Ideas Behind Their Time

Monday, December 13th, 2010

We’re all familiar with ideas ahead of their time — like da Vinci’s helicopter or Babbage’s analytical engine — and ideas of their time — like calculus and evolution — but, Alex Tabarrok reminds us, there are also ideas behind their time — ideas that could have been discovered much earlier but were not.

As an economist, he notes that experimental economics could have been invented by Smith or Ricardo, but it wasn’t.

You can think of such ideas as time-traveler technologies — technologies that could be implemented by an enterprising time-traveler without building up dozens of ancillary technologies first.

For instance, in Lest Darkness Fall, American archaeologist Martin Padway finds himself transported to Ostrogoth-ruled Rome, where he introduces Arabic numerals and double-entry bookkeeping, which convinces a money-lender to fund his copper brandy-making still. With the profits from that, he goes on to make a printing press.

By contrast, in Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Came Early, an American MP with an engineering degree finds that he can’t apply any of his high-tech knowledge in low-tech Viking Iceland. He destroys the blacksmith’s shop when he tries to use modern high-temperature methods, he suggests impractical ideas, like deep-keeled sailing ships, which you can’t pull ashore, and so on.

Anyway, I would expect most medieval innovations to be behind their time, in the sense that the Romans could have implemented them: stirrups, horse collars, horse shoes, wheelbarrows, stern-mounted rudders, printing presses, Arabic numerals, double-entry bookkeeping, distillation, functional buttons, trebuchets, Gothic arches, etc.

With their engineering and organizational talent, the Romans likely could have implemented a number of 18th- and 19th-century technologies. We tend to think of railroads as depending on steel wheels on steel rails with steam engines to drive them, but early railroads, or wagonways, used wood wheels on cut stone tracks with draft animals to pull them — in ancient Greece and Rome — and modern streetcars started out as horse-drawn trolley cars. Could the Romans have introduced slave-drawn streetcars? Or stage coaches?

I wouldn’t say the gun was an idea behind its time, but the stream­lined bullet might be. Up through the era of flintlock smoothbore muskets, the usual bullet was a spherical musket ball. Anyone who has thrown a soccer ball and an American football knows that a round ball is nowhere near as aerodynamic as a pointed bullet shape. In fact, the ancient Greeks and Romans knew this too — their slingers threw lead sling bullets that looked just like tiny American footballs.

Longer bullets aren’t stable without the spin imparted by rifling though, and the tight fit required to take advantage of rifling makes it terribly slow to load a musket — until you introduce the Minié ball, which renders the rifled musket quite deadly:

One of the most famous was the Minié system, invented by French Army Captain Claude Etienne Minié, which relied on a conical bullet (known as a Minié ball) with a hollow skirt at the base of the bullet. When fired, the skirt would expand from the pressure of the exploding charge and grip the rifling as the round was fired. The better seal gave more power, as less gas escaped past the bullet, which combined with the fact that for the same bore (caliber) diameter a long bullet was heavier than a round ball. The extra grip also spun the bullet more consistently, which increased the range from about 50 yards for a smooth bore musket to about 300 yards for a rifle using the Minié system. The expanding skirt of the Minié ball also solved the problem that earlier tight fitting bullets were difficult to load as black powder residue fouled the inside of the barrel. The Minié system allowed conical bullets to be loaded into rifles just as quickly as round balls in smooth bores, which allowed rifle muskets to replace muskets on the battlefield. Minié system rifles, notably the U.S. Springfield and the British Enfield of the early 1860s, featured prominently in the U.S. Civil War, due to their enhanced power and accuracy.

I’m not sure why you couldn’t take that idea back to the American Revolution or the French and Indian War.


  1. David Foster says:

    Many of the medieval innovations in the application of water power, such as its use to power bellows for metalworking furnace, could have been done by the Greeks and Romans.

    The late-1700s innovation of long-distance communication via chains of semaphore towers could have been done by any earlier civilization possessed of basic literacy.

  2. Isegoria says:

    From what I can tell, the Romans did make extensive and varied use of watermills, but the subject didn’t interest the literary class, so we have little written evidence of the various designs and uses.

    The protagonist of Lest Darkness Fall does introduce a semaphore line, but he needs to find glass-blowers and introduce lens-grinding first, in order to have telescopes to make the whole thing practical.

  3. Red says:

    The Romans were lacking three things later Europeans were not:

    1. Better metals. European metallurgy was the only thing that continued to improve after the fall of Rome. I’ve read that the only thing the Mongols found of interest in Europe was how advanced their metallurgy was.
    2. Interest in spreading inventions and innovations. The Romans were more into culture and art and less into reading about the latest new tech. This led to slow adoption and development of better tech.
    3. Optics. Being able to read for much longer periods allowed Europeans to read about all these innovations and make their own improvements.
  4. David Foster says:

    There’s a comprehensive and interestingly written history of waterpower called Stronger than a Hundred Men. This book credits the Romans with some waterpower technology and a few large projects but argues that they did not seriously pursue development of this technology largely because of the availability of cheap slave labor and a general contempt for the useful arts.

  5. From a science fiction writer’s standpoint, time-traveler technologies also have an application in a situation like re-industrializing after the decline and fall of the galactic empire.

    You cannot re-introduce a given technology to a fallen planet unless you take into account the ancillary technologies required to support it.

  6. Isegoria says:

    I haven’t read Stronger than a Hundred Men, but that description matches my previous understanding of Roman waterwheels and Roman attitudes toward waterwheels. Reading the Wikipedia entry on watermills though reveals that the Romans were using overshot wheels and ship mills and using the mills not just to grind grain but to power saws, hammers, and maybe bellows. This was all news to me.

  7. Isegoria says:

    It does seem odd, doesn’t it, that the same civilization that built aqueducts and heated homes had less interest in technical innovations than its feudal successors? Anyway, it’s not odd that those feudal successors would focus their R&D “dollars” on metallurgy — and castles and siege engines. I suppose it just took a while to develop useful lenses — and no one realized they’d lead to the discoveries of new planets and new lifeforms.

    One major class of innovation you’re neglecting though is agricultural. As one commenter noted, with the new and improved wooden horse collar, which redirected force away from the horse’s weak throat to its strong shoulders, a horse could do the work of 10 men while only eating as much as five — rather than doing the work of five while eating as much as five. This led to a rapid increase in productivity, enough to pop out of the Malthusian Trap for a few generations.

  8. Isegoria says:

    These time-traveler technologies also have applications after the decline and fall of a not-so-galactic republic — or before the rise to “developed” status in much of the world today.

  9. Don’t forget the heavy plow that opened Northern Europe to more intensive farming, something which, if it had happened in the first century, might have made Germania worth conquering.

  10. Buckethead says:

    One SF story that has always fascinated me is “Roads not Taken” by Turtledove — where anti-gravity and FTL travel is really something simple, like the wheel. Humanity in its billions just missed it. So aliens with 17th-century tech invade LA with matchlocks — then realize the error of their mistake when they get mown down by machine guns.

  11. Aretae says:

    All comes down to established interests vs. newcomers. Larger/older areas prefer stuff that benefits existing power blocks. And Rome was large and old. And technology is fundamentally disruptive.

  12. Isegoria says:

    I don’t think I’d say it all comes down to entrenched interests. If the Roman elite managed to get roads and aqueducts built, why would they resist wagon ways, stage coaches, etc. If, as land-owners, they found simple water mills helpful, why would they resist better water mills?

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