Respectful Insolence

I toady to my Seed overlords

In an attempt to periodically provoke discussion on various issues, our overlords at Seed plan on posing questions to us ScienceBloggers. The first question, which some of us have already answered is this:

If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?


At first, I was going to go with RPM‘s answer (and Razib’s almost answer), nuclear weapons. But then I thought about it again, and changed my mind. For one thing, it is unlikely that nuclear power would have been invented without the prior development of nuclear weapons. But, more importantly, it is very likely that there would have been a World War III that would have been even bloodier than World War II had mutually assured destruction not stayed the hands of the leaders of both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. And let us not forget that conventional bombing during World War II was quite capable of leveling cities and killing tens of thousands in a single night, with, for example, the firebombing of Tokyo killing more people than the bomb did at Hiroshima. There’s no reason to think that the destructive capacity of warfare wouldn’t have continued to increase, even without nuclear weapons.

So what would I choose now?

I’m tempted to choose the internal combustion engine, in the naive hope that, had it not been invented, some other form of power for transportation might have been developed that does not rely on a non-renewable resource that requires us to be dependent on despotic regimes in unstable parts of the world and leads us into wars that we almost certainly would not engage in if we didn’t need oil so much; cause so much pollution; and so radically alter our cities.

Of course, that takes the risk that a suitable substitute wouldn’t have been developed by the time I was born. (And I like driving.) It also takes the risk that whatever substitute that would have been developed wouldn’t have been worse than vehicles driven by the internal combustion engine.

Ah, hell. I think I’m with PZ on this one. It’s a hypothetical question that no answer to is likely to sound plausible.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave S.
    May 9, 2006

    Orac says:

    I’m tempted to choose the internal combustion engine, in the naive hope that, had it not been invented, some other form of power for transportation might have been developed that does not rely on a non-renewable resource that requires us to be dependent on despotic regimes in unstable parts of the world and leads us into wars that we almost certainly would not engage in if we didn’t need oil so much; cause so much pollution; and so radically alter our cities.

    The internal combustion engine was invented in the mid-19th century, so its ineligible anyway since the question asks about inventions of the last 100 years.

    I would suggest the television is the worst.

  2. #2 Orac
    May 9, 2006

    See, I stretched the limitations a bit because I couldn’t really think of anything…

  3. #3 coturnix
    May 9, 2006

    There is nothing wrong with horses. At least, if that was the most common method of transportation, I’d have a job fixin’ horses runied by people’s mistreatment.

  4. #4 Lord Runolfr
    May 9, 2006

    The funny thing is that internal combustion engines were originally designed to run on ethanol or vegetable oil; we just modified them to run on gasoline or diesel when those became widely and cheaply available.

  5. #5 Big Al
    May 9, 2006

    Ball point pens is my choice

  6. #6 cfeagans
    May 9, 2006

    Napalm and Agent Orange. I see no good use for either -although, it may be that Agent Orange gave rise to the Roundup I use on crabgrass and dandelions around my yard… so I might have to think about that one.

    But napalm is a keeper. I’d un-invent that one.

  7. #7 BronzeDog
    May 9, 2006

    Problem I see with un-inventing television, besides killing a lot of shows I like (I can quit any time I want!), is that even if you ignore the possibility that it’d un-invent the computer, is that all the advertising that would be shown on television would end up elsewhere. The Internet’s ad-filled as is.

    I’m tempted to go with the cell phone, just because I hate those people who talk on it while driving. Especially that guy who was reading a phonebook to look up a number to call on his cell phone while driving at 70 miles per hour.

  8. #8 BronzeDog
    May 9, 2006

    Second thought: If we killed television, we’d probably still be having serials in the movie theaters. Wish we had some now, since that’s one thing that’d get me back into the theater on a regular basis.

  9. #9 Dan
    May 9, 2006

    Coturnix,
    Actually, there is quite a bit wrong with horses. Before cars and trucks became the prevalent mode of transportation, horses created quite a pollution problem in cities. Ever walked down a street behind a parade? Imagine those “presents” multiplied a hundredfold.

    Don’t forget about horses that died on the job. Moving cargo (particularly uphill) is difficult work and requires careful matching of the team. Those who were careless or unlucky could end up with a dead horse. If you were in the right spot, you could simply push the corpse into a river and contaminate the drinking water. Otherwise, you left the horse where he dropped.

    At the time, trading the health hazards and smells of fresh manure and rotting horse flesh for the internal combustion engine made quite a bit of sense. Now we contend with the smell and risks of exhaust and the rusting hulks of dead automobiles–not to mention the rest of the problems in the manufacture, maintenance, and fueling of the modern auto.

    Hmmmm . . . maybe the time has come for someone to invent some sort of robotic horse.

  10. #10 Chris
    May 9, 2006

    The most likely alternative to the internal combustion engine would be a really good steam engine (or possibly the equivalent with a working fluid other than water); but while you *can* power a steam engine with wood, coal or oil work better. (And wood-burning cars would still cause CO2, probably CO and other pollutants, as well as suburban sprawl. Only the geopolitical aspects would change.) So we’d end up in the same place, pretty much.

    The reason fossil fuels work so well is that they have a lot of energy, in not much mass or volume, that is pretty easy to get at, and isn’t unreasonably difficult to store (like hydrogen). If we couldn’t dig them out of the ground, it might very well be worthwhile to *synthesize* them using other sources of energy (fission, solar, etc.), because they’re an efficient way of transporting and storing energy, quite aside from their role as “energy left lying around from millions of years ago that we can just pick up and use”.

    You want to move things around, you need energy; if you want the engine to be able to run off the tracks (or fly), then it has to carry its own on-board energy supply. There just aren’t a lot of alternatives for that (at least, if you want more speed/power than can be provided by horse muscles). Rechargeable batteries have a low energy storage/mass ratio, too low for air transport.

    The question doesn’t really work because you can’t predict the secondary, tertiary, etc. consequences of uninventing anything. History doesn’t allow do-overs.

  11. #11 Flex
    May 9, 2006

    Funny, there are products which I would un-invent. Like New Coke. But I can’t think of any inventions which, like Chris said above, woudn’t have significant ripples across a large set.

    The few I can think of are fairly minor. High-acid, low-rag content paper used in the 1930s is a pet peeve of mine (being a bit of a bibliophile), but I understand why it was used.

    Or considering that I’m finally getting my teeth straightened (at the age of 39) I find that dental braces are one of the more exquisite tortures developed by man. On the other hand, I expect to be able to eat corn on the cob this fall without spending two weeks picking the debris from between my teeth. So, let that invention stand.

    I think a more interesting question is what inventions would you have liked to have seen developed in the past 100 years? Either current or speculative inventions.

    I, for one, would like to see an effective depilatory which doesn’t leave chemical burns on sensitive skin. (That was humor, BTW, it’s sometimes hard to tell about a blog comment.)

    Cheers,

    -Flex

  12. #12 BronzeDog
    May 9, 2006

    Hmmmm . . . maybe the time has come for someone to invent some sort of robotic horse.

    One of my D&D characters has a mechanical equine. Unfortunately, it’s a perpetual motion machine, so it’d contribute to global warming. It also has the distinct disadvantage of being fictional.

  13. #13 Sid Schwab
    May 9, 2006

    Note to Scieceblogs overlords: there’s no need to Seed these blogs with your ideas. These guys are best when they’re doing their own thing. The blogs ain’t broke. Don’t need no fixin.’

  14. #14 decrepitoldfool
    May 9, 2006

    Horses were not only a major source of pollution, they were considerably more dangerous than cars.

    When were land mines invented?

  15. #15 david
    May 9, 2006

    Isaac Asimov wrote a column where he deplored the development of poison gases specifically for warfare; he argued that it was the first blatant case of science being used for evil (I haven’t read that article for decades–I know I’m misremembering it, I just hope I haven’t misremembered something important).

    Poisonous gases had of course been known for a long time; the important thing here would have been scientists and technicians refusing to militarize them.

  16. #16 TheBrummell
    May 9, 2006

    I also like “land mines”, which was suggested by more than one of the Seed blogs I’ve seen.

    Think of the implications: deprived of a cheap and easy-to-use defensive weapon, military planners devote resources to solving the problems of defending a frontier and area-denial of one’s enemies in other ways.

    Would night-vision goggles have appeared sooner, and better (for sentries)?
    Perhaps a more-extreme form of “Blitzkrieg”, in which one attempts to completely overrun the enemy as fast as possible in order to deny your enemy all the area, rather than just the little bits you can mine?

    What about trauma medicine? Have any major advances in trauma-care been driven by exposure to the really nasty kinds of landmines designed to main rather than kill?

  17. #17 Dave S.
    May 9, 2006

    When were land mines invented?

    They weren’t used militarily in any widespread sense until WWII, but primitive versions made appearances during the Civil War and before. The marine versions were called ‘torpedos’ then, hence David Farragut’s famous “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” line during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864.

  18. #18 Ahistoricality
    May 9, 2006

    Does “invention” have to mean technological innovation? Could it be applied to a social or economic innovation? For example: junk mail, or speed dating, or popular Kabbalah?

    The technology itself is largely blameless…. it’s the users.

  19. #19 Dave S.
    May 9, 2006

    How about something like crystal methamphetamine? I can’t think of anything positive and a lot negetive about that.

  20. #20 llewelly
    May 9, 2006

    Early computers did not use Cathode-Ray Tube displays. The primary
    role of television in the evolution of computers is that widespread
    television made cheap CRTs widespread, and (more importantly) cheap
    manufacturing methods for CRTs widespread. Without TV, computers would
    have been driven to use other kinds of displays, or to invent CRTs
    specificly for computers. So non-invention of TV would affect how data
    was displayed, and how the popularity of computers grew, but not the
    existence of computers, or whether or not they would be used in
    universities.

    Since much of the early internet development was done on computers
    that had teletype like interfaces, I suggest that if TV had never
    been invented, most scientists and university students today would be
    blogging from teletypes. :-) People unassociated with academic or
    engineering institutions might well be largely ignorant of the
    internet, much as they are in our timeline, but they would use
    the internet little or not at all.

  21. #21 PlanetaryGear
    May 10, 2006

    I’d have to go with the invention of the business management degree. I’ve worked for these people who think that in a vacuum of information on the product or service that the company thinks it can deliver they can make useful decisions and oversee projects and technical details. They have proven to me over and over again that this is not the case :)

  22. #22 epador
    May 10, 2006

    Dang, you beat me to it PG. A close second for me is the automatic transmission. Just think of all the drivers that would not be on the road if they had to either use a clutch or walk?

  23. #23 JohnnieCanuck
    May 10, 2006

    I recall seeing an ad that was reprinted by the Vancouver Sun from one of their predecessor newspapers. It was about 1907 and by a new car dealer extolling the virtues of the automobile. Its main point was that here was a way to solve the pollution problem in cities.

    Besides manure flies, the summers were marked by clouds of finely ground dry manure drifting over and into everything.

    Horses also needed significant rest time and of course had to be fed even when not working.

    It’s going to be interesting if technology doesn’t come up with a better solution than the horse, to the problems of petroleum.

  24. #24 Darel
    November 17, 2006

    Don’t forget about horses that died on the job. Moving cargo (particularly uphill) is difficult work and requires careful matching of the team. Those who were careless or unlucky could end up with a dead horse. If you were in the right spot, you could simply push the corpse into a river and contaminate the drinking water. Otherwise, you left the horse where he dropped.

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