The Almost Technologies (ancient to ~1940s)
February 12, 2022 11:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books, articles, websites, and/or individual examples of technologies (broadly defined) that could have become widespread but didn't, for any reason (random chance, bad timing, outcompeted, originating civilization fell, inventor was a marginalized person or even just terrible at marketing, whatever). The technology can be superior to, inferior to, or roughly on par with whichever alternative "won." Technologies that were only proposed are also OK, as are lost technologies.

I realize this question is extremely subjective and everything is relative, but really, I'm just looking for inspiration. Think Betamax, but pre-electronics.

Anything from alternative ways of printing books to what materials roads are made out of to food storage to textile production to mass transit (or individual transit!), etc. etc. Nutrition, cooking, farming, urban planning, architecture, and so on count as technologies, too. Military technology isn't relevant to my project but since it often spreads into civilian applications, totally OK to bring it up.

If it's something that died out in one culture but persisted or developed independently in another, go ahead and mention that if you want--I'm going to try to be careful about such things, but they're not automatically ineligible.

(Context: I'm writing a secondary world fantasy novel with a setting that has a tech level higher than the D&D-style mishmash of early medieval western Europe through Victorian England.)

Any suggestions of specific technologies or of reading material would be much appreciated!
posted by wintersweet to Technology (34 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One of my favorite web sites of all time is Douglas Self's long running Museum of Retro Technology. You may find some obsolete technologies that suit your purposes.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:46 AM on February 12, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Low Tech Magazine has a section on obsolete technologies that's pretty excellent. I especially like this article on trenched orchards.
posted by clockwork at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer:
posted by Brian B. at 11:50 AM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd say the optical telegraph, but Discworld already did it. It's still cool though.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:09 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The ancient Greek world almost had steam engines. See also: the Antikythera Mechanism, which implies that at least one ancient civilization had relatively high-precision machining techniques. It's possible that the Babylonians came very close to calculus, or at least one method of approximating the area under a curve that wasn't rediscovered until Newton and Leibniz.
posted by Alterscape at 12:47 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The phonautograph was an early device for creating a visual transcription of sound. The inventor imagined that we'd be able to read the sound waves as an alternative to stenography.

I learned about this in Steven Johnson's book How We Got to Now, which might be of interest.
posted by adamrice at 12:51 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: early cars used tillers to steer rather than wheels. And they didn't have roofs either.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:07 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My grandfather had - afaik - the first gas turbine patent (running on coal powder) 'internal-combustion turbine', along with a toothless gearbox to reduce the phenomenal shaft speed.

But metallurgy was barely up to prototypes as things melted too quickly. Most of my family's inventions were pure war machines though and didn't remotely contribute to progress.

Maybe not world-changing but he did invent a boiled egg opener that I would love to reawaken. I still have the aluminium physical prototype from 1920.
posted by unearthed at 1:13 PM on February 12, 2022 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Not to threadsit but non-worldchanging items are totally welcome!
posted by wintersweet at 1:48 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd never heard of the optical telegraph system until I read James Gleick's The Information. It blew my mind to know that such an elaborate system had been developed only to be almost completely forgotten.
posted by kimota at 1:52 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think this article is one you'll enjoy, OP.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:58 PM on February 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sprang as a textile technique has been invented a bunch of times around the world - probably predating weaving, but coexisting with weaving for a long time until almost completely displaced by knitting, or at least by machine knitting. A characteristic of sprang would be vertically striped leggings (or other stretchy items) vs horizontally stripped knitted ones.
posted by janell at 2:16 PM on February 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Robertson screws invented approximately the same time as Phillips screws are IMO pretty much superior in every way but cam out torque prevention but never really took off in the US even though very popular in Canada.
posted by Mitheral at 2:23 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: linen body armor

cheiroballistra, a putative hand-held torsion crossbox

“dormice seasoned with honey and poppy-seed”, guinea pigs, etc.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:39 PM on February 12, 2022

Lots of failed predecessors to the home video player and/or recorder: Polaroid Polavision, Cartrivision, RCA SelectaVision.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:45 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: I don't know if you'll find it useful but I remember hearing once that Christianity would be a very different religion if Abraham had been a goatherd rather than a shepherd.

"Sheep and goats usually exhibit different behavior. Goats are naturally curious and independent, while sheep tend to be more distant and aloof. Sheep have a stronger flocking instinct and become very agitated if they are separated from the rest of the flock. It is easier to keep sheep inside a fence than goats. Sheep are easier to handle than goats."

Also, AC vs DC electric current.

Also, also, Pratchett also included the water computer. A truly amazing device.
posted by irisclara at 3:08 PM on February 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've always been partial to the PRT system (and it could be devolved to remove digital control elements) but funiculars and municipal elevators are cool too.
posted by credulous at 3:10 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Roman roads. They're still around. IIRC, they're so durable because they mixed fly ash into the cement—a technique that was only rediscovered in the past 30 years or so.
posted by adamrice at 3:20 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The earliest cars were mostly electric.
posted by General Malaise at 4:04 PM on February 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

"The Lycurgus Cup is a 4th-century Roman glass cage cup made of a dichroic glass, which shows a different colour depending on whether or not light is passing through it: red when lit from behind and green when lit from in front." Probably the effect is from nanoparticles.

There's also a brief mention of Roman "flexible glass" that was repressed since it would have upset things too much.

Also, ancient stonework in general is just extremely impressive the more you look at it
posted by Jacen at 4:19 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Napoleon's fax machine, the pantelegraph?
posted by rodlymight at 5:21 PM on February 12, 2022

Best answer: This might not be the kind of thing you are thinking about but-

Slide Rules.

Before cheap calculators, slide rules were ubiquitous for calculation. I went through a period where I collected them. (My older human vision makes them a bit hard to read nowadays.) IMHO, they had some advantages. First, the decimal point is not provided for you, so you have to ballpark estimate your answer to get it right. Second, slide rules were accurate to at most 3 significant figures and that was it. So, it forced a discussion of and thought about how accurate an answer needs to be practically. I am not positive about this - it could be confirmation bias - but I think students who were at least trained to use a slide rule developed much better number sense than students who routinely rely on a calculator.

As you can tell, I've thought about this a lot.
posted by wittgenstein at 5:23 PM on February 12, 2022 [8 favorites]

The "optical telegraph" was also known as the semaphore or flag semaphore, and if I recall was mentioned at least once in C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels (where I first heard about it), since it was in active use during the Napoleonic wars. The system was in wide use in Europe until the electrical telegraph took over.
posted by lhauser at 6:36 PM on February 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Mechanical Television is a fascinating thing to do a deep dive into.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:43 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd say the optical telegraph, but Discworld already did it. It's still cool though.

I don't have any good examples of what wintersweet is looking for, but if you want to read about a sort of optical telegraph you might try Sean McMullen's _Souls in the Great Machine_, which features an optical telegraph system spanning deeply postapocalyptic Australia as well as a computer that uses humans instead of transistors -- one person might work as an adder while another works as a multiplier, etc.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:04 PM on February 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The mechanical computer by Babbage and programmed by Lovelace
posted by Sophont at 9:17 PM on February 12, 2022

"Empires of the Sky" is about the battle for domination between the zeppelin and the airplane.
posted by virve at 5:51 AM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: In late Roman Gaul, there was a variety of animal-driven grain reaper in use.
posted by gimonca at 9:05 AM on February 13, 2022

Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day" features (among many other things) an imaginary global fleet of airships operating in the 1890s. Basically it's a vision of what might have been, had the airships/zeppelins been preferred to airplanes.
posted by beagle at 9:11 AM on February 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

(after posting, I see you wrote "pre-electronics", oops!)
posted by Paper rabies at 1:29 PM on February 13, 2022

Best answer: Not sure if this is quite what you are looking for, but in one of the better defenses of theoretical physics that I have encountered, a colleague pointed out that the laser could have been built long before it actually was (1960), except that nobody thought to assemble the components in that particular way—they had no reason to think it'd do anything interesting. Had the theory been understood, one probably could have been built around the turn of the 20th century, basically as soon as neon gas was identified. A lot of experimental physics which depends on the availability of coherent, monochromatic light would have presumably happened a half-century earlier.

In terms of inventions which weren't used despite arguable superiority to other devices/solutions, you can often see examples if you look at designs that are standardized somewhat arbitrarily, and where the standard persists because of network effects (i.e. it's the standard "because it's the standard").

E.g. "standard gauge" railroad tracks are 4' 8.5" apart, possibly having something to do with road ruts / horses' butts, but little else. Brunel built his Great Western Railway on a 7-foot gauge, believing that it offered better stability, less ground pressure, lower derailment and rollover risk, and would allow bigger/heavier carriages... all of which was probably true. However, the 1845 Gauge Commission opted instead to go with the narrower standard gauge for the purpose of interoperability. We'd probably have a lot fewer problems implementing high-speed trains had Brunel's ultra-broad-gauge caught on.

(FWIW, Brunel also basically invented containerized shipping a good century before it was implemented, with the delay attributable in part to the great number of longshoremen that it would have—and eventually did—render obsolete. In the 1940s, containerized shipping could have been considered an "almost technology" since breakbulk was still the norm at the time.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:26 PM on February 14, 2022

Best answer: I'm a bike nerd, and we all know what bikes look like. The mainstream bicycle evolved from the dandy horse to the penny-farthing to the safety bicycle. Modern bikes are refinements of a 140-year-old design. But there have been numerous weird detours along the way (this link is to the classic text on bike engineering with numerous weird examples illustrated—skip ahead to p 146 and start flipping forward.).

Recumbents have been around at least since the 1920s, and were banned from competition in the 1930s—this ban is generally considered the reason they're not more popular, even outside of competition. In the 1960s, Alex Moulton developed a bike that put the rider in the same position as a conventional bike, but used small wheels and suspension in place of big wheels, and an elaborate truss frame. These probably didn't catch on because there was basically one builder making them, and they're unavoidably more expensive, but the design is fundamentally sound.
posted by adamrice at 7:05 AM on February 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sunstone was maybe used by the Vikings for navigation.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:02 AM on February 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

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