Backstory I have a character who goes back in time to plant an idea in the minds of government scientists during the 1930's. The idea is to analyze a DNA sample and recreate it for future use in the 90's. In my original idea the character went back later in history when computers and technology was more advanced and thus called for a sort of Artificial Intelligence to be created by the scientists to aid in the work, carry it on after their deaths and to help the future characters in the 90's.

Now that I've decided I want the plot to tie into the secret history around things like the Manhattan Project and such, I want this to be another top secret experiment taking place during the 1930's. That said the technology is too primitive to include things like AI and Genetic Analysis (as far as I know). So I need help in this area to fill in the fictional gaps with historic truth. This lab's job is to analyze and synthesize a DNA compound for future use in the 1990's along with a era equivalent "system" to replace this AI to aid and explain things to the 1990's characters. The plot point will no doubt be fictional, but I want the science grounded in reality.

Question Historically and Logistically what would be the highest form of technology available to scientists during the 1930 that people would use to analyze and create a genetic compound (similar to the mods in Bioshock)?

I'm not ruling out the government having "experimental" or bleeding edge systems they could employ for this.

Also it's fine if history is changed as well.


closed as too broad by elemtilas, Don Qualm, GerardFalla, JBH, Dewi Morgan May 11 at 3:42

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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean with genetic compound? DNA was pretty much a 50's thing so just explaining what you want to those scientists would change the future drastically. Is that okay? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi May 10 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ I think your question is too broad to be answered. The one answer you've got so far is basically a list of things which I gather were invented in the 1930s. You need to focus on presenting one issue or problem with the system or nature of the world you are building. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas May 10 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "highest form of technology usable" in the 1930? Are you asking what was the pinnacle of technological development in the 1930? They had electromechanical computing machinery (including unit record processing equipment), they had analog computers, they had radio and television, they had magnetic sound recording, they were experimenting with rockets... $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 10 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ Your question it's not clear to me. Are you talking about genetic compounds in 1930? First genetically "engineered" organism was on 1973 (Boyer&Cohen). Before that, there were only artificial selection (like corn by natives). $\endgroup$ – ESL May 10 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ Your question seems to be self contradicting. DNA was not discovered yet, thus no technology to manipulate DNA directly existed. $\endgroup$ – Whitecold May 10 at 16:01

Primitive computers, built from either electromechanical relays or vacuum tubes, existed in the mid to late 1930s. They were incredibly slow by even 1970s (Altair, CP/M, Apple ][, Commodore PET) standards, and had tiny memory, but with the right programming they could have plugged away at a dataset on rewritable media (wire recording?) for months to do what your cell phone can do in seconds.

And on that basis, data could have been recorded on wires as sound was, and rewritten, though I don't believe anyone in our timeline had thought of that until after multi-track magnetic tape was available. Punch tape and punch cards were also writable media, though they were write-once; both existed before Pearl Harbor.

Telegraph and telephone cables circled the Earth; with the right idea in the right place, these primitive computers could have communicated via cable (though the comm program would have been nearly all the machine could do, it could have been used to remote-copy data from wire, paper tape, or cards), possibly (with some memory expansion) been networked to process in parallel.

The real problem you'd have here is that DNA wasn't recognized as the "recording media" of genetics until the late 1950s, and its structure wasn't known until the 1960s (Crick and Watson got a Nobel for finding that). Polymerase Chain Reaction (for handling DNA in quantity) wasn't available until the 1990s.

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    $\begingroup$ You really underestimate the difference in processing speeds. The first commercial computer, UNIVAC en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNIVAC_I was considerably faster than those 1930s computers, It could manage almost 2000 arithmetic operations per second. Your typical cell phone processor can do something like 2 BILLION ops/second. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 10 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ The relay-based computers of the late 1930s were slower even than Univac (which used vacuum tubes) -- a million to one sounds reasonable (it might be a hundred million for the relay machines). A million seconds is less than two weeks (about 278 hours); a hundred million, however, is more than three years. Still not that far off, for "handwaving" numbers. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon May 10 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ OK, this may be the answer I needed. Using the fiction in my story let's assume some things. 1. My character perhaps instill base knowledge or intel on DNA and genetics. 2. the Scientists of the 30s take the time to at least understand that information. With this in mind can we then suspend belief that using the answer above to build a ridiculously massive computer system, could it then theoretically Plug away at computation for the next 30 years and have created answers? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Duppong May 10 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander Duppong: You're overlooking the fact that much scientific computation today is massively parallel. So instead of your one cell phone processor plugging away at a couple of GFLOPS, you have a cluster of perhaps a thousand CPUs, each with a thousand or so compute units. (IIRC NVidia's high-end cards have 4K.) And neither AI nor genetic engineering are really useful yet. You'd do better to introduce the tech for a simple transistor, which I think could have been done with 1930s tech, and let it snowball. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf May 11 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ You could handwave a 1930s transistor, but in practice, the technology to make silicon or germanium pure enough for efficient semiconductors didn't exist before WWII. A transistor, yes. Millions, reliable and efficient enough for computing applications, not so much. Better to push submini cold cathode tubes (which were used in WWII without a time traveler's push). $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon May 12 at 15:02

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