Rob Wiblin asks about historical contingency

by on January 24, 2013 at 7:47 am in History, Philosophy | Permalink

A while ago I suggested this question for the MR readers,
  • What could a very clever person in 1500 (not a monarch) have done if they wanted to make the future better and help people living today?
Here’s an alternative you might like to ask
  • Which avoidable/contingent event in history did the greatest harm? (e.g. the burning of the library of Alexandria)
  • If you wanted to push history in a positive direction, which contingent event from the past would be best to be a participant in, and what could you have done? (e.g. support Deng Xiaoping inside the Chinese Communist Party in the 70s)

It’s tough to have an impact from 1500, but better monetary policy in the 1930s — across the world — would be one place to start for the second part of the question.  Yet I worry that any pre-Manhattan Project intervention could end up upsetting the order in which various countries come to obtain nuclear weapons.  What if a non-Hitlerized Germany built them first?  How does that turn out relative to the status quo?  Does avoiding 9/11 mean we are victimized by a larger and more serious attack later on?  Safe bets in this game are hard to find.

David O January 24, 2013 at 8:05 am

1. Randomized controlled trials.

2. The shooting of Franz Ferdinand.

3. Hard to say, but if you were a diplomatic official serving in Nazi Germany, you could have helped many potential Holocaust victims escape by giving them visas. Saving many lives of ordinary people is quite a high achievement – it’s hard to top it radically changing history and possibly making things worse.

Vanya January 24, 2013 at 9:27 am

I agree on #2. It is amazing how contingent a major tragedy like WWI seems in retrospect, and how easily it should have been avoided.

Damir January 24, 2013 at 9:47 am

Meh, I tend to think that WWI would’ve happened eventually. Just because it seemed to hinge on a single event in history as it played out doesn’t mean that all the right ingredients weren’t present and primed. Something else probably would’ve set it off later on.

Alexei Sadeski January 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm

I’m inclined to agree with Damir… Europe seemed a powder keg, waiting for any spark.

Phill January 25, 2013 at 2:59 pm

There is no history of Great, Singular Events. Europe had been moving towards a continent wide conflict for the preceding twenty or thirties years – starting right with with the unification of Germany.

IVV January 24, 2013 at 9:52 am

I think that preventing WWI would more reasonably involve the prevention of the morass of defense agreements that forced everyone to fight everyone else, after a single destabilization. That seems to be something far harder to prevent.

Eric January 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I don’t think it’s a given that if the Arch Duke is not assassinated that WWI doesn’t happen. Britain and France were nervous about the rise of Germany and IMHO something was going to set that powder keg off eventually. I would play that one the other way – convince the Kaiser to forbid the unrestricted u-boat campaign that brought America in and hope a more equitable peace prevents WWII.

I agree with some sort of science meta knowledge in 1500 (or any time prior).

errorr January 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Meh, the unrestricted submarine warfare was seen as necessary because the british were relying on american industrial capacity so much. It may have kept the us out of the war but Germany failed when it weakened the right flank of the initial invasion to support the dumb offenses of the Kaisers son against the main French forces. This was a mistake they did not make the next time. The problem always was that Paris is phsychologically important but not really militarily important.

Dr. Dirt January 24, 2013 at 11:38 pm

I agree about the U-boats, WW I would have started anyway, but the entry of the US into the war changed a stalemate into an Alled victory. As it turns out a stalemate and negotiated peace would have been preferable to victory.

Staufer January 30, 2013 at 6:55 am

If you read Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War” about WWI, you realize that there was nothing inevitable about the war. It is unknowable, obviously, which means that it is possible that the war would not have started without the assassination. It was made to look inevitable afterwards because no leader could dare tell his people that millions had been killed and the country’s economy damaged just because the statesmen miscalculated and messed up. Yes, there were conflict dynamics at work, but they need not have played themselves out. Britain and France had come close to war in Africa in the late 19th century and didn’t. We don’t like to think that randomness plays a big role in our lives, so we believe in narratives like the inevitability or at least likelihood of WWI.

Andrew' January 24, 2013 at 8:17 am

Tell doctors to wash hands…or is that today?

Andrew Edwards January 24, 2013 at 8:32 am

If it were possible to end the slave trade or arrest African colonialism in a stroke, it’s hard to see how that would be anything other than a positive for people today, even if it cost us soul music. But I’m not sure that one individual could manage that?

btd January 24, 2013 at 10:52 am

take a look at the work of William Wilberforce and what he did to end the slave trade. we could have used him much earlier.

de Broglie January 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm

African-Americans are better off living in the United States. Slavery was terrible, but it is one of those bad events that had an unforseen good outcome for the descendants of the slaves. Whether having blacks was good for the United States is another question. Civil War, high crime, legacy of racism, underperforming population, Great Society…

Corey January 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm


MyName January 24, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Not sure if I could agree with the whole “blacks are better off” point. Some blacks may have been better off, but the large numbers of black males behind bars, and their reduced life expectancy would tend to undercut that. Especially since the ones that would do better may have just immigrated to here anyways.

That being said, I think America has benefitted a lot from having them here, culturally, we’d be more like Canada than anything else without them.

Quigley January 25, 2013 at 1:13 am

“Whether having blacks was good for the United States is another question.”

This statement somehow implies that blacks had a say in the matter.
And are we blaming black people for the Civil War and racism?
“Underperforming population”…what is your reference range?

Seamus McCauley January 24, 2013 at 8:36 am

Another way again to think of it would be “what significant event in the C16th could feasibly be altered by the actions of one (even very clever) person?” and the answer that leaps to mind is the burning of the Spanish Armada, a hugely significant event for the geopolitics of the time but carried out as a desperate and easily-prevented near-suicide mission by a handful of sailors. Shout one warning from a small boat at the right moment and you’ve changed the world. The counterfactual world 500 years after the Spanish Armada attacks England intact is of course in the realm of wild guesswork but the conquest of the American continent would have gone considerably differently, the colonisation of Africa, Asia and the near East by the British and French empires 200-400 years later seems a more remote possibility, we would certainly have skipped the two world wars in the form they took in our timeline and it is feasible that a Spanish Empire that had successfully humbled Britain by the C17th would still be the de facto world superpower on at least three continents today. Good thing / bad thing? Impossible to say but for example the dozen or so post-colonial failed African states that make up the poorest and most wretched countries on earth could hardly be in a worse state either after or indeed still under Spanish imperial rule than they are right now; a 500-year catholic inquisition would possibly have caused more suffering than one holocaust; a Moorish-influenced Spanish superpower would likely have more cultural empathy for the rise of militant Islam than the distant, protestant America superpower we in fact live with. There are indeed no safe bets.

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 8:45 am

I had the same thought. However, I don’t think the “Spanish Armada” existed in 1500. I thought it was a *product* of the gold acquired from Central America. The Spanish Empire was built on gold from the new world. I don’t think they were that powerful in 1500.
(Maybe someone can look it up)

Peter Schaeffer January 24, 2013 at 9:48 am

“a Moorish-influenced Spanish superpower would likely have more cultural empathy for the rise of militant Islam than the distant, protestant America superpower we in fact live with.”

Not very likely. Spain in 1500 defined itself in opposition to Islam (not just militant Islam). By 1500, Spain had fought an 800 year war (actually 774 years) to drive the Moors from Spain. After a war of 8 centuries of war against the Moors, hostility towards Islam was deeply ingrained. See for a history of the “Reconquista”.

Note that the Spanish Armada was never burned. See for an account of the Battle of Gravelines.

byomtov January 24, 2013 at 10:30 pm

By 1500, Spain had fought an 800 year war (actually 774 years) to drive the Moors from Spain.

Odd sentence. Very odd.

Sam January 24, 2013 at 11:25 pm

A “Moorish-influenced Spanish superpower” with sympathy for militant Islam? You do understand that the two essential purposes of the Inquisition were to convert Jews and convert Muslims, right?

Jeff January 24, 2013 at 8:37 am

On the plus side, better city sanitation.

Russ January 24, 2013 at 8:43 am

1) Abandon Aristotelian/Scholastic attitudes to science and knowledge (but clever people were doing this anyway in 1500)

2) The barbarian annexation of northern China under the Sung, ending any prospect of a medieval Chinese industrial revolution.

3) Tip off the British about the evacuation of Brooklyn (or any number of contingent events in the American Revolution) – an America inside the British Empire would abolish slavery faster, pressure the African and Indian British Empire into being more liberal and take a much less isolationist attitude in the run up to world war.

Germany would never have the industrial might to develop nuclear weapons before America.

And how much wealthier will future generations be because their policymakers have detailed knowledge of every kind of economic trauma.

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 8:44 am

I’d like to say something to the effect of convincing the Spanish to deal with Native American tribes as if they were foreign states. But I’m not sure if there is any power in the universe that could have stopped them (or any other old world country) from immediately slaughtering and enslaving them upon first contact.

Maybe take a ship full of weapons and ammunition to Hispaniola, and teach the natives how to use them. Tho that still probably wouldn’t be enough.
Blow up the Spanish fleet?
Infect isabella with syphillis and convince her that the New World was diseased?

Note: I’m not saying that we should never have colonized the Americas, but history would have been much different if the carribean hadn’t been depopulated, mined for gold, and turned into slave sugar plantations by the Spanish. It it had been gradually colonized by the Spanish the way the English colonized N. America, we might never have had slavery.

Jeff January 24, 2013 at 9:38 am

Slavery would have happened anyway, at the time it was an economically viable way to use resources (uneducated laborers).

Adam Calhoun January 24, 2013 at 9:54 am

We have basically always had slavery in all parts of the world. On the scale and in the form of the Americas, maybe not as much, but there are always slave traders.

albatross January 24, 2013 at 11:26 am

One easily-overlooked area to improve is in the practical use of numbers in business–modern accounting and arithmetic, statistics and probability theory, logistics and inventory control. Your goal is to become the trusted advisor and bookkeeper of some very wealthy and powerful merchant or ruler. (Trying to displace the existing person is liable to be bad for your lifespan, especially as a visible foreigner with a weird accent.) You can probably do very well gambling with a knowledge of probability theory, but don’t get too greedy or you may get killed or beaten up for cheating. To improve your chances of becoming very influential, study up on the locally dominant theology, astrology, and cold-reading techniques. You can study medicine here (even EMT level knowledge would make you the best doctor on Earth in 1500, I think), but you may not be allowed to practice it without guild approval.

Once in a position as a powerful person’s trusted advisor, you can introduce innovations in his business, and if they’re successful, they’ll spread on their own, as people try to copy your employer’s success. If you are also using your medical knowledge, you can probably introduce Jenner-style smallpox vaccination, and you may be able to introduce better food handling/safety in your employer’s home and office, and better food preservation for his ships and such. If you have a reputation as a great healer, you may manage to convince people to wash their hands even when you’re not watching, but probably not if you’re just the bookkeeper of the richest merchant in Amsterdam. They’ll just figure you’re crazy, or some kind of secret Jew, and ignore your comments about handwashing and germs and other weird stuff the crazy genius with numbers says.

Dan Weber January 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm

You come pretty close to describing the motivation of the characters in Card’s “Pastwatch”

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 8:55 am

I’ve got one: Developement of the smallpox vaccine a couple of hundred years early. Within the Catholic church. And making vaccination a routine activity for Catholic missionaries.

Cambias January 24, 2013 at 10:00 am

That one’s certainly doable, and doesn’t involve one in choosing which empire gets to beat up the others.

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm

It might have stopped the Spanish from wiping out the Aztecs. Maybe. I’m guessing the Spanish would have won anyway.

Richard Gadsden January 27, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Isn’t there a good chance that cowpox kills on a terrible scale in Mesoamerica?

Ray Lopez January 24, 2013 at 8:56 am

I think TC is fishing for comments, lol. Niall Ferguson is a good stem author in this field

1) In 1500: establish a patent system that rewards innovation. We’d be living forever with flying cars by now.
2) Avoid the politics that led to the fall of the Roman Republic, due to legalistic debates akin to Reds vs Blues today
3) Wish dead Wilhelm II, German Emperor (15 June 1888 – 9 November 1918). This man was a complete idiot. Possibly insane.

Rahul January 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

What about Napolean? If he’d been dead at 15 would more lives have been saved?

Vanya January 24, 2013 at 9:19 am

Sorry Ray, these are all historical nonsense.

1) Who exactly in 1500 was going to enforce this patent system? Non-starter.

2) The fall of the Roman Republic had too many causes for any one person to step in and stop it. Moreover, a lot of good arguably came out of the Roman Empire anyway. The Roman Republic was also every bit as nasty to non-Roman citizens as the later Empire was, if not worse since governors often had more leeway to loot their provinces under the Republic and civil wars were an almost inevitable result of the Republican power structure. The Roman Republic gets a lot of good press in fiction but didn’t live up to it in real life.

3) Wilhelm II? You seem to be confusing him with Adolf. Like most European royalty of that era, Wilhelm II was basically a sheltered genial bumbler with bad advisors and bad instincts. He was arguably manipulated into the war by the hawks in the German Government, and repeatedly expressed his opinion that the Austrians were going a little too far in their demands on Seriba. How was he any worse than Nicholas II or Franz Josef?

Ray Lopez January 24, 2013 at 12:10 pm

@Vanya: re #1 – cite please? So you are speculating, just like me. Who would enforce global patents? Why Philip II of Spain. re #2 – cite please? Here’s mine: – if you subscribe to the theory that ‘great men do not make history, but only inevitable events do’ then sorry I cannot argue with a Marxist. re #3- no, I am not confusing Wilhelm II with Hitler, and thanks for winning this thread for me (Godwin’s law, a technical win but I’ll take it).

Vanya January 25, 2013 at 2:06 am

Sorry Ray. You’re just spouting utter nonsense about poor Wilhelm II. I assume your knowledge of German history comes from the Simpsons (“history’s greatest monster!”).

On the patent issue – come on. Give it two seconds thought. No European state had anything close to what we would think of as functioning institutional bureaucracies in 1500. There would have been no realistic way to enforce patents in that environment.

Jamie_NYC January 24, 2013 at 7:38 pm

“Wilhelm II was basically a sheltered genial bumbler with bad advisors” – no, he chose his own advisers. His first move was to dismiss Bismarck, who was saying: “The next war will be caused by some idiotic trifle in the Balkans” (quoted from memory)..

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 9:30 am

Yeah, um, the Roman Republic fell WAAAAAAAAY before 1500.

Ray Lopez January 24, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Lern to reed, Meade. The second part of TK’s compound question (“Here’s an alternative…”) did not limit the question to 1500.

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Doh! My apologies.

Guest January 24, 2013 at 5:34 pm

the patent system in 18th century Britain was almost non existent, yet the Industrial Revolution still happened.

Dave McMurrin January 24, 2013 at 8:59 am

I think the religious wars are ripe for analysis here. The Reformation started in the 1500s, and you could make a case for heresy trials, inquisitions and the like as a huge disruptive force in the progress of civilisation.

I’m not sure if one smart person could preach religious tolerance enough to make a difference, but if religious tolerance became the norm, it could affect the sciences, technology, medicine and politics.


Rahul January 24, 2013 at 9:01 am

How about if the papacy had died out in infancy? Not Christianity; just the power of the pope.

Cambias January 24, 2013 at 10:08 am

No Papacy means no transnational Catholic church, just a lot of “national” churches functioning as a branch of whatever the government happens to be (more or less like the Byzantine patriarchate). This also means no intellectual framework for what we now call “international law”, no Church-sponsored universities — which means NO universities. Intellectual life in Europe would have been considerably stultified, and European politics would have been even more ruthless.

WIth religion more localized, you’d likely see the development of what one could call “nationalism” earlier, and considerably more variation in religious doctrines, at the whim of kings. Basically you get the post-Thirty Years War political environment with the pre-Aquinas intellectual climate. Not a good combination.

Rahul January 24, 2013 at 10:25 am

Is “considerably more variation in religious doctrines” a bad thing? Why?

Cambias January 24, 2013 at 10:32 am

Oh, religious variation isn’t a problem — unless, as my next sentence indicates, it creates more reasons for people to hate the freaks in the next valley.

I did think of one potential good outcome: if you could encourage the development of autonomous churches, disconnected from state power, you get the benefits of the Protestant Reformation early. Unfortunately, I don’t see how you can accomplish that without the Papacy spending a thousand years telling kings “you’re not the boss of me” first.

albert magnus January 24, 2013 at 9:28 am

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

R.Mutt January 26, 2013 at 12:32 pm

For the rest of his life Orson Welles kept getting letters from people telling him the cuckoo clock is a Bavarian invention.

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 9:33 am

A well placed Catholic priest might have made a difference. Although there were many well placed Catholic priests who tried, and the pretty much got executed. Power has a mind of its own.

Dismalist January 24, 2013 at 9:07 am

What if two of Charlemagne’s sons had been hit by buses?

arne.b January 24, 2013 at 9:53 am

Great idea. Wouldn’t it be a much better world if the saying went “the bus is mightier than the sword”?

Rahul January 24, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Wouldn’t chariots suffice?

B.B. January 24, 2013 at 9:12 am

What is Karl Marx had died of the flu as a child? Would global history have been different? Better? Worse?

Would our intellectual life and knowledge been any worse?

Rahul January 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Marx reminds me:

Can we imagine a world where the idea of fractional reserve banking never took birth? Or is that too unrealistic?

Millian January 24, 2013 at 9:17 am

Very clever person in 1500: few institutions are resilient from that time, so there’s little they could have done. Certainly not technologically, and probably not socially. Perhaps plagiarise innovative and influential works of art. Music may be most likely to survive censorship, whereas influential literature is hard to translate into the vernacular of 1500 and may even get you killed.

Get people to use standard measures? Build a basic steam engine? Both of these things will certainly change the world, but it is not clear that people today will be better off, as the question demands.

If you really want to help the current people living today, do nothing, as your actions may well result in other people’s births.

Most harm from an avoidable/contingent event: the Fourth Crusade was nothing like inevitable, yet it resulted in a poisonous and fragile trifecta of religious relationships in medieval Europe (and it also caused major damage to a classical library). There are probably better candidates.

Positive potential from contingent event: Get the Emperor to make another copy of the Yongle Encyclopedia, just in case. Interrupting Soviet espionage against the USA during the Second World War, somehow, would probably make the world better-off.

It is easy to over-estimate the impact of one individual on the largely self-interested behaviour of historical personalities (especially when the individual is You). I doubt a single individual could prevent the slave trade or the Holocaust. It is hard to identify many really contingent events.

Slocum January 24, 2013 at 9:19 am

Push the germ theory of disease back as far as possible. But you’d need a microscope to be convincing, so maybe focus on going back to introduce the microscope. As it turned out, it took about 200 years between Leeuwenhoek and general acceptance of germ theory, which suggests to me that the chances of being listened to would be quite small and such a hypothetical exercise in time travel would probably end in frustration. Still 200 years starting in 1500 is better than 200 years starting 1675.

DocMerlin January 24, 2013 at 9:21 am

3. removing visa restrictions that prevented jews from fleeing to the US In the 1930’s.

Rahul January 24, 2013 at 9:21 am

What if missionaries / colonizers discovered and energetically distributed condoms in 1800’s Asia.

Adam Calhoun January 24, 2013 at 9:57 am

Condoms were invented well before the 1800s (see:, but they were religiously opposed from the beginning. Every sperm is a holy sperm!

Cambias January 24, 2013 at 10:11 am

The locals would look at the creepy foreigners in blank incomprehension. They _wanted_ children. The main problem was making sure enough of your kids lived to adulthood to support you in old age.

axa January 24, 2013 at 9:25 am

Bring Normam Borlaug’s green revolution to Africa at the same time as Latin America.

EB January 24, 2013 at 9:25 am

There’s an interesting book by Orson Scott Card that explores one possible answer. It’s called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. It is truly excellent.

Owen January 24, 2013 at 9:35 am

Ah! I responded downthread but you posted before me. Warning, my post has spoilers. I agree, it’s a great book.

Darin January 24, 2013 at 9:26 am

In the western world, the early Roman empire represented a period of unparalleled technological development that was brought to a bitter end as the empire declined and the medieval period was born – progress in technology (architecture, infrastructure, basic physics) was set aside and in some cases lost for 500-1000 years. Had the empire been phased out in a less anarchistic manner on its periphery, the relapse into a warlord system could perhaps have been prevented and the legacy of international trade and scientific advancement could have been sustained, which could make our current technological progress 500-1000 years farther ahead.

It would have been hard to prevent that from precipitating in a single event or even a single lifetime without being a powerful political figure with tremendous foresight, nevertheless it is meaningful to think about because we can consider what we are *not* doing to advance scientific progress *today* worldwide. What opportunity costs are we incurring with missed potential investment in the sciences – not just in terms of research dollars, but in terms of education that produces scientists, the hierarchy that keeps research organized and disseminated, and the global concentration of wealth that bars access to productive scientific research employment from huge swathes of the world population.

Owen January 24, 2013 at 9:34 am

This thread reminds me of Pastwatch, an Orson Scott Card book I read in high school, which is probably my favorite of his outside the Ender’s Game/Shadow series, and which I’m afraid might turn out to be terrible if I reread it. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has destroyed itself and the environment. A team of researchers, looking into the past (yep, there’s time-travel!), decides that the point of no return for world peace was Columbus’ expedition to the New World, because of the imperialism and global instability that followed directly from it. But they discover (and this is no real spoiler) that their present is the result of a time-travelling intervention from an alternate future in which Columbus had followed through on his goal of leading another crusade, and was successful in colonizing the Middle East. Their challenge is therefore to change the past without producing the sort of unexpected consequences that led to their present. It’s been years since I read it, but (spoilers) basically they manage to strand Columbus in the new world, peacefully convert the natives to Christianity, vaccinate them against most diseases, eliminate human sacrifice, speed up Aztec metalworking technology by a few decades, and create a Mesoamerican civilization that sails to Spain and forges an alliance. Obviously it’s high fantasy by the end, but it’s a fascinating way to re-think culture and imperialism.

JWatts January 24, 2013 at 5:39 pm

“outside the Ender’s Game/Shadow series”

Ender’s Game comes out as a movie this year starring Asa Butterfield.

K R January 24, 2013 at 9:34 am

This is quite recent, but with regards to the last one, I think a powerful figure aggressively fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in its early stages would result in a major posiitve change in the world today. Perhaps President Reagan himself?

Dave from Boston January 24, 2013 at 9:36 am

1. Andrew is spot on, wash your hands. I would also add don’t defecate in your drinking water.
2. Franco Prussian war, alternative history, France wins or stalemates, thus suppressing militarism in Germany, probably avoiding both world wars.

Vanya January 24, 2013 at 10:16 am

A Prussian defeat in 1870 would have had all sorts of interesting repercussions – probably leading to an Anglo-Prussian-Italian-Ottoman alliance against France-Austria (arguably a more normal set of affairs historically for Europe than the actual alliances of 1914). Russia and Austria would probably have had to patch things up, and then could have happily divided the Balkans together. There is probably at least one very nasty world war in this world as well – starting with England and Prussia/Germany trying to stop Russia from carving up the Anatolian peninsula. There is no Holocaust in this time line, but during the war there are vicious, government sanctioned pogroms and atrocities against Jews in both the Russian and Hapsburg Empires, since Jews are considered “German friendly”, and Germany is well known to be the most tolerant nation towards Jews in Europe.

doctorpat January 29, 2013 at 11:11 pm

And just think: One really good American Gatling gun salesman working with the French military might just have swung that tide.

Brian Moore January 24, 2013 at 9:39 am

This one’s a gimme, based on the date. Start a Protestant sect (beating Martin Luther to the punch) and attempt to smuggle as many pro-science, anti-nobility, human rights-concepts and good governance ideas within the “anti-Catholic” intellectual payload as possible. People who started religious movements (spread ideas) were some of the only non-monarchs/nobility who had any impact on the era, and some monarchs took their religious beliefs seriously — if you could convert them, they would do your work for you.

Andrew Edwards January 24, 2013 at 10:03 am

How do you know this one hasn’t already been done?

Brian Moore January 24, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Basically, as I allude to with Martin Luther, it has been! I figured that if we are trying to find a way for a non-monarch to affect the future in 1500, Martin Luther’s life is a good example to follow — and if he had included some other great insights along with his ideological changes, his impact could have been even more profound. And I say that as an atheist — theology was about the only way to influence people’s minds in 1500 outside of being a leader.

Mark Thorson January 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

Invent the phonograph. No reason you couldn’t make them in 1500. Cassette tapes were a critical propaganda medium leading to the Islamic revolution in Iran, and the phonograph could have had a similar effect in the world of 1500.

anonymous... January 24, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Surely you can’t be serious.

Mark Thorson January 24, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Absolutely. This article mentions how Ayatollah Khomeini and his side used cassette tapes to propagandize the Iranian masses.

And here’s a cardboard phonograph player used to spread Christian propaganda to the Third World.

prasad January 24, 2013 at 9:54 am

It’s not 1500, and it’s not all grand and geopolitical, but how about something “simple” and cultural – keep Mozart from dying at 35. Keep him making music for another thirty years…

Millian January 24, 2013 at 5:16 pm

I agree with this sort of idea. Geopolitics has all sorts of unpredictable consequences (how long would Austria-Hungary live? how nice would it be?), but it’s hard to see how more great and influential music, earlier, could be a net negative for people today.

Hugh January 25, 2013 at 6:23 am

Discouraging or crowding out Beethoven?

Vanya January 24, 2013 at 9:57 am

“What if a non-Hitlerized Germany built them first? ”

What if? What evil would a non-Hitlerized Germany have done with their nuclear weapons exactly? Coerced the other states of Europe into joining a single currency “Union” where they would all be encouraged to take on massive debts in order to buy German products?

Nick_L January 24, 2013 at 9:59 am

Build a better clock; ask Newton (or Faraday) what would happen if the speed of light was..well, you know?; develop and popularize the Bessemer furnace; fund educational & scientific institutions; persuade Elizabeth the First to declare America a tax free zone in perpetuity; develop a theory of evolution. That should keep an intelligent person pretty busy in those times, that is if they can dodge the plagues, the wars and the famines.

Mike January 24, 2013 at 10:01 am

I can’t recall where I’d read this, but one argument suggests that we are currently living in the best world that our future time-travelers could manage. Given the extraordinary difficulty of preventing one disaster without creating another, perhaps we should count our blessings after all.

Vanya January 24, 2013 at 10:18 am

Wouldn’t that be the best world for the future time-travelers? It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily OUR optimal world.

Mike January 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Good point. I guess the past is like any frontier, it belongs to whoever gets there first.

And yes, that does make my head hurt.

David H. January 24, 2013 at 3:57 pm

You need to think very carefully about what “first” means when you discuss time travelers.

Anthony January 24, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Larry Niven has suggested that if time travel *is* possible, that time-travelers will keep changing the past until a timeline where time travel is never invented results. Therefore the universe we live in does not have time travel.

Peter Schaeffer January 24, 2013 at 2:49 pm



Few innovation have changed the world as much as he Bessemer (actually Bessemer – Thomas) furnace. Perhaps more relevantly, few innovations were really possible decades before they happened (because the supporting technologies did not exist).

The Bessemer furnace is an exception.

Joe Smith January 24, 2013 at 4:29 pm

When Tyler talks about progress and stagnation I think he generally overlooks just how important Bessemer was and how much of the progress from 1870 to 1970 simply flowed from Bessemer.

doctorpat January 29, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Technologically, there are SOME inventions that could have been feasible centuries before their time.
1. Hygiene
2. Hot air balloons (possible in ancient Egypt I would think)
3. Compass
4. Rubber
5. Hypothesis testing by experiment

Troy Camplin January 24, 2013 at 10:14 am

I reject changing anything that ever happened in history. This is why:

lemmy caution January 24, 2013 at 1:36 pm

We would have to:

1) invent time machines and ,
2) put you in charge of the time machines

for that to make a difference.

Cambias January 24, 2013 at 10:28 am

If we’re firm on the 1500 change-point, we’re already on the runway to modernity so there isn’t much one can do to speed things up. A couple of suggestions:

— Try to speed up the adoption of limited-liability corporations. The concept was already floating around in 1500, but it didn’t become widespread until the 19th century.
— Vaccination and sanitation. Also the concept of insects as disease vectors.
— A lot of the 18th century agricultural innovations could have been implemented centuries earlier, and boosting crop outputs makes land-holding aristocrats very happy, so that could be your way to gain influence. Four-crop rotation, the importance of legumes and manure, and techniques like contour plowing could produce big results.

freethinker January 24, 2013 at 10:38 am

Prevented Samuelson from writing his Foundations of Economic Analysis , sparing us publications which are abstract for the sake of being abstract.
Persuaded the publisher of Keynes’s classic to reject the manuscript unless Keynes makes it more understandable, saving reams of paper used for printing books about what Keynes actually meant.

If the slave trade was nipped in the bud , Myrdal would not have had to write about the American Dilemma . Maybe Thomas Sowell would agree with this observation.

Prevent the Moghul emperors from ruling India, some of whom imposed Islam on an unwilling populace . there would have been no Pakistan, and therefore no Taliban to torment the civilized world. Also we Indians would have had better Hindu-Muslim relations.

I would have done my best to ensure that the French, rather than the British, rule India. I would have then enjoyed good bakery products all over my country rather than just in the tiny place called Pondicherry ( under French rule till 1963; most of India under British till 1947)

Rahul January 24, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I’m glad for the bakery remark. It gives me confidence this is sarcasm and not a crank.

James Oswald January 24, 2013 at 10:39 am

Galileo was born in 1564, but any support of the scientific revolution and Renaissance is probably pretty high on that list. Avoiding the sack of Baghdad in 1258 would have improved overall human welfare immensely. Arguably the Islamic golden age would have continued for some time, ushering in a more peaceful trade oriented Middle East and faster technological growth. Getting to the industrial revolution quickly is the biggest possible improvement in human welfare. Even Nazis with nukes probably pales in comparison to the gain from an industrial revolution 200 years earlier.

Steve January 24, 2013 at 10:40 am

Stop Dr. McCoy from saving Edith Keeler from being hit by a car and ensure the US enters WWII…

MD January 24, 2013 at 2:26 pm


JIm January 24, 2013 at 10:50 am

The introduction of hand washing as a standard of care for doctors, nurses and midwives when attending to patients.

Millian January 24, 2013 at 5:22 pm

A popular suggestion in this thread, but the payoff to acquiring the soap and clean water may not be immediately obvious enough to justify the cost, making this wisdom rather difficult to propagate.

dude January 24, 2013 at 7:02 pm

This dude recommended Calcium hypochlorite.

Also, there’s always been alcohol available.

It seems like it was less of a cost/benefit issue than just that smart people “knew” better.

roy January 24, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Change the world in 1500, there is one easy way.

Assasinate Moctezuma Xocoyotzin. The man was singularily incompetent, personally I am glad Cortez won, but the biggest single change anyone could make in 1500, would be to stop the Spanish Empire at birth.

Other obvious things in 1500, sink the second Portuguese India Fleet, make sure Juana of Castille dies giving birth to a stillborn Charles V (thus making the Habsburg Empire stillborn as well), or help Poland-Lithuania destroy Moscow, I believe they were trying that year..

Honetsly that last one sounds pretty good to me. That or preventing Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor of China, from usurping and murdering his nephew. He was a horrible guy and the Ming might have not ended up the horrifying despotism it became without him.

RM January 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm

If western hemispheric Indians had discovered Europe instead of the other way around.

Ed January 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm

There is a bunch of things you might be able to do with religions. With a different line of Popes around 1500 you mght be able to prevent the Reformation, as the Catholic Church is able to reform itself without splitting up (essentially have the Counterreformation but not the Reformation).

While Eastern and Western Christianity were clearly drifting apart, the occasion of the formal split in 1055 was an easily preventable tragicomedy of errors, as John Julius Norwich memorably described in several of his books, and without the Fourth Crusades one of the many attempts at reunion would have succeeded.

Going back way before 1500, Islam and the Islamic world would look very different today if the Mu’tazilites had prevailed.

Jack January 24, 2013 at 1:11 pm

If only one could go back and win the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 for the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. There is the high probability that free of war against the Persians an advanced Republic could have emerged out of Thrace (now Turkey). Coptic Egypt would have been maintained from it’s capital in Alexandria. Cathridge would probably be on a map as a major city. Syria would have been an economic superpower with cities such as Antioch still intact. Poland and Russia probably would have been able to fight off the Mongol invasions. The Slavs in central Europe wouldn’t have been reduced to small waring kingdoms setting the stage for WW1. Imagine if the Renaissance had happened not just in the West but in the East as well!!! The only potential set back is that the discovery of the Americas might have been pushed back decades.

Peter the Shark January 25, 2013 at 8:07 am

This is a good one. Arguably the rise of Islam is one of the great disasters in human history – it sidetracked Persian development, irrevocably splintered the cultural space of the old Roman Empire, imposed a backwards Arab leadership on the cosmopolitans societies of Mesoptamia, Egypt and the Levant, and essentially destroyed the Hellenic world as a viable cultural force.

MD January 24, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Give better advice to the Shiba Clan, so that Oda Nobunaga is not able to end it in 1554. No Oda Nobunaga might mean someone other than Toyotomi Hideyoshi unifies Japan, which might mean no invasion of Korea and no suppressoin of Catholicism. No Toyotomi Hideyoshi could also mean no Tokugawa Shogunate, and maybe Japan doesn’t close itself to most foreign influences for then 250 years.

Would this be better? Worse? Would most major events have happened anyway? Would Korea have been invaded anyway because after unification Japan had a lot of soldiers with nothing much to do? Would Catholicism have been suppressed or Japan closed anyway because any ruler of Japan would have seen Christianity and Europeans as a destabilizing threat? Eh, who knows.

IVV January 24, 2013 at 3:30 pm

The discussion of the Yongle Emperor made me think of the voyages of Zheng He. He didn’t discover the Americas, but let’s be honest, he had no reason to go looking for the Americas. He wanted to maintain trade to the rest of Asia, and unlike Western Europe which had Africa and the lands of the Crusades in the way, China only had Southeast Asia which hey, has some good trade opportunities of their own. No reason to try to go east to Europe.

So, the only people who would have incentive to traverse the Pacific Ocean (especially to the north, because reaching Alaska would have been the easiest path to the New World) would be those who had more wealth to receive by delving deeper in the ocean: Japanese whalers. Unfortunately, Japanese whaling was quite low-tech at the time, and more of the “chase a whale into the shallows and kill it near the coast” type. So if someone were to teach the Japanese how to manufacture large Zheng He style ships for oceanic travel to chase whale pods, then they might just follow a whale pod to Alaska.

Of course, having the economic infrastructure to allow for large vessel building would have been another important challenge.

Roy January 25, 2013 at 12:11 am

You don’t need a huge junk to engage in whaling, a smaller more seaworthy vessel would do the trick. However the big problem with sailing across the Pacific is not getting there, it is getting back. It is quite easy to get to the US west coast from Japan, but getting back requires that you sail as far south as central Mexico.

This is probably the reason the Japanese didn’t have kcean going ships until well after the arrival of the Portugese.

Peter Schaeffer January 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Most technologies have vast prerequisites that make them impossible to use much before they were actually invented. However, mathematics doesn’t have that property (at least in the same way).

Introducing calculus in 1500, along with the next 3 centuries of progress in math, might have had a huge effect.

Ray Lopez January 24, 2013 at 3:08 pm

You notice PS that your post and mine are the only two in this thread that talk about creating new technology, new inventions. The other posters are concerned with things like preventing the loss of human life or liberty using existing technology. There’s a subtle but huge difference between using old technology and creating new technology. The former preserves the status quo, the latter can disrupt it. That’s why economists are typically in the pay of the defenders of the status quo, and always talk about ‘more and cheaper of the old stuff’–all big existing businesses like to hear that kind of talk, as long as it does not disrupt their markets. You hardly ever see economists talk about creating new things. Be it blue liberals or red conservatives, they are backwards looking. No imagination. The French Physiocrats, Adam Smith, Malthus, Walrus, Keynes, Samuelson, Friedman, Cowen. They are all about how to make existing systems better. Perhaps Schumpeter, and some Austrians are for change–but they too, if read carefully, are typically railing about some minor topic that does not involve new technology (e.g., for the gold standard, which should be neutral versus a well run fiat money system). Paul Romer is another exception to this rule, but he was a lone voice (and his Honduras free-city project failed due to ‘conventional thinking’ unfortunately).

Joe Smith January 24, 2013 at 4:38 pm

#1 Introducing basic scientific concepts and methods could have accelerated progress. There does not appear to have been much known by 1800 that was not accessible by 1500 and the scientific method was still taking baby steps in 1800.

#2 The bubonic plague

#3 Murder Stalin in 1926, Hitler in 1936 or Mao in 1946

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Everyone kills Hitler on their first trip.

Margin January 24, 2013 at 2:58 pm

“to make the future better and help people living today”


The individuals living today would not have been born at all.

A future without me would not have been better (for me, which is what I care about).

dirk January 24, 2013 at 3:24 pm

“Which avoidable/contingent event in history did the greatest harm?”

Don’t kill Jesus.

Tom Davies January 24, 2013 at 4:52 pm

My theology is shaky, but I thought everyone went to hell if Jesus didn’t die?

dirk January 24, 2013 at 6:07 pm


Margin January 24, 2013 at 9:01 pm

No, Mordor.

After passing through Narnia.

Graeme Edgeler January 24, 2013 at 3:43 pm

With sex-selective in vitro, give Henry VIII a healthy son or two by his first wife.

Not because it would necessarily change things for the better, but I’ve often thought that was one piece of history that was pretty much chance and if it had gone the other way things could have been very different.

David H. January 24, 2013 at 4:05 pm

The conversion of Constantine to Christianity around 400AD was not inevitable, and absolutely decisive to world history. I think that was an amazingly important pivot point.

Jevon Jaconi January 24, 2013 at 4:44 pm

law of undulation? :).

Peter January 24, 2013 at 4:47 pm

While it’s true that preventing 9/11 might have led to a worse attack at a later date, it must be mentioned that preventing 9/11 also would have been a complete no-brainer. Just one anonymous telephone call would have done the trick.

Tom Davies January 24, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Obviously the action of most benefit to the future would be to try to delay development of the steam-engine, preventing the industrialisation which is leading to global warming :-)

dearieme January 24, 2013 at 5:10 pm

At any time before the Bolshevik coup, kill Lenin. No Lenin = no Stalin, no Hitler, no Mao. Awful things would still have happened in the world, but it’s hard to believe that they’d be worse than the things these three monsters did.

Hazel Meade January 24, 2013 at 5:20 pm

That’s one case where I doubt it would have made any difference.
The Communist Party would sitll have existed without Lenin, they would simply have picked a different leader. Stalin would still be around, still be a communist, and still be able to rise through it’s ranks.

mrmandias January 24, 2013 at 7:29 pm

The success of the Bolshevik revolution was highly contingent. No Lenin probably means no successful Bolshevism.

King Leopold January 24, 2013 at 5:34 pm

If I had colonized all of Africa.

errorr January 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Change the date and I wonder if stopping the mongols would have led to a more liberal Islam if the caliphate hadn’t been destroyed. No ottoman empire… different China. .. no Tamerlane… stronger Ukraine and Hungary. Heck on this note just making the central Asian nomads less powerful would have changed a lot: no Indo Europeans is to big a change to speculate, no Huns and Magyars would perhaps have prolonged the roman empire, no mongols, no Turkish invasions.

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