If We’d Known Back Then What We Know Now

…and if we knew now what we will know in the future Then.

Palmer Luckey, at Twitter:

Think about what you could build with current knowledge if you were transported 100 years into the past. From industry to transportation to agriculture, many modern technologies were feasible but for the idea. In 100 years, the same situation will exist. Find those ideas now!

Seems like a fertile topic for discussion.  Two questions: What could you have created in the past (no need to limit it to 100 years ago specifically) with what you know now?..with reasonable realism constraints involving available resources and knowledge possessed by other people?  And, what could we create now that we haven’t and that will lead people 100 years from now to say, “How could they have been so dumb as not to do this?”

64 thoughts on “If We’d Known Back Then What We Know Now”

  1. Shoot all the Communists. Every single last one.
    Oops, 100 years doesn’t go back far enough…
    Hmm, well, still, shoot all the communists.
    Everything else is just details.

    Our current problems have zero to do with technology, they have to do with bureaucracy and centralization. The only thing that matters is to decentralize. Of course, that’s coming anyway, because the wheels are coming off everywhere, but it would have been nice to avoid all the pain.

  2. Joel Mokyr is a very interesting economic historian. He has posed the theory that, if private property had been “invented” in Roman times, the Industrial Revolution might have occurred a thousand years ago.

  3. Mike K..slavery doesn’t co-exist very well with industrialization, see for example the lack of meaningful industrialization in the South before the Civil War. It can go-exist, though, with at least some forms of private property ownership, see again the example of the South.

  4. “X doesn’t co-exist very well with Y” is a tricky thing to say. History is full of confounding variables. It’s conventional wisdom that somehow Protestantism was required for modern economic success, or at least it was “better”, but there’s absolutely zero reason to think that a Catholic England would have been more like Catholic France/Spain/etc., than like Protestant England, since the primary English cultural attributes that led to its global success weren’t somehow created out of whole cloth by Henry and his successors, they were already there.

  5. william gibson, in a brief turn away from cyber punk, wrote the difference engine, about if a primitive computer, by babbage and lovelace, had been developed in the 19th century, in this world, wellington became another cromwell and deposed the weak mid 19th century governments, the colonies weren’t able to unify,

  6. The challenge would be having all the different ideas coming together at the right time, along with the physical capabilities to implement the ideas. One example is the cell phone, which was invented by Bell Labs after WWII — but had to wait decades for the separate development of the Integrated Circuit before it became practical.

    The oil industry stems from the 1850s, although the existence of oil seeps was well known even in Biblical times. The modern oil industry developed using water well drilling techniques that were established long before. The question was what could usefully be done with oil? For about the first 50 years, the answer was to extract those components of oil which could replace whale oil in lamps — the Age of Illumination. It took the subsequent development of the Internal Combustion engine around the turn of the 20th Century before the use of oil as a source of mechanical energy became practical.

    Of course, now Our Betters are trying to turn back the clock — go back to BC-era sailing ships and 10th Century windmills.

  7. My mind goes to different places, to writing down ideas, particularly identifying what were going to be blind alleys in technology and academic research, and especially WHY these ideas did not work out, in terms that would have been understandable. Of course, whatever volume I wrote and paid for a thousand copies of would likely languish in dusty archives. I am cynical enough about what would work that I would probably just buy stocks if I could go back 100 years. Or bet on the horses.

    As for slavery, I don’t think one could have sold the idea of forbidding it in the colonies. Yet it might have been possible to restrict it to indenture in the English colonies under Elizabeth, with good long-term effect. The Catholic church (the Orthodox Church less) had gradually restricted slavery over long, painful centuries. But when it suddenly got extremely profitable lots of people (not all, but easily enough to overwhelm the European culture) abandoned their principles.

  8. I agree that slavery does not coexist well with industrialization. The Islamic world gives us an example of that. Mokyr gives many examples of inventions whose inventor is unknown. The moldboard plow, the windmill. His point is that private property had to come before patent law. The famous example of Heron’s steam engine shows how principles were discovered before practical applications. Rome had functional toilets and sewers that were not seen again until the 1850 Great Exhibition.

    The first modern pay toilets were installed, with 827,280 visitors paying the 1-penny fee to use them. The toilets remained even after the exhibition was dismantled. “Spending a penny” became a euphemism for using a toilet.

  9. I wonder if Portland cement and reinforced concrete could have been invented a hundred or more years earlier.

    Borlag’s patience with growing new varieties could have been performed a century earlier. Maybe several centuries. Imagine a monastery whose purpose is plant breeding.

    For the future it’s easy to go wild.Transport to space: spin dizzies, elevators, skyhooks. Bioelectronic implants. Ability to grow more materials (even if it’s very slow)—low energy biological creation instead of high temperature, high pressure, caustic chemical creation.

    What will transform the future may have been invented already, but isn’t visible.

    Some may require new materials, but then proposing to dam the Colorado prior to modern cement would have been refuted the same way.

  10. Mike K: I read, I think in one of deCamp’s books, that one thing Rome lacked was the concept of a limited liability corporation, with which it is easier to raise investment money. Maybe slavery would have still been cheaper than machinery, but the Romans weren’t averse to using machines and I gather that there’s some dispute about the fraction of slaves present.

    One possibility for change might have been to try to persuade the Hellenist engineers to share information more widely, so that it wouldn’t be lost when the Romans broke up the intellectual infrastructure.

  11. One invention that seems obvious at the ‘how in the world did people ever not think of that?” level is the improved harness for draft animals, allowing the animal to pull without choking itself. But apparently no one thought of it, or made it stick, until about 1200 AD. Major improvement in effective horsepower per horse! (or ox, or other animal)

    Another that seems obvious to now is that physicians and surgeons should *wash their hands and sterilize their instruments* before operating or assisting with childbirth. But, apparently not so obvious prior to Semmelweis and Lister, circa mid-1800s.

  12. The container ship.

    It took until 1956 for trucking company owner Malcolm McLean to come up with the idea.

    Accordingly the article I just read, container ships dropped the cost of shipping by 90%, enabling globalization and the hollowing-out of the US industrial base-

    Never mind. I think I’d keep my mouth shut on this one…

  13. technology is amoral, robert goddard thought his rockets, would take us to the moon, but von braun, as tom lehrer’s gibe said ‘let them land on london first’ nuclear energy can destroy cities or illuminate whole countries, watsons adding machines, well you see where I’m going with it

    there is an organic development of technology, you have to grow in stages,
    something james burke noted in his connections series,

  14. Penicillin was essentially discovered by accident in the 1940’s. It could have been found much earlier although one supposes it would have resulted in massive antibiotic resistance rather quickly.

  15. re Penicillin…my impression is that while it was discovered by accident, making it reliably and in quantity turned out to be rather difficult. Maybe Mike K can shed some light on this?

  16. The Volokh Conspiracy had a long and interesting discussion ~15 years ago on a related question: What could have been invented much earlier if anyone had thought of it, but no one did? I think the first example was the stirrup, apparently unknown in Europe before the Huns. Two other very simple, useful things that seem to have been unknown to the Greeks and Romans: pockets and buttons. (I imagine the first humans to invent pockets were Australian aborigines: pretty obvious once you’ve seen a kangaroo.)

    Of course, well-known examples are gunpowder, movable type, and pasta, all of which Europeans could have invented long before they learned about them from the Chinese, if they’d only thought of them. Eyeglasses, telescopes, and microscopes could surely all have been invented earlier than they were.

    There are three factors that actually prevent inventions from being made earlier. (As opposed to “Nobody thought of it”, which is not the same thing.) 1. Some inventions require materials not found in your part of the world: that’s why the Romans had no cigarettes, coffee, tea, orange juice, chocolate bars, or rubber tires. 2. Some require the gradual development of pure science: that’s why they didn’t have electric motors or electric anything (thanks, Ben Franklin!). 3. And some require the gradual increase in precision of metalworking and other technology: that’s why they didn’t have zippers or pocket watches, though they might have been able to make gears precise enough for a crude grandfather clock. Internal combustion engines are probably partly #2 (concept), partly #3 (pistons that work without exploding), partly #1 (fairly pure oil for fuel, rubber for the pistons).

    Two very modern things that Romans or Greeks might conceivably have invented, since they require no scientific breakthroughs: bicycles (not at all comfortable without rubber) and phonographs.

    Anyway, this is mostly from that thread, which is worth looking up if you’re interested in this kind of thing. I ran across it 2-3 years ago, so it’s probably still up.

  17. David Foster:
    A college classmate (early ’70s) said his elderly high-school Biology teacher claimed to have independently discovered the bactericidal effects of Penicillium mold 10 years before Fleming. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to him that an effective bactericide would be very useful in medicine, so he just cursed the damned Penicillium, poured his ruined cultures down the drain, and prepared new ones, and was quite abashed when Fleming became famous for drawing the right conclusion from a similar event.

  18. Re: Containers

    One factoid I ran across was that it turns out that one of the benefits of containers is that they all look the same; that is, you can’t determine the contents by looking at it. It turns out that quite a few luxury items (particularly alcohol) suddenly had a sharp downward spike in ‘breakage’ once the stevedores no longer knew which ones had their favored booze.

    How much of that is reflected in that 90% shipping cost reduction I have no idea, but it surely played a part.

  19. Palmer’s original question specified ‘100 years ago’…that would have been 1922. If I think about what I could have ‘invented’ in 1922, one thing that comes to mind is Radar. It would have been entirely feasible with the technology of the time to create something like the original British Chain Home air-defense radar of the early 1940s, initially in a lower-power version for demonstration purposes.

    “Inventions of the 1920s” shows the radio altimeter…which is basically a specialized form of radar…having been invented in 1922. But apparently no one then was thinking of it in terms of locating airplanes, just for locating where the ground was.


  20. It’s not always the invention. It’s the creative way of using it.
    For example, the drone industry. It was touted as the best new way to deliver EVERYTHING to the home.
    Nope. Lightweight loads, OK. Those that contained valuable items – electronics, meds, or such, No. Too easy to steal.
    Now the applications they HAVE been used for include:
    – Commercial photography – real estate, construction, inspecting old or damaged dwellings too dangerous to send people into.
    – Bomb disposal – the bots or drones may be expensive, but far less so that a human being.
    – Firefighting – can come in closer than a helocopter can.
    – Med/vaccine/lightweight equipment delivery in remote places.
    – Military – they are just beginning to find ways to use drones rather than people. There’s room for all kinds of them, but particularly the smaller ones that can stealthily scour for threats and info.
    – Border patrol. Flood the region with drones, controlled by the BP (once they get the Leftists out), send in agents to handle.
    The same with many other industries. The guys who controlled the big computers saw little need for the PC. It was people that saw the potential, and revolutionized our economy.

  21. Regards penicillin the accidental discoverer Alexander Fleming certainly gave plenty of credit to his colleagues who were able to refine and improve on his work. But organic chemistry was fairly well advanced in the decades prior. In addition to the idea what was required was ingenuity. An early test case for the stuff was a guy with an infection in his hand that was spreading. They kept injecting him with all the penicillin they had, collecting his urine and distilling the drug back out. It kept the poor fellow alive for a while but with the amount lost with each pass eventually it was insufficient.

  22. Does anyone have any thoughts on the second part of the question: “And, what could we create now that we haven’t and that will lead people 100 years from now to say, “How could they have been so dumb as not to do this?””

    Personally, I don’t think there is an answer, because I think the 21st century is probably going to be grim, with demographic collapse, and technology enabled authoritarianism, but I’d love to hear what anyone else thinks. I don’t think our problems are technological, so I don’t think there’s a technological answer. You might say things that empower individuals or local communities, like extremely small-scale power grids and other self-sufficient technologies, but how do you stop the bigger-scale entities from coming in and ruining it?

  23. Linda…very true, innovations often come from the user..or, at least the need for the innovation is seen by the user, even if he doesn’t have clearly in mind how that need can be fulfilled.

    “The same with many other industries. The guys who controlled the big computers saw little need for the PC. It was people that saw the potential, and revolutionized our economy.”

    Even earlier than that…the founder of IBM, Thomas Watson Sr, was *not* anti-computer as he has often been portrayed. (He never said that the total world market for computers would be “about 5 machines”; he was referring specifically to the IBM 701 Defense Calculator, a hugely expensive machine)…he believed fast calculation would be an interesting niche market for scientific & engineering purposes, but *business* data processing would continue to be done by punched card equipment. He was disabused of this notion by the IBM sales force, which informed him that a major life insurance customer was about to defect to a competitor because they were no longer willing to dedicate huge amounts of expensive real estate to the storage of punched cards. Although Watson Sr was not comfortable with the notion of keeping vital business records invisibly on magnetic tape, he was even less comfortable about losing major accounts.

  24. An intriguing question David and one that I have been contemplating while sitting in the waiting room getting my flat tire fixed.

    I don’t think the question is sd simple as “what would you bring from the future”?

    I don’t know if you have read this wonderful book about the Wright brothers from David McCullough – but one thing I got out of it-well one of many – was that the country was not ready for their invention.

    They Toya endured failure after failure and the first time it flew in Ohio the only publication that was interested enough in reporting it was a bee keeper‘s newsletter.

    It wasn’t until Wilbur Wright, on the urging of his European sales representative, went to Lemans France to give demonstrations that the world finally caught on after 200,000 people saw it there. And once the world caught on, aviation progress increased exponentially.

    It’s not always simply bringing a groundbreaking invention backwards in time but is the world ready to receive it?

    Would they embrace it?

  25. Bill…yep…marketing matters. And sometimes, conditions may be such that even the best marketing can’t pave the way for a valuable product.

    That’s the problem with my suggestion for ‘inventing’ radar in 1922…few large countries were expecting a major war, and military organizations were pretty set in their ways. Would not have been easy finding military customer for radar…probably, ocean shipping lines would have been the best bet.

  26. They kept injecting him with all the penicillin they had, collecting his urine and distilling the drug back out. It kept the poor fellow alive for a while but with the amount lost with each pass eventually it was insufficient.

    That is a true story but it was Florey not Fleming. Fleming was an assistant to Wright, who told him to stop fiddling around and get back to work on Syphilis, his real job. The amazing thing is that Syphilis is exquisitely sensitive to penicillin and they never tried it. Fleming later tried to claim credit but it was Florey and Chaim who really discovered how to make penicillin and use it for infection. They both got the Nobel Prize.

  27. See the Ring of Fire series starting with 1632, by Eric Flint.

    Small West VA town transported back to the 30 Years War in Germany.

  28. Regarding the necessary components for an Industrial Revolution:

    I agree and endorse the whole 1632 thing, including the “tech boards” on the publisher’s (Baen’s) website. Flint’s recent death is a great loss. One idea, reverse flow processes — where the “contaminated material” out from one upstream process is the “more nearly pure” into the next, downstream process — is discussed there. Used bigtime during WWII for processing Uranium. As an idea, has a lot of applications from laundry to pottery firing. Pretty sure it wasn’t even a concept in 1922

    Information theory would be valuable in 1922. The telegraph users had code books where one word would stand for a whole concept. “Muffins” might mean “One product on your order will be shipped late but the balance are on time to the destination agreed.” “Rifle” might mean “Ship by coastal ocean vessel, not rail.”
    By the 1980s the code books were elaborated into what’s called EDI or EDIFACT assuming an “electronic data” channel, but it would work FINE by Morse Code, and provide a LOT of advantages to businesses.

    Steel sea containers have been mentioned but standardized wooden pallets, and pallet frames, racks, and MHE could be pushed harder, earlier.

    Breeding and training dogs as “assistive animals” (beyond their use in war time) was certainly possible a lot earlier than America implemented the idea. The relatively obvious use as guide dogs for the Blind started in UK by the 1930s. Start earlier, do more, and see what happens.

    Interesting thought exercise.

  29. I read somewhere that seeing-eye dogs were invented in Germany in the 18th or 19th century. That’s another thing that wasn’t needed as long as slavery or child labor was available. Any 10-year-old of average intelligence can keep a blind person from falling into holes, so “seeing-eye boys” were easily found and cheaply hired up until child labor became illegal and it became cost-effective to train dogs to replace them.

    In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone, the blind prophet comes on stage led by a boy, a mute character whom he talks to a bit (e.g. “Take me home”). Students always found it shocking when I called the boy Tiresias’s ‘seeing-eye boy’, but that’s exactly what he was. He wasn’t necessarily a slave, or a paid servant: he might easily have been a grandchild or great-nephew doing it for love or family duty, replaced by a younger one every few years when he got old enough to make money at a real job. The narrator of the Spanish picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) tells of being a seeing-eye boy to a blind beggar in Chapter I and taking a nasty revenge on the vicious greedy blind man who has mistreated him.

  30. There is a category of things that humans did invent — and then ignored.

    The most obvious example is nuclear power, which was on a promising big upswing for about 20 years from the 1950s on, before the Usual Suspects shut it down (at least in the West) in the 1970s. Think about where we could have been today, about half a century later, if we had focused on continuous development of reliable large-scale 24/7 nuclear power, instead of wasting huge resources on unpredictably unreliable windmills and slave-built solar panels which can never provide the scale of power the human race needs. Most countries could have been energy-independent, and fossil fuel usage today would have been much lower.

  31. re: “I wonder if Portland cement and reinforced concrete could have been invented a hundred or more years earlier.”

    In “The Cure for Catastrophe”, the author asks the question (my paraphrases): “What white powder has been responsible for the most deaths in the last 100 years?” And answers, “Nope, not heroin or cocaine. Portland cement”. Turns out making reinforced concrete is tricky. (I should’ve paid more attention to my CE roommate in college). Building collapses.

    I like AVI’s idea if we could do it: “what were going to be blind alleys in technology and academic research, and especially WHY these ideas did not work out”. except for now and re-think alternatives..

  32. I think truly revolutionary ideas – ideas that changed the world fundamentally – have been brought in kicking and screaming.

    Look at the PC.

    So many stories of the early days – such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs trying to buy some electronic parts at a San Jose store – offering the store owner 1/3 share in the new Apple Computer if he would just give them parts to build their home PC – and he refused.

    As you say, marketing.

    Even then when it does come into the world sometimes the world doesn’t know what to do with it.

    I can remember the early days – what do you do with a “PC”?

    Store your recipes!

    I already have a metal box and index cards for that!

    Sometimes associated technologies have to catch up to complement the world-changing product – vastly increased Internet communication speeds, browsers for the http://www…storage spaces magnified millions of times….

    Electrical power stations for the incandescent light and telephone (and AC or DC?)

    Frequently wartime forces progress exponentially – with radar as you said. Or munitions.

    Look at how aviation changed just in 4 years of WW1.

    I am really trying but it seems to me that all these inventions came “in their time”.

    OTOH I am in this Facebook Group with some hot dog NASA people, past and present. Even a few astronauts.

    I made the point that here we are trying so hard to duplicate what we did 53 years ago.

    Maybe the question should be “what would you bring back 100 years that would be readily and gratefully accepted?”

    Certainly medical antibiotics (I can’t say technology because it requires all the other supporting technologies).

    Really a good question that I am not sure can have a satisfactory answer.

  33. Another thought: the Spinning Jenny, invented circa 1764, could have been invented and produced much earlier…no special materials or high precision required. Human-powered (foot-powered, specifically) and improved spinning productivity (which had long been a major bottleneck in textiles) by at least 8 to 1.

  34. The container ship.

    It took until 1956 for trucking company owner Malcolm McLean to come up with the idea.

    Accordingly the article I just read, container ships dropped the cost of shipping by 90%, enabling globalization and the hollowing-out of the US industrial base-

    Never mind. I think I’d keep my mouth shut on this one…

    Didn’t the longshoremen help that alone? ;-)

  35. I don’t think that containerization could have happened in 1922 or much before when it actually did.

    First: Cargo ships were much smaller and their holds were rather irregularly shaped to follow the contours of the ship. The broad beamed, almost rectangular ships today are nothing like what we had in 1922. Containers would have left too much space empty. Ship’s cranes weren’t capable of handling the weight.

    Second: There would not have been any trucks capable of hauling them. Tires capable of handling the weight didn’t exist and wouldn’t really until synthetic fibers replaced cotton as reinforcing after WWII. Articulated semi trucks weren’t common until after the war, especially the five axle 18 wheel trucks capable of hauling a 40 foot trailer. In 1922, trucks capable of hauling more than a couple of tons generally had solid tires and operated, loaded, at speeds less than 10 miles an hour. None of the parts like engines, drive trains and especially roads existed that would have allowed reasonable operation.

    Third: The scope of commerce was much narrower. Importers that brought cargo ashore in large quantities were already in the ports and few of their customers would probably want as much as a full truck load. They’d been there since sailing ships. Labor was fairly cheap so loading a box car by hand wasn’t uneconomical and the likelihood that the receiver had anything more sophisticated than a hand truck to unload it was small. The same would hold for pallets.

    Containerization is a simple idea that takes an entire national infrastructure to function. From the ’50’s it took it maybe 20 years to catch on.

  36. re: “I wonder if Portland cement and reinforced concrete could have been invented a hundred or more years earlier.”

    The Romans had concrete that has lasted 2000 years. The Suez Canal was built using volcanic ash from Santorini. That resulted in the discovery of Minoan age city of Akrotiri. The volcanic ash was 50 to 70 feet deep. The waterproof cement from volcanic ash may be similar to that used by the Romans. The differences are discussed here.

  37. All else equal, only in the West from c. AD 1725 have entrepreneurial, innovative, peaceful-and-prosperous economies penetrated classic doldrum States from Africa, China, India, and Russia. Despite a superficial sheen, these cultures even today are effectively bumboats bobbing in the wake of Anglo-European inspiration.

    Make of this what you will… but by “Rule of 25”, over millennia Western info-tech has doubled by forehortened periods of 25 years: Think 1600 – 1724 (125); 1725 – 1824 (100); 1825 – 1899 (75); 1900 – 1949 (50), finally 1950 – 1974 (25). From 1975 – 1999, the process will reverse– 2000 – 2049 (50), 2050 -2124 (75), and so on.

    What this betokens is an impending sequence of conceptual (complex/virtual) vs. material/physical advances. For example, uniting relativistic conversion of mass-to-energy with quantum-probabilistic conversion of unit-spacetime to cosmic “potential energy” via Gamma = i + mc2! (“factorial”) provides infinite energy resources not by generating but transposing solar energy to designated focal-points.

    Beware: Absent “tamping down” such transfers by a factor of (say) 10^-37, releasing one unit of cosmic energy-potential would explode the solar system “like a stick of dynamite in a rotten apple.”

    Meantime, quantum-physical correlation of any 4-D coordinate points A, B (loci uniquely specified by energy parameter) renders transit instantaneous, simultaneous, untraceable to any destination within the dual-dynamic (“soap bubble”) cosmic interface. For purposes of dust-mote Planet Earth, AD 2125 – 2224+ (100) powers are strictly inconceivable today.

  38. It turns out that quite a few luxury items (particularly alcohol) suddenly had a sharp downward spike in ‘breakage’ once the stevedores no longer knew which ones had their favored booze.

    Along those lines, I recall being told many years ago that the appearance of crimped and numbered seals on trucks vastly reduced the amount of product that “fell off the truck,” which surely reduced shipping costs. The anecdote was about the 1950s, if I recall, and I would think this could have been invented earlier also.

    I don’t think that containerization could have happened in 1922 or much before when it actually did.

    Good points- and it’s certainly relevant that the guy who invented containerships owned a trucking company.

    However, I also think labor costs weren’t as insignificant as you suggest and I also think that railroads might have been used in place of trucks. If someone had come up with the concept in the 1920s, perhaps the infrastructure would have been in place by WWII, which may have mattered. Imagine if those transports that sailed away from Guadalcanal half-unloaded had been able to get all those supplies ashore with the initial landing.

    I vaguely recall reading, decades ago, that late in that war the USN developed cargo ships which had supplies loaded in such a way that items that were needed could be accessed as needed, which was regarded as a major advance. Equally vague, I recall that pallets were a remarkable new invention then, too.

    But, again, good points.

  39. In 1922, horses and carts were the way goods were moved from the piers to the warehouses. Compare the picture at the head of this article of the New York water front around 1920:

    With this of a container port:

    Those finger piers were neither big enough or strong enough to handle anything heavier. Then where would you put the rail yard to handle the trains? They are measured in square miles. Where would you lay out the containers? Most cranes were still powered by steam and coal. There is just an endless list of things you’d need to invent just to get the container the first or last mile. Congestion is the reason that the New York waterfront is a theme park rather than a working port. Even today, relatively few containers travel more than a few miles from their port of entry before they are unloaded and their contents parceled out to make the truck loads to the final destination.

    So far, I haven’t been able to think of some single advance that wouldn’t be dependent on a long list of things that just weren’t available in 1922. Anything electronic would run straight into the very rudimentary state of vacuum tube development. Many mechanical devices would come up against the state of metallurgy. I’m sure there must be something, I just haven’t seen it yet.

    There are some truly revolutionary yet simple inventions like the stirrup, the horse collar and ox yoke that seemingly could have happened long before they did; why not?

  40. MCS,


    I’m sorry you feel so bad about the slow-motion defeat of Ukraine that you want to spend time arguing about my offhand comment about container ships.

    I have already admitted that you’ve made good arguments- but I also think that McLean came up with something new that should have been discerned earlier.

  41. Xennady,
    I agree that containers represent one of the primo good ideas, just expanding and illustrating my previous remarks.

    For instance, from 1908 to 1942, you could buy a house from Sears and have it delivered to the job site by Railway Express. That would be an example of a good idea that has somehow been forgotten. It would be much easier and more efficient today than when every part had to be sized to fit through the door of a Railway Express car. But if you go by nearly any building site, you’ll see the houses being assembled piece by piece from boards cut on site. A chop saw with a stop being the sum total of mass production.

    At least in the U.S., it’s an idea that bubbles to the surface every few years and then disappears. I suspect the reason is that the housing market is so boom to bust that it makes it impossible to get the critical mass needed to sustain factories. I don’t think that robotics will change it either, the increase in productivity from a few jigs and controlled work and material flow is already massive, yet it doesn’t seem to matter. Maybe a labor shortage will work.

  42. MCS: <.I"For instance, from 1908 to 1942, you could buy a house from Sears and have it delivered to the job site by Railway Express."

    And then the house would have to be assembled. If we look around today, a significant amount of housing is modular, factory-built. The challenge is not the technology, it is the social stigma among certain segments of the population against “mobile homes”.

    (Old joke — You know you are a redneck when your rich uncle asks you to come over and help take the wheels off his new house).

    In China, where multi-story apartment homes are the name of the game, there are companies using high-tech manufacturing techniques to factory-build apartment blocks.

    Maybe housing is an example of the way social forces can delay the utilization of readily-available technology.

  43. One issue with preassembled components for housing is local building codes…there are a lot of them…how far can you go into pre-assembly while still complying with, say, 70% of the codes (weighted by population)?

    I ran across an interesting-looking article on productivity in construction and obstacles thereto..will see if I can find it.

  44. So one thing I think the discussion has shown is that you’d think this Palmer Luckey guy would realize that people aren’t in general morons and often there are reasons why something “obvious” doesn’t happen before it does. He’s the “inventor” of Oculus, but he certainly wasn’t the first person to come up with that idea, it’s just that recent years is when it became even slightly feasible, but it’s still nowhere near ready for prime time…

  45. “If We’d Known Back Then What We Know Now”
    “And, what could we create now that we haven’t and that will lead people 100 years from now to say, “How could they have been so dumb as not to do this?””
    No doubt in my mind that in 100 years people will say “How could they have been so dumb as to do this?”, where you know what “this” is:
    “This year, 3,000 more people have died than expected
    This has never happened before: for weeks, more people have died in Switzerland than normally in summer. Experts classify the exceptional situation.”

    I feel like a broken record, but why is no one talking about this? It’s the most insane thing I’ve ever experienced.

  46. There are some truly revolutionary yet simple inventions like the stirrup, the horse collar and ox yoke that seemingly could have happened long before they did; why not?

    That is the topic of Mokyr’s books. The Romans did not have the horse collar but the Mediterranean soil was not as heavy as that in northern Europe. It became essential there to have stronger pulling for plows. There is speculation that the Black Death led to the three field system of agriculture. It certainly ended the serf system in England.

  47. Brian…There’s a lot more to a successful product than the general idea, though. There’s the selection of the specific feature set to be implemented. There’s choosing an approach for distribution & building the channel if it doesn’t already exist. There’s marketing, and there’s pricing strategy. Also support.

    Thomas Edison didn’t invent the electric light bulb, but he did improve filament life considerably. He also recognized that he needed to provide a complete system: not just the lamps but also the power stations and the power distribution.

    IBM didn’t invent the computer, but they did wrap it in the sales & support approaches that they had developed for the punched card equipment market, thereby creating enough comfort factor to get businesses to buy such systems. And while they didn’t invent the idea of microprogramming, some IBM person did recognize it as a solution to creating a broadly compatible product line, and Watson Jr had the courage to be the company on the System/360 line.

    Oliver Evans didn’t invent the basic mechanisms used in his automated grain-milling system…the Archimedes Screw went back to…Archimedes, and waterwheels used for power were in common use…but he did see the potential to put these mechanisms together in a way that would allow milling with relatively little human labor.

    And so on.

  48. “There’s a lot more to a successful product than the general idea, though.”
    Wait a second, then why did you start this post based on his deep thought that:
    “From industry to transportation to agriculture, many modern technologies were feasible but for the idea”

  49. Back in the early ’70’s I was briefly, though not briefly enough, involved in a in a scheme to build houses out of modular components assembled off site. One of the issues we dealt with was that the thermal relief on the water heater had to be one way to qualify for a V.A. loan and another for an FHA. They sent plumbers out to “fix” the houses when one of the prospective buyers said they were going to the V.A.

    A lot of jurisdictions have adopted the Uniform Building Code but you won’t go very long before you run into an inspector that just knows you’re doing it wrong no matter what it says in the code.

    Another problem was that the foundation that still had to be built on site had to be much more accurate than the trade considered good enough.

    Modular homes are great for people that want to live in a house that looks like a modular home. They’re cost efficient, well built and a bunch of them have all the visual appeal of a WWII Army base barracks area.

  50. There was/is a company in Seattle that builds attractive modular homes. I was seriously considering putting one on a 5 acre lot I had on Vashon Island. I was planning to retire there and build a custom house at that time. The modular home would be on a foundation that would be an underground garage. The whole scheme collapsed when I learned that Washington state charges sales tax on modular homes at 10%. Most of the homes were shipped to Alaska, which has a very short season for building. Since then, I decided to retire to Arizona which is closer to my kids in CA. Seattle is no longer a desirable place to retire although Vashon Island is still a good place.

  51. There are a lot of gradiations and permutations among all the structures someone may choose to call a modular home. The ones I primarily had in mind were the ones built along the lines of a mobile home only better with the width of the modules 16′ or less with the floor plan confined to one level. Over the years, these have become elaborate over the years but widths and height of the modules remain pretty fixed. Some allow stacking and multi-level floor plans.

    The houses I worked on would have had the kitchen/utility and the bathrooms as pre-built modules to be lifted onto the foundation and connected to pre-placed plumbing and electrical. The walls would have been constructed as panels and the roofs in sections. I’ve seen similar systems over the years and I’m sure there are some today. The newer ones take advantage of materials and components that weren’t available to us. One limitation is that the components are pretty bulky so transportation over distance tends to add up.

    In the ’80’s I looked at what were fairly conventional stick built houses that were built on a large paved lot more or less complete and then transported and jacked onto a foundation. If I recall correctly, they were limited to 28′ wide and 16′ high and had to be hauled with a special permit. Some were built with more than one piece. The brick veneer if any was laid on site.

    I did a search on brick laying robots:

    and came up with more results than I expected. Of course, we don’t build houses out of bricks anymore, they’re just a skin over the wood construction.

  52. Distillation. Polynesians did it with with clay pots and wooden or bamboo tubing – which means it could have been invented in the Stone Age.

    Electricity. One could easily build an electrostatic generator, Leyden jar, or zinc-copper battery with materials available at say the Library of Alexandria.

    Decimal numbers.

    Punctuation marks.

  53. }}} elevators, skyhooks

    I love the idea of space elevators, but we need a far more stable psychology before we dare build anything of the sort, even if we have the technical skills. The failure modes of space elevators are very decidedly nontrivial, and some of them make an asteroid impact look like a firecracker. Until we can rely on not having any kind of terrorist attack against one, we dare not even seriously consider it. Building one on the Moon or Mars might be an idea worth considering, however, particularly Mars. But since we aren’t even on Mars at all, yet, that’s probably a good two centuries out.

    As to the main topic, I think prognostications over 25-30y are generally best left to Science Fiction… The future of humanity is very much a chaotic system, and does not lend itself to predictive analysis. Too many things depend on far far too many unpredictable factors — Does the USA even exist in anything vaguely like its current form only 50y from now? I suspect no. And that means you lose a strong element of stabilization from that point onward. Will there be some other nation — Japan, Australia, India, New Zealand, another? — who somehow steps forward and becomes the next New Superpower? Hard to tell. Or perhaps the forces work in a direction I suspect they might, as the nature of an IP & Services Economy becomes far more overriding than it currently is, and larger entities break down entirely — we go from modern large nation-states (a strongly hierarchical entity which I consider to be anathema to knowledge distribution, and hence not a positive structure for an IPSE) to an array of far smaller city-states, more akin to the USA’s state-level structures being the largest governmental entities, rather than intermediate ones.

    Because big nations make big targets. And there is less chance for main force to work to coagulate peoples with modern weaponry and guerrilla tactics… Look at the success of the USA vs. Vietnam, The Soviets against Afghanistan, the USA against Iraq and Afghanistan, and the current issues with Russia vs. the Ukraine. As long as there is an outside, untouchable source for weaponry, such actions cannot have much success (I do think we basically won in both Vietnam and Iraq, but that also details how other forces can neutralize a defacto victory in a large and disparate social collective — and I suspect even Putin is feeling similar heat over Ukraine).

    So the social order under an IPSE may be more about loose coalitions between city-states rather than large overarching heirarchical structures — a network topology rather than an bunch of huge inverted tree structures. This encourages information flows by eliminating bottlenecks common to trees, and also discourages adventurism and efforts to use force to take over territory or power. Negotiation and “dealmaking” do a better job of resolving issues between city-states over access to resources than pointless war. And if one city-state does get belligerent or starts bullying, the other city-states around it will band together to take it down a peg. This would not work in previous times, because main force was so effective in gaining power and resources, but evidence suggests that it’s not as effective as it once was, meaning there is much less utility in retaining the “big nation” superstructure. Add to that the inherent tendency of humans to form smaller, more local bonds than big-nation ones. You could see nations breaking down during periods of Chaos which I think we all feel is coming and spinning off regional subgroups in place of the nation. “Oh, that can’t happen!” is something we all feel, but… think about the USSR. No one would have believed THAT could happen just 5y, much less 10y before, and that is much the same process I’m suggesting, just breaking places down even further in some cases, e.g., France, Germany, Italy back down into earlier/older natural subgroups.

  54. }}} Electricity. One could easily build an electrostatic generator, Leyden jar, or zinc-copper battery with materials available at say the Library of Alexandria.

    Evan Currie has an interesting alternate history called “Steam Legion”, which supposes steam-engine development in Roman North Africa. It’s a single book, but it offers a chance for more details. Currie does have an interest in writing more, but said he has a major theme decision to make about where it goes.

    }}} Decimal numbers.

    Place notation is what you mean, here. Developed by the Arabs at their height. Assertions have been made that, had the Greek philosophers had place notation rather than Roman Numerals, they would have at least managed to invent differential calculus, if not integral calculus, almost two millennia sooner.

    Mind you, if you look into the current idiocy of “Box Math”, we’re actually denying our children a true understanding of the entire concept.

    Box Math works, but it avoids teaching the concepts of place notation early, which means that instead of mastering it when young and most pliable, you wait until much much later when you are less able to truly grasp it and add it to your core abilities (akin to learning another language at 6 vs. 20 — if you learn a new human language at 6-8, you retain mental flexibility which you will never have if you first learn a second one at 20). So “Box Math” is just flat out abysmally fucktarded. Place notation can be reasonably asserted as THE single most important development in pure math. And the more widespread it is in humanity, the more beneficial it is. That fact is not inherently obvious, but that kind of knowledge should be spread so deep that we can never ever lose it again, no matter how far things might break down.

  55. OBH: “Negotiation and “dealmaking” do a better job of resolving issues between city-states over access to resources than pointless war.”

    You may well be right that the future will see the breakdown of today’s large nations into provinces and city states. But it would be very hopeful — and completely contrary to the evidence of history — to imagine that this would lead to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Look at Europe, where white people have been at each others’ throats for ever, despite (or because of) being divided into small units. Or look at China or Africa — same story.

    Intellectual Property & Services are great, but human beings first need real resources and real manufacturing and real agriculture. And human beings have fought over those things since the beginning of time.

  56. “No one would have believed THAT could happen just 5y, much less 10y before”
    But that’s just not true. Plenty of people thought and said it could. The “elites” said no way, but it wasn’t something so crazy that no one imagined it.
    Honestly though I don’t think we’re at the peak of big centralized institutions. My guess is there’s at least a generation or two of increasing authoritarian pain to come before things collapse and then hopefully there will be places that pick up the torch of liberty.

  57. For a huge list of how this idea can be developed, see the books in Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series.

    20th century town transferred to Germany at the start of the Thirty Years War.

  58. }}} to imagine that this would lead to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

    Oh, sorry, no, i had no intent to suggest anything like that. We will be just as quarrelsome and squabbley as we have always been. I suspect this is likely to be true of any species, to a point (I hope we become more likely to negotiate than fight as we get more and more power, the down side is that individuals gain far more power, too. Think of what a psychotic person could do if they had access to a torch ship. Niven even wrote a story about that. That’s one reason I doubt if we will construct a space elevator anytime soon. It’s not a good idea until we have mastered psychology sufficient to recognize and either constrain or treat anyone with any antisocial tendencies. And that is a fine-line thing, too, as you need to KEEP the kind of orneriness that makes us *responsibly* combative while we do it. Turning humanity into pacifists would be just as deadly as giving every lunatic a nuke.

    }}} But that’s just not true. Plenty of people thought and said it could.

    Brian, please cite a source, because I was around then, and no one *I* ever saw ever suggested that the USSR would just fall apart so peacefully.
    “So peacefully” is the key term. They may have believed it was going to self-destruct due to financial failures of Marxism, but I not only don’t recall anything of that being spoken, but there was at the very least an implicit presumption that the cold war would go hot before that would happen.

    }}} For a huge list of how this idea can be developed, see the books in Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series.

    I enjoy the late Mr. Flint’s RoF series (Well, except for most of anything written by Virginia Demarce), but I also think he’s a bit idealistic about how people react to both their religious notions challenged near-absolutely and the results of having the applecart suddenly knocked over and all the apples strewn about. He has the people of the 17th century responding far more as enlightened modern people than as the somewhat more barbaric (necessarily, as a survival trait, they lived in a more barbaric time) people they actually were.I think he also has a lot of moderately civilized people switching to warmaster mode unusually quickly, too. There’s no single part I think is “highly improbable”, but altogether much of it seems likely to be that way.

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