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My culture had access to quality materials (lead oxide) for glass creation, high-enough grit materials for polishing glass, a basic understanding of magnification and mirrors, and about Kepler-level of lens-knowledge in 50 BC, with all other technologies being about the same as the Roman Empire for 50 BC. Assuming the same historical Earth conditions from 50 BC to 1000 AD, what technologies would have advanced faster than they did in our history?

A few I can think of offhand: Astronomy would be much more advanced, and thus sea travel might have advanced at a more rapid pace. Corrective lenses might have improved productivity and quality of life. Microscopes might have advanced germ knowledge at a much earlier age, and thus improved medicine and sanitation. What else am I not thinking of?

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  • $\begingroup$ Just a note: while Kepler derived his famous three laws of planetary motion based on the lifelong observations of Tycho Brache, the last and greatest astronomer of the naked eye era, he was indeed one of the great pioneers of optics; his 1611 treatise on optics, Dioptrice, was one of the first solid theoretical treatments of the construction of refractive telescopes. Nitpick 1: there is no link between optical glass and glass blowing. Nitpick 2: What's with the zinc oxide? It's not used in optical glass. Lead oxide maybe? Nitpick 3: Ancient astronomy was already good enough for navigation. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 18 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ Spyglasses and binoculars would strongly affect warfare and signaling. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Aug 18 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Sea travel would have advanced more rapidly independent of astronomy (better vision inherently translates to better navigation provided you have things to navigate by). Other possibilities that come to mind include weapons (Archimedes supposedly used a big lens to incinerate Roman ships in 212 BC during the siege of Syracuse), advances in metallurgy (because of microscopes), advances in medicine not related to germ theory (also because of microscopes), and better maps (because of better surveying). $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Aug 19 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ @AustinHemmelgarn: Archimedes etc: That was a big mirror. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 19 at 4:20
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Counterintuitively, ability to produce optical glass and high quality lenses much earlier in history might have had a negative effect on astronomy by the 20th and 21st centuries.

Newton built the first demonstration reflecting telescope, and Herschel built a big one, because of the problems found in refracting telescopes in the 17th century. Before the ability to calculate optics mathematically (and invention, at least in our timeline, of the early 19th century, along with a variety of high-index glasses that could be used in combinations to cancel aberrations), achromats weren't really practical to make. That meant a large aperture telescope needed to be extremely long (Herschel had one that ran to around 15 meters!) in order to have low enough chromatic aberrations to be useful -- but the very length meant it was difficult to train the scope on an object of choice or keep it in field (especially the primitive mounts of the day).

This was the background, then for Newton's invention of the reflecting telescope. Herschel's was simpler and brighter (with only the single objective mirror), but Newton's gave right-reading images and was practical at lower minimum magnification (higher magnification was available by using a shorter focal length eyepiece). The key point here is that telescopes that evolved into monsters like Hale, Keck, Hubble, and James Webb would never have existed if it were practical to make refractors of reasonable length, combined with reasonable light gathering power, in Newton and Herschel's time.

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Technological development is, perversely, independent of any particular technology. It does not work as in video games, where you have this tech tree and once prerequisites are met, the next step develops inevitably (or even at a regular pace).

The steam engine, for instance, was invented in principle by the year 100AD. Why were there no steam locomotives by Rome 250AD? It turns out that various cultural and anthropological forces weren't exactly conducive to that outcome. But even that might not be the ultimate truth. For many of the inventions that people would name today, if you were to ask them to list off some random ones, those inventions were not the first instance of it. The Wright brothers weren't the first to do powered flight. Edison and the light bulb. On and on... it seems that for something to "take off", it requires even more than sympathetic culture or economic demand, it requires some sort of "virality" (in the viral marketing sense).

I contend that the implications of your premise is that we wouldn't see any new or different developments with only the conditions you've outlined.

For it to result in something far different than history, you'd need to add in the other factors. Something far different in culture occurred that made these things popular, and on top of that something occurred that would change the economics of that technology.

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    $\begingroup$ No... the aeolipile was little more than toy or demo device. It did not do useful work. It wasn't until the watt engine in 1776, that steam engines were used in factories for the first time. To get there you needed advanced metallurgy and machine tools. The Romans would have loved to have steam powered ships, but it was well out of reach for them technologically. $\endgroup$ – SurpriseDog Aug 18 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ There were like 20 or so inventors of the light bulb. Every industrial country claims to have the inventor who was earlier than Edison. What Edison did was to buy the patents of the others, combine them into a working one, start a test series which only an insanely rich guy could pay and then he used a big, big marketing machine to press it with force into a market which would have otherwise not understood the added value. $\endgroup$ – Anderas Aug 18 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ It's only a fragment of a memory. But I seem to recall that there was a quite good lens found in one of the Egyptian tombs. Could be wrong. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Aug 18 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ @puppetsock: They had decent (not great, not good, but decent) lenses in the antiquity, and by the High Middle Ages they had perfectly serviceable eye glasses. What they didn't have, and the question requests us to assume, is that they had early 17th century understanding of the theory of optics. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 18 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @SurpriseDog Begging to differ -- yes, the aeolipile itself was just a toy, a demonstrator, but from my understanding the inventor, Heron of Alexandria, also designed and built mechanisms that used steam or air expanded by heat to do actual work -- things like "magically" open a temple door when an offering brazier was lit. That is, there were working steam and hot air engines before the Common Era began. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Aug 18 at 23:31

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