The Powerful Future of America’s Past
I am reading, once again, a book from about 130 years ago accessible here: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Among many remarkable aspects of the book is protagonist Hank Morgan’s self-description from Chapter 3:
I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the State of Connecticut—anyway, just over the river, in the country. So I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one—and do it as easy as rolling off a log. I became head superintendent; had a couple of thousand men under me.
The story has Morgan waking up, after a head injury, in sixth-century England in the land ruled by King Arthur. He eventually proceeds to do what he described: “make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery.” And telegraphs and telephones and medicines and … well, it doesn’t all go smoothly, but this basic premise struck me.
Could you do this?
The assumption that one man could, with uneducated assistance, re-create all of this technology made me ponder. I am fairly clever, and of an engineering-and-tinkering frame of mind, and I’ve had a couple of hundred (not thousand) people in my employ. How much of this could I do, from memory? Not anywhere near as much, as quickly as he does. And yet I fancy myself as being more likely than most to pull of this stunt, which was assumed to be plausible in the late 1800s when this was written.
The trick would require not just knowing how to make gunpowder, for instance, but being able to instruct primitive people on how to find sulfur and saltpeter, to recognize it, mine it and refine it for the purpose. Even coal — which should be the easiest — might not be obvious to them. That’s quite a collection of esoteric knowledge to happen to have in one’s memories, and be ready to pull out and use on demand.
And it occurs to me that almost no one could pull this off, these days. We have become too specialized; we can operate as only a tiny part of a great machine, and without that infrastructure we would have nowhere to turn.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle