Jim Al Khalili investigates how our innate drive to explore mobilised humanity and gave us the ultimate freedom machine – the car.
Based on new research, he peers inside the original notebooks and sketches of the visionaries who, whether knowingly or not, risked death, poverty or ridicule to advance our species’ progression, and he brings these stories to life using state-of-the-art experiments, breathtaking drama and CGI.
It begins with a 9,000 year old human settlement 200 miles north of Siberia, where archaeologists have uncovered the earliest evidence of dogs. Those hunter-settlers had domesticated their European grey wolf predator for their very survival and bred them to pull their sleds. Dogsleds marked the beginning of powered transportation 6,000 years before the wheeled cart mobilised the rest of humankind – and that wasn’t down to the invention of the wheel. We learn it was in fact down to a revolution in metalwork and the introduction of the bronze chisel, which made the wheel and axel possible.
The car’s story is one of necessity, opportunity and survival. We experience biblical floods and the destruction of English mines. We recreate experiments that went horribly wrong. There are backfiring cannons and mutilated sailors. There’s the story of an obsessive Scottish genius who made the first precision man-made machine. All this leads us to the disastrous story of Carl Benz, regarded as the inventor of the motor car. Only he couldn’t sell a single one, and plunged into depression, until his wife Bertha took a secret expedition and transformed the motorcar into something people wanted.
Even so, it still took mountains of horse manure and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people until a farmer’s son called Henry Ford and a chance encounter at a slaughterhouse gave us a car that was affordable to everyone. And then it transformed humankind.
The car has been so successful it’s created an environmental crisis of its own. Jim closes the film by looking at how its solution comes down to our ability to harness a wonder material hidden inside every pencil.
Revolutions: Car – Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC4.