[ExI] we stand on the shoulders of giants

ben benboc at lineone.net
Sat Jul 11 20:58:39 UTC 2009

This is a fun exercise, and probably many of us have idly speculated on 
something similar.  I know I have.  In fact, it's musing on this kind of 
thing that made me realise that in a very real way, we are defined by 
our technology, and without it, we are dead. Even tens of thousands of 
years ago, we were dependent on technology for survival, so I reckon you 
wouldn't need so much high-tech knowledge to survive in a sudden 
transplant to a new planet scenario. The low-tech would be much more 
important.  So Iron would definitely not be a first priority.

To make iron you need charcoal, coal, coke, or something similar 
(basically, carbon) that will burn very hot with enough oxygen.  Making 
charcoal isn't that difficult, but it's not easy either, and would 
likely need a few tries before you got it right (and you'd need a LOT). 
  In addition to the mighty bellows (which in turn would need leather - 
another thing that's not too hard if you know how -, a means to stitch 
the leather into suitable shapes, a wooden frame, maybe something like 
pitch or resin, and a damned good design), there's also the issue of 
what are you going to use as a smelting vessel.  So you'd probably need 
pottery knowledge, to the level where you can make strong thick 
fireproof containers, or firebricks, and the means to assemble them into 
a container, and ways to control the flow of molten iron assuming you 
get that far.

This is dredged up from vague memories of reading about such things, so 
there's bound to be things i've forgotten or never knew about the 
processes needed.
Of course, you also need to find and extract suitable ore, which I know 
next to nothing about.

Iron is something that a colony like this won't be making for quite a 
while, I reckon, even if there are enough people who remember enough 
bits of knowledge to make it all work.

OTOH, glass, bronze (if you can find copper and tin), simple pottery, 
and of course primitive woodwork are relatively easy.  Fire is the key, 
naturally, and fire isn't as hard to make from scratch as some people 
seem to think.  While rubbing two sticks together will only result in 
swearing, a fire drill works quite well.  You need a springy stick, a 
bit of string (some tree barks can be turned into string, or grass/reeds 
can work.  Animal sinew or strips of leather would probably be best 
though), a straight stick with a pointy end, a flat bit of wood with a 
small hollow, a stone with a concave face, and some tinder (dried 
bracket fungus makes excellent tinder, but dry grass and leaves should 
do).  With a bit of practice, this is quite a reliable way of making fire.

Freshly broken glass is the sharpest thing we know of (even now), so if 
you can make lumps of glass and smash them up, you can make sharp knives 
for flensing meat and cutting up leather.  Glass isn't just melted 
quartz though.  In the spirit of the exercise, i'm not looking stuff up 
on t'internet, so i'm now struggling to remember how to make glass. 
Sand, Soda (potash might do, but i may be getting mixed up with how to 
make gunpowder here!), and possibly something else.  I'd experiment with 
seashells and sand in a hot fire, see what happens.  For some reason, 
the making of glass, concrete and gunpowder are all muddled together in 
my head.  Um, apart from the Sulphur and Carbon bit of gunpowder, anyway.

Making leather the low-tech way involves unpleasant and smelly 
procedures, and is best left to the strong-stomached (put your tannery 
next to the latrines, know what i'm sayin?).  I think you need to ensure 
all the fat is scraped off the hides first, as well.  Quite hard work. 
Although i seem to remember that Inuit women used to make seal-hide 
clothes by chewing the seal skin.  A lot.  Wouldn't like to try that 
with a pig though.

So I think you could bootstrap an industrial base by starting with bark, 
sticks and stones, inventing fire, boiling sap to make glue (more 
experiments to find the right sap), making glass, then spears and bows, 
catching animals, making leather, digging up clay, making pots, then 
start the chemistry experiments to re-invent stuff like soap, cement, 
better glue, and making textiles, rope and string, by which time you 
should be able to make simple lathes which can be used to make better 
lathes, etc., and wooden machines.  Gunpowder if you can find sulphur, 
and bronze if you can find copper and tin.  It would be a wierd kind of 
hopping from one point in history to the next, because you already know 
the uses of certain things if you can just make them, and things like 
the germ theory wouldn't have to be developed, you'd already be aware of 
the need for good hygiene and the benefits of running water, various 
medical facts, etc. Steampunk!

With the right natural resouces, and enough people who remember stuff 
like the above, and a bit of good luck, you could have a fairly decent 
early-industrial society going within a few months or maybe a year or 
two, provided people survive the first few weeks.  Once the Iron problem 
was cracked, the world is your shellfish.  You'd be Romans with guns and 

I.T. would still be some way off, and if you have people like Keith who 
actually do know how to build an IC, then a computer, they'd better have 
good genes, because it'd be decades before you'd be ready to start 
tinkering with such things.

In the end, I reckon the major limiting factor would be the low 
population.  Imagine an internet in a world with only a few thousand people.

Ben Zaiboc

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list