Chris Scoggins, marginalist

Concerning my previous post, he sends me this email:

So if the typical person today couldn’t hack it in 1000 AD (I agree that we probably can’t) What is the furthest back someone from today could go and have a fighting chance to make ends meet?

I like the idea of walking into an LSE seminar in 1932 and making some nice points. 

If we try going back further, I don’t think 1700 would be so much easier for me than 1000.  Even if I fell into London, patronage would be hard to come by and I would expect that I would end up earning the subsistence wage.  Sorry guys, but I just don’t know much useful: blogging starts around 2001.  In most eras I would expect the subsistence wage, but after the late 1800s I could teach and write for greater pay and better working conditions.  As for the start date for effective insider trading, maybe that is the late 19th century as well.  You need some start-up capital: does anyone know the minimum market investment circa 1815 and could you sell short? 

In most eras my best bet is to be a shyster of some kind.

I don’t, by the way, think I would die in 1000, at least assuming I could avoid the plague and a few other maladies.  Temporary aid is the natural human tendency, among the poor too, and it is unlikely I would be killed for being a witch.  I would end up doing hard physical labor, just like most other people at the time.  The economic lesson here is that complementarity really matters.


If forced to do physical labor, it probably wouldn't be very hard considering that you would be considerably larger than most of your contemporaries in whichever century you choose.

I think I'd pretty useful to Columbus in the late 15th Century. I'd make a good sounding board for Newton or Kepler too, once I picked up the language.

"I like the idea of walking into an LSE seminar in 1932 and making some nice points. "
Best sentence I read today Tyler.

Tyler, I think you're drastically underestimating the advantage any of us would have going back to those times. As pointed out, you'll be significantly taller and drastically smarter than average, and I don't mean educated, I mean that your brain hasn't been malnourished it's entire life. What's the average IQ in 1000 AD England? It's impossible to prove, and I might guess 75, but I certainly wouldn't guess 100. As you walked around you'd start to see glaring deficiencies in the ways people lived their lives, such as, 'wow, none of these doors have proper locks on them' or 'i can't believe no one is boiling their drinking water'. Combine that with a conceptual understanding of markets and entrepreneurship and I can't fathom how you'd fail to be achieve anything less than fabulous wealth.

Michael Faraday made it with no capital or connections. Anyone remembering high school chemistry, physics, or math should be able to get a scientific career in the late 1700's/early 1800's.

And shorting stocks was easier, not harder, before financial regulations, although debtor's prison wasn't so great if you screw up.

If you've been transported to 1830 or thereabouts, even an American high-school education gives you one incredible, timely, easy-to-exploit bit of insider data: ever heard of a sawmill in central California, built by a Mr. John Sutter? Go there.

"If the problem today (oft bemoaned by commnetators on education) is that everybody is above average, apparently in the past everybody was below average!"

The average has trended upwards over the past century. Basically, people are getting a bit smarter. The average today is about 116 in 1900 IQ. (Think of it as being similar to inflation.)

Besides, a modern person would also be bigger, more attractive, and more resistant to disease. These are huge advantages if they don't get one killed.

One thing I fantasize about every no and then is what I would do if I where transported back to 9/1/01, and if I could prevent the terrorists attacks, considering that I know certain information about the event, but not the specifics (such as the times, the exact airports/airplanes or the names of the people responsible)

I don't think there was much to invest in 1815 other than government bonds and canal issues, at least in the US. Real estate speculation was rife though. Shorting was around but it's legality varied. Naked shorts, unregistered securities, issuing additional stock surreptitiously at the discretion of the owner, were common.

As with most of these mental games, the "when" often depends on "where." Do I get to pick the time and place, or just the time and I am left to my own devices to get to the place I want to be? 18th century onwards in England or Western Europe is a safe bet for most of us, a little earlier if you know some chemistry or engineering. By the time the 19th century rolls around most of us would be well-placed to take advantage of our historical knowledge: we know what will become "big", we might remember a few inventors or company names to seek out as investors, and we might even remember a few inventions that become much more practical for us to invent ourselves now that the basic chemistry and engineering work can be farmed out to a reasonably well-educated workforce.

What all of us carry around as common knowledge would be incredibly valuable by 1800 or so. What might have seemed like a toy to its inventor is something that we know will change the world in a decade or so...

Quote harryh: "How far back would I want to go if I could choose a time to my maximal advantage?"

Perhaps the future would be the best place to be transported to. Even the poor in modern day America or Europe have cable tv, modern medicine and an overabundance in food. Arguably, it's better to be lower class today than upper class 1000 years ago. 1000 years into the future we might be greeted by a lavish social safety net, robot butlers, and a much extended lifetime to enjoy and peruse a millennium of intellectual thought, even though we may all be too ignorant to actually produce any marketable goods.

In 1700, if you could get your hands on the simplest spyglass, you could easily discover the planet Uranus within a few months. You don't even need to know where it is: just check out all the sixth-magnitude stars along the ecliptic.

There are no more than a couple thousand sixth-magnitude stars in the entire sky, so you would only have to monitor the positions of a small fraction of them. Find the one star out of a few hundred candidates that's moving.

You will win some modest fame and fortune and be able to quit your day job as a musician and devote yourself full-time to astronomy, as William Herschel did in real life.

Next, discover the asteroid Vesta, which will be somewhat tougher since it wanders quite far from the ecliptic, but quite doable in a year or two. Finally, invest in a slightly better telescope (two-inch lens should be quite sufficient) and spend a few years looking for Neptune and Pallas and Ceres.

Retire wealthy and honored.

I think a modern American attorney could go as far back as the founding of the country, and perhaps back to the end of the use of Law French in English courts, say around 1680, and find work in the the legal profession, at least as some kind of clerk.

If you're interested in gaining practical knowledge that could be of help in a situation like this, or more realistically, just interested in how "things" actually work, I'd start working through a book like "Caveman Chemistry: 28 Projects, from the Creation of Fire to the Production of Plastics," by Kevin Dunn. It's an all-chemistry-lab primer meets tour-through-history. It starts with charcoal, goes through ceramics, metathesis reactions, dyes, gunpowder, batteries, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and ends with plastics. It's a bit quirky, but the steps are all there, and it explains how to go about actually producing all of the items. It's a great book for showing students how chemistry is applied.

Having a thorough knowledge of price equilibriums is fine, but knowing how to make glass, gunpowder, and soap -- priceless, or rather, extremely utilitarian.

The premise is difficult to understand, with going back to 1000 or sooner. I'd rather head back to 600 or even 300 BCE.

If I'm time traveling, it's pre-Dark Ages for me.

I think a typical American working at the start of the 20th Century would do far better than a typical American at the start of the 21st. Those people would have a far better understanding and experience in basic skills that would be useful as well as a much better understanding of science then medievals would have. Today, most of us lack those simple skills simply because we never needed to know them.

The biggest obstacle to success is that the time voyager would not have a support network in terms of patronage, financial backing, and protection. These would be critical in Medieval Europe, or indeed in most highly stratified societies.

What is needed then, are times and places when "men of ability" are allowed to rise quickly. The windows of opportunity are few and far between, and are generally very dangerous. But I can think of several eras when someone today could succeed, provided they have enough daring, enough historical knowledge, and either military or trade skills.

1) The Spanish Exploration of the New World. Especially if you can speak Spanish, and can pass for being an orthodox Catholic, then 1500-1530 is a good time. Most of the conquistadors and initial immigrants were self made men. A basic knowledge of geography and history would allow you to know where the riches are to pillage in the New World. Either sign up under Cortes or Pizarro, or try to beat them to the punch. Just keep in mind both tended to be lucky in the exact time they encountered their adversaries. However, chances are good to get a nice landed estates and some titles provided you're a good leader.

2) 1700-1840 when European merchantmen really started to open up the Pacific. Perhaps I've read too much James Clavell, but there is plenty of money to be made as a trader. If you don't have the initial sailing skills, you can sign up and learn them before striking on your own. Problems here are bad weather and pirates. You could have all the skills needed to succeed, and still succumb to bad luck.

3) If you are in America in the 1840's, do what you can to get as much hardware supplies and be near San Francisco when the Gold Rush happens. Sell mining supplies to the miners, and you'll make more than 90% of them.

4) For that matter, anytime there is a speculative boom, you will make a fortune if you buy early and sell before the mania ends. French stocks for New World trading, Tulipmania, whatever.

In short, once a market economy has developed and you know where the boom spots are, you can use your historical knowledge to advantage. You basically eliminate risk because there is no uncertainty as to what will happen.

Once again, I think "inventing" things is not a path of proven success. The principles of steam power were known well before James Watt. He didn't invent the steam engine as much as improved on earlier, but flawed designs. The problem here is not so much science, but engineering and what materials are available. If you are a knowledgeable engineer with practical experience, then you can probably invent some things a decade or so before they are done, but probably not much earlier. If you lack those technical skills, you'll probably fail. And let's not forget that inventing something doesn't mean you are the one who benefits from it. Nikola Tesla could easily have come from the future and that explains why he was such a great inventor. But it still won't prevent Thomas Edison from sticking the knife to him.

I think if you go back with a decent background in engineering-related math and physics, it would be straightforward to make yourself very useful (once you reached a major city, and once you knew how to speak the language, details, details). The problem is not that your skills wouldn't be very valuable, but that the niche is pretty small: a noticeable proportion of modern people are computer programmers and the like, but centuries ago only a very few people could support themselves as navigators and surveyors and military engineers and so forth. On the other hand, such people were also often in significant force-multiplier roles, probably more than the median mathworker today. E.g., a navigator makes a very valuable difference when he increases the chance of a ship arriving where it intends to.

Before Newton, you know how some key things about making sensible ballistics tables, or of course making sense of planetary motion. And before Oughtred, you how to make and use a slide rule. And I'm not an expert on the historical technology of surveying, cartography, or navigation, but I'd guess that you could have a very fruitful meeting of minds with practitioners of those fields, both teaching them enough things to keep their attention, and getting a useful level of skill yourself in weeks or months, not years. You could also write a really influential book by regurgitating calculus and classical mechanics, or perhaps write a comparably influential book about structural mechanics by attacking the problem with calculus. Not everyone cares about making a mathematically ideal arch, or about the theory of vibrations, but some people who do care care a lot: even a single percentage point price/performance improvement in a big project is a big deal.

After Newton the average modern engineer won't have an overwhelming mathematical advantage over all the locals, but will also no longer need to struggle to be understood by impatient landed gentry. The Royal Society and its imitators give you a well-qualified audience predisposed to pay serious attention to technical work. Make your way to the Royal Society and hit them with statistical mechanics and thermodynamics and the equivalence of heat and work, or the germ theory of disease and Pasteur's sterilization experiment, or Mendelian genetics, or comparative advantage, or basic electrical demonstrations. I'm pretty sure it should be possible to leverage stuff like that into a decent academic or consulting position in that time and place.

Greg Clark argued in Farewell to Alms that pretty much any reasonably intelligent man with a good work ethic and low time value could have become rich in England during the period 1200-1800.

Unconsidered, so far, is the problem of language. Presuming you do not want to be a hod-carrier (do you know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw?), you would gravitate toward an intellectual center. How's your Latin? Greek? Prior to 1900, a working knowledge of both was assumed. If you don't have that knowledge, you lose! I'll give you that there were those who rose without it, but there are those who teach at major Universities without degrees. Mostly very successful businessmen, a billion bucks buys a bit of credibility, but a B.A. is a basic entree to society these days just as knowledge of "the classics" was before the 20th century.

*IF* you do have a working knowledge of "the classics," then you are golden. You know how light works, you know the germ theory of disease, you (since you read this blog) know how money moves, you know at leasst the theory of movable type, most improtantly you have at least the theory of elements, you (probably) know that gunpowder has a ratio of 75% saltpeter to 15% charcoal to 10% sulfur.

The possible pitfalls (presuming an European landing, similar caveats apply elsewhere):

Are you white? In Europe an Asian or African lacked a certain credibility.

Are you Christian? Catholic? Can you "play one on TV?" How flexible are you on the subject of religion? Do you even know what the "Fifth Monarchy Men"believed?

Jews were not well regarded until the 20th century and forget pagans and heathens (moors). The first country to grant religious freedon to *every* religion was our own and that not until 1789.

I recommend L. Sprague DeCamp's "Against The Fall of Night" as a primer to anyone seriously contemplating alternative history, along with H. Beam Piper's "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen."

Some have alluded to this, but your best chance of success with a modern general education but no specific skills is to join the British Navy from early 1700's on. First, they took foreigners, so your strange accent wouldn't bother them. Being literate, and specifically math literate, would get you into the skilled rates with reasonable alacrity. The initial work was hard, but kids did it also, so it's likely your modern softness would harden without killing you.

And your generic education would possibly give you breakthroughs in two areas.
1) Once you get a rep as an old salt, people may listen to you in terms of sanitation and cures for scurvy. Caveat: The admirality was very slow to implement stuff that was known in these areas for almost 75 years, but at least *your* ship would make significant combat readiness improvements, which in turn means more booty, and everyone likes that.

2) If you can develop what Bowditch did before he did (about 1810 or so), which only requires high school math, but a lot of free time (countless hours of tedious calculations), your ship will literally be able to run circles around the competition. By bringing mathematics to the art of navigation, Bowditch was able to sail his ships safely in waters and fog conditions no one else dared. This made his backers a fortune, which in turn made him a fortune.

final caveat. You probably need to be a dude to make this plan work, but a small breasted woman could probably pass, IIRC at least a few did.

I'd start the Secret Cult of Rationality.

If "complementarity really matters" then libertarianism must be fatally wrong.

A technical 19th century man could reproduce civilization from scratch. If you want to outfit yourself for travel into the past, learn what your ancestors a few generations back knew.

You likely wouldn't bring plagues, if you weren't sick when you went. The bacteria and viruses you bring would be the ones that are commensals for you, not pathogens at all. Would they attack other people? Possibly, but not with any certainty. Could they even survive on other people? A very different personal ecology, people who don't bathe often, who eat very differently, who already have very-well-developed populations of bacteria efficiently consuming the resources....

Say you're taller than other people but you need to eat a lot more. In a lot of circumstances you'd be considered a glutton. That's a disadvantage. How critical it is depends on the population:food ratio. Come in when there's no food shortage because of bumper crops or a recently-fallen population and it might not matter so much.

Teaching people about sanitation is probably not going to work. Everybody knew that you get sick from drinking contaminated water, and most water was contaminated. The accepted solution was to drink watered wine etc. You put wine in the water and wait for it to disinfect, and then you can drink. People who can't afford wine get sick. What would you tell them? Clean up their water supplies? Boil the water?

Changes mostly didn't come from great ideas. Like, guns and artillery depended on improved metallurgy, something you don't know how to do. Likewise steam engines. A steam engine built a couple of decades before Watt wouldn't have worked nearly as well.

If you can recognise penicillium maybe you could try curing sick people using moldy bread or something. Would they believe you? Unless they believe you're a medic they won't want to eat your moldy breaad. In general, if you want people to believe you aren't just some illiterate (no latin) raving madman, you have to be able to show them something good starting with no resources.

You might do well with optics. If you an make a small loop of almost anything, you can make a water-droplet magnifying glass. If you can get some pieces of clear glass and the materials it takes to polish them, you may be able to make a crude microscope. Leeuwenhoek parlayed that into a career, much later. It took good glass and good polishing. Maybe too hard. Somebody suggested a reflecting telescope, that has possibilities. Camera obscura, maybe. The trick is to meet some need your customers perceive. You have to understand the customers well enough to see what they want and don't have.

Would there be enough use for jam that keeps a long time, in a clay jar with a layer of beeswax on top? Expensive, but probably doable. Did they already do that, as a small-volume luxury item? I dunno. If anybody sees you do it, can they do it too and compete with you? Sure. That's why they had guilds. Could you start a guild? No.

So OK, if you found yourself in 1000 AD your first task would be to graduate out of the role of "raving madman who doesn't speak the language". And your second task would be to graduate out of the role of "raving madman". After that it would get easier, but your chance of using modern technology to take over the world would be very slim.

"1000 years into the future we might be greeted by a lavish social safety net, robot butlers, and a much extended lifetime to enjoy and peruse a millennium of intellectual thought."

Yeah, but if the comments on this thread are any indication, you'd be the town idiot in the future. Clearly, the theme of many of these posts is that the farther are into the future, the more superior you are. Thus, you'd get there and be an incompetent laughingstock. Doesn't sound terribly appealing.

In 1000 A.D., I'd go into trade. Trade was regarded as unchristian non-work, hence why the Jews had to pick it up. Lots of opportunities for arbitrage, hedging etc. Finance, (lending, clearing, checks) is also a good oportunity.

The best opportunity would be to sell out to the royal powers as a Nostradamian seer.

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