Technology vs Magic (A Challange)

Discussion in 'Science & Society' started by orthogonal, Jun 14, 2002.

  1. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

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    579
    Occasionally I play this mind game; I imagine that I've returned to Europe in the Middle Ages wearing only my "birthday suit." My task is to single-handedly introduce my ancestors to modern technology using only the information I carry in my head.

    This is not a such a simple task. For example, I might describe a cellular telephone to the King of France. He would blink a few times and say, "Alright, build one." It's not enough that I simply tell them about my technology. If I cannot reproduce this technology, then I'm a charlatan in their eyes.

    The human brain has not dramatically changed within the past 100,000 years. Modern man's morality is likewise only a trifle improved over the ancients. The only thing that makes me different from a man living in ancient times is my advanced science and technology. Yet the average modern man hasn't a clue how technology actually works, or how he might reproduce it from scratch. Technology is little different than magic to most folks.

    So, I'm asking you to prove that technolgy is more than magic to you. Your scientific credentials might be impeccable, but I'm not asking you to recreate scientific theories, I'm asking you to recreate technology, in-the-flesh. Using only those materials available at the time, what could you devise that would convince Medieval technicians that you have come to them from the future?

    Here is what I could do (you have the right to challange my claims):

    I could construct transistors. Using these transistors I could build radio transmitters and receivers.

    I might reduce the rate of infection in hospitals through improved hygiene, and by using simple disinfectants (ethyl alchohol).

    I could improve the metallurgy of steel production. I could build more accurate machine tools


    What could you do?

    Michael
     
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2002
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  3. (Q) Encephaloid Martini Valued Senior Member

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    Orthogonal

    What could you do?

    Build a 'Cotton Gin.'

    Build a crude wood lathe and possibly a metal lathe. Of course a bicycle style power machine run by human power would also be required to power the lathes. Once crude lathes are made, you keep upgrading the lathes until they can produce effective machined parts to build other tools and other machinery. From there, who knows ?
     
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  5. (Q) Encephaloid Martini Valued Senior Member

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    There should be enough materials to build a crude handglider. Would you be burned at the stake if you could fly ?
     
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  7. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

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    Q,

    Nice to hear from you, thanks for the reply.

    Now I'm very picky about my little game, so please bear all my objections with a good nature.

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    I'll have to remind you that the Medieval Europeans didn't wear much in the way of cotton, so a cotton gin wouldn't be very useful (they wore mostly linen made from flax and wool clothes).

    My next objection is that they already had crude foot powered lathes in the Middle Ages. The problem with machine tools wasn't so much with the form, as it was with the materials available, specifically, cast iron of the correct properties and above all, tool steel. The modern machine-age is mostly a product of improved metallurgy.

    The game is to use the information you have in your head at this very moment. In this case you would have to refine iron ore to reduce the impurities to an acceptable level (common sulpher impurities for example produces an unacceptable brittleness), and to produce a steel with the proper percentage of carbon. Could you do this? Many brilliant men worked their entire lives to refine this technology.

    But materials aside, how would you produce a dead-flat lathe bed for example, from a casting using simple only hand-tools? It can be done, but my question is, could you do it?

    It's not the point of this game to say "who knows?" The point is that you already have to know what to do when your feet hit the ground. We already know that the ancients tinkered their lives away to "get it right." You don't have the luxury of tinkering your life away in this game. You have to get to work straight-away using the procedures and skills that you bring with you from 2002, to produce timely results.

    The ancients were every bit as brilliant and practical as you and I are today. There was no scarcity of ingenuity in their day. What they lacked was the ability that you and I have to "stand on the shoulders of giants," simply because many of the giants had not yet been born.

    Q, I'm asking you to be very specific as to how you, standing on the shoulders of giants, would produce something. In most cases you would have to produce a tool, to produce a tool, to produce a tool,..., to produce the end product.

    Regards,
    Michael
     
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2002
  8. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

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    579
    Q,

    No, in this game if you build a telescope the natives clap you on the back and offer their daughter to you in marriage, instead of burning you at the stake or placing you under house-arrest.

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    The hang glider is a good idea, but would you make the demonstration flights in it yourself? What materials would you use for the rigging? Would you trust your life to the cordage of the time? For example, would you use the ropes commonly used in ships at that time? Aeronautics is as much about strength-of-materials as it is about lift/drag ratios, and proper wing surface cross-sections. Remember all those sad silent movies of people jumping off of roof-tops to their death in fairly credible looking gliders? I suppose you could give a minimal training to the peasants and let them be your test pilots. Still, if you killed too many of your peasant-pilots, I'd think they would start to question if you really came from 2002, that is, if you really knew what you were doing.

    Generally, I think a hang glider is a good answer Q, but only for a man who actually has a fair number of hours under-his-belt building and flying hang-gliders. This game is to find out not what could be done by men who return back in time from 2002; I've no doubt there are men alive today that know any given technology from top to bottom. The game is much more personal. It asks what you specifically could do with the information you have in your head at this very moment.

    I have a general idea of what is done in heart-bypass surgery, but I don't think for a moment that I could save the life of a Medieval man by performing a heart bypass operation myself. Perhaps a skilled cardiologist could do this with simple tools and by extracting his own anesthesia from common plants? It would be fun to hear a cardiologist speak about this possibility. In any case, the question is for each person to tell what he could do, using his present skills and understanding.

    Michael
     
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2002
  9. (Q) Encephaloid Martini Valued Senior Member

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    19,125
    Orthogonal

    I may have misinterpreted your game plan. I was under the impression that if I were to venture back in time to the Medieval Era, I would at the very least prepare myself with the proper knowledge and experience to undertake any of these ventures. Say for example, I could learn the art of folding metal to make it stronger similar to the early Japanese sword makers. This information was not readily available to those living in that Era (except in Japan of course).

    I already design and build my own model gliders and planes as a hobby but would probably need to have a clear understanding of building a hand glider that could support a man. You may be correct in that the materials would not be available that could provide enough strength yet be light enough to build a hand glider.

    I remember building a bow in high school using the technique of lamination. Perhaps using this technique, I could build the materials that would give the glider it's strength. Was silk available back then ?

    I think I would be confident enough to fly it myself. I would rather be pulled behind a horse on an open plane as opposed to jumping off a cliff.

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  10. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

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    I apologize for my opaque rule-set, Q. Yes of course you may go take a class in the forging of Damascus steels, and I might one day go to medical school where I would learn to perform open heart surgery. The only restriction is that you have to take yourself as you are when you play the game. Hypothetically, an intelligent man could learn any technology and any set of skills. We already have a good idea what it is possible for a man to know, the question is what you know when you play this game.

    The game is able to tell us quite a bit about ourselves. Einstein supposedly said, "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." This is roughly the same idea as explaining your 21st Century technology to a Medieval craftsman.

    Occasionally, a modern metallurgist used to computer controlled furnaces and emission spectrometry melt-sampling, will try to refine his own copper ore with the use of a goat-skin bellows and a charcoal-fired clay furnace. To make a success of such an experiment requires a very refined understanding of the art.

    I read a true story some years ago of a group of British soldiers in a Japanese POW camp that were able to build a working shortwave radio by making their own components (capacitors, resistors, etc.). They managed to smuggle in a vacuum tube and a pair of headphones, but they made everything else. This is what prompted me to make my own (admittedly crude) transistor. However, I spent several years of part-time effort in the University library before I was able to accomplish this.

    One of my favorite films was, The Flight of the Phoenix. This is the film where Jimmy Stewart crashes his airplane in the desert. Among the survivors is Hardy Kruger, a model airplane designer. Together the surviors manage to assemple a smaller aircraft from the wreckage of the larger aircraft, and fly this airplane back to civilization. I'm such a sucker for these films. Das Boot is another such film in which men faced with a desperate situation pool their technical skills, and through a communal will to live, they find a soulution. Another film titled, Escape of the Birdmen was set in a German POW camp. In this film the Allied prisoners construct a glider from bed sheets and sticks. They used the starch in the potato gruel to size the wings, and a bathtub dropped down a shaft to catapult it on it's flight to Switzerland. The movie was based on a real story, though in real-life, the prisoners didn't have time to finish the aircraft. As I said, I love these films.

    A real-life event which really caught my imagination was the discovery of "Oetzi", the so-called iceman in the Italian Alps. Oetzi carried spare parts and tools to repair his equipment. He carried an axe made of copper. High levels of arsenic were found in his hair, which is indirect proof that he must have had a hand at copper smelting (arsenic is a common impurity in copper ore, and escapes as a volatile during smelting). I believe that Oetzi was by far, more of a master of his enviroment than any of us are today. Oetzi undertood how to make a bow, what plants were edible, and how to produce his own metal products. How many of us understand the technology upon which our own lives depend to such a degree? A dead cell phone battery leaves many of us in a state of helplessness. BTW, if you hadn't heard, some months ago an arrow-head was found lodged under Oeti's ribs. He didn't lose his way and freeze to death as speculation earlier suggested, he had been killed. His violent death helped make sense to me of his copper axe. A copper axe is so soft as too be nearly useless for cutting wood, though it would be lethal enough when used as a weapon against unarmored humans.

    Oh yes Q, silk from the Orient was available in Medieval Europe(though rather expensive). Well, as usual I've rambled on far too long.

    Michael
     
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2002
  11. Adam §Þ@ç€ MØnk€¥ Registered Senior Member

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    I think that with a little playing around with ingredients, I could build a decent gun.

    I might be able to do penicillin.

    I could get hydro or wind electricity generation going.

    I think I could handle lightbulbs.

    Probably improved mining techniques.

    My knowledge of political theory (probably pretty standard now, but most of us have more academic education than our equivalents of a thousand years ago) might well change history, if put to good use.

    I could, with the help of smiths, create a steam engine. After which more could be made. Wow, heavy transport! Motorised ships!

    Whichever happened to be my favourite country/region/culture, I could tell them about Australia, maybe give them an entire continent centuries before it was really invaded. Maybe, with some sweet-talk, get them to do it without slaughtering all the locals, as happened in the real world.

    PS: The bladesmiths of Europe had, as early as 1600 years ago, pattern-welded blades which could match Japanese swords of a thousand years later for strength and edge-hardness and core-flexibility. If people wish to discuss this with me, perhaps another thread is suitable.
     
  12. (Q) Encephaloid Martini Valued Senior Member

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    Orthogonal

    Now that I have a better understanding of the ground rules, I find your mind game most interesting. I'll now have to go away and think about this some more.

    I may have a slight disadvantage in not being up to speed as you are with Medieval history in terms of what was and was not available in regards with tools and materials.

    Any help on your part might make the exercise a little easier and would place everyone on a level playing field. Is it possible to post some good links as to what was and was not available ? That of course, may be asking a lot.

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    Thanks in advance.
     
  13. kmguru Staff Member

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    11,757
    I would like to put in my two cents.

    Somewhere in this forum, I posted about the description of how to build a flying machine (Vimana) that was passed on from one generation to another. By the time, it was put on written words, the meaning have been so distorted because the people who wrote it could not comprehend what they are writing about. So, basically all the construction details of advanced machinaries and technology (the third veda I think) are useless.

    There is a good example in "Backto future" where doc ended up in 1800s and they had to comeback to today or the future...

    If we go before that but blacksmithing is available then:

    Gun
    Black powder
    Fireworks
    Rocket
    Steam engine
    Aspirin
    Ethyl Alcohol
    Crude Oil
    Natural Gas
    Lathe
    Compressor
    Dynamo
    Lead-Acid Battery
    Light Bulb
    Printing
    Sanitation
    Transformer
    Alternator
    Electric motor
    Vaccum Tube
    Many lectric appliances
    Adsorption refrigerator
    Curling Iron
    Electric Fan
    etc etc.....

    I think, one can follow the inventions and developments in the last 200 years and develop the products at much faster rate since later products will depend on previous products. For example, once you build battery then you can build alternator and transformer to carry electricity.
     
  14. Brett Bellmore Registered Senior Member

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    68
    Hey, that could be fun, in a desperate struggle for survival sort of way. It's actually the premise of a favorite SF series of mine, by Leo Frankowski. (A local author.) The Cross-Time Engineer

    Being a mechanical designer by trade, with an interest in obsolete industrial technolgies, there's a lot I could do. You'd have to start small, naturally, assuming you didn't show up with real working capital. Remember, we're talking an age when virtually everybody but the wealthy elite were living at the edge of starvation...

    Canning. Easy to do with the technology available back then, using properly glazed pottery and wax. Food preservation technology would be worth a fortune in a society where a substantial fraction of the produce was lost to vermin and decay.

    Windmills. Need a source of power for so many things you'd want to do, and a source of power which didn't involve human or animal muscle; A terrible fraction of their agricultural output went to feeding beasts of burden.

    After that, well, chemistry was a hobby of mine when I was a teen, given a source of power I could make all sorts of interesting things, using my knowlege of modern chemistry. Forget gun powder, I'd go straight to smokeless powder. I'm sure I could get something for aluminum; It was long considered more precious than gold.

    That would be a start.
     
  15. kmguru Staff Member

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    11,757
    For aluminium you need high current DC Power. So you need to start battery and electrical system first. Since you are a mechanical designer - you could come up a lot of machinaries.

    When I studied engineering, at the time the course was heavy in all engineering fields ( a long ago). So, my generation engineers can do metallurgy, chemical, civil (for water, building design, irrigation), mechanical and electrical (includes electronics/ computers). So a few of us can do all sorts of stuff.
     
  16. Brett Bellmore Registered Senior Member

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    68
    Actually, while I'm a mechanical designer by trade, I'm an electrical engineer by training, and I took a dual major in college, the second being human biology.

    You can do the batteries, by the way, I'd go with a windmill and generator.
     
  17. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

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    579
    Lightbulbs

    What would you use for a filament? Thomas Edison tried thousands of filaments before settling on one. Do you know which one he used? The usual filament in a modern incandescent lightbulb is tungsten. Do you know how to isolate this metal from its ore? If it is not highly purified, the impurities released when it glows white-hot will destroy the high-vacuum required inside the bulb. What would you use for a vacuum pump? Even if you could evacuate the bulb, how would you keep the adsorbed gasses on the inside walls of the glass bulb from outgassing, and again, destroying the vacuum? How would you seal the wires leading from the filament to the outside of the bulb? Most metals have quite a different coefficient of expansion than does glass. As soon as you heated the bulb, the glass would expand to a greater or a lesser proportion than the wires. In the first case the seal would be broken, in the second case a crack might form in the glass which again, would break the vacuum seal. How would you prevent the filament from evaporating (usually referred to as sputtering) and forming a deposit on the inside of the glass. In short order the glass wall would become opaque, resulting in little light transmission.

    Now, obviously there are solutions to each one of the problems I bring up, or we never would have had lightbulbs in the first place. I bring them up to show that even something as simple as an incandescent lightbulb required a vast amount of engineering and problem solving. The solutions were anything but trivial. The apparent simplicity of even a lightbulb is deceiving. BTW, if you could make a success of the lightbulb, doubtless you could make an electronic vacuum tube (British=valve) as well. The design problems are very much related.

    Steam Engine

    The pot boiler built with the brittle iron available in the Middle Ages would be better suited for making a bomb than a steam engine. Even though the steam working pressures were kept to a minimum (which drastically reduced the efficiency as well), early steam engine explosions killed people by the thousands (Do you remember the gun-camera footage of WW2 Allied fighters during machine-gun attacks on Axis locomotives? When the boiler was pierced by a bullet, the gigantic explosion resulted entirely from the latent energy of the superheated water suddenly escaping into the air...fighter pilots just loved to shoot holes in them). Should you desire to use copper instead of iron, you have to contend with the creep of copper at high temperatures. Another problem is proper piston and valve lubrication. You would need a lubricating oil formulated to remain intact in the presence of steam. A moderately powerful, low pressure, low speed steam engine would require quite a large flywheel. Do you know how to calculate the failure speed of a cast iron flywheel? If not, I would erect a mountain of sandbags around the engine, as bursting flywheels release a tremendous amount of kinetic energy.

    Lastly, to make a steam engine requires at least a lathe with an accurate bed and a carriage mounted tool rest. These were not available in the Middle Ages. You would have to make this yourself. Do you know how to chip cast iron to an approximate shape and then finish by scraping? Again I ask, what would you use for cutting tool steel? The folded Damascus blades Adam speaks of hold a nice edge for gutting a human, but if you would try to use this same steel in an engine lathe, the edge would quickly break down under the heat and pressure generated by cutting steel. I keep speaking about metallurgy because I think many of us have forgotten the significance of the discovery of tool steels. Tool steels perhaps were to the 19th century what transistors were to the 20th Century.

    I built an O gauge live-steam locomotive for my two nephews nearly 15 years ago. It used an alchohol burner under a silver-soldered copper boiler. Even though the finished engine fit into the palm of my hand, it still required an entire winter of all my free time for the machining of this engine. Also, I followed a set of plans and I didn't have to build my metal lathe. Besides, the end-product was only a toy. The bearings and piston/valve lubrication scheme was sufficient for a toy, but entirely inadequate for providing any useful power.

    Again, there are solutions to these 18th and 19th Century problems. I'm playing the devil's advocate by suggesting that even 18th Century techology was not without its subtleties.

    Q, I'm not aware of any good sites on the web for learning about the history of technology in the Middle-Ages. The libraries are full of wonderful books on the subject though. The nearest college or university would be your best bet, though any library could get the books via inter-library loan. I've always found the history of technology to be a fascinating subject.

    Michael
     
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2002
  18. kmguru Staff Member

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    11,757
    For some reason, I have been thinking about this for about a year. I know a reliable psychic who says that in 10 to 12 years, for a short time, there will be an economic collapse worldwide that will stop the oil and power in US and people will go back to fending for themselves for about a year until the national guards restore order. Irrespective of the cause, if our supply chain of energy and food gets disrupted, we have to survive on our wits. So, I talked to my neighbors and we are going to set up a system to self-sustain our local communities. That includes, food, medicine, energy etc. I have a set of Foxfire books that will help.

    Now, this could be temporary, so we will have available a lot of gadgets and laptops and CD-ROMs etc to access the knowledge base. But suppose there is an asteroid strike that sends mankind back to square-one, how would you store the knowledge so that you or your children can access that knowledge and rebuild the society? There is a TV program called "Jeremiah" in Showtime that depicts life after a biological disaster.

    If anyone knows any CDROMs available that teaches how to build stuff with common hardware store tools to sustain an isolated community from supply of goods and services, I would love to know. This topic is not the place, so I am starting another topic - please join me to discuss this issue - at "Surviving Disaster " topic.
     
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2002
  19. Brett Bellmore Registered Senior Member

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    68
    Orthogonal, I'm pretty well up on those things, because I've been a big customer of Lindsay Publications, which specializes in books about obsolete technologies.
     
  20. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

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    Hey Brett,

    Yes, I know Lindsay equally well. He does put out an odd catalog though

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    You might mention him to kmguru. Also, kmguru should know about Real Goods, a company that sells alternate energy supplies (they recently combined with Jade Mountain), as well as Lehman Hardware an outfit that sells homesteading supplies to the Amish. I've been a good customer to both in the past. I'm pretty sure they both have a presence on the WWW

    Hmm...I wonder how the Amish manage to buy on-line? I'm envisioning a horse driven computer.

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    Michael
     
  21. Adam §Þ@ç€ MØnk€¥ Registered Senior Member

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    When the Amish say they have a 200 horsepower car, they mean it!. A car's body pulled along by 200 horses...
     
  22. wet1 Wanderer Registered Senior Member

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    8,616
    First I think on the list would be to build a water wheel. The water wheel can have many uses to make power available. The materials at hand are not really much of a problem, other than making sure you use a wood that tolerates water well, such as cypress. Once you have a water wheel you may use the power for all kinds of things, grist mill, wood "power tools", the list is endless on this. Metallurgy is something else. One of the big problems was getting the fire hot enough. Charcoal and billows worked bit you can not develop a hot enough fire to melt metals and give sufficent purity through the process without the heat.

    Cordage? Once in the boyscouts I learned how to make rope. We hand wound it. That I could do again today. It would be much easier using modern materails but I could subsistute other materials that would work.

    Wire drawing is relativitily easy to accomplish. This gives you a graded wire of roughly uniform size. Nails could be easy made from a stamp and the wire made, provided your power source is from the water wheel. The key to all this is when you "design" a process think about mass producing it. Most everything of olden times was hand produced. And the parts required hand fitting. This meant repair was also a hand process that was time consuming.
     
  23. wet1 Wanderer Registered Senior Member

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    8,616
    The Amish Laptop...

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    Features:
    • 13 x 6 Bead Resolution
    • 78 RAB (Random Access Bead) Memory
    • All wood construction
    • Chalk & slate based input
    • Holders for slate, chalk, charcoal and stylus
    • 1 Chicken Power Supply
    • Built-in Modem (see FAQ for more info
     

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