For those of us not content with reading just about real history, the obscure genre of alternate history offers weird and often wildly creative takes on what might have happened. Few of these books are so odd, however, as Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South. The book centers on a group of South African white supremacists who use time travel to help the south win the Civil War. To achieve their goal, they give crates of modern assault rifles to the Confederate forces, who then obliterate their hapless northern foes.
Guns of the South isn’t wholly unique. Another novel series, Dr. Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen, imagines a World War Two destroyer being sent back in time to an alternate history of earth. A 1980 movie, The Final Countdown, has a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier travel back to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It seems history buffs are fascinated with the idea of taking fancy weapons and transporting them back in time to change the past. However, I think that (even time travel aside) these ideas are pretty shortsighted.
An Important Question
Let’s imagine that we want to pick a single item to take with us into the distant past, something that could have a real impact. Let’s also assume that we only have a limited amount of cargo space, maybe a 20ft x 10 x 10 crate. What would you bring?
Your first impulse might be along the lines of what Harry Turtledove imagines. Assault rifles! Tanks! Let’s help the Anglo-Saxons win the Battle of Hastings or something. The problem is that while modern weaponry could be decisive in a single battle, you could never bring enough fuel, ammunition, or spare parts to use it for long. Modern tanks, for instance, use about a gallon of gas per minute. Before you knew it, your expensive and deadly equipment would be nothing more than scrap metal.
The same goes for almost any other piece of modern technology you might decide to bring. Modern medical equipment could save some lives, but there’s no way you could ever replace your medicines or tools in a preindustrial society. A truck could revolutionize transport in your area, but you can only use the fuel you brought along. Good luck finding refined gas anytime before 1850. Any power source short of a nuclear reactor would probably fall short. A crate of specially genetically modified seeds might revolutionize agriculture, but without modern growing techniques, goodness knows what the impact of those seeds might be on the ecosystem.
The key problem is that technology never exists in a vacuum. You might think of your phone as a single, incredibly powerful object, but if you take it back to 1500, with no internet or cell service, it’s little more than a brick. After a few hours, it’ll run out of power and permanently become much less than a brick.
So let’s use a little more imagination. After some thought, here’s my pitch for the best item to bring with you into the distant past:
While they are obsolete today, a hundred years ago, steam shovels were mankind’s most powerful construction tools. Built using simple steam engines, they cleared wilderness, excavated the foundations of skyscrapers, and even dug the Panama Canal. It’s not hard to imagine the huge impact even one could have in a pre-industrial civilization. The dipper of the relatively small model above, for example, holds 3/4ths of a cubic yard of soil, equivalent to about a hundred shovelfuls of soil.
Best of all, these rugged machines don’t require refined fuel. Historically, steam engines used mostly coal, but if that isn’t available, charcoal and wood would also serve. You could expect to use a steam shovel for years, even in the distant past.
The steam shovel isn’t the only answer. I can imagine that certain books, probably ones with lots of pictures, could dramatically improve engineering. Or maybe a Gutenberg Press (and blueprints to make more) could have made a big splash in the classical world (although the Chinese actually invented movable type half a millennium before Gutenberg).
The big point of all these ramblings is that almost everything you might want to bring comes not from the present day, but from some intermediate period of history. That may seem strange, but it underscores how technology exists not as discrete inventions but as merely the latest links in long chains. Take out some of the middle links and everything afterward becomes useless. The war in Ukraine has already shown us that obsolete technology can still fill certain niches, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
That’s all for now, but if any of you think of writing a book about a person and their steam shovel traveling back in time to help the Egyptians dig irrigation systems, don’t even think about it. That idea’s already claimed.