Time travelling image montage. Possibly sent from the future.

‘What are the coolest things in the world?’ Reinventing technology from scratch


Would it be possible for a time-traveller stranded in a pre-technology version of our world to construct an entire civilisation using a single 400-page instruction manual? Author Ryan North thinks so.

The premise is literally fantastic. Ryan North’s latest book posits a hypothetical situation in which your FC3000 model time machine has malfunctioned. You find yourself projected back in time to a world without technology. Unable to repair your FC3000, you need to invent some of the basics, and you need to invent them fast. You do, however, have one advantage: and that is you know what it is you want to invent. You see, you already know of the existence of the integrated circuit and the internal combustion engine, the pendulum and the bicycle. It’s just that you’ve taken them for granted, and while you’ve been happy as your future self to use them all, you have no idea how they came about or indeed, how to set about creating them for yourself. ‘How to Invent Everything’ is a time-traveller’s manual that will bring you up to speed. And in the best tradition of sustained literary spoofs, Ryan North didn’t so much write the book as find it.

“I have always thought that people think about their reactions to time travel wrongly,” says North. “They always say that they’re worried about temporal paradoxes and things like that. But actually, when you interrogate that fantasy in detail, you’re much more likely to say to the people you meet: ‘Hey, the future’s great. We’ve got computers and antibiotics.’ And they’d say: ‘That’s great. How do you invent them?’ And I’d say: ‘I don’t know.’ So, I wanted to be a more competent time-traveller. And that’s what my book is about.”

North admits that the premise is ‘crazy’, on the grounds that the scenario he posits is not likely to happen. But he felt compelled to construct it, if only because, “it’s surprising how many people worry about this”. But he also wanted to write a history of the great inventions of the world and, realising that this has been done many times before, decided that such a book would be “inherently more interesting if you could put time-travel jokes in it. I didn’t want it to be a boring text book. I wanted it to be read for fun.”

We read it for you

How to Invent Everything

In an almost surreal interpretation of the history of technology, author Ryan North imagines the fate of a time traveller being transplanted to a pre-technology era, armed with knowledge of the future, and yet no real idea of how to achieve it. North’s ‘How to Invent Everything’ has been written as a time-traveller’s manual to assist the stranded traveller to rebuild the future, short-circuiting the development of science and parachuting the reader into a situation where we can invent clocks, bicycles, waterwheels, medicine, steam engines and computers. Despite being genuinely funny in the mode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘How to Invent Everything’ is consistently accurate in engineering terms and proof, were it needed, that our technological evolution has been one of the unsung wonders of the world. A superb, exciting and entertaining read.

North, who is perhaps better known outside technological circles as the creator of ‘Dinosaur Comics’, says that when he first came up with the concept for ‘How to Invent Everything’ his publisher was concerned that it might be difficult to produce a book in the ‘lost manuscript’ sci-fi idiom while maintaining the credibility of the real-world technology content. “They thought that readers might have a hard time differentiating between where the fiction ended and the fact began.”

North says that his interest in everything scientific comes from the (slightly circular) position of being highly educated. “But the way education works is that the more you learn, the more you focus on a single subject, meaning you end up with a small piece of knowledge. Which is great. But when I finished my masters degree I felt as though I should feel smarter than I did.”

Wanting to know more, he adopted the strategy of asking everyone he met what was the ‘coolest’ thing about their field of study. “That way I got to know the coolest thing about lots of things. And that’s fantastic. It’s difficult to research ‘what are the coolest things about the world?’ There’s no library for that. So writing my Dinosaur Comics gave me a baseline research into what was most interesting about the world.”

Another way of deconstructing North’s book is to say that it is about going back in time and communicating to our predecessors all the good things that they can do in the future (he dismisses technologies such as nuclear weapons as being ‘outside the spirit of the book’).

‘It’s difficult to research “what are the coolest things about the world?” There’s no library for that’.

Ryan North

What soon came to consume North was that all the technologies he describes seemed to belong to the same family. As an example, he says that if you want to invent an orchestra, for it to sound remotely harmonious you’d at least need to start with instruments that are in tune with each other. To do this you need a reference frequency. You can create the standard A440 pitch for musical tuning using a bicycle wheel and some sort of timekeeping device. This means you need to invent a bicycle and an hourglass. To invent a bicycle you need to understand how wheels work, and so on: further and further down technology’s evolutionary rabbit hole.

This set of relationships, North frankly confesses, was not obvious to him when he started to write ‘How to Invent Everything’: “I wasn’t even sure that the book was possible, and I still thought that, even when I was three-quarters of the way through writing it. For example, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to produce instructions that would allow my time traveller to produce all of the chemical elements that were required to produce all of the inventions in the book. That was the aspect of the research that I thought would eventually kill the project, because although I wanted the book to be fun, I also wanted it to be a sincere effort at describing what you would need if you were trapped in the past.”

What North also came to realise was “there is low-hanging fruit to work with: the kind of stuff that you can invent from first principles with no specialised knowledge or infrastructure behind you. There is also enough of this to allow you to build some of the later inventions. But was there enough to build an entire civilisation from what you can learn in a single book? I was by no means certain that if you collapsed civilisation into a 400-page guide that this would be viable. But the one thing that I learned was that the principles behind a lot of our modern science are very accessible and so if you could transport them back into the past you could build a future similar to our present in far less time.”

‘How to Invent Everything’ by Ryan North is published by Virgin Books, £16.99


How to invent a clock

Modern wristwatches use tiny pieces of quartz to keep time: it’s the second most abundant mineral on Earth, and it has a useful property called ‘piezo-electricity’. When you squeeze a quartz crystal, a small amount of electricity is generated; when you do the reverse and run a small amount of electricity through quartz, the crystal vibrates at a predictable rate.

This allows for cheap electronic clocks and in the modern era tiny pieces of rock vibrating 32,768 times per second are the world’s most widely-used timekeeping technology. But since you don’t have modern electronics or quartz crystals, you’ll be relying on simpler inventions.

A properly set clock can tell you what the time is, but even a watch set to the wrong time can measure how much time has passed since a given moment. If you’re just interested in tracking the passage of time, then simpler inventions may do.

Water clocks were the first clocks; the simplest versions were just a hole in a container of water. Water will drop out at a reasonably constant rate, and so by marking the fill line, and then by measuring how much water drains from your bucket over different units of time, you can measure minutes, hours, and with a gigantic enough bucket, even days. Until the invention of pendulum clocks in the 1600s, water clocks were the most accurate.

Hourglasses work on the same principle, using sand, and recycle the sand every time you turn them over. A few handfuls of sand, with a hole small enough to limit consumption but large enough to avoid jamming, will track about an hour, and you can add or remove sand to get the required unit of time. An hourglass, though, requires vigilance, and errors are going to creep in.

Edited extract from ‘How to Invent Everything’ by Ryan North, reproduced with permission.

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