Predictions and Reality

Some years ago the barflies who frequent the 1632 Tech Manual, after much debate, came up with the number of computers in Mannington, West Virginia. Which was also the number of computers in Grantville. At the most recent 1632 con, we discovered that that estimate was off. As of the year 2000, there were more computers in Mannington than we thought.

Based in large part on library usage, we estimated the number of books in Mannington. Then we found out about a couple of large private libraries. Turns out there are more books in Mannington than we thought.

Estimates were made about the amount of heavy machinery. There was more heavy construction equipment than we thought.

Estimates were made about the precision with which the down-timers could produce products by hand. When checks were made about what they had actually done it turned out that: The down-timers were capable of more precision than we thought.

Is anyone starting to notice a pattern here? I haven’t been involved in 1632 Tech from the beginning, but I have been around for a while. And one thing has shown itself to be amazingly consistent throughout: every learned estimate that has been checked against the facts on the ground—at least all those that I’m aware of—have been off, and all in the same direction. That direction is “less.” Less equipment, less knowledge, less craftsmanship, less everything. Up-timer, down-timer, it doesn’t matter. It’s still always “less.”

Thought Experiment

Let’s take a break for a bit and try a thought experiment. To do this experiment, go to your local movie rental place and rent The African Queen. Now comes the hard part. Watch the movie, but try not to be distracted by the story or the excellent acting of Bogart and Hepburn. Instead, I want you to pay fairly close attention to the boat, and especially the little steam engine it uses for propulsion. Pause the tape, take notes, try to remember everything you’ve learned about steam engines from grade school on. Then, sit down and, using the movie and what you remember, try to design a small steam engine of comparable power.

Some of you will be able to do this, some won’t. If one of ten of you can do so, then steam-powered barges on the Elbe and the lower Saale rivers will become fairly common, fairly quickly. Perhaps as important, small steam mills and shops will come into use in the towns around Grantville, to run things like lathes and small mills.

Now, in your minds eye, consult with some down-time craftsmen. Show them your drawings, tell them about how it’s important that the steam be contained in the piston or pistons, then released at the right point in the stroke. Ask your pretend down-timer how he would go about making the pistons and cylinders, the rods, the valves, the crankshaft, and so on. Talk it over with friends from work, get their opinion. The percentage of those who can design a steam engine, compared to those that can’t, goes up as errors get caught and concepts get added. One person doesn’t have to be able to do it. Five, or six, or a dozen—each knowing different parts of how to do it—can get together and work it out.

Now, do the same thing with airframes, internal combustion engines, suspension systems, and so on. I think you’ll be surprised at how often you come up with something that will actually work. It might not work really well, but it’ll be an airplane that will fly or a suspension system that’s better than they had on the stagecoaches of the old West. It has been said that all technology goes through three phases:

1 – Simple invention that doesn’t work really well, like the first steam engine or the first screw on a ship.

2 – Gradual improvement and increasing complexity, like better carburetors, improved ignition systems, timing controls, gearing. In the case of screws/propellers improved tuning for speed, to avoid cavitation, reduce drag and direct the greatest amount of water rearward. Here the increasing complexity is not in the screws themselves so much as in the design of the screws.

3 – Abandoning an invention for the next. Going from paddle wheels to screws is a good example of this one. Because even a pretty cruddy screw/propeller has one vast improvement over the best possible paddlewheel. Weight. Screws, even the most perfectly designed, are not nearly as efficient as a paddlewheel in direct terms. However, a paddlewheel weighs so much more than a screw that the improved performance is not worth the excess weight. Not even if it’s a pretty crappy screw.

Cost Versus Benefit

In the simplest terms, the value of any product can be measured as the sum of material cost and production cost. The benefit in terms of industrial equipment can be measured in reduction of production cost. So the questions facing any person thinking of investing their time and money in a new production device are:

Will it work?

How much will it benefit us if it does?

In determining—well, guessing about—the answers to those two questions. the potential investor of the seventeenth century had to consider how much they were spending to produce the final product without the innovations. In the seventeenth century, before the Ring of Fire, that involved a couple of very basic problems for people who were considering, or willing to consider, investing in new production techniques. The first of those problems was, to great extent, that they did not really have a means of accurately measuring how much it cost them to make stuff without the new technique. And labor costs were dirt cheap. Together, those factors meant that they were buying a very expensive pig in a poke.

It is mentioned in 1632 that businesses are cropping up all over the place within only months of the Ring of Fire. By September of 1631, you cannot hire people without offering stock options, at least in the opinion of one of the people starting up the chemical plant. So why is that?

Not having so many people shooting at them might have had something to do with it. So did improved roads that meant that goods could be shipped by the wagon load rather than by mule load. The machines and electrical power that the up-timers brought with them must also have been a big help, both in making the production of production machines much cheaper and in facilitating the transport of goods.

However, to my mind the most important change was one of information. The question “will it work” changed to “can we make it work.” And the answers, in general, became much more positive.

Cheap labor becomes less of a factor when you add in the amount of time labor takes. The craftsmen of the seventeenth century were often very skilled. They could produce products of exact measurements and fine quality, but doing so with the tools they had before the Ring of Fire took an incredible amount of time. And they had to be paid, at least a little bit, for all that time. If one semiskilled laborer and a machine could make the same number of products in a day as five highly skilled master craftsmen in a week, the savings are considerable, even when you include the cost of the machine. And with the spreadsheets and amortization calculations available, the estimations of those savings became a lot more solid.

How much time in inventing is spent inventing? What part of the years from first try to successful commercial production is spent actually figuring out how to make a product work? How much time does the inventor spend on the day job? How much time in interesting backers in the concept? More importantly, how much time is spent failing to interest backers in a particular product? In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the amount of time spent on that last factor was measured in decades—and sometimes centuries. In large part, this was because the skills needed to invent something are not necessarily the same as the skills necessary to make a go of the company that will produce the product. And it can be really hard to tell whether a product failed because it just wasn’t commercially viable or because the inventor was a lousy business person. Absent evidence to the contrary, the general assumption in the Early Modern period was that the product wasn’t viable.

The Wietze Oil Fields

Did they drill for oil or mine oil? Who cares? The reason I don’t care is because, whatever they did in our time line, it probably wasn’t what Quentin Underwood did in the 1632 time line. Mr. Underwood had access to up-time equipment used for drilling water wells, parts fabricated in the up-timer shops, and certain preconceived notions about how you get oil out of the ground. Once he got to Wietze, he would have learned that the locals had been mining the oil sands and using the tar to pave the local roads and as a patent medicine. It is fairly unlikely that Quentin would have forbidden the local down-timers from continuing their mining operation. In fact, he probably started buying oil sands from them. He would also have started drilling oil wells, because that’s the way you get oil out of the ground up-time. After consulting the closest thing the up-timers had to a geologist and the down-timers, he would have had a pretty decent idea of where to drill. He might well have drilled a couple of dry holes. If he was unlucky, he’d have drilled five or six dry holes. This is not by any means a disaster, it’s more along the lines of an irritation. Sooner or later, and not much later, he was going to hit oil. The precise details about how all this happened would probably make a really good Gazette story. But it doesn’t really matter that much in terms of the larger story arc.

What does matter in terms of the larger story arc, is the simple fact that there’s oil at Wietze. Quite a lot of oil, certainly enough to run every machine brought back by the Ring of Fire. Plus all the machines that can be built in the USE until the mid-sixteen forties. It also matters that there is lots of oil in lots of places around the world. Places that are at least generally known. They know where to look.

Other nations will be slower . . . but not that much

Why hasn’t Africa become an industrial power house? What about South America? There are, of course, any number of factors, many of them political, but one of them will tend to swamp the rest. Competition. By the mid-twentieth century, large and powerful industrial complexes had been established. To establish an auto factory in Uganda, you would need to make it impractical for the auto manufacturers in the US, Europe and Japan to sell to you and, at the same time, provide enough market to support mass production. The countries you’re competing with already have the factories to make the car parts and the cars they build. Their heavy initial investment is already made, and paid for by their sales in other places.

That is not the case in Grantville, the SoTF, or the USE. It will take decades before they can even approach market saturation. Build a sewing machine factory, fine, great. But you’re not going to make enough machines to get more than a small percentage of the market. So, six months later—two years at the outside—someone in another part of the USE or in France, Britain, Poland—or all of the above—will start a sewing machine factory. Start a typewriter factory: same thing. Drill an oil well: same thing. Most of the “how to” is in the library and preventing industrial espionage for the little bit left falls somewhere between impractical and impossible. But even if you pass a miracle and manage it, that won’t keep your competitors from figuring out the missing bits on their own. Besides, what do you care? You have more customers than you can feed as it is.

An almost effective alternative to the hog-in-the-manger attitude of “We must keep it all” is the notion of franchises. Where the first, or one of the first, to do something makes up a set-up kit which they either sell outright or offer for a percentage of the new business. I say “almost effective” because it still won’t keep people from going out on their own to do the same thing. It will just mean that the easiest route to successfully making widgets is to buy the widget franchise package. It’s not a new idea or one that the up-timers can fail to be aware of, not with the ubiquitous McDonalds and Pizza Hut franchises. It might seem a bit strange to apply it to manufacturing shoes or sanitary products, but the down-timers were already doing something fairly similar with the spinsters working as jobbers for the cloth makers.

And what does this mean?

1632 Europe is an open market with lots of consumers and room for lots of people getting filthy rich by making lots of new products and old products faster and cheaper. So what does all this have to do with writing stories in the 1632 universe? Well, a couple of things.

One: it’s not that important whether or not there is a book telling precisely how to make widget X. If there is, great. But even if there ain’t, you can still probably make it a lot faster than it happened in our time line because, if for no other reason, it’s going to be a lot easier to find investors. You may not find quite the same way to make it as they did in our time line, in fact you probably won’t. You’ll skip steps that were needed in our time line which can be replaced by something that wasn’t available in 1816 or whenever the widget you’re after was first produced. You’ll have to find workarounds for stuff that didn’t come back with the Ring of Fire or came back incomplete. You don’t actually need a blueprint of a Fresno scraper or a life-size model of the Hindenburg. You can build a Grantville scraper or a lighter-than-air crane support without them. It doesn’t hurt to have them, but it doesn’t kill your story if you don’t.

Two: you don’t need up-timers. Like the books, they are convenient but not really necessary. Se-or Carlos De Vega in Portugal can—and often should—be your hero, perhaps loyal to the Spanish crown or perhaps seeking an independent Portugal. In either case, working to make himself richer and the world a better place at the same time. Or Lue Chin, who just this morning got hold of a packet of plans from Grantville on how to make a Jacquard loom and realized that with it he can weave complex designs into his silks and sell them to Japan for twice what he could before. Assuming that whoever is Emperor this week doesn’t have him executed for western corruption or steal the factory for taxes.

By now it’s out there, folks. The crate load of lamps and bottles are cascading down the hill and genies are popping up like weeds in a poorly tended garden. Air conditioners in Mexico? Sure, why not. After all, by now someone has gone though the books and magazines in Grantville, put together a cheat sheet and published it. It doesn’t matter whether the design comes from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, from one of the air conditioners in Grantville, or from down-time experimentation that was given just a few clues. What matters is that Chechiwa, the maid of the Spanish noble that owns the air conditioner, gets a chance to examine it and figure out that with a bit more work it could be used to freeze things and keep them fresh.

So go forth and write stories, tell tall, really tall, tales. Don’t worry too much whether the book you read that told you how to build a can opener was in Grantville. By now, it doesn’t matter that much. There’s a good chance some of those busy researchers at the National Library have put together fairly decent specs and they are being published in German and Latin all over the USE. Don’t try to have a Huey sitting in a forgotten valley in Grantville. Have your character build himself a rocket-powered air plane.

And be a bit cautious about telling your fellow barflies they can’t build X because the vital bit didn’t come though the Ring of Fire. A lot more stuff came though than was noticed at first glance. And even if the vital bit didn’t make it through, there is probably a workaround.

Go find it.