History Medicine Surgery

Back in time in medicine

Being a Doctor Who fan and all, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be able to travel through time and visit times and places in history that I’m most interested in. For instance, being a World War II buff, I’d certainly want to be able to check out what every day life was like here in the U.S. during World War II. Given my affinity for psychedelic music and that I was only four years old during most of the Summer of Love, I’d think it cool to check out Haight-Ashbury, although I suspect my reaction to the reality of it would be similar to that of George Harrison when he checked it out for the first time. I guess, if pushed, I’d have to admit that if I had been a high school or college student in 1967, I probably would have been one of those straight-laced, short-haired types destined either to go to college to become a doctor or an engineer or to go to Vietnam to fight. Despite loving the music, I never had any interest in experimenting with the drugs. Heck, I never even tried to smoke tobacco; I can’t stand the stuff.

In any case, what provoked this bit of musing was a post a couple of weeks ago by Martin Rundkvist, who wrote about Fear of Time Travel, where he imagines what it would be like for a modern person to be transported back in time:

First, imagine that you’re dropped into a foreign city with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. Pretty scary, huh? But still, most of us would get out of the situation fairly easily. We would find the embassy of our country of origin, or if it were in another city, contact the local police and ask to use their phone. A few days later we would be home.

That’s not the scary scenario I rehearse. Imagine that you’re dropped into the city you live in with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. And it’s 500 years ago. (Or for you colonial types, 300 years ago in one of your country’s first cities.)

It’s a fun thought experiment, with Martin pointing out that you would speak the language with what to the natives living at that time would seem a very strange and nearly incomprehensible accent. Think of how hard it is to understand the English spoken in Shakespeare’s plays, which is full of idioms, turns of phrase, and vocabulary peculiar to the time, and then just think about the number of words that we use that would be incomprehensible to, say, an American living in the Midwest, which at the time for where I live would have been ruled by the French as part of New France but mostly populated by indigenous tribes. So for purposes of the thought experiment, I’ll pick New York or Boston. Here’s the part of Martin’s thought experiment that caught my eye:

Some might think that a well educated modern Westerner would soon become one of the sages of the age thanks to their superior technological and scientific knowledge. For one thing, it wouldn’t be hard for most of us to become the best doctor in the world of AD 1509 if knowledge was all it took. But I have a feeling that such knowledge would not be easily applied in a society that is completely unprepared for it, and not easily implemented in an environment where none of today’s infrastructure exists. And say that you’re actually a doctor or an engineer – how much could you achieve without access to any materials or tools invented in the past 500 years? I mean, I know the principles of nuclear fusion, aviation, antibiotics, vaccination and basic biochemistry, but don’t ask me to put them into practice starting from scratch!

Well, I am a physician and surgeon, and I don’t know if I could elevate myself to a sage of the age with my knowledge. The reason is that so much of what I do and have done in medicine relies on the technology and science of the time. Let’s start with something very, very basic. I’m a surgeon. I try to cure or treat diseases by operating. Operating on a patient, however, is very difficult without reliable anesthesia, and inhalational anesthesia using ethyl ether wasn’t discovered until the 1840s. Before that, there were various herbal anesthetics and hypnotics, natural drugs like opium extracts and later morphine, and alcohol. While these may have sufficed for minor operations (barely), they were not at all sufficient for doing anything major, such as entering a major body cavity.

That’s why, before anesthesia, surgeons had to be fast, and surgery was very bloody. Think of Abigail “Nabby” Adams Smith, the first born of our second President, John Adams. She was diagnosed with a malignant tumor of the breast and underwent a mastectomy without anesthesia, the gruesome details of which were described in Jim Olson’s Essay on Nabby Adams:

Nabby entered into the room as if dressed for a Sunday service. She was a proper woman and acted the part. The doctors were professionally attired in frock coats, with shirts and ties. Modesty demanded that Nabby unbutton only the top of her dress and slip it off her left shoulder, exposing the diseased breast but little else. She remained fully clothed. Since they knew nothing of bacteria in the early 1800s, there were no gloves or surgical masks, no need for Warren to scrub his hands or disinfect Nabby’s chest before the operation or cover his own hair. Warren had her sit down and lean back in a reclining chair. He belted her waist, legs, feet, and right arm to the chair and had her raise her left arm above her head so that the pectoralis major muscle would push the breast up. A physician took Nabby’s raised arm by the elbow and held it, while another stood behind her, pressing her shoulders and neck to the chair.

Warren then straddled Nabby’s knees, leaned over her semi-reclined body, and went to work. He took the two-pronged fork and thrust it deep into the breast. With his left hand, he held onto the fork and raised up on it, lifting the breast from the chest wall. He reached over for the large razor and started slicing into the base of the breast, moving from the middle of her chest toward her left side. When the breast was completely severed, Warren lifted it away from Nabby’s chest with the fork. But the tumor was larger and more widespread then he had anticipated. Hard knots of tumor could be felt in the lymph nodes under her left arm. He razored in there as well and pulled out nodes and tumor. Nabby grimaced and groaned, flinching and twisting in the chair, with blood staining her dress and Warren’s shirt and pants. Her hair matted in sweat. Abigail, William, and Caroline turned away from the gruesome struggle. To stop the bleeding, Warren pulled a red-hot spatula from the oven and applied it several times to the wound, cauterizing the worst bleeding points. With each touch, steamy wisps of smoke hissed into the air and filled the room with the distinct smell of burning flesh. Warren then sutured the wounds, bandaged them, stepped back from Nabby, and mercifully told her that it was over. The whole procedure had taken less than twenty-five minutes, but it took more than an hour to dress the wounds. Abigail and Caroline then went to the surgical chair and helped Nabby pull her dress back over her left shoulder as modesty demanded. The four surgeons remained astonished that she had endured pain so stoically.

Without effective anesthesia, I could do no better than these surgeons from 200 years ago. In fact, I would probably do much worse, because I’m used to operating in a deliberate fashion, cauterizing individual blood vessels as I go. The reason surgery before inhalational agents became available was “cut and slash” was because it had to be. To do otherwise was to prolong the torture of the patient. I’m not used to operating that way, and there was no such thing as a Bovie electrocautery machine back then. It would all be scalpels and scissors–or, as in Nabby Adams’ case, razor blades and, in essence, a set of tongs to elevate the breast. It’s another reason why surgeons were frequently so fast in doing amputations that their assistants had to be careful not to let their fingers get in the way. As for more extensive operations, even with the anesthesia available in the latter half of the 1800s, a full 150 years after the time period Martin’s thought experiment envisions, there was no way to control respiration. Anesthesia was a delicate balance between not putting the patient so deep that he stopped breathing but putting him deep enough so that he wasn’t reacting overmuch to the surgical stimuli. Mechanical ventilators were an invention of the 20th century.

That’s just one example. There are numerous other tools, disciplines and examples of knowledge that a modern surgeon depends upon in order to do his or her job, such as antibiotics and germ theory, pathology to identify what a patient has based on tissue samples, transfusions, and a wide variety of medications, to name a few. Then there’s diagnostic radiology. There would be no CTs or MRIs; there wouldn’t even be X-rays. Indeed, even something as simple as suture would be a problem. The needles used 300 years ago were huge by today’s standards because of the difficulty making small needles. Throughout history, needles were made of bone or metals such as silver, copper, or bronze, while sutures were made of either cotton, flax, hemp, silk, or even tendons and nerves. There was a reason they called “catgut” suture catgut. Although cat gut suture was not made from the actual gut of cats, it was made from actual gut–connective tissue from intestines. Actually cat gut was pretty good suture and was still occasionally used 20 years ago, when I first started my residency, mainly by the older surgeons.

In any case, I think Martin’s right in that, without the infrastructure and scientific background being there, it would be very, very difficult for a surgeon of 2010 like me to recreate much of anything that I do now in the year 1710, even if I were dropped into Boston among the most learned physicians of the age. No one there would have any idea of germ theory (and thus sterile technique, both of which were 150 years away), anesthesia, or much of basic physiology. Indeed, at that time, diseases were thought to be caused by imbalances in the four humors or miasmas, for the most part. If I were to try to explain these concepts to the learned men of the time, assuming I could master the dialect of 300 years ago, they’d assume I was either mad or a witch. It would be a good thing for me that the wave of witch hunts and executions was pretty much over by the early 18th century.

There is one area that I can think of where a surgeon of 2010 might be able to translate some of his knowledge into 1710 and hope to have some influence. The first, of course, is sterile technique. It would not be that huge of an undertaking to sterilize instruments (although sterilizing sutures would be very problematic), either in flame or in alcohol. It would probably not be that huge a challenge to use alcohol, carbolic acid, or some other compound to clean the operative field, the patient’s skin, and one’s hands. (Given the lack of latex or rubber gloves, I’m not sure if it would be possible not to operate with my bare hands, as surgeons of the time did–and in fact continued to do until the late 1800s and beyond). In other words, I could be Joseph Lister well over 150 years before Lister showed the benefits of antisepsis. Come to think of it, I could potentially be Louis Pasteur, again 150 years before Pasteur did much of his work. At the very least, I could figure out how to replicate his experiments disproving abiogenesis and to develop Pasteurization. Of course, convincing the world of 1710 of the validity of these ideas would be even harder than the time Pasteur had convincing his contemporaries of germ theory.

In fact, it brings up an issue that should demonstrate just how hard it would be to convince the physicians and surgeons of 1710 of our knowledge. Consider something as simple as blood pressure. Although, as I have described before, ancient Egyptians knew enough to palpate pulses, the very first measurements of blood pressure (more accurately, pulse pressure) were not made until 1733 by Stephen Hales, who measured the blood pressure of a horse. It was not until 1855 when the first sphygmomanometer was devised by Vierordt of Tubingen, an instrument called at the time the sphygmograph, which was considerably improved upon by Etienne Jules Marey in 1860. Before this, it was not possible to measure arterial blood pressure other than under surgical conditions using a canula inserted directly into an artery. Finally, the modern version of the sphygmomanometer was invented by Samuel Siegfried Karl Ritter von Basch in 1881, but Italian physician Scipione Riva-Rocci improved upon it by producing a more easily used version in 1896. After that, Harvey Cushing discovered the device during a visit to Italy in 1901 and popularized its use in the U.S. after he returned home. What all this means is that the routine measuring of blood pressure as a “vital sign” in virtually all patients did not become truly routine until around 100 years ago. Even more amazing, it was still 20 years before Russian physician Nikolai Korotkov popularized the use of the device to measure diastolic blood pressure as well, meaning that the systolic/diastolic blood pressure ratio that we’re all familiar with didn’t become routine practice until the 1920s.

Hmmm. Maybe I could be Harvey Cushing 200 years before Harvey Cushing was in his prime.

Finally, it occurs to me that the way medicine was practiced 300 years ago here in the colonies bears a lot of resemblance to many “alternative” therapies. Medicines back then were virtually all derived from herbs or animal products, often the herbs or animal products themselves, unpurified. Germ theory was meaningless, and disease was thought to be due to things that very much resemble alt-med’s concepts of disturbances in the flow of qi. While I might be very much a fish out of water in 1710 as far as trying to practice medicine and surgery, I suspect many “alternative” medicine practitioners would not be.

In any case, if there’s one thing this little thought experiment has done for me, it’s to make me realize how much of what I do depends on hundreds of years of history and science and any achievements I may have in my career rest squarely on the shoulders of giants. This leads me to wonder if similar thought experiments could be done with other branches of science. What would be possible in your field of science if you were to find yourself plopped into your city 300 or 500 years ago?

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

119 replies on “Back in time in medicine”

You might however have had oleum vitrioli dulce verum, the question then being only knowing what to do with it.

I’m a microbiologist and I’d be in a lot of trouble since, as you noted, germ theory was still quite a while from being formulated and accepted.

500 years ago would predate microscopes and I don’t have the knowledge of lens grinding to make one. ~400 years ago I guess the first microscopes started showing up, so if I were very lucky I could maybe begin some extremely basic microbiology. Leeuwenhoek discovered microbes in 1676, maybe I could scoop him somehow :p

I would probably have more success in helping the brewing “industry” by working to develop pure cultures and sterile technique.

I’m now going to memorize every detail possible for Gram staining, just in case.

I’m a pediatrician, and I would still have the same struggle: convincing parents that they can’t force a two-year old to poop in the chamberpot, fall asleep at 8:00, or eat green beans.

What would be possible in your field of science if you were to find yourself plopped into your city 300 or 500 years ago?

With no time at all to prepare, I would probably be, at best, slightly less dangerous than the average doctor, in that I know to wash my hands before seeing the patient. With some time to prepare I could probably figure out how to isolate pencillin, digitalis, etc and might be able to pull off a certain number of “miracle cures” and gain enough of a following to start a movement and maybe get the sterile technique movement going a bit early.

As far as which city to go to, what about going back a bit further in time and living in one of the Mayan cities? Or, if it has to be 300-500 years ago, one of the Incan? The language has changed enough that it’s probably just as easy to learn Incan as old English. (When it comes right down to it, I can barely understand modern English-as opposed to American. I regularly watch British movies dubbed into German to make them easier to understand.)

Could I go with 50-75 years ago instead? Then I could kick start chemotherapy and radiotherapy a bit earlier than expected, which would be much more useful than trying to figure out whether the penicillin I’d produced was endotoxin free.

Of course, there’s the issue of whether a person who has arrived from (literally) nowhere with no resources can convince anyone that they’re a doctor or that anyone should listen to them. It might be easiest to become, er, an alternate practitioner: start making claims about how you can produce miracle cures and, well, start with desperate people who have been told by their doctors that there’s nothing that can be done for them. A certain number will have problems which are curable by someone with knowledge of modern medicine and basic tools. Cure enough of them and you’ll have the money and attention to bring the knowledge to the mainstream…in short, do what CAM practioners would do if they really could do what they claim.

Wow, thanks for the picture of surgery back then, I didn’t feel like eating today anyway :).

While reading that story I couldn’t help but think of my (3) c-sections. The first was for a placental abruption, I barely made it in a modern hospital, but with the historical surgery described here, I don’t think I would have wanted to survive.

You might be able to make the cowpox/smallpox connection 300 years ago. However educated men of that time generally knew Latin which might put many modern doctors at a disadvantage.

The trick would be to use my pharmacognosy without being accused of witchcraft. Not having much standing as a female-no voting or property rights, would be hard. I could only hope to pass as a harmless herb woman.

Or, like Arthur Dent in “Mostly Harmless”, I could open a deli 500 years before Zingerman’s.

I am an electrical engineer working as a programmer. The programming, as a job, is a complete waste 300 years ago. Electrical engineering might work out. I have Edison, Tesla, Faraday and many others whose work I could, in time duplicate. The problem is that I’d have to find ‘real’ work to have time for and pay for my toys inventions.

I am pretty handy at plumbing and electrical work… wait, too early to need much of that. I can frame a house… oh, wait, I’d have to make nails and not be able to use all the power tools I am familiar with.

Actually being fit for work of any kind 300 or 500 years ago might be a challenge. I’d most likely need to be an apprentice and work in a guild for many years until I could introduce improvements.

While reading that story I couldn’t help but think of my (3) c-sections.

C-sections prior to anesthesia were generally performed only on a dead or dying woman in a last-ditch effort to save the fetus. Abruption probably would have been deadly before anyone figured out what was going on.

I had a c-section for fetal head malpositioning and chorioamnionitis. In this case, since the fetus’ head was down but deflexed instead of chin tucked, most likely no one would have figured out that anything was going wrong until after we’d both died of fever or exhaustion. Possibly even 50 years ago when c-sections were performed but less routine, the OB would have hesitated too long. Altogether, I’m glad that I was pregnant in the early 21st century, not the early 20th or 17th.

As a physicist, not much 300 years ago. Sure, I know relativity and quantum mechanics. But sufficiently precise apparatus to measure the effects would not be available.

Probably the most useful thing I could do would be to imitate Edison/Westinghouse and generate/use electricity. But even that I’d have to do in collaboration. I know the theory well enough but I’m hopeless at actually building things.

500 years ago I’ve got much better odds – I could be Newton if I’m allowed to relocate to Europe.


Thank you for the information. That was simply the only type of surgery I have ever experienced, hence my musing.

I do, however remember reading in ‘What to Expect While Expecting’ something about how abruption was frequently fatal (and so rare, don’t worry about it). So when the perinatologist told me what was happening I was very frightened. From what I understand, it would have meant certain death not so long ago.

You would also run the risk of being thought a witch or sorcerer for curing all those “uncurable” people. Manufacturing radically new devices and treatments that completely contradicted what was being doing done at the time would be very suspicious and not easily adopted. As a nurse, I would most likely be a prostitute or one of the poorest women in town with nothing to lose because who would care if I caught what they had. Author Diana Gabaldon has imagined just such a world as the one Orac describes in her Outlander series of novels, described by as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting Scrooge McDuck comic books.”

@Kristen: Actually, the only fetal death during labor (seen other fetal deaths and newborn deaths) I ever saw was from abruption (long story short – pt called her MD with pain, he told her to come right to the hospital, we waited 2 1/2 hours for her to arrive since she didn’t come in immediately. She arrived finally, it seemed the fetal heart was 90’s – turned out to be mom, baby was dead. We “crashed” her but couldn’t resusitate the baby; mom went into severe hemorrhage (DIC) and ended up losing her uterus to save her life. First baby, too. I’ll never forget that one). I’ve seen 1 maternal death. You never forget those.

For an expanded version of this experiment read 1632 by Eric Flint. Imagine a modern American small town suddenly dropped into the middle of medieval Germany. They, too, find that they can’t just immediately re-create all of modern technology, and struggle to re-creat civil war era tech instead.


I’d probably make efforts to push psychology ahead a bit(at the time practically non-existent, so there’s not an establishment to battle). If nothing else, I’d consider introducing behaviorism and psychophysics. I’d imagine even 18th century folk could understand the principle of conditioning, even if I were to be considered weird for presenting animal behavior models. (Who knows, maybe the political theorists of the era would then write an equivalent to Walden II?) Without AI and neuroscience, though, the groundwork for cog sci just wouldn’t be there. My primary worry would be psychophysics, particularly reaction times and just measurable differences; would the apparatus required for those studies be available?

I’d imagine a modern mathematician or logician would do exceptionally well among learned people in the era, historical changes in notation aside, if they’re familiar with the past few centuries of work.

I do program management in the Aerospace industry, so some of my organizational skills could have be useful 300-500 years ago. However, as a woman I’d most likely end up using those skills to run a household instead of overseeing the construction of a cathedral.

I imagine that my most beneficial skills would be from my needle craft hobbies. I’ve studied enough different techniques and design styles that I’d have something novel to add to any culture. Of course, the needle technology might be a bit limiting.

My profession didn’t exist prior to modern computing, but I’m also a writer with a good traditional education in literature, so as long as I landed after, say, Aphra Behn, I’d probably be okay eventually. I’d probably have to go the George Eliot route, but I could probably write some superlative comedies of manners!

The language has changed enough that it’s probably just as easy to learn Incan as old English.

Uh, have you ever looked at the linguistics of mesoamerican languages? You’d be better off with the Old English, mostly because at least in Old English, you’d start off with a handful of fairly obvious cognates, like scip (ship), brothur (brother), and cuninge (king).

Further, if you were only going back a mere 500 years, you’d still be in Early Modern English territory, which is less “Tha feng Aethelbrycht his brothur to heold…” and not even “Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” but a slightly earlier version of “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.” If you somehow think that Incan would be easier than Shakespearian, you’re insane.

As a chemist, I could, in principle, have a HUGE impact, assuming anyone would listen to me, of course. No, I couldn’t do it all on my own (with my synthetic skills?) but I could give the alchemists some real insight of things that could be done.

If nothing else, I could reproduce the periodic table, and that would be a tremendous advance. (I might not know all the names, but I will have all the boxes I need)

The key will be in developing isolation methods, but I can handle simple distillation (for solvents) and chromatography.

A pathologist 300 years ago would be a disreputable fellow. He would either be performing autopsies in the basement of a medical school or marketing himself in the public square as a “pisse-prophet”. 150 years ago we would have been in on the development of cell pathology. That would have been exciting!

Europe in 1510…maybe it’d be best to say heck with this medicine nonsense and get ahold of some of that cacao that the Spanish are bringing over from the New World instead. Invent brownies a good 400+ years early. I’m sure it’d be profitable.

There was a fascinating book called “The Doomsday Book” which discussed a time-travel experiment conducted in the near future, where a woman was sent back in time to the Middle Ages. She was very carefully prepared for the exercise, learning how to speak the Middle English of the period, and devising a cover story. I seem to recall she was supposed to be a nun. By a slight miscalculation, she ended up arriving in the wrong period (off by about 40 years IIRC and in the wrong season), and some things go wrong when she lands (she’s been incubating influenza, unbeknownst to anyone), and it ends up being much more difficult to blend than she’d expected. Mostly because she was supposed to be basically in and out, not taken in by a merchant family who found her collapsed with a fever and mistook her for a saint. It was an interesting book.

I’m a software engineer with a literature degree. I’m also a woman, which would be a problem. My literacy and numeracy could be somewhat helpful; my software skills utterly useless. My wilderness camping skills would serve only to assure people I wasn’t completely hopeless in the kitchen. Primitive, but not totally useless. I’d need to learn new techniques. Probably the only skill I could really leverage effectively would be hand-knitting. I’d be considered slow, most likely, but I could make use of modern techniques which have only been invented in the last 150 years or so. 500 years ago, it was all tubular stockinette stitch (just the knit stitch, done in the round, with patterns made by “stranding”, or carrying several colors of yarn along and alternating which one is the working yarn). The perl stitch alone would give me an advantage in Europe 500 years ago, if I could get set up with materials and a market for selling my wares, to say nothing of cables, gussets, turned heels, ribbing, raglan shaping, and other innovations. I’d be very vulnerable to industrial espionage, though, among other things. You didn’t get paid royalties for concepts back then, so my advantage would last until somebody else figured out what I was doing.

But I live in the “colonies”, which puts me into that 300 category. 300 years ago, my hometown did not exist. English was not spoken here. An old form of French, likely unrecognizable compared to the modern Parisian dialect taught to foreign language students today, was spoken by some fur traders in the area (“voyageurs”), but mostly the area was dominated by Dakota Indians. I would have absolutely no luck understanding them; their language is completely unlike European languages. It’s also probably shifted enough that even modern Dakota who live on the rez and do their best to maintain the language would have trouble with it. My survival skills would be pathetic. If I’m lucky, they’d take pity on me, the strange looking woman dropping their laps, and if I’m really lucky, one of them will speak enough French that I can convince them I mean no harm. Maybe my hand-knitting skills would prove useful within the tribe, but otherwise, I’d have very little besides basic labor to provide. And as I’m not in very good physical condition, I wouldn’t even be very good at that at first.

Of course, none of us are really responding to the scenario given: You’re dropped down in a city 300-500 years ago with no money, no ID, no connection to any person, and at best a tentative hold on the language. You’d have to build on the skills you have only and be able to get passed the prejudices of the time as well. The most likely outcome is that we’d all starve to death or die of small pox before being able to figure out how to make a living much less revolutionize our fields.

I’m a neurologist, and a woman. For not viewing seizures a evidence of demonic possession, I would almost certainly have been labeled as a witch!

L. Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall is an interesting SF take on the problem. I imagine that many people reading this blog have already read it.

I’m a bit of a history of technology buff. It’s amazing how many things we think have been around along time are fairly recent.

For example, plumbing. Seamless tubing was only developed in the last 150 years. Previous to that you had tubing with a crimped and soldered seam on one side making it almost impossible to bend without cracking the seam. Indoor plumbing really only started to become common when seamless tubing became possible. Before then you might have had a single source of water in the house, by means of a hand-pump in a scullery. A couple of hundred years before that and even indoor pumps go away.

Another example is nails. Until around 1800 all nails were hand-made, valuable, and used only when necessary. Between 1800 and 1900 better machines for making nails developed. Which changed the practice of carpentry. The ‘balloon’ style of building a house only goes back 200 years. Before then all construction was post-and-beam. Balloon-framing wasn’t really common until nails were cheap enough to be used as the primary fastener. I’ve done a good bit of construction framing in my time, but I couldn’t make a clean mortise-and-tenon pegged framing joint, or even cut shakes for a roof.

My point is that even in those fields which we call skilled-trades a modern person trust back in time would be little better than an unskilled laborer.

On the other hand, there is one field where the only thing necessary is study, and in some historical times not even much of that. A field where our habits of personal cleanliness wouldn’t be out of place, and full of people willing to listen to the most outlandish stories as if they were fact. I’m speaking, of course, of the practice of law. 😉


I’m an organic chemist, which means my field wouldn’t exist yet.

And with no NMR, IR, MS ? No spectrometry of any kind ?

I would be pretty limited. Was petroleum exploited at that time, other than as a curiosity ? I think I would have a hard time getting clean solvents – except alcohol. And no silica gel, or other reliable stationnary phase for chromatography – well paper maybe. I think I’d brush up my recristallisation methods.

Or maybe I could set up a show or something using a few spectacular reactions – that is if I wouldn’t get burned at the stake for it.

I would be pretty limited. Was petroleum exploited at that time, other than as a curiosity ? I think I would have a hard time getting clean solvents – except alcohol. And no silica gel, or other reliable stationnary phase for chromatography – well paper maybe. I think I’d brush up my recristallisation methods.

Kemist – see my post above. Do not underestimate the abilities of the alchemists, who were great at manipulation but without any chemistry knowledge.

As I said above, teach them the periodic table and they have the potential to get going very quickly. Although it is interesting that I included purification as the biggest challenge.

You could do an awful lot with alcohol as a solvent, although you could also probably get yourself some “biodiesel” for a non-polar solvent.

As a child, I could always draw realistically and was encouraged to develop my artistic skills(including painting and some silversmithing).So if it were the Low Countries,1510,maybe if I were *related* to an artist who ran a studio,there’d be a place for me.(In the colonies,if my name were “Peale”).

I’m a paleontologist, so aside from being a woman and marginalized, no-one would believe anything I had to say about the Earth. At best, I could get a husband with a lot of money and travel the world looking for fossils.

Which, aside from poor sanitation, corseting and no family planning, sounds like a blast.

Here is something else to think about. Since you’ve more likely than not had the full vaccination series (MMR, Polio, Smallpox, etc.) you’d be unaffected by the plagues of the time.

This would tend to make you stick out a bit.

Of course if I were to go back in time I’d be tried for heresy almost immediately. I have the caveat of wanting to bring back modern weaponry. A compound crossbow would be perfect. It is a weapon they’d conceivably have back then except the engineering on mine would be 21st century.

Then there’s the impacts of changing history. Should you introduce even one “modern” technique prior to its proper invention time, if you save just one more life, what are the impacts of that. A person (especially, a child) lives past the time they didn’t – they have descendants that they wouldn’t have had; they steal a spouse away from the person their spouse would have actually married (so now THOSE descendants are never conceived).

The ripples go on, literally, forever.

Best to not get involved. 🙂

Kemist @27 wrote, “Was petroleum exploited at that time, other than as a curiosity ?”

Petroleum has been known and used for millennia. Herodotus described it. It wells out of the ground in natural springs at places.

Medically it was used for several purposes, mainly in liniments, especially for rheumatism. My 9th edition Britannica has this also to say.

The oil of the Allegheny valley early had a local reputation as an internal remedy for consumption, and it has been lately been prescribed for bronchitis.

FWIW, my 1899 Merck also suggests oil for bronchitis as well as inhaling nitric acid vapors, carbolic-acid vapors and even wet-cupping to draw 8-10 oz. of blood.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

The sides are not so clear cut. Pasteur who was mentioned was a chemist and not a doctor. Opposition to him came from doctors, who thought like this: since you are not a doctor what do you know about it?

However many years ago, even one year, you would run into a wall of blind ignorance, and some doctors are not exempt.

An original vaccination struggle, for smallpox, was carried out by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the 18th century in England, and the prejudices then were no different than today. Fascinating reading. Her family is still prominent.

The biggest problem you would have in your time travel would be I think in dealing with superstitions including religious.

@Joe Shelby

Then again, everything that you change in the past has necessarily already happened and the future will turn out the same. Otherwise, you and all your accumulated knowledge would never go back in time. This is necessarily oversimplified from a lay perspective. Temporal physics makes my brain hurt.

I’m an anthropologist concentrated in archaeology, so I would just try to blend in and do some real fieldwork–more ethnography and linguistics than digging . I have to agree with Dianne, though, that we’d probably simply die quickly from some communicable disease or dysentery.

I knit and spin as well, and if I survived disease and the food pathogens, I could possibly introduce some techniques that would result in more comfortable garments. Breeding the sheep would have to be included in this.

I garden, so I could offer some help or at least survive with access to a plot. I make my own sourdough bread so I could introduce the concept of starter and beat the San Franciscans at that!

If I played my cards just right, I might find a well-off, open-minded husband who I might be able to convince to free his slaves. I had my babies at home, so I’d be okay with childbirth. The toughest thing for me would be to pretend to be religious. Writing would probably be the best option for a woman.

“I guess, if pushed, I’d have to admit that if I had been a high school or college student in 1967, I probably would have been one of those straight-laced, short-haired types destined either to go to college to become a doctor…”


I’m studying physics, so basically anything I could say here would be the same thing that Scott said earlier. However, there’s always for your time-traveling reference needs.

Ah heck – you would have all been burned at the stake during may times in the past after being put on trial for being involved in witchcraft.

I’d probably lose it, just like in brothers Strugatsky’s “Hard to be a God”. It wouldn’t be only the science I’d have to adjust to, but also the society.

I work in IT/IS. My knowledge would be totally useless 300 years ago, and even if not, a woman with that kind of knowledge would be ignored or laughed at (best scenario) or burned as a witch (worst scenario).

IOW, I’d have to become a hooker.

apart from Connie Willis Doomsday book, and Lest Darkness fall by L. Sprague DeCamp one might use Brins Practice Effect : produce brandy. ( or a couple of other timetravel stories )
However I am diabetic my lifeexpectancy in Cologne in 1509 would not be long : I could not speak with the right accent and my learned trades : Programming or teaching Physics would not be in much demand. I might – just might try to become my own ancestor ( in the 1680 my ancestors had a farm here , they might be around ). Recreating anything would be a problem : while it would be easy to build a simple battery it would not be good for much : building a lightbulb would be difficult. I could create a simple ac-generator IF I can pay for the materials , but without something to use the electricity for that is no help.
If I can get some influential mans ear I could introduce the semaphore telegraph – maybe add carrier pigeons and build Reuters before Reuters.
My knowledge of the speed of light would be mostly useless. If one had time to prepare one could learn about events and win bets at the target time, then do some trading. Predicting ascension of nobles might be risky ( witchvcraft again ) and using knowledge of better materials would get me into trouble with the respective guilds. ( and that requres me being able to reproduce those )
I think I prefer staying here.

Electricity, electronics, and all that fun stuff didn’t exist, so I’d be out of luck, strictly speaking.

But I’d try to take the roll of Eli Whitney (standardized parts), Henry Ford (assembly line), and Thomas Edison (invention factory).

Reverse engineer some existing widget, try to put together a factory, corner the market, leverage it to something related, and go from there.

Orac: You could’ve gone to the BBC and said “I have this idea for a sci-fi series called ‘Blake’s 7’….” ‘Course they probably would’ve turned it down flat. I mean, a series where one of the big characters was a plastic box o’ Das Blinkenlights, c’mon!

Given my affinity for psychedelic music and that I was only four years old during most of the Summer of Love, I’d think it cool to check out Haight-Ashbury, although I suspect my reaction to the reality of it would be similar to that of George Harrison when he checked it out for the first time.

A group of friends who met when we all were poor and living in Oklahoma now reunites every 2-3 years in one of the towns we’ve scattered to across the country. About 10 years ago, maybe more, the reunion was in the East Bay area, and we spent a Saturday in the Haight, where we happened to run into the annual Haight Street Festival. A couple of memorable sights:

– A couple dressed with their right sides in half-tuxedos, short dark hair and black men’s dress shoes, and their left sides in half pink dresses, pink women’s shoes and shoulder-length blond hair, so they appeared to switch genders as they walked up, then down Haight Street.

– “Jah Big,” billed as “The World’s Largest Rasta.” He may well have been: dreadlocks the size of garden hoses; each of his shoes looked to be the size and approximate shape of two dinner plates laid one in front of the other.

@40, the_muteKi,

Nice shirt, but it has some flaws. For example, tungsten (W) was thought to be a form of tin (Sb) until 1781. Where would you find tungsten wire for your lightbulb?

Not that there aren’t some areas of technology which would be open to us. While distillation was known for centuries, distilling coal-tar wasn’t done until the early nineteenth century. A chemist could become very rich by extracting dyes from tar earlier in history.

The secret of making clear glass has been known since Roman times, but eye-glasses are a late medieval invention. We could find work as lens-grinders.

A physicist who remembers his phase diagrams could really help metalworkers, even if the metalworkers don’t understand why.

Programmers could, if they know their history (chuckle), find employment designing paper pattern cards for looms. John of Calabria invented such a device before 1500. It wouldn’t take much to convert one of these designs into the punch card loom that Bouchon and then Jacquard developed in 1741 and 1800 respectively. (Okay, that was a long shot.)

The hardest part would be trying to convince someone that your ideas are not crazy.

Mark Twain’s story (Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) is a good example of what an engineer might do.

Assuming I make it safely (don’t starve or go to prison) through the first few years of learning a new language, dialect, culture, I think my field (biology) lends itself to relevant discoveries that could gain me some fame.

That’s because many of the discoveries in biology came from using readily available resources (plants, mice, worms, straight observation). Knowing what to look for makes these experiments very easy albeit like many things, time consuming (I’d also move to a city where the learned men meet–e.g. London, 1700s, or join Leonardo da Vinci if I’m back even earlier).

I’d ‘discover’ Gregor Mendel’s laws of hereditary, and I’d outline evolution through natural selection. Then I’d do what Darwin failed to do and tie the laws of genetics in with evolution to answer many of the valid objections that some people had at the time. Mendel’s laws weren’t appreciated, in part, because people didn’t see the application till 30 years later. Show the application to evolution and people would remember (I would make sure I’m in a country that didn’t burn people for heresy, btw).

I could discover oxygen, carbon dioxide and show the applications of that to life. Demonstrate photosynthesis and go far beyond what early discoverers found. Explain fossils. Develop the theory of biogeography. At the very least I could become a very prominent naturalist by traveling and sending back specimens to the museum. There would be many loose-ends to tie together, and it is just a matter of time and effort to supply the evidence needed to convince the other learned people that your interpretations are correct (again, that’s because many discoveries don’t rely on advanced technology).

Hm, while demonstrating photosynthesis, I’d also discover the nature of light (prism), and set up experiments showing how different colours affect photosynthesis. Maybe demonstrate light acts like both a wave and a particle?

I’m sure the average person could easily come up with numerous ideas even outside of their area of expertise. Make breakthroughs in astronomy, invent a steam engine, inspire movable type, cure scurvy, make up a book of “predictions” on discoveries still to come (nature of outer planets, magnetic field responsible for sunspots, plate tectonics, mid-Atlantic ocean ridge will be found etc), and gain posthumous fame when people will hail you as a far-seeing genius centuries ahead of his time.

What would be possible in your field of science if you were to find yourself plopped into your city 300 or 500 years ago?

Believe it or not, I’ve done this very thought experiment before. Being a computer engineer, the answer is “Not much” 🙂 I do think that my electrical background is sufficient that I could probably get a rudimentary telegraph working in the appropriate age, though it might take me quite a bit of tinkering.

Initially I had been thinking internal combustion engine, but those are finicky enough, and besides, there’d be the huge hurdle in machining the parts…

Here is something else to think about. Since you’ve more likely than not had the full vaccination series (MMR, Polio, Smallpox, etc.) you’d be unaffected by the plagues of the time.

Eh, most of us young’uns (and I’m counting over 30 as “young’un” here) don’t have the smallpox shot. And in any case, I’m not certain the modern vaccines would be effective against 300-year-old strains or not — evolutionary drift and all that. I guess I don’t really know…

In fact, it could wind up being just the reverse, i.e. you might find yourself without any immunity to the diseases of the time, and go the way of the native Americans…

As a philosopher, I’d be able to practice my actual thinking/writing/teaching trade without any of the technical problems a physician or scientist or engineer would face. But the paradigms of higher education back then – and the pervasiveness of religious education/indocrination – would make me a fish decidedly out of water. And since my primary research area is philosophy of biology and its relation to ethical theory, I’d definitely have to change my philosophical focus 150 years before the publication of On the Origin of Species! My French would be more or less up to snuff, thanks to the language-stabilizing influence of l’Academie Francaise, but I’ve not learned the Latin and Greek I would have back then. Sure, I have a modern PhD, but educated men of the day would consider me all but an ignoramus for my lack of their particular classical education. All in all, I’d be hosed. I’d probably be tarred and feathered as a dangerous radical if I shared my actual religious and political opinions, but I could probably tone it down and get involved in revolutionary politics without facing a lynch mob.

I’m a geologist working in journal publishing – 500 years ago, both of my fields were non-existent – or at least, so different that my knowledge is mostly heretical. Supposing I managed to build up appropriate connections, I might be able to push stratigraphic theories, but around 1500, Geology was not exactly advanced.
The printing press is around, but the academic culture of the time *really* wasn’t into sharing, so unless I managed to become massively influential, I can’t see that being useful. Mind you, I could convert those skills to a general publishing job. I don’t have enough production skills to invent litho printing, but I figure I can set up in Bloomsbury and probably succeed as a bookseller-publisher.
I can also knit, sew, crochet, embroider, spin and weave, but not to the level of someone who’d been practising those skills all their life. Then again, crochet was only invented in the 1800s – might be able to do something there.

All of this is assuming that as an unmarried woman who turned up with no means of support and few useful skills, wearing deeply immodest clothes (trousers! on a woman!), barely able to speak the dialect and with little awareness of where she was (London of 1500 being a tad different to the London I know) I wouldn’t be chucked into Bedlam, or that anyone would take my pronouncements seriously. Again, assuming I didn’t die of something nasty in very short order, like Oleander, I’d likely end up in a brothel.

While any scientific knowledge I have would be pretty hard to use, I think that the best luck I’d have would be in convincing people of germ theory.

Though my homebrewing and distilling skills would be my best bet – get them believing in yeast (microscope or magnifying glass would be great there) then show them how to distill the alcohol to kill them!

Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. What we COULD do is promote alt-med so that, by this point in history, it has been super-debunked by the test of time.

If I get to be transported to 500 years ago:
1. Be smart, not a smartass. Keep clear you are a foreigner, even if you were born in that same city (but 500 years later!!)
2. You know arithmetics and reading in an era of high illiteracy. Someplace you can get a job using that basic knowledge.
3. Learn the language, numbers and alphabet
4. Use your social skills. If none, better get back to # 1 and begin to get it. Hunger and fear can transform your personality in incredible ways.
5. While you get the work in which reading and arithmetics are useful, be prepared to do other less gratifying jobs.
6. When somebody smart ask you where you learn arithmetics, you say “my granfather taught me”. Remember #1.
7. Enjoy the pollution free air, when in the field. The open sewers in the city shall be avoided.
These are just the 7 points for survival that come to mind, under the premise that you are transported to a big city, where foreigners with funny clothes and stupid faces are more accepted than in small towns where you could be taken as an spy, devil’s envoy, or oportune scape goat for something bad that happened the last week.

You could go back 150 years and become Dr. Hahnemann. Homeopathy (aka doing nothing) was probably better than the crude interventions of the day.

@Todd W.No.58:
Beer! Yes. The natural healthy beverage of the era!
The good old days when getting alcohol was nutritious and good for your health.

As a chemist you have it made. You scoop Nobel by a couple centuries, invent smokeless powder on top of it, and maybe some aniline dye (if I can remember that far back). All that’s left is retiring to my mansion and write obscure books on how to travel to the moon, or hide all my knowledge about evolution in a book about ancient fauna underneath the surface. Maybe throw in a couple tracts on prophecy, so I’m pretty sure that I’d generated some time paradox by then.

If you are a fan of the type of stories about people making their knowledge work in more primitive situations you may like Verne’s The Mysterious Island, which sometimes reads more like a chemistry text than an novel, or Rex Gordon’s First on Mars (1957, No Man Friday in England). Rex Gordon was a British astronomer who kept his description of Mars as accurate as the science was at the time.

Of course both are somewhat dated. Further, Cyrus Smith, the engineer in The Mysterious Island, is beyond brilliant. I don’t think many engineers would be able to identify so many different metals and compounds from their raw ores, even in 1865. A schistose pyrite is just another rock to me, but only a few weeks after being stranded Cyrus was able to make nitroglycerin from it. I suppose that’s Literary licence for you.

Well, as a midwife, and being of an age where midwives usually began to practice routinely, I’d probably do OK, as long as I wasn’t burned just for appearing out of nowhere. Most areas could use midwives, and they had a fairly steady income! At least, I’d be aware of sepsis, and make sure hands were washed. And, while I couldn’t do too much in a true ob emergency, there are a few things that an experienced pair of hands can do that self-taught midwives wouldn’t be aware of (some OB hemorrhages can be stopped with bimanual pressure, for example). Maybe I’d also make a fetoscope to check on babies in labor. Sure, they aren’t as effective as an doppler or EFM, but they are better than nothing.

Okay, after all those wonderfully thought out, if somewhat gruesome, scenarios in the comments, I have but one thing to say . . .

21st century humans: Luckiest. Primates. Ever.

Cambrico beat me to it. The one thing so many had forgotten in their thought experiment was that each and every one of us possesses a body of knowledge which was extremely rare and valuable 500 years ago (somewhat less so 300 years ago in the American colonies, but still valuable): we can read and write and do math. Those, to us, simple skills would contribute significantly to making sure that you don’t starve as you decide what else to do with your centuries-advanced knowledge base.

‘Mark Twain’s story (Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) is a good example of what an engineer might do’

I read this for the first time last year and what surprised me is that the hero starts off by imposing ‘modern’ technology but he loses the moral battle and is eventually responsible for mass murder. You can change the past but the past can also change you.

You don’t need to travel to the past to become trapped in primiive times though. Orac will probably be aware that Terry Nation wrote a series called Survivors prior to Blake’s 7. Early on Abby, one of the few survivors of a world-wide plague is asked if she could make a candle. What about a hammer when the last one breaks? At the end of the novel the protagonists realise they can’t even survive another British winter and set off for warmer climes.

If you were into alternative medicine you could just sell snake-oil and nobody would call you on it.

As a white, male heterosexual I’d probably have an easier time than many – if I wasn’t bipolar. Having a medical background would be handy for many on this thread but being dependant on medicine would have a greater impact on your life chances. People would probably pay to watch me being hosed down in a mad house. Compared with a diabetic I’d be lucky.

Considering that I work with computers and other high tech devices and components, I’m going to say that I would have no chance of doing anything meaningful either 500 or 300 years ago. I’d have to try and build generators and create power lines from scratch just so I could actually start working on things even remotely resembling primitive computers. Of course anything that would require today’s computing abilities would be totally out of the question.

In fact, it could wind up being just the reverse, i.e. you might find yourself without any immunity to the diseases of the time, and go the way of the native Americans..

– but, of course, there wouldn’t be anyone with ASD around either.

Mark @ 46

The “Technology” section is amusing, although some parts are certainly true. Still, without either vacuum tubes or transistors, radio receivers and radar aren’t really practical. You’d have to “invent” those first, which requires considerable enabling technology. You’d be at it a while

MikeMa @ 9 covered my employment opportunities pretty accurately. Since I remember my physics fairly well, I might be able to grind JohnV’s lenses for him, once I’d worked out how to polish them well enough.

Of course, all I’d be able to see with them is some squiggly things and a few blobs floating around in water. I’m not sure what good that would do anyone.

@OP, I’m always late to the party.

I think you underestimate — or at least overlook — one important thing you do know, you have the benefit of the observation of the whole timeline from which you come. Yes, you may not be able to use an MRI, nor may you be able to use modern anesthetics, but you _do know_ that you need them, and further, you know where to start looking!

So yes, germ theory isn’t around yet in this predicament in which you find yourself, but that is, in some sense, only because you don’t have the tools to demonstrate it — microscopes being the most obvious necessity. Everyone knows (in some sense) what a microscope is, and there were people capable of the advanced lensworking needed to create the parts for a rudimentary microscope — you may not be able to build the more powerful versions, but I imagine you could build something “good enough” with enough help from contemporary experts.

Similarly, you could simply practice medicine with sterile techniques, even the hack-and-slash kind, and simply tout the fact that your death rate remains a few percent lower than your fellow doctors, simply practicality would dictate for them to follow, and for more research to be done in the area.

Moreover, the biggest problem, I think, of this “old” doctoring style was precisely what you said — the men weren’t in the business of science so much as they were in the business of superstition. The operated in a theory of medicine by rote, and not with the skeptical, devil’s advocate approach that good doctors do today. At the very least, you could encourage that notion, plant seeds of doubt as it were, so that the practice of medicine becomes a practice of science a bit earlier.

Or, you could just do some mathematics, the 1800s is a right around one of the big booms in math. However, for a nonmathematician, the 1500’s might be a nicer time, you could simply “invent” algebra, then calculus, then rest on your laurels…

Flex beat me to it with Mysterious Island. (It’s amazing that it predates the Krakatoa eruption by ~10 years). I’d probably be OK; of course I’ve been thinking about it for decades. Some things I might try:

Float glass.
An electric compass-needle magnetizer.
A sailboat that could tack better.

Actually, the only modern women who might conceivably do well when dropped down into the past would be managers and logisticians. The skill set necessary to run a household prior to…well, the 1920s, really…was not unlike that needed to run a successful business.

In fact, the first trained logisticians available to the Union Army during the late unpleasantness were the middle and upperclass women they recruited as nurses.

As a public health registered sanitarian I’m all set.

Don’t speak the language? No problem! We deal with ethnic food service establishments all the time, all you have to do is speak louder.

Don’t fit in with the customs? Again no problem! We have to learn to blend into the background just to avoid being trampled during restaurant inspections.

And usable knowledge … well at least we know how to make water potable and most of us are fair cooks.

I’d have to avoid meeting Thomas Paine though. He’d be awfully discouraged if he learned about the Religious Reich.


Programmers could, if they know their history (chuckle), find employment designing paper pattern cards for looms. John of Calabria invented such a device before 1500. It wouldn’t take much to convert one of these designs into the punch card loom that Bouchon and then Jacquard developed in 1741 and 1800 respectively. (Okay, that was a long shot.)

Knowing how to program even in assembler would not prepare a person to build a jacquard loom, even starting from the devices of John of Calabria. And even getting access to that industry would require connections. We do not have a proper appreciation, nowdays, for the protectionist attitudes that surrounded the trades 500 years ago. We think of unions as protectionist, but this is nothing compared to the guilds of the Renaissance period. They knew that the only thing protecting their trades was secrecy. (Indeed, there is an interesting tale of industrial espionage in the weaving industry about 200 years ago. Factored in to the American Revolution, even.) So before I, a humble programmer, could start designing cards for mechanical looms, I would need to gain acceptance to a weaving guild and rise high enough within their ranks to get to know the people who owned the looms. This would be a slow process, especially given that I would also need to learn a new language, and how to weave by hand.

I think a lot of folks are overestimating the chances of being burned as a witch. Witch trials have been rather sensationalized by the literary arts, because they do make for good drama. But they didn’t burn every woman who got uppity, or every person who suggested something strange. (A great deal of it is in the delivery. Galileo would’ve had far less problems with the church if he hadn’t irritated the wrong people.) More likely, a 21st century person stuck in Renaissance Europe would’ve simply been ignored.

The busines about being burned at the stake is silly. It was a political tool, and wasn’t all that prevalent.

Don’t forget the non-field-specific skills that scientists and software engineers apply every day: Problem-solving, analysis, planning, and organization. You might not be able to build a computer or chemical aparatus, but you certainly could help rebuild a wall or improve a manufacturing process. Apply the scientific process, rather than the specific field of knowledge. There is more to your education than you realize.

Actually, that sounds like good career advice for today.

I’m a cell biologist currently working as a professional skydiver. Pretty sure I’d bee in deep poopoo in either profession 500 years ago…

For the reading and writing, it all depends where we land. Any place that uses the Latin or Greek alphabet, I’ll be okay once I learn the local language. I could probably learn the Arabic alphabet, since I have the concept of alphabets and reading. In Chinese, I’d be no better off than any middle-aged person starting out. And in the Hudson Valley in 1510, well, I could use my skills to make notes to myself.

Inventing algebra 500 years ago–again, it depends where you land. There’s a reason that part of math has an Arabic-derived name.

Initially I’d be forced to sort out how much fresh pig/horse/cow/rat thyroid I’d have to consume to survive then I’d start figuring out a way to get to the American River in California. Hopefully being stinking rich I could fund some good university research to get disease theory and other inventions kick started.

As a physicist, I think I’m in one of the few scientific fields where you could really and truly go back in time and become a sort of “sage of ages” or whatever. Now, clearly I wouldn’t be able to do anything back then much like what I do today (statistical analysis, which basically requires a lot of computer programming and computing power).

But if I were to inculcate myself with some of the right people of the day (e.g. mathematicians), I could fairly easily go through the motions of teaching them calculus and then the basics of Newtonian mechanics. Going beyond Newtonian mechanics to Electricity and Magnetism would be a bit more difficult, as I’d need to find a way to generate an electrical current. But it shouldn’t be so bad. A good bar magnet should be enough to generate a small current.

After that we could start to get into thermodynamics by studying the nature of how gases behave, and then demonstrate how that behavior can be derived from first principles just by assuming that those gases are made up of lots of randomly-moving particles. I’m not yet exactly sure how I’d go about demonstrating that atoms were real, but I’m sure I could think of something, or somebody else could.

In the end, I think it would only start to get really tough once we got to quantum mechanics and special relativity, where you start to need to build some pretty specialized equipment. But most of the advancements before that, I don’t think, really needed much of any specialized equipment.

I’d also like to add that I realize that these things wouldn’t require merely teaching the mathematicians and similar persons of the past these things: it would also require actually demonstrating their truthfulness, which would mean building a lot of experiments. It would also take quite a bit of time as each step of the way, I’d probably have to fight against a number of preconceived notions and whatnot. But in the end I think this is one of the few fields where you really could go back and dramatically advance peoples’ understanding of the world.

300 years ago in Australia I would starve to death 78 years before the First Fleet arrived. If I was lucky I might get a chance to warn the natives of the impending invasion, but that wouldn’t change anything.

This is such a fun column, I have to do an addendum.

I would go for being a midwife as well. Just using basic sanitation would be an improvement as well as some very basic nutritional counseling would go a loooong ways. I’d quickly become a “wise woman” and enjoy a special status.

The idea that a couple of people have mentioned, literacy, is something I overlooked (I was thinking colonial America where, I think, many people were literate, but if you go back 500 years, then not so many were.

One of the awful things, in addition to general sanitation, would be seeing death all the time. And don’t forget dentistry–which was at least as crude as the surgery described in Orac’s post.

One thing I think of as an anthropologist is this: Rather than “what could we offer them?”, how about “what could we take from them to bring back?” You could witness some historic events and then come back and write a book (although documenting it would have the same problems as those encountered by modern people trying to make themselves seem plausible to the people of the past), You could see how a non-literate society functioned–how memory has changed; there would be much to observe.

I like the idea of connecting Mendel’s work to Darwin’s in Darwin’s time! That could make a great book or film right now in Darwin’s 150th year.

Oh, by the way Orac, I WAS in Haight-Ashbury in 1969. It was fun, but as a (very) young mother with my daughter in a back pack, (and my husband recently departed for Viet Nam) I was alarmed at the open and public drug use and abuse all around me and got out of there after only a brief look around. While I completely embraced the social changes of the 60’s, early 70’s, I never got into the drugs either–not even pot.

I’m a civil engineer, so I guess I’d get somewhere… But I find myself terrible handicapped without my big book of tables and figures. Still, even the most basic building techniques and things like on-site management or batch fabrication would be revolutionary for those times.

Of course, the problem would be getting a job as an engineer or builder. Working my way from the bottom wouldn’t work, I’ve never chiselled a stone in my life and I doubt I’m a good wood worker. For some reason I don’t there was much of a career path from waterboy/brick hauler to master builder

Also, I feel the need to point out that in the middle ages, our modern concept of science was considered dirty, messy and far inferior to the ‘much purer’ field of philosophy. Experiments were considered a very poor way of proving things in the middle ages, it was much better to philosophize your way to the answer, or find a quote in the bible.

21st century humans: Luckiest. Primates. Ever.

So far. With reasonable luck and no fits of pique from certain superpowers with world destroying capabilities, 22nd century humans should be even luckier primates. They’ll wonder how we ever survived without…(Oops nearly gave away the secret.)

Notwithstanding the possibility that modern vaccines might not provide enough immunity to strains from the past, you also have to worry about the rampant infectious diseases for which we do not routinely immunize. Think cholera, bubonic plague, etc.

But, depending on which cities and where in you land, or where you wander in your initial ignorance, the most likely thing that is going to happen to you, even before you get a chance to contract any illness, is that you will be identified at a glance as a naive, ignorant foreigner, misunderstood as being of a certain wealth due to the superior quality of manufacture of your 20th Century clothing, mugged, stabbed, and killed (or kidnapped and sold into slavery). Probably within 30 minutes to 1 hour.

That aside, if you had some time to prepare, your first order of business would be to use your knowledge of local history to make yourself filthy rich. So get in early on that gold rush, or get into (and out) of the Dutch Tulip bubble, or something. With money you can establish yourself as some rich and eccentric foreigner and attract the local talent/expertise to help you with your various projects.

@Alex, #81:
If you managed to teach one member of each tribe in the area around Botany Bay something related to the English of the day, and tried to get it spread across the landmass with the warning that white guys aren’t to be trusted and will try to kill you for your land, there might be some changes in how aboriginals are treated, both then and now.

Especially if you send out the warning that blankets are likely weapons of war in exactly the same way that spears are, in this case.

I actually suspect I’d do rather better than average, because I’m not a scientist ;-). Or rather, because my historical period was the period in question – I’m quite good with Shakespeare’s English or early Colonial English and I even know the relevant liturgies enough to be able to fake being a Christian (admitting I’m a Jew would get me kicked out of London, and not in a nice way – it would be better in Dutch Albany). I was an EMS for some years, and have delivered a few babies (and livestock) enough to become a kick-ass midwife for the period (not always the safest profession either). If I left London and went to Constantinople or something I could set up as a Jewish physician in drag…maybe – I actually know my Galen and Culpepper, Latin and Greek could fake it. But why draw attention to yourself if you want to live?

That said, I’d probably die of cholera or in childbirth or of saying mean things about James I and his heritage. Being a woman, I’d not set myself up as a sage at all – I’d probably be happy to survive and do a little good.

I think that most of the doctors and scientists who imagine that they would become the sage of the ages would be surprised, however. Learned scholarship in the era depended on different skills than most of you probably have – unless you know how to read Greek and Latin, and are familiar with classical materials in the fields you imagine you are entering, you wouldn’t look impressive enough as scholars to get most people going ;-). Shoulda taken more Greek ;-).



Also, I feel the need to point out that in the middle ages, our modern concept of science was considered dirty, messy and far inferior to the ‘much purer’ field of philosophy. Experiments were considered a very poor way of proving things in the middle ages, it was much better to philosophize your way to the answer, or find a quote in the bible.

This isn’t entirely true either. Science *was* philosophy 500 years ago; they were not separate disciplines. And experimentation did have its place. However, you’d get nowhere if you didn’t speak Latin and Greek — and if, like Nostradamus, you had a background in manual labor (“apothecary” counted as manual labor), you’d be rejected by the universities anyway. Things were very classist at the time.

It wasn’t the Middle Ages, though. The Middle Ages were over by 1510. It was the Renaissance. While thinking one’s way to an answer was indeed considered purer, people were conducting experiments — one of the most famous of this period being Leonardo da Vinci. Notably, Copernicus was at work during this period as well. This was a very significant period for science. You could make good contributions — but the hard part would be getting accepted into academia first, and that could be well nigh impossible if you have no background to speak of. (Leonardo had such an impediment, and worked his way in via art. But he was brilliant. Few, if any, of us could hope to do the same.)

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I think I’d do all right. Being in Fairbanks Alaska, my knowledge as a Biologist would be either a) already known or b) not terribly useful (need modern tools to exploit and develop). It wouldn’t matter if it were 300 years ago, or 500 years ago. However, I could survive quite readily, since I can build an old style boat, fish and trap, build shelters, etc. I don’t speak Athabascan, but I could head down river and learn what’s different between modern and 3-500 year old Yup’ik. I wouldn’t starve, at least not quickly.

I could build a fish-wheel, I can make glass, and I know what penicillin producing fungi look like under a glass. Basic hygiene, CPR and with sufficient time, I could isolate phosphorus, which would all make me popular. Luckily, I wouldn’t be burned as a witch, since Missionization didn’t happen for 50 to 80 years past 1700, and even then, it was very slow to take. But if I was in Europe, I could really excel, recreating a bunch of old experiments… ironically, in areas other than my academic field.

It’s about a small town, and the displacement is physical as well as temporal, but for how one group is handling the inadvertent movement of a West Virginia mining town and its effect on Central Germany in the early 1630, the best example I can think of is Eric Flint’s 1632

The official timeline is up to 1635; Gustav Adolphus still rules Sweden, Spinoza is the adopted toddler son of uptimer Michael Stearns and downtimer Rebecca, and the downtimer Jesuits have developed radio.

And for those of you who are fans of Galileo vs. the Roman Catholic Church; Pope Urban VIII gave Galileo a slap down for being an obnoxious ass (which he was), and has given the heliocentric model of the solar system the Church’s approval. (He’s also now in exile with an Spanish supported anti-pope in Rome, and the Papal states effectively find themselves in alliance with Grantville, and Grantville’s protector and reigning monarch, the Lutheran Gustaf Adolph of Sweden.)

There are more details, but those are best learnt by reading the books, and visiting the message boards at Baen Books. The 1632 tech board is the one you want to start off with.

Thinking this over, if I went back by more than 300 years or so my greatest potential would be in inventing the spinning wheel, and revolutionising textile production. It isn’t tremendously difficult technology, and none of the parts would be beyond a blacksmith or woodworker of the times.

@ Dianne #10: “Altogether, I’m glad that I was pregnant in the early 21st century, not the early 20th or 17th.”

Hear, hear. I am thankful that I wasn’t pregnant even a few decades ago. My little one was almost 13 weeks early. Modern medicine saved her life, and now I can’t imagine life without her.

The first thing I might want to worry about would be how indigents (i.e. people who show up in town without property, money, connection etc.) get treated. It might be hard to impress anyone with one’s 21st century insights while in the bowels of the criminal justice system.

Very interesting to think about.
Oh.. incandescent lamps and thus vacuum tube electronics would still be more or less possible, but very hard.
You’d have to use carbonized cotton instead of tungsten for your filaments, and your lamps would not have much service life, but you’d be able to light up your rooms long enough for the inquisition to swing by and pick you up.
Generating power to light your lamp would be another problem.
good quality metal wire — sufficient to make generator windings — was not readily available then. Don’t go to a blacksmith for it though, try a jeweler. I was once asked, if I had to go to a deserted island with just one book, what would I take? My answer — a first year physics text.
Once you have the mechanics down you can build the tools with which to build the tools with which to … you get the point.
I’ll close by adding a couple of other time travel sort of stories:
Tedric, and Lord Tedric, by E.E. “Doc” Smith.
Robert Heinlein story The Doorway into Summer

I just realised that as long as I end up in a country that uses the roman alphabet (or the japanese one in my case), I could probably make a living as a scribe or maybe a teacher. I’d have to learn or adjust to the language first, so it becomes harder as you go farther back, and seeing some written samples to get an idea of the spelling evolutions would be nice but perfection would probably not be necessary given a lot of people couldn’t read at all. Just look out for those s/f, u/v and other changes.

The mental excercise I like to do is imagine, if I was transported into the past as is (i.e., including my clothes, anything in my pockets and anything I happen to be carrying right this instant), how easy would it be to convince people I am from the future ? In medieval times and before just the clothes might actually be sufficient. I’ve been thinking more 1918 (because I like to imagine people’s faces when I ask them the year, and when they answer I muse “Hmmm, just after the first world war then”) and right now it would actually work because I’m wearing a wristwatch. There are other times when the best piece of evidence I had was a euro coin, which would be pretty mind-blowing to people at the time but unfortunately not a slam dunk (I could’ve falsified it).
Of course the cell phone is the single best thing you could bring. As long as it keeps its charge at least…

Being Australian, if I turned up where I am now three hundred years ago, I wouldn’t speak the local language. Possibly I could give some helpful advice to the locals if I could make myself understood and get them to trust me.

Even assuming Australians get teleported two hundred years in the past instead, being female and dependent on modern medication for my sanity would be two serious handicaps. Also, since I’m a historian, my professional skills would be amusingly redundant.

This is, of course, why one should never time travel without a TARDIS. The blue box translates everything and apparently protects its travellers from local microbes as well. Plus, if you get bored with one era, you just jump back in and zip off to somewhere else or go visit Bandraginus 5 instead.

I’ve read the ‘Pyrotechnia” and could introduce improvements in distillation of essential oils, if I could worm my way into the trade. Wives and daughters did work in their family’s business, so I would have to marry into such a family.

Actually, as a European currently living in Tokyo if I went back 300 years I’d be quite screwed.
500 years, maybe not. I can’t remember when they started banning foreigners.

Being stuck in the past would be extraordinarily frustrating for anyone of a scientific bent. Oh, sure, you could “discover” some things that would advance science a bit faster than in the original timeline and get some cheap fame, but all you’d be doing is going through the motions, performing “experiments” the outcome of which you already know! There’d be no possibility of actually learning anything (well, outside of history, obviously), since you couldn’t possibly do any experiments or make any observations on the edge of the present science.

Getting flung to the future would be almost as bad, since your knowledge would now be horribly outdated. But at least there you might be able to catch up to the contemporary scientific knowledge (and obviously you could learn a lot just by reading some books), but it’d take a lot of study to be able to reach that future level and take part in new research. Just imagine how much a biologist from just 50 years ago would have to learn to contribute to modern biology!

Caravelle: They hadn’t started banning foreigners in 1510. But, Europeans were still a novelty then, you’d definitely stick out as something strange!

You’d also sound very strange speaking 21st century Japanese! For one, you’d have to avoid every single katakana word! And pronunciation has shifted since then, too. The modern h-row kana, for example, were all pronounced as f. And the kana e was pronouced y, so you’d find yourself in Yedo* on the island of Fonshuu. 🙂 You’d also be living in a wartorn nation, since that was in the final stages of the Era of Warring States.

*Actually, depending on which part of Tokyo you live in, you’d be more likely to find yourself in a village or a forest near Yedo, considering how much the city grew in the Tokugawa and modern eras …

And the kana e was pronouced y

That should’ve read “ye”. Another difference was that there were two different version of long o, romanized as ò and ô by the Portuguese, which have since merged. Oh, and se was pronounced as she in most places. Although the Portuguese noted that se was a common “mispronunciation” in the “Quanto” region. < -- Another difference, Japanese at that time had distinct ka and kwa syllables which have since merged.

Pronouns were totally different, too. Japanese pronouns are unstable, none of them (except the archaic ware and its plural wareware and the related prefix waga-) going back to Old Japanese. Japanese has a habit of overusing polite expressions, until they lose their politeness and become merely everyday forms necessitating the creation of a new polite form. Boku, for example, originally meant “manservant”, and was a very humble self-reference (i.e., “Your servant”). IIRC, it came about during the 17th century.

Oh, sure, you could “discover” some things that would advance science a bit faster than in the original timeline and get some cheap fame, but all you’d be doing is going through the motions

If cheap fame keeps me from starving to death, or working in a horrible job, or being thrown in debtor’s prison, I’ll take it. 🙂 I suppose if you’re famous, you could make some good connections and branch into a new area to keep yourself stimulated (e.g. take painting or music lessons from a master, start a new trade route–beat Marco Polo, etc).

It would be frustrating though especially when you know something that could help people who are suffering, but are unable to do anything about it because the technology doesn’t yet exist.

Frankowski’s “Cross-Time Engineer” went back about 750 years and was massively successful in giving technology to 13th-century Poland (even airplanes). Of course, if he’d sucked at it, there probably wouldn’t have been more than one book.

Those of us over the age of 30 — don’t forget to adjust your age downward before telling anyone how old you are. I’m sure if I tried to tell someone 300 years ago that I’m in my late 40s, I’d be locked up for being a nut.

Working in IT, I’d be out of luck doing anything in my own career. I’d be even more out of luck trying to get by without my glasses. About the best I could hope for would be to land a job as a nanny. If I somehow managed to land a wealthy husband, I’d probably spend my time trying to build a mechanical calculator.

Even if you don’t know how to do something, you at least know that it can be done. If you can get into a position where you can feed a couple of ideas to someone with the knowledge of local practicalities like Newton or Leonardo or Bacon or Franklin, that ought to be a good start.

It doesn’t need to be one of the greats but a local partner is probably going to be essential.

A nice article demonstrating the importance of the infrastructure needed to support knowledge.

I wonder if I should point it out to Gabriel, my current troll. He seems to think that knowledge doesn’t need anything to be useful.

I’m seriously suffering from science-envy. So many of you work in awesome fields!

Maybe I’d do okay. I work in agricultural politics/logistics, though I’m crap with actual farm work. I also did calligraphy for a while. Dabbled in Sanskrit and Latin. Monkhood maybe?

I definitely would want to land somewhere where opium was available. Had a toothache recently and could hardly stand the pain. Am such a wimp.

@Callie: Doomsday Book was written by the fabulous Connie Willis. Kivrin did make it back to Oxford and her own time period, but could do nothing for the “contemps”, who all died of plague. Lots of other appalling things went on as well, like the twelve-year-old girl betrothed to a man in his fifties. Not that that has stopped happening…

I enjoy the study of history and dabble at re-enacting, but I am entirely grateful for antibiotics, vaccines, plant and animal breeding, food preservation and storage, and hot running water. I can milk a cow by hand and hoe cabbage if I had to. I would have to find some way to afford the cow, however.

A couple of points…

Opening up a new trade route in Europe would be difficult. Most of them already existed 500 years ago. Remember, Marco Polo visited China with his father and brother, and when they came back he stayed in China. When he returned, and was imprisoned (just a miss-understanding), is when he took the time to write his book. That was in 1269, long before 1510.

As a comparison, the span of time Marco Polo’s return from China to the time we are talking about (1510) is longer than the United States of America has existed to the present day.

The great silk road trade route was already in existence, as were the routes through the Sahara to central Africa.

Of course the New World was just being explored, so there may be some exploitation available there. If you could find backers willing to finance an expedition.

Also, among other miss-conceptions about the past, a common one is how old people lived. While the average life-expectancy was low, there are plenty of examples of people living to a ripe old age, into their 70s and 80s. If you managed to survive childhood diseases, death in childbirth, were lucky enough to avoid tetanus, famine, gangrene, peritonitis, or terminal diarrhea, you could live a normal life-span.

It is an interesting speculation, however, how an average 20th century adult human would be perceived by a 16th century one. I’m not talking about clothes or other accouterments. On average we are taller, we Americans generally carry more weight, and our complexions lack the interesting features that are the remains of of pox, warts, boils, cataracts, mange, scars, and cysts, that are often described in 16th century records. We also generally have all our teeth gleaming in neat rows, shiny, straight and healthy.

Not that everyone in the 16th century had rickets or was missing a limb, but I can’t help but think that a modern human going back to the 16th century would appear to the locals as wealthy. Not strictly because of their clothes, but because of the oily opulence, and priggish cleanliness, of our bodies and habits.

Back to the subject. There are some technological things which could be done. Demonstrating a vacuum is possible, pumps which partially evacuate a chamber were already in existence. The demonstration of the existence of a vacuum happened about 1650, so you could scoop Guericke by 150 years. As mentioned above, the alchemist’s had the components available to create hydrogen gas, and CO2 is readily available above brewers vats in England, so you could scoop Priestley by 250 years.

Which isn’t to say that us engineers couldn’t have some fun too. Assuming we found a way to get introduced to instrument makers and remembered how Henry Hindley solved the problem of marking sextants to within 1/6 of a degree in 1739. I always thought that his dividing engine was a brilliant insight.

Then there are plenty of problems which we would find difficult to solve, like mechanical clock escapements. They look like such simple things, but a lot of engineering (and trial and error) went into their designs.

You know, I’m babbling. I better stop now. It’s just that it’s rare that a topic where I have some (scant) knowledge about crops up on one of the blogs I read. I typically read blogs to learn things, not pontificate. Cheers!

Someone’s already mentioned L. Sprague deCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall. I’ll have to mention by reference Poul Anderson’s response short story. Title escapes me — an American of Scandanavian descent finds himself in … Iceland? … and sets about doing was deCamp’s engineer did. But the author is less forgiving of subtle differences (like how do you really work iron and steel, and do you know the different grades of each?) and the character doesn’t fare nearly as well.

For me, in my profession, 300-500 years back I’d be pretty much stuck with ditch digging or equivalent. I’m in oceanography/meteorology/climate. The fields didn’t even exist before 50-150 years ago. Having a modern education, I’m too reliant on computers, calculators, and slide rules (I can indeed use one, and could design one given time, but they’re not meaningful contributions until you have a society to put around it.) to deal with the problems that arise, and am accustomed to global data sets collected simultaneously (vs. over a period of weeks or years).

In medicine, though, I would think pretty much any era could benefit from the germ theory of disease (which in real history dates to what, second half of 19th century?) and sanitation.

I’ll have to take this up at more length, for my fields, on my blog some day.

@Robert Grumbine–
Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” — just the story I was going to mention. The really fine gimmick in that one was that the accidental time traveler was an American serviceman stationed in Iceland and fluent in Icelandic; so, a thousand years ago, he was a guy who talked funny but had no real difficulty getting along in Old Norse.

And he knew his engineering stuff; but as Robert says, it ddn’t work out well. The guy discovered that, in his own words, he didn’t have the tools to make the tools. I’ve always hated that depressing story because it was so plainly right.

As to getting burned at the stake or not, it’s pretty useless to try to generalize, and perhaps one of the bad problems would be to figure out in some particular time and place how great was the propensity to persecute and what things would bring it on. Did you know that one savant’s bones were dug up and burned in the 16th century (IIRC) because he had written a heretical math book? No moving planets or atomism or that stuff, either.

BTW if you take your periodic table back 500 years, you are in *real* trouble. Care to undermine the Miracle of the Mass by teaching atomism? Call it all politics if you like, but heretics really were persecuted over a long time. And people got away with outrageous heresy if they were quiet enough and knew the right people; e.g., Isaac Newton. The past, I think, is another country or something.

Joe bet me to what I was going to say. Thinking about it, the most valuable knowledge Orac, or MikeMa, or most of the other people reading this might bring to medieval medicine/engineering/whatever is our knowledge of the scientific method and quality-assurance protocols.

This of course assumes that the time traveller could get in a position to be listened to by important doctors/engineers/etc. But if we assume that Orac was in the position of being able to get the attention of important doctors 300/500 years ago, he could do a lot of good by introducing the idea of control groups, blind trials, double-blind trials. MikeMa could do a lot of good by introducing modern test design and quality assurance systems, again also assuming that he got an engineering workshop to listen to him.

If I went back 300 years while I was living in NZ, well, that would solve the pathogen problem (no infectious diseases). If I got adopted by a local iwi and could learn the language, I could teach and apply modern first aid and swimming. Failing the adoption bit I would starve to death.

Going back 500 years in the UK would be more a problem, what with being female and the lack of smallpox vaccination. Handwaving those problems and the language ones away, I could teach calculus and the rudiments of double-entry book keeping. Or publish the Shakespearean poetry I have memorised, thus committing plagarism. (Note to self, memorise more Shakespearian poetry).

The “Hertford Manuscript” by Richard Cowper got into this. It is available for download here:

I am a meteorologist. Since I specialise in meso-scale processes I would not be at a complete loss without my numerical models. I could look at the sky and do an okay job for the next 24 hours.

But who would be my clients? And would the authorities consider me dangerous or a heretic? I would have to fake it and quote Aristotle, or go to work for the Saracens, like maybe Constantinople, where learning was more widespread and appreciated 500 years ago.

It is unlikely most jobs would be useful. I don;tthink the language would be too bad. Our general ability with school mathematics, basic mechanics and writing would be far more use.

Importantly we know what is…and isn’t possible. If you had money, you could invest it in things you know are going to work.

Your best bet would be to hide under the wing of the church, givernment or universities of the period.

With a little work I think most of us would make good solid teachers and researchers, pushing along other people as they discovered things.

500 years ago in Europe, if I could get somebody to listen to me, I could teach a LOT of mathematics and computer science… the basics of complex numbers, calculus, set theory, group theory, number theory, non-Euclidean geometry, linear algebra, the Simplex algorithm, Turing machines, the halting problem, Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, etc. Given a few months to cram I could do a lot better.

As another field, I wonder about storyteller/author/playwright… with 300 or 500 years of books and movies to plagiarize, we would have a lot of new material to wow our audiences 🙂

On the other hand, according to the rules, I wouldn’t end up 500 years ago in Europe — I’d be 300 years ago in Seattle, in the middle of winter, and I’d probably freeze to death the first night.

Here’s another question: what if you were given two months to prepare for this time-travel situation? What would you study?

I know the standard sultans of woo provide rich fodder for you, Orac, but I’d love to see you address the current craze for “natural birth,” up to and including unassisted home birth. I imagine the people of 1510 (and the mothers in particular) would be amazed to know how low maternal and infant mortality during childbirth is in 2010—and appalled that so many women reject the procedures that make it possible. I particularly loathe the two aphorisms, “Women have been having babies for thousands of years,” and “Birth is a natural process.” For thousands of years, the natural process of birth has resulted in a holocaust of infants and mothers. Having a big brain means it’s extraordinarily difficult to pass a baby’s head through a pelvis. Human intelligence is such a valuable adaptation that the cost of high mortality during childbirth is worth it, in evolutionary terms. That intelligence now makes it possible for brainy babies to come into the world without the historical high risk, and yet people with mistakenly romantic notions about “the birth experience” reject that possibility, continues to astonish me.

What would be possible in your field of science if you were to find yourself plopped into your city 300 or 500 years ago?

As a molecular biologist I think I’d find myself somewhat confused as to what to do with my time. My field isn’t exactly “history-friendly”.

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