2014 September 11 Thursday
Fun Time Machine Trips

A cool thing to do with a time machine: go back to 1750 American colonies with designs for low tech mechanical cotton pickers. The rise in slave cotton picker productivity probably made slavery expand by increasing the ROI from owning slave labor. But a huge increase in cotton harvesting productivity would have caused the opposite effect: less need for slaves on cotton plantations. Collapse of demand for slaves in the Old South would have put the US on a very different trajectory. The US civil war, with over a half million dead and a big expansion of federal power, would have been avoided.

Another fun trip: Go back to the 1913 Austro-Hungarian Empire and kill Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, and Hitler. Then sneak into Sarajevo and kill the assassins of the Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and avoid that cause of World War I. An early death for Gavrilo Princip and his confederates would have at least delayed the start of World War I. But could the war be avoided by time travelers?

My favorite fun trip idea: go back and prevent Julius Caesar's assassination. How would the rise of the Roman Empire be altered? Is there any way a time traveler could delay the decline of the Roman Empire by centuries? Suppose you learned Latin, came back with skills to help Caesar, and then gave him advice on how to run the empire. Could soil conservation policies put in place by Caesar last long enough to do the trick?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2014 September 11 09:20 PM 

Dirty Dog said at September 12, 2014 12:51 AM:

Probably the most profound one you could would be to avert the defeat of Virus by Arminius in the Teutoberg Forest in the early first century AD.
How world history would have unwound if Germany, right up to the Elbe and possibly beyond was fully Romanized, never ceases to fascinate.

Jim said at September 12, 2014 5:30 AM:

Dirty Dog - According to Joseph Taintor - "The Collapse of Complex Cultures" the Romans could easily have conquered Germany despite their loss at Teutoberg Forest if they had wanted to. But there wasn't enough loot in Germany to pay for a conquest. Rome had not needed to raise taxes to pay for any of it's conquests prior to the conquest of Britain. In fact Rome was able to pay it's soldiers and even reduce taxes on Roman citizens. The conquest of southern Britain was according to Taintor pretty much breakeven. Just enough loot to pay the legionaires but no big profit. Further expansion into places like Germany, Scotland or Ireland simply didn't make any economic sense. So according to Taintor the battle of Teutoberg Forest really wasn't that decisive. Even if the Romans had won conquering Germany wasn't worth the cost.

CamelCaseRob said at September 12, 2014 5:39 AM:

Dirty Dog - it's "Varus" not "Virus".

Jim said at September 12, 2014 6:19 AM:

I should have said "Tainter" not "Taintor". Sorry.

pseudoerasmus said at September 12, 2014 6:25 AM:

I have a follow-up to the blogpost that Randall Parker kindly featured above. Part 2 is a direct critique of the book that the Economist magazine reviewed and retracted.

It's much more involved and, I admit, rather dull :


DreamMachine said at September 12, 2014 6:27 AM:

9/11/2001 - Kill off the hijackers and prevent 9/11. That possibly changes the 2008 election, maybe Obama wait to run in 2016 instead. The extra $4 trillion from not going to war, may have just made the Great Recession a bad year.

Somehow convince 15th century China to continue exploring the world. China closing itself off from the world, probably set the world back a few hundred years alone. We'd probably have colonies in space by now.

Mike Street Station said at September 12, 2014 7:15 AM:

I think by the time you get to Julius Caesar, it's probably too late to extend the life of Rome. The empire stage was the beginning of the end of the rule by tyrants and abandonment for what the Romans thought of as Roman virtue and the rule of law. The real trick would be going back further and saving the Republic, but I confess I know a lot less about the history of the Republic than I do the Empire so I'm not sure how to do that.

Otherwise, you need to time travel in heavier force. Surprisingly, the idea was given some heavy thought on Reddit on what would happen if a Marine Expeditionary unit went back to the age of Caesar.


Black Death said at September 12, 2014 7:57 AM:

According to Karl Marx:

Marx put forward a theory of history, or a principle which he thought explained the dynamic of history. The basic element in this is the Hegelian idea of a "dialectical progression" whereby a) an original situation or idea or "thesis" exists, b) an "antithesis" develops in opposition to this, c) the two are resolved into a "synthesis', which becomes the new thesis. In any historical era, e.g., feudalism, the inherent contradictions or class conflicts (e.g., between the dominant landowning lords and the rising commercial classes) come to a head in some sort of revolution and are resolved when a new social order stabilises (e.g., the early capitalist era).

History is therefore primarily a function of material or economic conditions. (Hence the terms "historical materialism" and "dialectical materialism"). The relation between the types of productive technology in use and the social relations or organisation and control of those forms of production is what has determined the nature of primitive, slave, feudal and capitalist society, and what has moved society from one to the other.


Marx considered that "Great Men" were relatively unimportant in history, which is primarily driven by economic considerations. In other words, if there had been no Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Washington, Napoleon, Lenin or Hitler, well, somebody just like them would have done pretty much what they did and everything would have turned out more or less the same. Not sure I agree, but it an interesting concept to consider - that travelling back in time and bumping off Hitler or Stalin really wouldn't have changed things too much.

Audacious epigone said at September 12, 2014 2:37 PM:

Go back and stop the assassination of Constantine's illegitimate (but competent) son Crispus. Avoid the internecine fighting that took place between his three succeeding sons and maybe the loss of the western half doesn't happen and instead a contiguous empire is maintained through to the reign of Justinian, who no longer subsequently bankrupts the eastern half on a quixotic quest to reunite the two halves.

Randall Parker said at September 13, 2014 11:35 AM:

Aud Epig,

That's a cool idea. But Justinian probably wouldn't become emperor if history gets altered that much.

Time travelers can go back to intervene in the lives of specific people they know about. But if they start hopping up thru history they will deal with different characters the further they get from their original intervention. They could assess the new characters in power, say, 50 years after their initial intervention. But that's harder.

I would want to go back with genetic enhancements that enable me to live 150 years without medical treatment (by first going into the future to get the tech). Then go back and integrate into the society. Amass land holdings and connections that would enable lots of nudges over a period of decades.

Mike Street Station,

Caesar was trying to fix the very broken Republic. His laws for how to rule subject lands are a case in point. The huge draining of subject lands by Roman governors had to at least get cut back. That required making the governors accountable in a court. The Senate was too corrupt to find the governors guilty. I do not see how to fix the Senate before Caesar. So I think he's the guy to save. Prevent the long civil war in which Augustus came out on top. Just have Julius Caesar stay at the top.


I happen to be reading Joseph Tainter and several other writers on the rise and fall of empires and civilizations. The seeming inevitability of the declines makes it easier for me to reconcile myself to the decline of America and the West. I see the reasons. I see why the reasons can't be addressed.

Lot said at September 13, 2014 1:50 PM:

Caeser might have lived another 15 years and then handed off power to the same guy who won the civil war, his grand-nephew Augustus. I'm not sure how much this would changed things. All the Romans who died in the post Caesarian civil wars would likely have died instead (mostly from disease) in various futile invasions of Persia and Germania.

Or, more likely, the civil war was just delayed. The anti-Caeserian forces were extremely strong before losing the civil war. His natural death likely would have also started a civil war to replace him.

Mike Street Station said at September 13, 2014 5:17 PM:

"Caesar was trying to fix the very broken Republic. His laws for how to rule subject lands are a case in point. The huge draining of subject lands by Roman governors had to at least get cut back. That required making the governors accountable in a court. The Senate was too corrupt to find the governors guilty. I do not see how to fix the Senate before Caesar. So I think he's the guy to save. Prevent the long civil war in which Augustus came out on top. Just have Julius Caesar stay at the top."

You know, I got a chuckle at your description because it sounds as if what Caesar was trying to do is the exact same thing that Chancellor Palpatine and Darth Vader were trying to do in Star Wars. But what I mean is, by the time you get to Julius Caesar, it's already too late. Sure, Caesar was trying to save the Republic, but if you get to the point that it takes strong man rule to accomplish it, it's already too late. A lesson for the declining American Republic as well.

kuzefra said at September 21, 2014 4:09 PM:

To save the Roman Republic, you would have to go all the way back 200 years before Caesar's death and kill Hannibal as he crosses the Alps. The loss of all the Senators' sons and upper class youth in the three big bloodbath battles drained the republic of its old families and led to the rise of the New Men who dominated the Senate and started changing the rules to the game. It's hard to say what the cascade of results would be, especially because Rome would've still been running the Mediterranean basin, but I suspect it would've transitioned to empire or a group of kingdoms easier with more tied to the previous Kingdom of Rome.

Sam said at September 21, 2014 4:09 PM:

A good link that describes the degeneration of art and behavior based on the age of Empires. The US tracks very closely with other Empires in their degeneracy. Fairly short.
Written by Sir John Bagot Glubb


An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations by William Playfair


Good quote from Playfair,"...In looking over the globe, if we fix our eyes on those places where wealth formerly was accumulated, and where commerce flourished, we see them, at the present day, peculiarly desolated and degraded.

From the borders of the Persian Gulf, to the shores of the Baltic Sea; from Babylon and Palmyra, Egypt, Greece, and Italy; to Spain and Portugal, and the whole circle of the Hanseatic League, we trace the same ruinous [end of page #iii] remains of ancient greatness, presenting a melancholy contrast with the poverty, indolence, and ignorance, of the present race of inhabitants, and an irresistible proof of the mutability of human affairs.

As in the hall, in which there has been a sumptuous banquet, we perceive the fragments of a feast now become a prey to beggars and banditti; if, in some instances, the spectacle is less wretched and disgusting; it is, because the banquet is not entirely over, and the guests have not all yet risen from the table.

From this almost universal picture, we learn that the greatness of nations is but of short duration. We learn, also, that the state of a fallen people is infinitely more wretched and miserable than that of those who have never risen from their original state of poverty. It is then well worth while to inquire into the causes of so terrible a reverse, that we may discover whether they are necessary, or only natural; and endeavour, if possible, to find the means by which prosperity may be lengthened out, and the period of humiliation procrastinated to a distant day..."

kuzefra said at September 22, 2014 12:53 PM:

"A cool thing to do with a time machine: go back to 1750 American colonies with designs for low tech mechanical cotton pickers."
So, introduce the Cotton Gin 100 years earlier? Wouldn't that just cause the Civil War to overlap the Revolutionary War and increase the odds that America becomes two nations, assuming they both achieve independence from Britain? One where all the Virginian heroes of the Revolution end up in the Southern States but slavery is likely doomed by the cotton gin but Hamilton, Adams, Franklin, etc. construct a Philadelphia-New York dominated Northern States?

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