How could you get rich if you went back in time?
December 9, 2017 8:36 PM   Subscribe

If you were to go back in time to a random date in the last few hundred years, how could you use your knowledge of the future to get rich and not have to work a normal job?

You would not have the ability to choose the day you were going to go to – you could end up in 1750, 1810, 1901, 1940, etc. Obviously you could try to make investments in the stock market but that would take years to pay off, and in the meantime you have to make a living. What would you do?

I’ve been thinking about this for years. The best solution I can come up with is to start robbing banks. There were no security cameras to worry about. Unless I ended up at a point in history that I happened to know a lot about, that seems like my best option.

Just to clarify - you can’t go back and forth. This is a one time trip to the past.
posted by kdern to Grab Bag (52 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
If crime is an option, and you're far enough in the past that you could more easily evade law enforcement, how about investment scams (like a Ponzi scheme) instead of robbing banks? Less personal risk that way, and probably greater chance of a payoff. It's really hard to steal $1 million from a bank in physical notes, but you can definitely steal that much in a Ponzi scheme.

But is either approach really using "knowledge of the future"? Both are just sort of riding the assumption that crime would be relatively easy to pull off in the past, which is something people living in those times would know as well (if it is in fact true).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:46 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Crime is like the worst thing. You think banks just sat there and were robbed with no security?
posted by sanka at 9:12 PM on December 9, 2017 [12 favorites]

The best solution I can come up with is to start robbing banks.

I'm skeptical. What about your modern-day lived experience would make you any better at robbing banks, and not getting caught, in the past than the past's own contemporaneous bank robbers?

Maybe medicine? Depending on how long ago you go, a modern-day layman's medical knowledge -- aseptic technique, vitamins, transmission vectors, vaccination, maybe a few common drugs like aspirin or penicillin -- could be a benefit that could be parlayed into personal success. For a lot of recent history there were fortunes to be made in patent medicines. Or you could become famous -- and hopefully also rich -- for halting typhoid epidemics; for defeating smallpox; or for making childbirth safer.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:17 PM on December 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

According to Hot Tub Time Machine, Bioshock Infinite, and Back to the Future, you can make a lot of money by “writing” hit songs from your past/the current future and counting on the popularity of those songs to be universal.
posted by ejs at 9:22 PM on December 9, 2017 [13 favorites]

Large bets on upset sporting events?
posted by primethyme at 9:22 PM on December 9, 2017 [20 favorites]

By yourself you may not have exceptional advantage in any given area of life, assuming you aren't well informed about the engineering or construction of reasonably modern conveniences, and indeed dropped into an existence absent many things we take for granted today living from day to day would likely begin in serious difficulty. However, simply having knowledge of so many dramatic improvements and changes the world will go through in time could well allow a person to jump start those improvements should they be able to describe them in sufficient detail to others better able to craft items or build machinery.

Just being aware of what isn't there wherever you end up could provide the spur to developing things that will eventually be seen as needs later. The era will constrict and define what items would be best for the moment, but the knowledge itself has real value. (I wouldn't suggest, however, telling people where it came from unless you're really, really sure they aren't gonna lock you in an insane asylum since those were not fun places to be for most of history. Leading a tiem cult though could prove profitable if you did find believers, so don't rule out the nutty religious zealots for cash completely.)
posted by gusottertrout at 9:29 PM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Magic show! simple clever magnetism, electrical tricks that you can do with copper or zinc, static electricity...if you're a showman you could make a killing on coney island or vaudeville could quick study how to make a lightbulb and invent that, or better yet...invent general anesthesia! or pepto-bismol or Ringer's Lactate solution, sell to hospitals for profit!

Buy up land where you know there is oil in the great plains states, or start the gold rush in california or the yukon! (or better yet sell gold pans and shovels to potential gold miners like Nordstrom did).

know your history before you go so you know what is about to be needed.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:44 PM on December 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

We had a deal, Kyle's suggestion of medicine is a very good answer. Just knowing to boil instruments and to wash your hands with strong soap would turn you into a miracle-worker, pre-Semmelweis. Additionally, merely knowing that plaster casts are a thing might allow you to write your own ticket. Broken legs and arms used to mean immobilization in boxes of sand and concomitant bedrest. Ugh.

Knowledge of modern cooking and baking methods might be useful as well. There are many, many things about which we once new the basics, i.e. how to raise and bake bread, but now have detailed information on just exactly what is going on, in ways that could allow you to produce goods of a consistency we only used to dream of. Can you imagine the money you'd make and lives you'd save simply by inventing/introducing pasteurized milk in the early 19th century as industrialization took off? The mind reels.

Make friends with the right chemists/scientists, and—depending on the era you ended up in—you could make a fortune just knowing that the secret to cheap aluminum is electricity, or that simple ammonia is the key to modern fertilizers.

But to answer your question, day-to-day living to start with might be tougher, and I'd likely try to leverage my literacy and (very) basic dual-entry ledger knowledge into a job involving proofing or helping to run a small business, since by most measures anyone today would be incredibly educated in comparison to the average person centuries past. Then I'd live cheaply and leverage my knowledge to do some of the things I mentioned at the start, if I could.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 9:53 PM on December 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

The more I think about it the more i come around to marketing. Every person alive now has been marketed to their entire life.
You know how it works. you could "write" the best , catchiest jingles ever because you know them. You know all the catch-phrases that sell. You would be a marketing genius, so just get an entry level job in a big city firm and work your way up by wowing your bosses selling everything and anything.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:57 PM on December 9, 2017 [13 favorites]

Look at men and women who are billionaires (check out this infographic if your don't want to go back too far into the past; indoor plumbing and modern medicine have their perks). Be attractive, physically and mentally, go back to when they were single, seduce them, marry them. Zero professional skills, competency, or 9-to-5 work required.
posted by halogen at 10:12 PM on December 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

I have thought about this for a long time. Learn stats, in particular, games of chance stats. Before you can start investing, you will need capital. You can start with dice games and move up. Heck, depending on time period, you could start a gambling establishment. Games of chance are ubiquitous across world history. Now, you could diversify out of gambling to sports betting and betting on sports upsets but not such an upset that you would be a very visible signal in the betting noise. You do not want to be so sharp that you cut yourself or invite others to cut you to learn your secrets.

Now we are assuming you enter some sort of civilization where a knowledge of stats is handy. You being stuck at subsistence level on the tundra is rough.
posted by jadepearl at 10:17 PM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Using whatever knowledge of the future you can remember, or could you bring reference information from the future back with you? I think it would be a bootstrapping thing. Not much at first. Get some money the normal way, saving up. Then start multiplying it by betting on sports (which you know the outcome of). Move into the big leagues by making stock market investments (assuming relatively modern times) at key times - you know what some of the big streakers are going to be, and you also know what the dependable long-term investments are going to be. Use that bigger pile of cash to become a venture capitalist - you know what ideas are going to be successful.

If you don't mind being a criminal, blackmail is probably where it's at. You know every scandal before anyone else does, and the scandalous person might pay to hush you up.

In non-modern times, I think a basic grasp of technology would make you a fortune. You only have to invent a couple of ubiquitous things, say, the refrigerator or the radio or firearms or the airplane. The trick is picking something not obvious once you think of it. You don't want to give your invention away for free, like the post-it guy. You want to be able to describe the thing, get a sweet deal to develop it and be able to continue to get paid. You don't want to describe the thing and have someone make it without you, or make the first one and have a thousand people copy it.

* again, a bootstrapping thing. You're going to have to invent the tech your invention depends on, too.

I've often wondered what tech items you could take back to most change the world. Napoleon probably could have used a shipment of assault rifles and RPGs, for instance.
posted by ctmf at 11:08 PM on December 9, 2017

The more I think about this, the more that I think you'd be lucky just to survive. You have no social capital; nobody knows who you are, and you talk funny. You will make endless social mistakes. Some of them could get you cast beyond the pale of society; some of them could end you up in duel or dead.

The only currency you could take back that would be worth anything would be precious metals or diamonds. Nobody will want your funny paper money. Gold is at historically high prices right now, so if you took it back, you'd end up with less purchasing power at most time points you went back to, which will make your struggle to survive even harder.

The last few hundred years - before the 1800s, anyway - were some of the most brutal times in history for the average person. The aristocracies of Europe had mastered the art of grinding down commoners and colonies. Unless you get lucky, you're likely to end up a wandering pauper - and soon dead - rejected by suspicious communities that barely have the resources to keep their own above starvation.

So you've got no social capital, and you're carrying around a bunch of gold. Is anybody going to miss you when you're murdered for your money?

If you can survive all that, I'd suggest getting your hands on some paintings. You could probably pick up a da Vinci or Picasso or Rembrandt for cheap, if you develop a detailed knowledge of art history. They could make you very rich - except for the fact that the paintings will be young and thus will appear in all tests to be recent copies. If the time machine causes the painting to disappear from a museum and show up in your hands... not good for you.

Here's an idea: Learn where the biggest treasure hoards that we've found in the past few decades was buried, and head there as soon as the time machine drops you down. Start digging, and keep quiet.
posted by clawsoon at 11:18 PM on December 9, 2017 [21 favorites]

Control-f 'bitcoin'.

Yeah, that's probably what I would do. In part because I wouldn't want to live in the past; these are pretty interesting times to live in.

"The value of the first bitcoin transactions were negotiated by individuals on the bitcoin forum with one notable transaction of 10,000 BTC used to indirectly purchase two pizzas delivered by Papa John's.[12]"

That's 'worth' 143 Million dollars these days. Maybe buy a lotto ticket upon getting there to get myself comfortable while I was waiting for the bitcoins to mature.
posted by el io at 11:27 PM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

betting on sports (which you know the outcome of)

I dunno. I'm not particularly a sports fan and my knowledge of sporting events that I know the outcome of would be spotty at best during the 20th century -- Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, the 1966 World Cup, -- and pretty much non-existent before that. Stock markets ditto. Scandals ditto. And even commodities: you'd probably recognize the tulip-mania bubble as it happened if you happened to have time-traveled to its period, but would you remember when it burst? I wouldn't.

So in this hypothetical, are you abruptly yanked out of time with no warning, Quantum Leap-style, in which case it's really a question of what modern-day common knowledge and skills could be most usefully leveraged to survive in the past?

Or do you get to prepare for this trip, in which case it's more a question of what would be most useful to specifically learn now to best advantage yourself back then?
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:37 PM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

The safety pin was invented in 1849. Pallets in the 1920's. Pet rock in 1975. There are a lot of simple mechanical things you can "invent". And you can write science fiction novels.
posted by Sophont at 12:19 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Bitcoin for sure. I have no desire to die of a tooth infection surrounded by my loot.
posted by fshgrl at 1:10 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Read Kem Grimwood's Replay, which is about just this subject.
posted by TheRaven at 1:42 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

You don't get to choose the date, according to the hypo, it's just a random date in the last few hundred years, so the more specific the strategy (bitcoin, etc.) the less likely it'd be usable. I'm assuming that you don't get to prepare anything before hand, otherwise it'd be trivially easy to put together a bunch of records that would allow you to get ultra rich almost immediately.

The social capital problem is really the biggest stumbling block. I am sure my knowledge of hygiene, pasteurization (skewidization in this timeline) and vaccinations would be immensely helpful, but who the hell is going to listen to me? I think I could develop a steam engine if I had access to a good workshop, but how would I get that? I think starting the gold rush is a good bet if you arrive before 1849, but it's hard to get out there, and honestly, I only know that they found gold at "Sutter's Mill", don't know if I'd be out of luck if I arrived before Sutter did.

Regardless, I'd finally be able to afford to life in the Bay Area.
posted by skewed at 1:47 AM on December 10, 2017 [13 favorites]

I think you'd do better from betting on the exact dates of historical events, and from knowing which businesses were fated to become large and prosperous businesses, than from robbing banks. Investing in a bank that you know is going to succeed, or short selling one you know is going to crash, is a shitload easier and more lucrative than robbing one.

Don't rob the bank, be the bank. Rob the punters.
posted by flabdablet at 3:17 AM on December 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm assuming this would be a time shift, not a location shift, so I'd be in Oakland or its equivalent.

Let's say I wind up in 1750. If I'm remembering right, the Spanish would have visited the South Bay by this time, but it's unlikely that anyone this far north would have personally met a European. Where I live now was, in 1750, Ohlone hunting land, so I might be discovered by a hunting part. This was a pretty densely-populated area, so if people didnt' find me, I'd probably be able to find an Ohlone village. There's a good chance that they'd just think I was Spanish. I'd be an outsider who didn't speak the language, but my best bet for survival would be to try and see if one of the villages would let me stay and become a member of the village. That would really be up to them, but it would be my only chance not to starve to death. Assuming they took me in, I'd get about 25 years before Mission Dolores was built, and then we'd deal with the encroaching Franciscans. Mission San Jose would be built in 1797. Assuming I hadn't died of accident or disease, I'd be in my late 70s by then. If we hadn't already been relocated to Mission Dolores, everyone in the village would be forcibly relocated to Mission San Jose within the next decade. Everyone would be "converted" to Christianity, and permanently severed from Ohlone lands and sacred sites. So, you know, not the best outcome, and not exactly rich. Although as an archaeologist, I'd get to test out some theories for myself.

In 1800, I'd probably make my way to Mission San Jose and try not to die on the way there. I can pass for European, but I wouldn't speak Spanish, and they'd probably be extremely confused to see an English man. With luck, I'd be able to hop a Russian ship on its way north, although it's unlikely I'd see any (if I wound up in 1810, or better yet, 1812, I'd have better chances). Not that I speak Russian. I'd probably wind up hitching a ride to the Pacific Northwest to meet one of the English-speaking trade ships there. I'd end up in England or the United States, probably working for one of the trade companies. I mean, odds are I'd die before any of this happened, but if "not dying" is getting rich, then this would be how I'd get rich.

If it was 1850, I'd already be priced out of San Francisco (again!), but Oakland would be a nice little hamlet in the making. My clothes and my accent wouldn't be too weird, all things considered, so I'd have that going for me (I mean, jeans are jeans, although we'd be a few years away from Levi's being founded). I'm pretty personable (if I do say so myself), and I'm good enough with math that I could probably try to get in on the ground floor at a dry goods store, or something. In fact, my training as an archaeologist of the Victorian period would probably come in handy for a change, and I'd be able to find my way around the store without too much trouble. I wouldn't have any capital of my own, but who knows, maybe if I worked hard enough I could someday own a store of my own and live out a nice middle class life in Fruitvale. More likely, I'd end up working some menial job until my immune system, unfamiliar with constant exposure to diseases like measles, diphtheria, and consumption, failed me and I died a lousy death in an Oakland flophouse.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:44 AM on December 10, 2017 [13 favorites]

Levered financial bets with perfect information on pricing will Trump anything. Levered compunding returns get real big real fast.

For example without leverage you could have turned 10k into >200 billion in 2013 just owning the daily best performers. Adding leverage and shorting you could do a lot better.


In real life liquidity will dramatically reduce those returns, but financial markets are a lot more liquid than other kinds of risk books.
posted by JPD at 6:24 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

One problem with "take back some amazing technology from the future" ideas in general: Inventors are rarely the people who profit from their work. Most inventors - even now - have an immediate need for food and shelter, so they sell their inventions for wages or some other short-term stay-alive money. The people who make money off of inventions, even in societies with strong intellectual property protections (which happen to get weaker the further back you go), are generally the people who have the money and/or drive to turn them into profitable businesses. We've become so used to venture capitalists throwing money at anyone with a glimmer of an idea that we forget how little most inventors have profited. The ones who did were typically hard-edged businessmen (if you were a woman, forget about getting recognition or money for your inventions) who spent decades winning brutal business and legal battles against competitors who claimed to have invented the same thing first, and against communities who didn't want their way of life disrupted.

One of my favourite illustrations of this was the gun embrasures mentioned 5 or 6 minutes into "Industrial Revelations: Pants for All". (I'd link to Youtube, but the link is likely to rot.) If you aren't ruthless enough to shoot people who want to steal or destroy your invention, and/or you don't have the social capital needed to get away with shooting them, then you probably don't have what it takes to profit off of your invention.
posted by clawsoon at 6:27 AM on December 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is a fascinating question. And it will depend so widely on who you are: think about this in the context of being a woman, where the #1 and #2 problems could be 1: not getting raped and 2: not dying in childbirth. Or being black in the US: see Octavia Butler's time travel novel Kindred on this subject. To your advantage, you'd have vaccinations and good teeth on your side as well as an understanding of disease transmission and hygiene. As said above, though, your immune system would be primed for different things.

Seems like some more immediately useful skills would be in information and communication: being a skillful writer, understanding math, etc; perhaps this would also help you get embedded in communities where you actually have access to investment opportunities through networks (but stay away from printing, which could get you in deep trouble depending on what period you were in).

We forget how much access had to do with almost impenetrable social stratification (& still does, but not to the same extreme extent). e.g.marrying well would be hard because of the "social capital" issue. And on the other hand how much of everyday life depended on hard-won skills that we likely couldn't compete with because we wouldn't know the techniques: spinning, weaving, animal husbandry, etc. You could join the military, although not with a commission because that took money. Going into service (eg man-or maid-servant) might work but would mean the end of any hope of jumping class any time pre-WW1, as would any kind of manual labor.

Just appearing, in the middle of nowhere: your immediate concern would be food and shelter. Maybe you could sell some of your clothing - imagine how nuts people would go over a zipper or velcro or even just modern textiles. If showing up much earlier, in Europe, maybe find a working monastery that would take you in and feed you. Ditto Quakers or something in the US.

Longer term, in the US some people got rich building department stores (e.g. Kaufmann), getting into railways or steel, or exploiting natural resources (mining, textile production, tobacco, cotton). You'd be on the wrong side of history in many of these since you'd exploit other people's paid and forcibly extracted labor.
posted by media_itoku at 7:15 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the social capital thing mentioned above is important. Others mentioned how bringing Semmelweis's knowledge back to a time that didn't have effective sanitary techniques would be effective and lucrative. Well, someone did that. That someone was Ignaz Semmelweis, and he didn't get rich, happy, or even much timely recognition for it.
posted by jackbishop at 7:17 AM on December 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

TL;DR: for most of history the only way to get rich was to already be rich.
posted by media_itoku at 7:18 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

About robbing banks, I have one question: What did most banks keep in their vaults? Most of them probably mostly had paper money, I think - though I may be wrong - which you'd have to trade for gold/silver/art if you wanted to bring any appreciable value back to the present. Weirdo shows up; bank gets robbed; weirdo suddenly has heaps of money which they're desperate to trade for other things of value. You're lucky if you don't get lynched.

How much time does your time machine give you to launder or otherwise convert your money?
posted by clawsoon at 7:24 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anything that makes you suddenly rich - like finding treasure - might get you killed, which is also the problem with robbing banks. If you’re willing to get rich more slowly, I’d say buy property or start a business in a place that’s going to boom. Downtown Denver? If you can pull off something that looks like a miracle, you can start a religion. But that could get you killed too. See Joseph Smith.
posted by FencingGal at 7:40 AM on December 10, 2017

You might use knowledge of modern farming techniques, and/or weather patterns.

You might also consider going into the religion business. Not every storefront church becomes a megachurch, but some do.
posted by vignettist at 7:47 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I read your question as, how can you use your knowledge of the future to get rich? I think you need to specify what knowledge you will have? Like, do you have a sports almanac like in Back to the Future? Also, what kind of time travel is this... will your actions change the course of the future? If so, you'll want to stay as far under the radar as possible, like they try to do in Primer. I'm also not sure how you will use knowledge of the future to rob banks. You say there are no security cameras around... but that's knowledge of the past, not the future.
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 7:55 AM on December 10, 2017

I'd look for something you can invent and make yourself. Then sell them yourself. Maybe robbing a bank gets you the initial capital. Your product will be heavily dependent on the era you're in, what they already have, and what your skills are. I'd learn as much engineering, chemistry, and metalworking as you can.

You would make an absolute killing as the inventor/seller of portable air conditioners, which revolutionized life in the southern U.S. I would devote all my energy into learning how to do that. "In 1945, Robert Sherman of Lynn, Massachusetts invented a portable, in-window air conditioner that cooled, heated, humidified, dehumidified, and filtered the air."
posted by AFABulous at 8:14 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Betting on sporting events. It would be relatively easy to remember a few key games or races in each year and turn that into tenfold increases of money.
posted by nickggully at 8:23 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

AFABulous: "In 1945, Robert Sherman of Lynn, Massachusetts invented a portable, in-window air conditioner that cooled, heated, humidified, dehumidified, and filtered the air."

A perfect illustration of a point I made upthread:
In 1945, Robert Sherman invented the portable, in-window air conditioner (Patent # 2,433,960 granted January 6, 1948). It was subsequently stolen by "HF," a large manufacturer. Sherman did not have the resources to fight the big corporation in court -- they promised to "break him" if he tried - and thus received neither credit nor money for his revolutionary design.
posted by clawsoon at 8:40 AM on December 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

With even a rudimentary knowledge of history and medicine, you could be a powerful wizard and healer. If you were in Oakland, as described, you could go mine gold, always a popular currency.
posted by theora55 at 8:50 AM on December 10, 2017

On third thought, I agree with jadepearl, JPD, and nickgully. Find a horse racing track which has kept a detailed record of its races for a few hundred years, memorize the winners, and start making bets. The power of compounding will quickly amplify your money, and there has been enough money in horse racing for a long enough time (sport of kings and all that) that you could progress to making and winning some very large bets with some very rich people. You'd still have to take precautions against having your money stolen or having yourself ejected from the track for suspected cheating, but it would carry less risk than purely criminal ventures. Obsessive weirdos gambling at racetracks aren't unusual, so that would give you some extra cover.
posted by clawsoon at 9:12 AM on December 10, 2017

A cheat: Sell access to your time machine to tech billionaires with sci-fi interests. You'd surely be able to get a few hundred million out of rich geeks who want answers to how, exactly, time machines alter history, without taking risks yourself.
posted by clawsoon at 9:24 AM on December 10, 2017

If the premise is one day you suddenly wake up in a different time, completely unprepared for your temporal shift save for what you already know and are, then the problem of staying alive and the goal of amassing wealth are tied to who you already are and where you end up. If you live on the west coast of the US, for example, a shift back in time to some random era could leave you essentially out of luck, with no advantage and considerable disadvantage simply due to the locale not having yet "developed" in a Westernized manner.

If, however, you were to end up in a location where that transformation had already taken place and you were in a more "modern" setting, then your survival is still tied to your gender and race, as others have pointed out, but your knowledge could still potentially be leveraged for your benefit depending on what or how much you know and how ruthless you are in exploiting that knowledge.

For example, we all carry some basic idea of the changes in real estate and the successful and unsuccessful attempted advances to society that occurred over time. You shouldn't plan on making one good invention or bet to get rich but think of it as a growing accumulation of investments that work together to reach that end. In the example of the window air conditioner, it isn't that you'd need to make that one thing get you rich as much as provide leverage to get some money to invest in the next thing, so instead of trying to make your fortune off of it, sell the concept to HF for a job or price and then invest the money you make from that into other items you know will be a success, or artists, inventors, real estate or companies you know will succeed while betting against ideas you know will fail.

The extent of the ruthlessness of action will be measured by who you are just as the limitations of your opportunities will be. People from a different era are still people and treating them badly isn't something that would come naturally to most.

There is also the issue that significant changes, say you successfully developed some invention years before it would have been done otherwise, will shift the time line from what you know to something other as that invention could spur others or change population growth patterns around whatever industry comes from it. This means investment with minimal radical shifts in development is probably the more stable way to proceed, but even then there is risk.

Say you collect great art as its known now, at some point the very nature of your assessment becomes more defining than history as you yourself are shaping future tastes to some notable degree. If you collect and profit off of great art in a noticeable manner, then what you buy will potentially further shift the market as others imitate your successes, meaning at the limits of your knowledge you could "force" lesser known artists into greater success than they had or spark a contrary reaction for artists seen as great in our time by your support of them if your interest is seen as too dominant by other buyers. Some things will likely be fundamentally "winners" no matter what you do, but others are much more contextual.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:35 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You have advance knowledge on the location of valuable ores and minerals. Even a great gold mine is work, though.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:01 AM on December 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Brush up on your astronomical history, then do the Christopher Columbus trick to predict astronomical events to people that don't yet have a sophisticated understanding of astronomy. In addition to possibly making you wealthy, it could also solve the social capital problem by making you appear godlike.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:07 AM on December 10, 2017

The only currency you could take back that would be worth anything would be precious metals or diamonds.

I'd probably take a bag of spices.
A pound of nutmeg could buy you a house in the 1600's.
Pepper, saffron, chocolate and coffee could also work, and no one is going to question someone turning up with a strange accent and bags of exotic spices.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 10:17 AM on December 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

People are assuming a lot of magic here. I think it would be very hard to survive, much less profit, and I'm not sure you'd be in any sort of advantageous position over the locals.

All these ideas and knowledge take a lot of work to be profitable, it wasn't the idea that made people rich, it was exploiting it. There are several Twilight Zone episodes in this vein, but particularly "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville".
posted by bongo_x at 11:17 AM on December 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

2 weeks ago, with the next two lottery results.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 11:56 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nutmeg or spices generally has always been my answer as well. Cheap enough now and decently portable, you'd be best set up for success
posted by Carillon at 12:17 PM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wow, my reading comprehension is bad. A random date you have no control over.

Yeah, I wouldn't steal a loaf of bread, let alone rob banks - they'll just kill ya quick for that.

Can I bring some books with me? Other things?

While I might know where ores and minerals are, I don't know how to mine things. If other miners are there they might kill me for my gold, so that seems like a bad bet.

As far as gambling goes; I'm pretty sure after a couple of big wins the mafia (or whoever the 'house' is at the time) would get mighty unhappy and wouldn't want me to take all their wealth.

The stock market might not exist where I'm at, and I'd still need funds (and time) to make that work.

If I could bring a pack with me, I might bring a solar cell and an ebook reader with wikipedia on it, that would be mighty useful. On the other hand the chances of getting killed for being a 'witch' are non-zero.

I think the best bet might be not trying to get rich, but ingratiating yourself with a rich person; giving them the advantages of future knowledge, and let their connections and social status protect you and keep you in a lavish (for the past) lifestyle. The thing is, 'rich' 300 years ago might very well be a miserable existence by today's standards.
posted by el io at 12:51 PM on December 10, 2017

Virtually everybody in this thread has one amazing skill that the majority of people in the past did not have (assuming we're heading back to our own countries): literacy.

It might not make you mega bucks, but being able to read and write letters, copy down wills and legal documents and so on is at least a way of making money for the here and now, which means you can eat and not freeze to death while you figure out how to become rich.

(so, start practicing your quill/pen and ink handwriting, er, and your Latin).
posted by AFII at 12:54 PM on December 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Piggybacking on previous answers, it seems like it would be best to harness what is "common knowledge" today - literacy, computer skills, knowledge of natural phenomena, human migrations/settlements, etc. And the more languages you know, the better!
posted by Seeking Direction at 1:36 PM on December 10, 2017

In America, you know the outcomes of all the Presidential elections, and you could bet on them.

If you have mechanical knowledge, you can probably invent some simple things. Inventing the light bulb isn't going to be worth anything unless generators exist. If you invent the generator, it's not going to be worth much until you demonstrate a use for electricity. The point I'm trying to make is that even major breakthroughs in technology are not immediately lucrative; it takes time to develop applications for them. Meanwhile, you have to eat. Invent and build small things that you can sell right away.

Generally, you have to come up with something that people of the time are not already doing. Robbing banks isn't it. Even using literacy and numeracy is only going to let you earn a living; you won't get rich from it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:40 PM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ryan North has you covered: This shirt has how-to information on all of the low-hanging fruit of our modern age. Go back in time wearing this and you'll invent heavier-than-air flight! YOU'LL discover penicillin. YOU'LL be the first to isolate aluminum. Did you know aluminum used to be more valuable than gold? YOU'RE GONNA BE RICH.

A one-way trip? Fake amnesia, hope your modern-day teeth/skin/physical condition/bearing gets you mistaken for a person of means, begin to have 'visions' (possibly as a side effect of the injury which caused your persistent amnesia) that prove true, develop a following, ultimately fleece your followers.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:37 PM on December 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Go back in time wearing this and you'll invent heavier-than-air flight!

I gotta call BS on this one. Heavier-than-air flight was mostly made possible by the high power-to-weight ratio of the internal combustion engine. Without it, all heavier-than-air flight consists of toys. With it, heavy-than-air flight is almost inevitable. Trial-and-error produced good-enough airfoils for flight a short time after internal combustion engines got light enough to make it worthwhile to do so.
posted by clawsoon at 3:40 PM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If I went back to anytime in the last hundred years I’d buy real estate in New York and/or San Francisco.
posted by bendy at 5:53 PM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

After some further thought, depending on if one goes back to a time before movies were invented, then a life of celebrity might be a good option if one has any knack for story telling and appearing in front of crowds. Your appearance, if one is generally healthy, and knowledge of history and all the thousands of stories we're subjected to provides an ample supply of material for a night's entertainment. If you know how to play an instrument, all the better. A fantastic story about your adventures "from the future" and/or borrowing from stories you know well to regale an audience could be an extremely profitable venture. Once you get bored with that, meddle in politics yourself and really go to town.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:32 PM on December 10, 2017

The price of gold mentioned in one comment made me think: maybe memorize the locations of land on which gold, silver, or something else highly desirable was discovered?

Of course, then you need to come up with the money to buy the land. But, the good locations in the Yukon, the silver mines in Nevada, the oil wells in Texas (ok, yes, I'm sticking to the US, I'm sure there are also equivalents elsewhere) - that land might have gone pretty cheap. Once you have some ore (or oil) to show, you can probably get financing for mining equipment pretty easily.
posted by timepiece at 8:47 AM on December 15, 2017

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