Technological developments.

It may look like that from a distance, but this is really not true. Darwin’s success was built on the foundation of a century or two’s careful work building up of an understanding of taxonomy and solid skills that allowed reliable and reproducible identification of species. There are good reasons why earlier versions of evolutionary theory convinced very few people (and why Darwin himself found them such an embarrassment that he was reluctant to put his own theory forward). Darwin (and Wallace) were really the first people able to build up a solid case, and it was built on the basis of the labors of hundreds of natural historians, both refining their taxonomical craft and building up a large catalog of well verified biological facts and reliably differentiated species, through the 18th and early 19th centuries. Darwin himself wsa very much aware of this, and held off announcing his theory until he himself had developed the skills and reputation of an expert taxonomist (which he had not had at the time of the Beagle voyage). It took him almost 20 years.

And that is not to mention the work in geology that hugely expanded the age of the Earth, thus giving enough time for evolutionary processes to happen. It is really not until the late 18th century that advances in geology begin to give anyone anyone any reason at all to believe that the Earth is more than a few thousand years old, and it is not until the work of Lyell, in the 19th century, that a solid case for an age in the millions of years was built up. Lyell was an older contemporary (and, eventually, personal friend and mentor) of Darwin, and far and away the most important scientific influence on his thinking. Darwin, who had already done field work with Sedgewick, perhaps the best field geologist of the time, read Lyell’s work during his first few weeks on the Beagle, when it was newly published, and it changed his life.

The ancients had nothing like any of this. They just had loose speculation (as in Anaximander) and unsystematic collections of, often unreliable, natural-historical anecdotes (as in Aristotle’s and Pliny the Elder’s natural histories).

The Science Museum has one.

Late 1500s/Early 1600s, actually. They appear on men’s trunkhose in the Elizabethan period.

Or the belt loop. It seems like such an obvious idea. But we invented the airplane before somebody had the idea to sew little loops of cloth on your pants to help hold them up.

Well besides metallurgy which was not really up to scratch. Or knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics. Or complex gears. Or plentiful cheap fuel supply like coal.Or a shortage of inexpensive labour.

Next you will be saying that Tipun Sultan could have sent men to the moon because of the Mysore rockets.

I think you will find that that is a model of part of Babbage’s Difference Engine, not a functional version of the whole thing. You linked just to the image, but here is the actual Science Museum page, which refers to their model as a “trial portion of the Difference Engine”.

In any case, (as my link will also tell you), the Difference Engine, even as designed (and, I believe, partially built in his time), was not Babbage’s design for a computer. It was merely an advanced type of mechanical calculator. The Babbage design that, apparently, amounts to a true programmable computer in the modern sense is his Analytical Engine, a much more complex beast (and certainly not actually built). Perhaps thanks to William Gibson’s novel, it is the name “Difference Engine” that has become more famous, but Babbage’s claim to have invented the computer rests not on his Difference Engine, but on his Analytical Engine design.

The page at my link does, however, claim that according to “recent research” Babbage’s design could, in principle, have been realized even given the technological capabilities of his own time, and of the engineer he worked with. However, it is not quite clear whether this refers to the Analytical Engine or just the Difference Engine. In any case, I think the claim that it could be done (even now, let alone in Victorian times) deserves to be taken with a very large pinch of salt until someone actually tries to do it, and succeeds. (That it would work in theory is no news to anybody.)

They have completed a working replica* of the whole thing now.

There’s also a working one in California (also detailed on the linked page)

*Replica isn’t the right term, because: a)no original was ever completed and b)some of the details are (I believe) a little speculative due to incomplete documentation.

Indeed. Even in Watt’s time, viable steam engines of any useful size, made to his design, were only possible because of quite recent advances in steel founding. The Watt steam engines were made by the Boulton and Watt company, and Watt had had to partner with Matthew Boulton because Boulton’s foundry was only one in Britain then capable of making steel cylinders of a practical size capable of standing up to the pressures upon which an efficient Watt engine depended.

OK, but it is still the Difference Engine (calculator) not the Analytical Engine (computer). There is a huge difference in complexity involved in that crucial distinction.

The level of precision is probably no greater than has been employed by watch and clock makers for centuries now.

Besides, all of the gears in Babbage’s engines don’t have to work together - the machine is modular, comprising a collection of cascaded sub-mechanisms.

There’s not a difference in the precision of engineering required though. Babbage was set back by lack of funds/support/time, not the engineering technology of the time.

I think there is. That was my original point. Every time you add more gear wheels to an interconnected system of gears the required precision increases as tiny errors that will not matter in a simple gear system begin to mount up, until the whole thing jams.

A lot of them would still have to work together. Anyway, the matter cannot be settled definitively until someone actually tries to make it. I an inclined to think it is telling that no-one yet seems to have even tried to make a working Analytical Engine.

The Difference Engine is not even a general-purpose calculator. It can only calculate functions that are represented by a polynomial (look it up) though these are useful functions like sines, cosines, logs etc.

It was said that its purpose was the production of error-free mathematical tables, though there is some doubt as to whether the existing tables were defective in any way that mattered. It has been suggested that Babbages’s main motivation was self-publicity. If so, it beats twerking.

It would have been a much greater achievement if it had been a general-purpose calculator, though even then its usefulness relative to cost is questionable.

It was the Analytical Engine that would have been truly revolutionary.

No that’s the complete opposite of what I said.
It was a project management failure, not an engineering one.

Your argument appears to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the architecture of these devices - the thing isn’t like a stepped gearbox where you drive one gear and all the others are directly driven from it - it’s a series of mechanisms where the output of one is configured to trigger the input of another.
Adding more complexity doesn’t make the wheels harder to turn - it just means that it takes longer for the calculation to cascade through the machine.

What you’re arguing is equivalent to saying that a cascade of 100 dominoes is possible, but not 1000, because they would be harder to knock over.

Have you actually seen the delicacy and precision of engineering of clock and watch mechanisms of the era (and before)? I can’t believe you think the state of the art at that time was too primitive.

1.) Gunpowder. No fundamental reason this couldn’t have been discovered earlier.

2.) The Law of Refraction – Claudius Ptolemy performed perfect experiments on this in the first century CE. He even derived a formula for it. it wasn’t correct, but it would have given correct results for the most commonly used middle angles (not for small angles, as some have stated – it was completely wrong for small angles). The problem was that no one used it after him – including Ptolemy himself. He or his pupils could have gone on to develop ray tracing and lens design, but no one was interested. They also would have discovered that the formula was wrong at small angles, which might have lead them to a more correct formula. alhazebn, similarly, came close without discovering it. Ibn Sahl in Baghdad discovered the correct form before the year 1000, and reportedly used it to design lenses, which took him further along than anyone else so far, but as far as I can tell, his work left no lasting legacy, and was only rediscovered recently. Similarly, Thomas Harriot rediscovered it in 1602, but, aside from correspondents (Like Kepler), didn’t publish. Nor did the guy who got his name on the law, Willebrord Snel (He didn’t use the second “l” in his name), so that Rene Descartes thought he had discovered it. Christiaan Huygens elaborated on it and explained it. To tell the truth, I don’t know who, after ibn sahl, first used it as a practical guide to lens making, but it must have been shortly after this. That’s when telescopes started to proliferate.

3.) The Laser – The laser didn’t get invented until the Maser showed the way, and it was derived by analogy. But there were papers theorizing about something similar much earlier. And there’s no reason that the laser couldn’t have been sdiscovered by experiment – people had been playing with discharge tubes long before, and partially reflecting mirrors had been around for a very long time. I could easily see someone wondering what would happen if they redirected discharge light back into itself between a pair of reflectors to see how it affected the light – but it didn’t happen.

4.) The Telegraph. Not the electric telegraph, which required developments in electrical conduction and batteries. I mean the Mechanical Telegraph, as was used in France in the Napoleonic era, and provided a way to send signals over long distances with more information than a signal fire. Heliographs fall into this category, as do naval Aldis signaling lamps and, of course, naval signal flags. There were all sorts of methods of “telegraphing”, using poles with arms, triangular boards and venetian blind-like structures, as well as simple semaphore. There’s no reason all of this couldn’t have been done back in the ancient world. L. Sprague de Camp describes his time traveler, Martin Padway, introducing it to Imperial Rome.

5.) Anesthesia – In Boston, they brag about the first operation performed under anesthetic at The Ether Dome, but others point out that Crawford W. Long was doing it earlier in the South. But people have long known that work can be performed on a person in deep alcohol inebriation. even better, you can work on someone intoxicated on opium. So why did anesthetized operations have to wait until the 19th century? Did it require the rise in stature of the surgeon above a mere barber to the same status as a doctor? did it fail because of a lack of anti-infection procedures 9like Lister’s), so that anyone who tried most of these died?

This is a GQ?

On a different note, some of the things I’m surprised didn’t happen earlier include some practical planning methods and tools that didn’t come about until the 19th-20th century, including Gantt charts.

The stirrup remains my favorite answer for this, given the obvious need for such a device and the capabilities of the cultures and civilizations that needed it. Maybe only Imhotep needed a Gantt chart, but a lot more needed stirrups!

This is the most unbelievably mind-blowing fact I have ever learned at the SDope!

The printing press. Why wait till the 16th century?
There’s no reason why it couldn’t have been invented as soon as ink and parchment were in use.

This is probably more suited to IMHO than GQ.

General Questions Moderator