Take a modern invention back in time

I was reminded of this by the question regarding technology to react to pandemics.

In high school, senior year, we were given in-class essay assignments once either every month, or two weeks, I forget which, but one time, the question was “What modern discovery (this was 1984-85) would we take back in time in order to help humanity, and what time would we take it to?”

The teacher had us read another person’s essay, and summarize it, then the class would discuss it. The one I read was by someone who wanted to take antibiotics back to the time of the Black Death.

Noble enough, but I sensed a bit of wanting to be a hero as well. I argued that doing this would accelerate the current problem of over-population, and would affect society poorly by removing the impetus for the class system reform in western Europe, which happened when so much land became available after so many people had died-- basically, the serf system ended.

I have not thought about this assignment in a long time, and I’m getting chills now, because I can’t believe how prescient my idea was. I was not an especially activist kid in regard to the environment-- I’d walk an extra block to throw my trash away, and I recycled, but there were a lot of things I didn’t do, like think twice about driving an old car that burned transmission fluid, and got about 12mpg.

Anyway, my idea was to go back to just before the industrial age, to the time right before the electricity grid was created, with solar panels and wind turbines, and convince investors in electric companies that manufacturing the means to tap into free power sources were more profitable than mining fossil fuels, and paying all those suppliers and other middlemen.

I was aware that coal was already being mined as a heat source, and would probably continue to be for some time; but if mining coal on a the large scale necessary for running electricity plants as well as mining oil never really became things-- maybe oil would be mined as a lubricant, but that would be in negligible amounts-- it would be much better for the environment.

I had no idea about holes in the ozone or climate change. I mostly knew that mining itself damaged the environment (I had read about slag heaps in Wales in How Green Was My Valley, and it made me look in coal mining states like Kentucky and Pennsylvania, and sure enough, I saw slag heaps), and that fossil fuels were a finite resource. I had lived through the US miners’ strike of 1977-78, and anticipated a point in my adult life when fossil fuels became scarce, and were rationed.

So what’s your answer? What would you take back? To what time? Why?

Gannt charts.

I’m not joking. Take some modern planning, org tools, and management theories back to the past, see what happens.

“Naw, look guys, all you do is color coordinate by job function and…”

“What sort of Dark Magick is this?”

Take a stealth bomber to uncontacted tribes and tell them that forget bows and arrows, this is the future. They will do…sweet fuck all.
That’s basically what will happen in the OP’s suggestion to take solar panels to the past. Being able to replicate them requires scientific and engineering discoveries that they don’t have.

I didn’t mean literally taking a couple of panels back-- I meant taking the knowledge of the technology back, re-engineered to be fabricated with things available at the time.

It’s fantasy. Play along.

Please, let’s not argue the hypothesis. It’s just Tuesday.

Again, its going to fail. Since the “knowledge” is predicated on several things which they don’t have yet. And the “things available” will not be able to be useful
A simple example, gunpowder. Back in my college chemistry days, I could probably have made some. But sending me back to say 5000 BC, before the metal age…forget it, I am not making much of anything, let alone a gun.

Not exactly the same question, but you might want to consider some of the examples in this thread.

I’d say anytime before the 1800’s - would be a good book that actually described how the body works and how to keep it in health. Something that WOULDN"T depend upon medicines and machinery only available now. Followed by a book that told how to manufacture ether and chloroform.

Something like the manual used by: Barefoot doctor - Wikipedia

Except I’d have to rip out the pages which described “traditional medicine”. (You know the saying - if “alternative medicine” is shown to work - it becomes part of just - “medicine”.)

I tried explaining this to a friend of mine who is into woo, and she just couldn’t understand the concept. I’m serious. I simplified it, and did everything but use finger puppets. Maybe she’s just a good actress, and didn’t want to give me the satisfaction, but it really seemed like she couldn’t process the information. I think we had the root of the “problem” right there.

I’ll play.

I’m assuming ‘right before the industrial age’ would mean… what? 1750?

Let’s play it safe and say I find myself in Philadelphia… fully vaxxed and prepared to ingest the food and beverages because dying of diphtheria 6 days after arrival is not in the hypothesis… in 1725.

If I have to bring an object, I’ll just take a pencil. Invented in 1798, I don’t think the technology of 1725 would have found pencil manufacture impossible… perhaps prohibitively expensive, but that’s not the question.

People were already working on vacuum technologies, so inventing canned foods is likely impossible… I was thinking mason jar, but it requires rubber and good luck sourcing that in 1725.

(I’m assuming we’re not bringing ‘future knowledge’ back, like “Hey, there’s gold in CA, silver in NV, let’s go get rich”… because that’s what I would do, to be honest. Don’t invent shit, just go and dig real, legitimate, currency out of the ground knowing you’re fucking the 1849 Gold Rush, but what do you care?

Hell, if you loudly proclaim to 1725 Philadelphia society that you’re headed west to get gold, and you come back 8 years later with 10 chests of the stuff, you’ll become an American legend, guaranteed, featured in future books entitled The Men Who Built America or some such shit. 20 minute YouTube documentaries about you. The whole shebang.)

Really, the best idea are ideas. Want to revolutionize the global banking industry? Introduce the concept of “cash flow”, an idea invented in the mid 19th-Century which didn’t really take hold in our world until the 1950s (WTF?) and wasn’t a required financial statement until the 1970s (WTF??). The Gannt chart, mentioned above, would be a godsend to a dawning industrial society.

And, hell, given the conditions, if I’m coming just before the industrial age… and that’s commonly, but not always (or even accurately, to be fair) defined by Watt’s improvement to the Newcomen engine (invented in 1709)… why not just bring a Watt engine and get credit for kick-starting the most radical change in human history since the invention of agriculture, rather than that Brummellized dandy James Watt? :wink:

In his classic time travel novel Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague de Camp’s hero Martin Padway (finding himself in ancient Rome without a time machine) introduced double-entry bookkeeping, an innovation that lets him easily spot cheating and fraud. He also finds himself forced to invent paper and printing, especially after the local supply of parchment and vellum got used up.

For my own The Traveler I had my hero Tenobius push along the development of something like Hindu-Arabic numerals, and he had to re-incent paper, too. Later on he had to create horseshoes, which the Romans didn’t have. Unlike Padway’s, his inventions didn’t change history – they were all rapidly abandoned and forgotten.

Not without semiconductors, and you can’t manufacture semiconductors without a lot of other modern technology.

They already had windmills.

Modern wind turbines require a lot of modern technology.

 + power storage and long transmission lines.

Of all the advances that have reduced death and disease, sanitation is the biggest win. And it doesn’t take anything more than understanding that organising drainage and clean water and keeping your faeces away from your potable water will result in a huge reduction in common diseases. No additional tech needed, just sensible application of existing capabilities. If the people can dig dirt they are already winning. It isn’t a huge step to create versions of modern toilets and make use of pottery pipes.

You can take it back almost anytime, but the point where larger concentrations of people starts to be a thing it will start to help.

We’re not supposed to “fight the hypothetical” here, but if you try to take sanitation back to some pre-sanitation time, the locals there certainly will. The story of Ignaz Semmelweis, an obstetrician who promoted hand-washing, is instructive. Other doctors of his time (around 1850) fought back stubbornly against the idea.

This is actually a complex question. First of all, many modern inventions depend on other modern inventions to function, such as electricity. Then there is the “Butterfly Effect” that could result from introducing to an environment something that isn’t supposed to be there. Add to that the fact that one could be burned at the stake as a witch if one isn’t careful about displaying some form of “magic” LOL

So, after careful thought and consideration of all the pitfalls, I’ve decided that the best thing to do is leave well enough alone and carry nothing into the past. No matter how good the intentions, greedy and ruthless people would seize upon such a great advancement and use it to control people. I also believe that there is a natural progression in societies that shouldn’t be disturbed.

Semmelweis was fighting a very insular and entrenched group who clearly didn’t like being lectured about anything. He was placing the blame for the deaths of the patients directly with the doctors treating them. That is never going to go down well. A very famous story.

I think any technology taken back will result in significant push back from any group who feel threatened by it. Some suggestions probably being risk burned at the stake as much as fight back from the locals.

That was understood in Roman times. They had aqueducts, sewers, public toilets, etc.

People knew the principles of clean water and sanitation well enough throughout history. You wouldn’t be telling them anything they didn’t already know.

However, implementing public sanitation in rapidly growing big cities was easier said than done, especially with the streets covered in large quantities of horse dung.

Introducing sanitation systems in 19th century cities required massive investments and huge public projects, and a major reorganization of how cities and households were run.

I’d take very basic photography back as far as the chemicals and lens needed could be conceivably manufactured. So much lost knowledge could have survived if something swifter, more objective, more easily reproduced, and less labor intensive than artists, scribes, or early printing presses had existed over the last few thousand years. (And before someone nitpicks the durability of photos over the millennia, remember that photos can be made of photos.)

Just to add on sanitation:

The Indus Valley Civilization had carefully planned cities with sophisticated water and sanitation systems 4,500 years ago.

Sewage was disposed of through underground drains built with precisely laid bricks, and a sophisticated water management system with numerous reservoirs was established. In the drainage systems, drains from houses were connected to wider public drains.

Something like toothbrushes would be helpful.
But, I would probably go back and save the life of a person who turns out to be worse than Hitler.

Yeah it was “common wisdom” in many civilizations (and I only say many because I’m obviously not familiar with every old civilization, but it wouldn’t shock me if every civilization had the knowledge) that when it came to water:

  • “Still” / stagnant water was generally less safe to drink than running water. There’s mentions of avoiding drinking from stagnant ponds literally thousands of years ago.
  • Human waste causes sickness

Now as to the latter point, while knowledge that human excrement could spread disease is, as far as I know, damn near universal at least in cultures for which we have records of their thoughts on it, how they thought they could mitigate/manage it of course varied from place to place. Some places that may have superficially been doing a pretty good job managing human waste ended up probably making some errors they wouldn’t have really understood without the germ theory of disease.

What’s interesting to me is I had a strong conception going back to my early youth that before modern times basically all large cities were more or less covered in human waste all over the streets all the time. But it is almost without fail that the more research I’ve done on that topic the more I find that that probably was not that common as popular imagination suggests. Many Middle Age cities for example specifically forbade the practice of dumping waste on the streets, cess pits were common, and additionally in most cultures human urine and feces actually…was valuable, there are various process they use both as inputs. There were people whose job was to clean out filled cess pits and the feces wasn’t just dumped, it was generally transported to businesses that made use of it. Human waste was also deliberately used as agricultural fertilizer (a practice we now know is not the best.)

I think a lot of the conception of the old cities being non-stop covered in shit is based on 19th century London which was, but I think that may have been an historical anomaly. The vast majority of the shit on the street in 19th century London was horses, London was the wealthy capital of the largest Empire on earth at the time, and horse presence and ownership was very, very high, and they were used to get everywhere around town. Anyone who has ever been around horses know they produce a lot of manure, and London basically ended up totally covered in horse manure.

The reason I think that may have been an anomaly is I think such widespread ownership of horses for transportation around town was probably not typical in most cities for most of history. For most of history horse ownership was tightly associated with the wealthy. Lower income farmers might have a mule or donkey and they might use them to transport things, but their presence in cities was nothing like London of the 19th century which again, had a huge concentration of horse drawn buggies, wagons, riding horses etc being used to get around. Essentially London’s wealth meant way more travel animals than was normal in most cities for most of history, and with them came a lot of manure. I think you’ll find similar in several large American cities of the same era, as Americans in the late 19th century were also relatively quite wealthy compared to the historical norm and horse ownership was much more common than it had been in previous eras.