.M. on September 4, 1804. Under the watchful eye of the USS Constitution, the fireship USS Intrepid, packed with gunpowder and shells, sneaked into Tripoli harbor and blew itself up. This incursion was in response to four years of attacks by Tripoli pirates on American Mediterranean shipping, with the loss of one American ship and her three-hundred-person crew, at the time of the attack languishing in Tripoli jails (and, soon after, released).

Track One

The man controlling events that night, and in overall command (of the Constitution, three schooners, and eight other ships: a total of 156 guns and 1,060 sailors), was the bad-tempered Commodore Edward Preble, a veteran of the War of Independence. Preble had been ordered to make his base at Valetta on the island of Malta but, for various reasons, preferred Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Malta was British at the time, which might have had something to do with Preble's Sicily decision. At one point, Preble and his fellow officers dined with a visiting (and rather inquisitive) Brit, who, unknown to Preble, was working as spy and dispatch-writer for the Governor of Malta, Alexander Ball; Ball, a naval officer (and friend of Nelson), was an old hand at running ships and islands but less good at prose. The scribbler in question had left England for Malta for reasons of health and was, by this time, trying (and failing) to kick his opium habit, while continuing to pen the stuff that would make him one of the most famous of all Romantic poets: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1805 -- having failed to give up drugs and yearning for the drizzle -- Coleridge left Malta for London, via Rome, where he heard the news that Napoleon had him marked for assassination because of some earlier article he'd written in the Morning Post. The purveyor of this tidbit was the Prussian representative to the Vatican, Wilhelm von Humboldt.

By this point Wilhelm was a well-known esthete with some major literary criticism work behind him. He would also go on to become a lead player in comparative linguistics and fail to complete a great work on some obscure Javanese dialect. Prussian liberals like Wilhelm helped bring about teacher-training reforms and the establishment of a university in Berlin. They also talked a lot (cautiously) about civil rights and how the powers of the state should be limited. Most of this spirited chatter went on at the Berlin elite-meet salon (where Wilhelm dropped in from time to time) run by the extraordinary Rahel Varnhagen von Ense (née Levin), upwardly mobile daughter of a rich businessman. To her contemporaries, von Ense was the most cultured woman in Europe (only Mme de Staël might have disagreed). For a few years at the beginning of the century, von Ense organized gatherings that attracted princes, commoners, composers (Mendelssohn), thinkers (Goethe), poets (Heine), Jews and Christians, Germans and foreigners. You were welcome if you had a point of view, a witty tongue, or intellectually demanding matters to reveal. As was the case with the Reverend Friedrich Schleiermacher, a salon regular and local preacher. Schleiermacher was to religion what the Romantics were to the arts: a reaction to the rational excesses of the Enlightenment. He held that belief wasn't something to be objectively analyzed and dissected. Au contraire. It was a "mystical," utterly "subjective" experience that left the believer with a "feeling" of "absolute dependence." It was only though this immersion in the "sensation" of belief that one came to God. (If you read only what was in quotation marks, you've read key words from the Romantic Movement manifesto.)

In 1824 one of Schleiermacher's minor pieces (on the Gospel of St. Luke) was translated into English, and so impressed the ecclesiastical powers-that-were that it achieved for the translator the prestige job of bishop of St. David's in Wales. The high-flyer in question rejoiced in the anagram-fodder name of Connop Thirlwall. Began as a priest, then became a lawyer, then a classics don at Cambridge -- where he made waves by saying that low-church Protestants should be let into the Church of England -- was fired, became vicar of a church in bucolic nowhere, then finished his multivolume History of Greece, and was elevated to the episcopacy. Thirlwall's History was published by the then-famous Dionysius Lardner. Regarded as a major science popularizer (or charlatan, depending on who was regarding), Lardner forecast the link to India through the Red Sea long before the Suez Canal, and lobbied for transatlantic steamships when people thought the idea of dropping sail was crazy. It was during his early years as professor of natural philosophy and astronomy at London University that he began his great Cabinet Cyclopedia (133 volumes, edited over twenty years -- the Encarta of its day). Contributors were legendary, including Charles Macintosh, Sir Walter Scott, Sismondi, and Herschel. Lardner also included a young writer trying to make money to support her child after her husband had been drowned in a sailing accident in Italy in 1822. Mary Shelley -- author of Frankenstein, pal of Byron, daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, fancied by French novelist-antiquarian Prosper Mérimée, grieving and beautiful widow of tragic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley -- was everything a Romantic was supposed to be. In her later years she scraped a living from writings, which included the piece for Lardner on Italian literature.

Mary dedicated her last effort (Rambles in Germany and Italy, 1844) to a longtime friend, one of those poets who sink almost without trace. Ever heard of Samuel Rogers's "The Pleasures of Memory," 1792? What Rogers lacked in talent he made up for in generosity. Having inherited a fortune at a young age, he proceeded (via a large and expensively decorated London house) to entertain anybody who wrote better poetry than he did. This had to be a great many and included Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Sheridan. All his life, Rogers continued to churn out poetry so bad that only he would publish it. Nonetheless, he must have impressed a senior bureaucrat because when Wordsworth died in 1850, Rogers was offered the poet laureateship. He declined the honor, so they gave it to somebody named Tennyson, by this time pulling out of a struggle with booze and with some very respectable work behind him. Tennyson was the Victorian poet par excellence, all gloom and saccharine. Apart from one foot wrong -- written during the Crimean War ("The Charge of the Light Brigade" hinted at such incompetence in the army that it outraged every right-thinking harrumph) -- Tennyson could do no wrong, especially after Queen Victoria gave him the ultimate nod. Throughout his writing career, Tennyson returned again and again to his love of the medieval and in particular King Arthur, with highly polished stuff like "Morte d'Arthur" and "The Lady of Shalott." Tennyson's knights-of-old flimflam fired the callow imaginations of every undergraduate, particularly those of William Morris and his pals Burne-Jones and Rossetti, who took medievalry further over the top, inventing the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting, and cutesy pseudo-fourteenth-century Arts and Crafts wooden furniture and flowered wallpaper that gave you eyestrain. All of which made them a fortune when it hit late Industrial Revolution consumers beginning to yearn for the imagined simplicity and tranquillity of a recently bygone age of prefactory country pleasures. This attempt to return to the purer life, of a time before the downtrodden proletariat existed, sprang from Morris's dyed-in-the-wool socialism.

This he shared with George Bernard Shaw, a down-at-heel, frayed-cuff, would-be journalist, who joined Morris's Socialist League in 1888. In 1893 Shaw caused a furor with his first (censored) play, about a prostitute. Pungent on-stage social comment followed in the shape of boffo successes like: The Devil's Disciple, Major Barbara, Pygmalion (in a later existence, My Fair Lady), and Arms and the Man. By the time he died at ninety, Shaw was considered the world's greatest living dramatist. Shaw socked it to all forms of what he considered humbug. Back in 1875 he wiped the floor with the visiting (and renowned) American evangelist Dwight Moody, after attending one of Moody's music-and-prayer revivalist meetings. Moody, who'd started life as a boot salesman, set the mold for revivalists thereafter: rugged physique, dark suit, homespun philosophy, plain ungrammatical language, and the message that God loved you no matter what.

This approach went over very big with a medical student, Wilfred Grenfell, who went on to became a medical missionary to deep-sea sailors. In 1892 he visited Labrador and was so shocked by the poverty that he stayed longer and set up the Labrador Mission. When he quit, forty years later, the Mission consisted, among other things, of six hospitals, seven nursing stations, four schools, a lumber-mill cooperative, clothing distributors, and four hospital ships. In 1912 one of the temporary hospital-ship staff was a young man who had previously worked in the Labrador fur trade. He noticed that on days when the temperature was fifty below, whenever the local natives pulled fish out of the water, the catch instantly froze. And months later, when they thawed the fish out, he noticed that some of them showed signs of life. He tried the same trick on meat and veggies. All of which retained their taste and consistency if they were quick-frozen while still fresh. Could it be made to work on an industrial scale? Back in the States, by 1925 the young man was selling instantly frozen haddock fillets. After which, it was time for Clarence Birdseye to chill out and enjoy well-deserved fame and fortune.

End Track One

Track Two

On board the USS Constitution that night was Lieutenant Isaac Chauncey, who did so well during the Tripoli war he ended up in charge of all naval forces on Lakes Ontario and Erie. Where, from 1813, he ran the first proper arms race in American history, launching ships as fast as he could build them so as to clobber the Brits, who were on the Canadian lakeshore launching ships as fast as they could build them. Before a full trial of strength could happen, the War of 1812 ended. Chauncey's boss was William Jones, who was then invited to become acting treasury secretary. A year later (1814), the new economics czar resigned because his personal finances were in total chaos and he was up to his ears in debt. So, naturally enough, when a decision was made to set up the Second Bank of the United States, Jones was the first choice to be its president. Things at the new bank went rapidly down the drain and included allegations of fraud on the part of Jones. First off, the bank had expanded with dangerous rapidity, and then gave customers such easy terms that everybody and his dog borrowed money and speculation became rife. A month later, when things started going wrong, the bank recalled every loan. Property values dropped fivefold in some places, and all over the nation thousands of individuals and small businesses went bankrupt.

One such loser was would-be bird painter J. J. Audubon, whose Mississippi steamboat enterprise sank like a stone, taking with it the entire savings of a newly immigrant, newly wed couple named Mr. and Mrs. George Keats. Back in England, George's brother, poet John Keats (who'd lent them some of the money), went ballistic, vowing to clobber Audubon at first opportunity. Keats was the archetype of all Romantic poets: produced for only five intense years, was pale and wan, wrote about unrequited love and suicide and lovers' chopped-off heads, and caught the tuberculosis that killed him when still young. Quite apart from American money worries, Keats was always desperately short of cash. So when magazine proprietor and publisher John Taylor not only offered to print Keats's next epic offering, "Endymion," but also to come up with a healthy advance, Keats was as happy as a pig in manure. Taylor himself had, to this point, pursued an innocuous existence as a journalist, publisher, and writer on economic matters. Then in 1859, out of nowhere, came his The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built? Taylor was convinced the Giza pyramid wasn't Egyptian at all, but had been designed by an Israelite (maybe even Noah himself) acting under divine orders. Furthermore, Taylor opined, the numbers relating to the pyramid's complex dimensions hid a secret, encoded message of universal importance, from you-know-who. This claptrap proved to be irresistible to Charles Piazzi Smyth, who was otherwise totally sane. Smyth was an astronomer, Royal Society fellow, and pal of serious stargazers like Herschel. Nonetheless, bitten by the pyramid bug, at the height of his career he went off to Giza, measured every inch of the pyramid, and in 1865 announced that the "secret code" explained everything in the Old Testament and foretold the Second Coming. As a result of which the Royal Society booted him out.

But others took up the mystery. Was it a coincidence, they asked, that the pyramid "inch" was exactly the same as the Imperial British inch? This fatuous but "strangely convincing" load of hocus-pocus was given the coup de grâce in 1880 by the down-and-dirty, in-the-trenches work of archeologist hardhead Flinders Petrie, whose dad had been a Pyramidology convert. Petrie's opinion on the matter was expressed in a paper written after exhaustive measure-and-dig efforts, and called for archaeology to be more brush-and-scrape routine and less now-it-can-be-revealed gobbledygook. His opinion of Pyramidology can be summed up in one word: "garbage." Petrie set the tone for all later excavation, as he went through sites in Egypt and Palestine like a hot knife through butter (cut a trench, look at the layers, reveal the historical sequence). He was able to do this in Palestine, thanks to the energetic Palestine Exploration Fund money-raising capabilities of a great Victorian amateur, George Grove. Grove began as an engineer, working for the likes of shipbuilder Robert Napier and bridge builder Robert Stephenson, then graduated to secretary of the Society of Arts, music criticism and analysis, friendship with the musical greats, first director of the Royal College of Music, and finally, editor of the Dictionary of Music that now bears his name (and saves all of us long research hours in the library).

In 1915 Grove's granddaughter Stella proposed to Peter Eckersley, and they were married. Two years later, Peter joined the Royal Flying Corps as a wireless equipment officer. In 1922 he was working for the radio equipment company (founded by Marconi) to be given the first license for regular radio broadcasts, which Eckersley organized (and took part in as actor, announcer, stage manager, and engineer). For half an hour every Tuesday, his team filled the airwaves for those very few able to hear them. A year later, the monopolistic never-consult-the-listener British Broadcasting Corporation was founded, and Eckersley became chief engineer. His sidekick (assistant engineer) was Noel Ashbridge, who later rose to a position in which he made the crucial decision about which system ought to be chosen for the BBC's first TV broadcasts. He chose the twenty-five-frames-per-second, major-user-of-bandwidth, 405-line-scan approach pioneered by an extraordinary Russian immigrant named Isaac Schoenberg. The result, in London on November 2, 1936, was the world's first high-definition TV broadcast. Plaudits all round, and eventually (in the case of Schoenberg and Ashbridge) ennoblement as Sirs. Not so Eckersley, who was involved in a divorce and a whiff of scandal unacceptable to Auntie Beeb. Eckersley actually resigned (these were the days when standards were high and radio announcers wore evening dress). Schoenberg had earlier set up the first radio stations in Russia, before leaving in 1914 for pastures Western and more democratic.

Apart from Schoenberg's success with TV, he made another right move in 1929 when he hired a young engineer, Alan Blumlein, to develop a system which would save Schoenberg (and the Beeb) from having to pay through the nose for American sound-recording equipment royalties. Blumlein produced the required system, and then in 1931 filed the patent for a technique that would generate the kind of sound to be enjoyed when the listener was using more than one ear. In 1934 Blumlein recorded Beecham conducting Mozart, with a recording stylus vibrating in two directions (in response to two incoming signals): one vertical and the other (in the same groove) lateral. We call what Blumlein made possible "stereo." Stereo first hit the general public in 1940 with Walt Disney's Fantasia, recorded in stereo by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who believed Hollywood could bring good music to the masses. Initially, he was wrong. It would take until 1960 for the mix of Mickey Mouse and the music of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky, and Schubert to become a cult hit. In the end, Stokowski's innovative approach (free breathing for the wind and free bowing for the strings, which produced the rich "Stokowski sound") and his penchant toward modern composers like Berg, Schoenberg, and such, made the Philadelphia old fogies see red, and Stokowski left for a flamboyant superstar life that included marriage to a Vanderbilt.

One of his pals was perhaps unexpected for someone so extravagant. Irving Langmuir was a self-effacing chemist (Nobel, 1932) whose research ran the gamut from ice crystals in clouds and floating seaweed orientation to smoke screens and (his main obsession) molecular and atomic structures. This included some original thinking about valence and bonding (the way in which atoms could share electrons). Langmuir's results encouraged chemists to approach the whole matter of how molecules happened in ways that turned out to have some interesting potential. At least it did for Thomas Midgley, working for a lab in Dayton, Ohio, and asked by his boss to solve the problem of knock (incomplete combustion in the cylinder, and no good for cars or drivers). Taking Langmuir's how-molecules-come-together approach to the elements, Midgley went through every single one of them, looking for molecular arrangement that might do what was needed.

Six years of minutiae later, in 1921 he found it: tetraethyl lead (the additive that gave gasoline the name "leaded"). Encouraged by this discovery, Midgley's boss then asked for a nontoxic, nonflammable refrigerant (those available at the time tended to leak and kill owners as they slept). When Midgley had it (this time it took him only three days), at the American Chemical Society meeting in 1930 he inhaled a lungful (to show it was nontoxic) and blew out a candle when he exhaled (to show it was nonflammable). The new wonder product became known as Freon. Ironic that decades later Midgley's wonder chemicals should turn out to be bad for the individual (lead poisoning) and bad for the planet (ozone hole).

End Track Two

And Finally...

Thus it was that when Clarence Birdseye's early fresh-frozen fillets were coming off his superchilled production line, Midgley's Freon-filled refrigerators were there to store them in. Fish sticks were here to stay.

Copyright © 2003 by London Writers

About The Author

Photo Credit:

James Burke is the author of several bestselling books, including Circles, American Connections, and The Knowledge Web. He is a monthly columnist at Scientific American and also serves as director, writer, and host of the television series Connections 3 on The Learning Channel. He is the founder of the James Burke Institute for Innovation in Education, whose flagship project, the Knowledge Web, an interactive website, was recently launched. He lives in London.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 11, 2010)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439128756

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: James Burke