[ExI] we stand on the shoulders of giants

hkhenson hkhenson at rogers.com
Sun Jul 12 17:59:35 UTC 2009

At 05:00 AM 7/12/2009, ben <benboc at lineone.net> wrote:

>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,

Make that millions.  The human line first started chipping rocks for 
shape edges ~2.5 million years ago.


>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.

No, but it would not be the last either.  Metals make a huge 
improvement in the standard of living.

Not to mention that flaking rocks is a hard skill to learn.

>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).

Much of the history of iron has been about controlling the minor 
elements, carbon, phosphorus and sulphur.  Of course pre chemistry 
days they didn't understand this.  One reason the Titanic went down 
was brittle fracture.

"The steel grain size; the oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus content of 
the steel; and the cold-punched, unreamed rivet holes were found to 
have contributed to the breakup of the Titanic, along with the 
steel's relatively low ductility at the freezing point of water. The 
shell plates showed signs of brittle fracture, though some plates 
demonstrated significant plasticity."


>   In addition to the mighty bellows

Skip this step.

I visited this place in 1996


The source of air for the forge was a pair of wooden barrels with 
pistons in them driven by the water wheel.  The wheel also drove the 
tilt hammer.


Inside this building they made the jugs and slowly dried them for 
making crucible steel.



>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 don't need to make glass.  Certain kinds of rocks work just 
fine.  But having done it and used the sharp edges, the process is 
much more controlled than smashing.

>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.

I tanned at least a hundred rabbit hides.  Few people appreciate how 
much work is involved without specialized machines.

>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!

_Blue World_ by Jack Vance described some of this process--after 14 
generations had built up the population.

>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.

I think it would be more like centuries.  Remember that without 
relatively high technology, 90 percent of the population are 
farmers.  It would take a huge population buildup before they had the 
resources to devote to the technologies leading to computer 
technology.  What was available in plants and animals would make a 
big difference as well.

>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.

The resources available are a massive problem as well.  Easter Island 
grew from something like 20 people to as many as 20,000.  But given 
the resources they had I don't think it would have been possible to 
create a technological civilization there, even with all of current 
knowledge.  Heck, I doubt the could have made iron even before they 
lost all the trees.

Incidentally, the smallest long term survival of a human population 
was Tasmania at about 4000.  And at that, they lost a lot of their technology.


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