I have to admit that I’m a sucker for stories about time travel. In 1963, when I was only six years’ old, I remember watching the very first episode of the now-world-famous British television science fiction series Dr. Who. I observed this spectacle from a position of safety behind the sofa in my parents’ front room. I was hooked from that point on.
As an aside, if you are a Dr. Who enthusiast, you can still get your hands on those first episodes (Click Here for more details). These early, low-budget programs are now really dated of course, but it’s a great trip down memory lane for those of us who were there at the time.
And what about the 1960 version of H.G.Wells’ Time Machine (Click Here to see the DVD on Amazon) – the one starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux. I don’t know how old I was when I first saw this; I’m sure my parents wouldn’t have let me see it when I was too young, but I do remember it being a real thrill. In fact I was just checking it out on the Wikipedia; I knew that the lead character was called George, but it’s only now that I discovered it was supposed to be H. George Wells himself (there’s always something new to learn).
With regard to the new Dr. Who, I just finished watching the complete fifth season a couple of days ago - the one starring Matt Smith. What a nail-biter that was toward the end – I was completely drained at the conclusion of the final episode. I was also a little sad, because now I have to wait for the sixth season to come out on DVD. But I was just bouncing around Amazon a few minutes ago when I discovered that there is a Christmas Special called the Dr. Who Christmas Carol – I have no idea how I missed that – I just ordered a copy so now I have (a) something to look forward to and (b) a silly grin on my face.
Do you recall my earlier column What’s the best time-travel book/film ever? In the comments, someone recommended a story called Lest Darkness Fallby L. by Sprague de Camp. Although this tale – which involves a guy from "our time" being transported back to Ancient Rome – was written quite a while ago, it’s still well worth a read.
Obviously I know that the chances of my travelling through time are on the small side (apart from the way we all do it, aging day after day, which isn’t quite the same thing as hopping in a time machine). However, I often ponder what trade goods I would try to take with me if the occasion ever arose (seriously, doesn't everyone?)
Let’s start by considering what would be good to take if you were traveling backwards in time. Thinking about it, you would probably want to take different things depending on how far back you were going. So let’s say we’re going back 2,000 years or so. It’s a one way trip and we have to pick some trade goods to take back with us.
The main thing is that whatever we take needs to be relatively small and light and (in my case) affordable. Let's set some limits and say that whatever we take has got to be something we can carry in backpacks and/or as hand baggage. Also, it’s got to be something that the folks we meet back then will accept as something that could be made by someone somewhere, even if they don’t know how. In particular, we can't take anything get us mistaken as practitioners of evil magic and dealt with accordingly. Having said this, it would probably be a good idea to take a gun and sufficient ammunition to protect our wares until we had established ourselves.
Small mirrors might be good to have, because even the ones you can buy from the “Dollar Store” these days are far superior to anything they had back then. Another thing that might go down well would be aluminum foil. And what about fish hooks?
The thing that started me thinking about this again is that yesterday evening I saw a television advert for the Easy Thread Needle (I just found the same video clip on YouTube as shown below).
This really blew me away. If there was one thing I couldn’t imagine improving it would be a sewing needle – and yet someone has managed to do it. Now, imagine taking these needles (along with a lot of reels of modern sewing thread) back through time. Surely there would be some trading potential here…
Alternatively, what about a trip in the other direction? Suppose we had one day to prepare for a one way trip 1,000 years in the future? We obviously can't plan for every possible eventuality (like being faced with a radioactive wasteland), so let’s assume that we are reasonably confident that humankind won't have wiped ourselves out and that our decedents have actually done quite well for themselves; perhaps they even have colonies on the Moon and Mars and some of the moons of Jupiter.
So what could we put our hands on now that we could take with us that would have value in the future? Any ideas?
With regard to a trip back into the past - in addition to taking trade goods to get us "up and running" -- we would also want to take books on how to make things that would be useful and sell-able back then (like soap)...
Going backward, anything purely mechanical would be a safe bet... such as the hand tools from a typical technicians toolkit... or some of the handy little things sold by Micro-Mark, such as pin-vise-micro-drills and such.
Actually, since the Greeks were apparently pretty clever with mechanical devices, two-thousand-plus years ago ( as in the "Antikythera Mechanism" ), you could probably even get away with taking along your Curta.
Just don't show it to Archimedes... he might get jealous!
And speaking of aluminum... in fact, a few ingots of the metal might be useful ( in lieu of just gathering up a bunch of old-money or gold coins ) . Before the discovery of refining it ( by the Hall Process ) it was actually quite valuable stuff for a time.
Nice blog, I too love time travel stories! My favourite is "The Man Who Came Early", a short story by Poul Anderson. It dispels the (slightly arrogant) premise that a modern person would be naturally superior to those they found in the past, owing to our technology and knowledge. In fact Mr. Anderson's time traveller has a hard time of it.
To answer your question, how about taking back a stack of biro pens, penicillin tablets, reading glasses and a physical map of Europe.
You'd need to brush up on your Latin first, though.
I would think that a rudimentary steam engine, electric generator, wire and a few light bulbs would not necessarily be good trading material, but could be the basis for jump-starting the Industrial revolution.
In regards to "The Man Who Came Early", I suspect that most modern humans would be very surprised at how many past life-skills have been lost. Something so simple as navigating between locations could be the end of many of us. The amount of time required to find and prepare food would be staggering relative to what it is now. Likely only a handful of us readers could be self-sufficient without the modern world to support us.
I just did a search on Amazon and found a book called "The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century" that contains "The Man Who Came Early".
Unfortunately the book as a whole got mixed reviews, but I've added it to my Amazon "wish list". Thanks for the suggestion.
The 1632 series by Eric Flint is one of the most interesting time travel stories to deal with the issue being able to replicate current technology (or not being able to) in the mid-17th century.
If I was going to jump ahead 1000 years, I think the things to take would be items that would be considered collectables with some value in the future--but it would be hard to know what would be popular and still command some value. Would people still collect coins, stamps, baseball cards or any number of other items? Will so much stuff be preserved from this era that anything you take along would be of minimal value? Will gold still be considered valuable in 1000 years? For example, people 2000 years ago didn't dream that salt would be so inexpensive now. Would a US $100 bill be a collectors item or as worthless as hyper-inflationary currency from Weimer-era Germany?
Now if I was going back 2000 years and needed to consider a store of value to take along, I might consider taking some salt, which is where we get the term salary.