A book about inventions that could have been made sooner?
September 19, 2020 2:18 PM   Subscribe

I think I read somewhere (probably on metafilter and probably in the last year or so) a comment about a book which describes various inventions that could have happened much earlier in history, but didn't for whatever reason. I think the example it mentioned, though I might be wrong about this, was that the Romans would have had the materials/expertise to come up with something like the printing press. I've searched but can't find a reference to this anywhere. Is this a real thing?
posted by AllShoesNoSocks to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Was it 'Guns Germs and Steel'?

It's not exactly what inventions could have occurred earlier, but rather why some inventions/ conventions didn't get adopted earlier.
posted by porpoise at 2:32 PM on September 19, 2020

L Sprague de Camp wrote an alternate history, Lest Darkness Fall, about a man transported back to the years prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, who supports himself and tries to stave the fall off by introducing feasible inventions the Romans had not come up with.

Distilled liquor and double entry accounting stuck in my mind for some reason, but there were a number of others.
posted by jamjam at 2:47 PM on September 19, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Is it possible that it was Ryan North's How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler? It's mostly about the basics of pre-industrial inventions and how they work, but I'm pretty sure that at a few points he points out inventions that could have been invented much earlier.
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:56 PM on September 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

There's a Gene Wolfe short story that has this as a premise
posted by crocomancer at 3:12 PM on September 19, 2020

This is familiar, although the Roman example I recall it mentioning was Hero's Engine.
posted by Rash at 3:13 PM on September 19, 2020

Best answer: I thought of this article about role playing games. It was an FPP on metafilter in February and there's a few books and articles linked in the comments.
posted by cpatterson at 10:43 PM on September 19, 2020

Response by poster: It was the Ryan North book, recommended by jedicus in a comment on the FPP cpatterson linked (and apparently it was the ancient Greeks, not the Romans). All of these look interesting though, I will check them out. Thank you all!
posted by AllShoesNoSocks at 5:38 AM on September 20, 2020

Your question has already been answered, but as a footnote, it's also worth thinking about inventions that were known but never took off. The Romans, for instance, discovered the water mill, but never used it on a large scale. Moses Finley wrote an interesting article on the subject:

Finley, M. I. “Technical innovation and economic progress in the ancient world.” In Economy and society in ancient Greece, edited by Brent D. Shaw and Richard P. Saller, New York: Viking Press, 1982.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:09 AM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

P.S. The original 1965 version of Finley's article is available on JSTOR if you have access to it.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:29 AM on September 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Romans had a clothes press that functioned as the hand operated did later in history. Lots of information about this online.
posted by Raybun at 1:15 PM on September 20, 2020

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