Ideas Behind Their Time

We are all familiar with ideas said to be ahead of their time, Babbage's analytical engine and da Vinci's helicopter are classic examples.  We are also familiar with ideas "of their time," ideas that were "in the air" and thus were often simultaneously discovered such as the telephone, calculus, evolution, and color photography.  What is less commented on is the third possibility, ideas that could have been discovered much earlier but which were not, ideas behind their time.

Experimental economics was an idea behind its time.  Experimental economics could have been invented by Adam Smith, it could have been invented by Ricardo or Marshall or Samuelson but it wasn't.  Experimental economics didn't takeoff until the 1960s when Vernon Smith picked it up and ran with it (Vernon was not the first experimental economist but he was early).

(Economics, and perhaps social science in general, seems behind its time compared say with political science.)

A lot of the papers in say experimental social psychology published today could have been written a thousand years ago so psychology is behind its time. More generally, random clinical trials are way behind their time.  An alternative history in which Aristotle or one of his students extolled the virtue of randomization and testing does not seem impossible and yet it would have changed the world.

Technology can also be behind its time.  View morphing ("bullet time") could have been used much more frequently well before The Matrix in 1999 (you simply need multiple cameras from different angles triggered at the same time and then inserted into a film) but despite some historical precedents the innovation didn't happen.

Ideas behind their time may be harder to discover than other ideas–"if this is so great why hasn't it been done before"? is an attack on ideas behind their time that other innovations do not have to meet. Is this why social innovations are often behind their time?

What other ideas were behind their time?  Are some types of ideas more likely to be behind their time than others?  Why?


I read somewhere that the romans had scientific knowledge enough to invent the steam engine.

Could the results of randomized trials have been analyzed in classic Greek times without the modern usage of zero or negative numbers? Let alone elementary statistics?

"I read somewhere that the romans had scientific knowledge enough to invent the steam engine."

Actually, that was Hero of Alexandria, a Greek, :"Hero published a well recognized description of a steam-powered device called an aeolipile (hence sometimes called a "Hero engine")."

See, Hero of Alexandria for more examples of his innovations (including, for better or worse, the first vending machine...).

Going farther east, the Chinese, well, you know, the Chinese -- for starters, movable type. Further examples, too numerous to list.

I suspect the emergence of widespread, relatively cheap computing technology is a hidden enabler in many recent innovations. While experimental economics could have been done without computers, its widespread adoption, and the related statistical analysis, are much easier with them.

Same, I suspect, with your Matrix camera views and lots of other things. Base "physical" technologies may be available but implementing things was just too much trouble without a decent IT infrastructure.

Separately, there's a demand-side argument. Perhaps nobody wanted or needed the Matrix-style camerawork in earlier times - at least not sufficiently to pay the costs of it. There's an evolution in consumer demand for products and services that parallels the supply-side development of them; demand in turn depends on what products are already available and how well-known they are.

can openers.
hard to believe but true, there was canned food before there were can openers.

In economics, MV = PQ and marginal utility are two of many ideas that (to many today) appear painfully obvious that someone could have pointed out thousands of years ago.

I believe the next break through in economics won't be Lagrangian gymnastics or a "truly complete" aggregate statistical model, but rather a subtle finding that shifts the profession's perspective.

The stirrup. Not introduced in Europe until 7th century, although the leatherworking capabilities had been around for at least 1,000 years. A staple of time travel fiction - the modern protagonist goes back to, say, 100 AD, puts a rude stirrup on his horse, challengers comers to dismount him and defeats them all, and his ancient friends slap their foreheads sheepishly at how obvious the invention is.

The wheel in ancient America.

Pretty sure we have some evidence of RCTs coming from the Bible of all places, and then intermittently again throughout history (e.g. Lind's scurvy studies on the Salisbury in the 18th century, and the result that we call Brits 'Limeys'). The Biblical example comes from the Book of Daniel - Nebuchadnezzar captures Jerusalem, wants some smart Jewish dudes as advisers, and wants to feed them with his own food and wine, but Daniel refuses the food. Ashpenaz (Nebuchadnezzar's bureaucrat) worries that if Daniel eats a commoner's diet, he'll fall ill and Nebuchadnezzar will notice and it'll be Ashpenaz's ass on the line, but Daniel responds:

'"Test your servants ten days, giving us legumes to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the youths who eat of the king's food, and do with us as you see fit." He agreed to this plan of theirs, and tested them for ten days. When the ten days were over, they looked better and healthier than all the youths who were eating of the king's food. So the guard kept on removing their royal food and the wine they were supposed to drink, and gave them legumes.' [Daniel and his buddies were eventually given tenure in the royal service, and later found to be 'ten times better than all the magicians and exorcists throughout his realm.' Perhaps bc of his methodological savvy?]

Certainly there were problems with the methodology, inadequate controls, inadequate randomization, inadequate outcome specification, etc, but the idea appears to be there. I'm no biblical scholar, but I imagine some other instances exist even then as well. Authority-based systems of knowledge have tended to trump commonsense evaluation for just about all of human history, but I think it has less to do with the existence of the idea/method and more to do with other institutional problems, no?

The incorporation into standard economic theory of the idea that agents not only don't have perfect information but usually don't even have good mechanisms for determining what constitutes accurate information. I forecast that this idea will be part of standard theory some time in the 4th millennium.

What other ideas were behind their time?

I would argue that a lot of the outsourcing of professional services that we are seeing now in the legal and engineering fields are somewhat (a few decades) behind their time. Big law firms in the U.S., U.K. and Canada are only just now coming around to the idea that it is cheaper to hire Indian or Pakistani lawyers (who have the same sort of common-law training) to do legal research and send the results than it is to hire entry level U.S., U.K. or Canadian lawyers to do the work. I am sure that the advent of e-mail that can handle large attachments makes this easier, but there is nothing about the arrangement that would not have been economically feasible with just a fax machine and a telephone. The real barrier to this outsourcing has not been technological, but cultural (convincing older firm partners that the way they learned to do research is no longer the best way to create value for clients). The same story is true in engineering and architectural firms.

Without T Tests randomized trials are meaningless. There will always be some difference in sample means between even identical populations. No T Tests mean there is no way to distinguish noise from signal. Every randomized trial will produce a result whether true or not.

Aristarchus of Samos' heliocentric model of the solar system. The sun as the center of the solar system in the third century BC.

It's hard to say on that one. What allowed the heliocentric model to be finally, conclusively proven was the development of telescopes, although it's conceivably possible to build a proof just by naked eye observation.

Evolution is also a tricky one. The fact that it lay mostly hidden for millenia, only for two scientists to independently discover it within two decades of one another, suggests that its discovery was probably a product of the overall environment for scientific discovery in that period. That said, the evidence was there, sitting in front of our faces for all that time, so maybe some bright individual could have put it together earlier on.

Actually, that was Hero of Alexandria, a Greek, :"Hero published a well recognized description of a steam-powered device called an aeolipile (hence sometimes called a "Hero engine")."

It's also a partial myth. He had a steam-powered contraption, but no pistons or precision parts (which is what really makes a steam engine possible).

The "Romans could have industrialized" meme is a bit off, when you consider how much they were lacking in terms of the technology that underpinned the industrialization process.

Brilliant insight Alex. Your points here explode many of the theories bandied about in Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants and Steven Johnson's Ideas book. Those two tend to have a deterministic theory of technological progress, often citing simultaneous invention as proof that some (all?) inventions were destined to be discovered.

I have a hunch that these authors, particularly Johnson, are motivated to belittle individual genius by their political commitments.

But there are many ideas, like you say, that should have been imagined, but were not. If only some lone, solitary genius had thought of them...

Few subjects involving creativity are inevitible.

Otto von Bismark introduced universal healthcare in 1883 so at this point it seems behind the times in the U.S.

But seriously, as Chris D points out above, most of this has been quite well covered by historians of science. I can't remember who gave the lecture but I remember a keynote speaker at a corporate technology conference pointing out that movable type didn't become economically viable till rag paper became readily available, and that didn't happen till the black plague created an approximate 50% surplus of used linen garments in Europe. And if I recall correctly even then printing didn't really take off till the Medici popes came up with the novel idea of mass-producing and selling dispensations, faculties and indults.

Petr Beckmann's _A History of Pi_ is actually heavy going if you don't already understand advanced arithmetic and geometry. But since his main purpose was to rail about the impediments and outright setbacks culture (government in the Roman Empire, ignorance in the Dark-Ages church) impose on scientific and engineering advancement you want to read it anyway if you want to understand why a lot of technology is "behind its time." Short example: Romans lost interest in the mathematics of pi because they had enough soldiers, slaves, and complete indifference to efficiency to build all their roads and aqueducts in seriously inefficient straight lines. (A Roman soldier murdered Archimedes, who understood pi very well, because Archimedes complained when he walked across the proofs he was doing in chalk on the floor -- no paper in those days, remember.)

Speaking of alternate histories, someone ought to mention Bruce Sterling and William Gibson's _The Difference Engine._ It's a great exploration of how successful adoption of Babbages mechanical computer would have transformed manufacturing and statistics without particularly the rest of society at all (e.g. electricity was considered interesting only to doctors who in the book, remaining completely oblivious to psychology or the germ theory of disease, insisted that galvanic perturbations were responsible for disease from tuberculosis to mental illness.)

History of science is good stuff -- economists should try it some time. Once you start looking it's usually pretty easy to appreciate the wry maxim that scientific advances are usually named for the *last* person to "discover" them, not the first.


@Phillinator: practical bicycles were so much a product of lightweight metal frames, wire-spoke wheels, pneumatic tires and efficient (steel ball) bearings (with good roads and chain drive being important lesser factors) that it's hard to imagine them much earlier. The draisienne or dandy-horse could have been invented as early as the spoked wheel, but they were never much good for anything, and that goes double on anything but a decently smooth road.

Perhaps the Romans should have been employing dandy-horses for long-distance courier missions, but actual horses were probably faster over any distance and terrain until the penny-farthing era.

A starter for ideas behind their time might be the Ryan "Dinosaur Comics" North's Time Traveller's T-shirt, though a lot of the "easy" inventions detailed there skip over the painstaking observations and processes that got us there. Penicillin may have been used as a crude antibiotic even in ancient times, but never as rigorously as it could have been.

And indeed, that leads to the idea that evidence-based medicine is an idea behind its time, though I grant the question is whether it's only 50 years late or (depending on how early statistics and RCTs "should have" been invented) 3000 years late.

Reasons: The tendency towards people to view life as narrative and 'choose your own adventure' clouds the underlying truths like "incentives matter" and that other peoples' choices affect your available options indirectly. You get something like the EMH that is so good that it banishes all kinds of common sense through ideology and institutional inertia. Then, the reaction against EMH brings all kinds of nonsense. Maybe technologies that are easier to view objectively tend to have less of this than behavioral sciences.

Back to the Frakt link on the previous post:
"Are you getting this? Let me make it clear. The PPACA may make it possible for workers to get the same tax break for purchasing health insurance on the individual market (via an exchange or otherwise) as they would if they bought their employer-sponsored plan (if they’re offered one)."

So, big employers get special tax treatment and this still exists until it 'might' be fixed, but noone can really tell if it is or not. Just about everything the gov't does is behind the times.

Ideas behind their times: pluralistic democracy. 1788 seems awfully late in human history for such an idea. Nobilities, dictators, warlords, and utopias were extremely difficult nuts to crack.

The rollaway suitcase...Invented by a pilot in 1988 and universally used today, it included no technology unavailable to suitcase makers from the beginning.

A lot of social inventions require standards that don't already exist, and lack of such standards retards undertaking the investment in them. Hdtvs awaited the atsc standard before large scale development could be undertaken. Even now hd transmitters for computers and other video equipment don't exist. Patents often restrict development which is why hd recording is still rare. Without an html standard, a lot of experimentation with proprietary bbs systems was undertaken. It usually takes development of several such systems before standardization can proceed which opens it to a much broader market.

Regarding "pluralistic democracy" -- we could say practically all the ideas of political philosophy could have been formulated at any time, from laissez-faire to constitutional government to "all men are created equal." And, in reality, the ideas of political philosophy are all ancient and were formulated long before they took root and became actualized. It's not hard to think of these things and develop the rationale, but it's fiendishly difficult to make them happen. That's why we still have mercantilism today, hundreds of years after "science" exploded its rationale.
Kent Guida

Relativity - I've always wondered if Newton might have had some thoughts on that one, that were never written down. Fractional reserve banking? Pendulum clocks? Optics?

I've always wondered if bicycles could have been invented earlier. Or made better earlier.

Compare the difficult mathematics of the events of 1847 and Kummer's theory of ideal factors with the simple analysis of two player, zero-sum games in Neumann and Morgenstern's Theory of Games. Clearly there was no mathematical obstacle to coming up with Game Theory one hundred years earlier.

Splinter-free toilet paper (1935). You'd think the technology, and *surely* the incentive, would have been there...

Maybe longbows fit in that category: selecting the right wood and the techniques for working it are by no means trivial.

There's a social factor as well. Effectively using longbows en masse requires that you have extensive training for them in a segment of society from childhood.

Regarding experimental economics, of course Vernon Smith first learned of them from Chamberlin at Harvard. However, Vernon himself identifies the Taylor time and motion studies from the early 20th century as the first such experiments, although apparently the Guinness Brewing Co. was carrying out experiments for marketing purposes as early as the 1880s.

Regarding "Arabic" numerals, the resistance to them in Europe came from the Roman Catholic Church, which viewed allowing for zero, and even worse, negative numbers, was demonic. It was the practical matter of double accounting invented in Pisa, with the clear reality of negative net balances and their usefulness, which allowed Fibonacci to get away with publishing his work advocating the use of the new numerals, with the Church backing off its previous opposition, thus allowing their spread in Europe.

Fixed wing aircraft. It seems crazy that steam engines (for example) were produced before functional airframes. Even assuming zero knowledge of the physics involved (lift, etc.), you'd think simple trial and error would have enabled gliders of some sort centuries before complex engines and other machinery/devices became possible. How many categories of wing - fuselage arrangements are there? This seems WAY easier than building engines.

I think the best known example is the toilet seat, invented by the Poles, and the hole in it, invented two centuries later, by the Germans.

Randomized controlled trials require statistics that did not exist before the early 20th century. And the randomization and analysis parts are prohibitively expensive without computational equipment that one could generously place within reach of academics in the 1950s.

And the precog paper probably is evidence that RCT alone is insufficient to provide protection from wrong results.

Add to the stirrup, the wooden horse collar. With prior collar/yoke technology, a horse could do the work of 5 slaves, and would eat about as much as 5 slaves. With the wooden horse collar, the horse could do the work of 10 men while still only eating as much as 5. Many medieval advances in agriculture would have followed the horse collar whenever it was introduced, as they depended on the full utilization of the strength of the horse.

As a political scientist, I'm puzzled by the claim that economics seems backwards compared to poli sci. I'd say rather the reverse. Economics at least has a coherent and widely agreed upon set of theoretical concepts that guide it, a paradigm if you will. Political science has no such thing (the best that we have is what we've imported from economics, but only small minority of the discipline accepts them). If the reference is to experimental methods in political science, those also are accepted only by a minority of the discipline, and sometimes viciously rejected by the rest.

And, frankly, this is the first time I've heard an economist offer such praise for my discipline. As I am one of those who supports the adoption of those economic theories and concepts into my discipline, I'm rather more supportive of the general economists' disdain for political science than I am of the surprising claim here.

That story about Archimedes being killed by a Roman soldier leaves out the important detail that the Roman general Marcellus, had given specific orders that he be taken alive.

Babbage's Engine also suffered from the incredible expense of hand making gearing that precise on such a scale.

"What pre-regulatory radio resembled most is the modern Internet"

One doesn't know how radically things would have changed had the regulatory structure of radio been different.

There are very logical (and inevitable) reasons why Leonardo da Vinci's and Charles Babbage's "inventions" didn't actually work out beyond the conception fantasy: technology and/or design methods weren't up to the level required to make them really work. These are the same reasons for much of liberal arts.

In the case of Charles Babbage, mechanical tolerances, geometries and such would never allow even a metal implementation to work in the 19th century. The reprogrammability of either software or Moore's law semiconductors was necessary to explore the space well enough to succeed. Babbage might have succeeded in creating his Difference Engine but it never would have been easily re-purposed as a technology needs to be to catch on.

In the case of da Vinci, engineers like he at the time used ratios based on simple water, wood or stone models to predict scaled up designs made from the same materials. They also used arithmetic and geometry manipulations as the acme of their mathematics methodology. Algebra wasn't quite out of Arabia and adopted yet. Never mind calculus coming a century later. The da Vinci helicopter (and similarly his steam engine work) could never work with such primitive engineering methods because fluids (air and steam) are compressible, nonlinear media unlike water. This is why his water-based technology did work - the level of his math was adequate to engineer with. Not so for compressible fluid technology. It's simply impossible to ever succeed without calculus, the scientific method and everything that follows these logically.

If da Vinci's methods seem similar to modern economics with its supply-demand curves and use of ratios, well, much of economics really is still practiced with little more analytic sophistication that the late medieval, early Renaissance da Vinci. So too is accounting - it predates the concept of "zero" hence the entire distinctly non-algebraic-ness of accounts and most calculations used.

Re the Roman comments: the Romans were shockingly incurious about science and engineering beyond the utilitarian aspects. This left them with little in the way of design analysis (e.g. math). Roman numerals severely hindered any hope for progress. It's very doubtful they could have know enough to make a steam engine of any utilitarian value. The Greeks had made some toy examples but nothing more.

There was a da Vinci-like futurist in the very late Roman times during the fall who was every bit as creative as Leonardo and every bit as unable to ever implement the grand schemes simply because of the state of technology and design analysis in his time.

The moment I see every econ major learning at least calculus and differential equations and actually understanding and use them will be the first inkling for progress out of the dismal. We engineers learn about all these as undergrads and then build upon that to practical before our BS degree is awarded. There are some at a PhD level who grok this kind of thing but it's laughable and pathetic that it only happens at that level. Again - should be standard fare at the BA level. There are really no excuses for any econ department. If prospective undergrads can't hack this, they really are NOT qualified to get an econ degree at all. Simple as that.

Econ needs to catch up with the scientific and engineering parts of modern society quickly.

"The rollaway suitcase...Invented by a pilot in 1988"

It's just a very small cart, and we've had carts for thousands of years. How could nobody make the connection?

1. Musical notation.
2. The chimney.

I would say probability theory was behind it's time.

How many gamblers went to their graves without divulging the discoveries they made, before Pascal and Fermat broke the field open.

"Viewing aging as a disease.


Andrew, you beat me to it. My nuance: mummification is prehistorical, so in a way it casts dispersion on the conceit of cryonics as medical tech rather than as innate death aesthetic.

Still, the basic analogy of cryonics -preserving one's body as best as one can for future TECHNOLOGY based ressurection could have been as ancient in the historical record as attempting to heal through technology rather than through shamanic ritual.

Cryonics is so slow to disperse that it seems to me only a tiny percentage of Americans out of the world's population are predisposed to it.

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