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

  • Anonymous

    Oh, let me clarify, I’d like to look at your story. I also plan on reading Lucifer’s Hammer, I just googled it and realise that I read an excerpt of it when I was a teenager. It’s a shame I didn’t read the whole thing.

    Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I’d love to read it and let you know what I think.

    I’ve only read Niven and Pournelle’s Mote in God’s Eye and the Gripping Hand. I’ll have to try out Lucifer’s hammer when I get more time. At the momen just keeping my company moving forward is taking most of my time… But I suspect you can relate to that.

  • http://DeHavelle.com Keith DeHavelle

    One of the better “rebuild” stories is Lucifer’s Hammer by Niven and Pournelle. Grim, in many places. I’m dabbling a bit in that area myself.

    In one series I’m working on, I have a different version of the problem: The protagonists don’t have anything like our technology — even King Arthur’s Court was more advanced in many respects. I’ve tried to build a realistic society for them. I wonder if you’d be inclined to see how well I did?

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes, one of my favorite stories from when I was a teenager. I did dream of being able to do many of these things. When I had the history channel one of my favorite shows was “How it’s made”. I found it fascinating what they showed, and, what they didn’t. It seems like the hardest part would be the bootstrapping. To build an boiler you need a lot of sheet metal, not too hard with large furnaces and rollers, but would probably cost years worth of wages to get a blacksmith to pound out that much sheet metal. Once the basic steam engine was built you might have more luck. Yes, pretty unbelievable. I do think I could rig up some devices in a stone age environment, but forget about any sort of micro electronics. But I bet with a decade or two you could reach the level of the mid 19th century…

    But you’re right that just getting the basics is difficult, even such “simple” things as wires would be difficult to achieve without machinery. Forget about synthetics….

    I might be fun to write some SciFi of what it would take to rebuild after a complete collapse.

  • Anonymous

    Ah yes, one of my favorite stories from when I was a teenager. I did dream of being able to do many of these things. When I had the history channel one of my favorite shows was “How it’s made”. I found it fascinating what they showed, and, what they didn’t. It seems like the hardest part would be the bootstrapping. To build an boiler you need a lot of sheet metal, not too hard with large furnaces and rollers, but would probably cost years worth of wages to get a blacksmith to pound out that much sheet metal. Once the basic steam engine was built you might have more luck. Yes, pretty unbelievable. I do think I could rig up some devices in a stone age environment, but forget about any sort of micro electronics. But I bet with a decade or two you could reach the level of the mid 19th century…

    But you’re right that just getting the basics is difficult, even such “simple” things as wires would be difficult to achieve without machinery. Forget about synthetics….

    I might be fun to write some SciFi of what it would take to rebuild after a complete collapse.

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