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There are some technical ideas that could have been developed much earlier, changing the ancient or medieval world.

A sterling example is the hot-air balloon. It was actually invented at the close of the 18th century, by a person who observed laundry billow up when dried over a fire. That same observation could have been made millennia earlier. There is no technical or knowledge barrier that made this invention impossible in ancient Greece; in fact Hero of Alexandria had knowledge of pneumatics far in excess of what would have been required, and tight lightweight fabrics, the only high-tech material needed, were readily available (albeit expensive).

Another, less flashy example is the star fort, or Vauban fortification, where walls are angled to be enfiladed from bastions, and bastions are angled to be enfiladed from the walls. This development was key in the era of the cannon; but it would have been quite as useful in the era of the ballista or longbow, totally obsolescing machicolations, and required no specialized technology or knowledge. It could have been developed in the Roman era, or in the era of the Crusader castles. But it wasn't.

My question is, are there other inventions that could, without anachronistic scientific insight or technology, have been invented much earlier? But that have been missed or delayed?

Some additional conditions:

  • I want to specifically exclude the concept of gunpowder. Alternate histories based on its earlier invention have been done to death already. The same goes for DaVinci's (unworkable, BTW) vehicular concepts.
  • I am asking about breakthrough ideas, such as inventing the sail, not incremental ones, such as building bigger ships with more sophisticated sail arrangements.
  • My question is specifically about technical inventions, not geographic or political developments (Viking colonization of America) or social and religious concepts (women's suffrage in the Roman republic).
  • I am thinking about a medieval world being revolutionized by an invention, but antiquity is OK too; not the modern era, though. Dirigibles in the Napoleonic Wars are an interesting idea, but outside of my scope of interest.
  • Finally, I would prefer ideas with a military application, but this is not a firm requirement.

EDIT: I am required to "Update the question so it focuses on one problem only." As this would effectively require me to name the specific invention I am looking for, I cannot reasonably comply with this request. I would like to thank all contributors so far, especially the insightful individual who came up with this demand. I consider the question answered.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you're going too broad. Military encompasses a lot of topics : Communication (e.g. : Radio, coded messages...), logistics (cars/roads...) and supplies management (cans of food...), weapons, armors, weather prediction, buildings... each using a lot of disciplines (biology, maths, physics...) ... Same goes with medieval age : It spans over several centuries and included many breakthroughs! $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2021 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ (1) The hot air aerostat was actually invented a millennium and half before the 18th century. It's not the fault of the Chinese that Western European barbarians didn't know about it. (2) Very very many inventions could have been invented earlier; you are asking for a very very long list. (3) This is why you should go the other way around: pick one invention which is of interest to you, and ask whether it could have been invented in the time frame of interest to you. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 5, 2021 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ About those star forts: they are much more expensive than curtain walls. If curtain walls work well enough there is little reason to spend all the money, resources and effort to build star forts. By Vauban's time it was obvious that curtain walls didn't work well enough, so the extra expenditure was justified. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 6, 2021 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ This can be answered by a list and not a "best answer". That is why I VTC. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 6, 2021 at 6:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is a single, reasonable question that has produced interesting answers. Worldbuilding could aim to set up a world with faster tech development rather than some more fashionable dystopia. We could have a forum here that would celebrate creativity rather than making it a reason to close popular questions. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2021 at 13:15

5 Answers 5

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The classic ancient example is the stirrup. Horses bred to ride (instead of haul or use as pack animals) possibly started appearing around 3500 BCE, and certainly existed (due to appearing in art) somewhere between 2000-1500 BCE but the earliest depiction of a stirrup is from around 200 BCE in India. So that's somewhere between 1200 to 3300 years before someone came up with the idea. The military applications are obvious.

The heliograph was, surprisingly, only developed in 1821 although the basic concept is easily doable as soon as you've got a shiny enough reflector. Ideal for long-distance immediate communication across a smaller area. At least on a sunny day.

The glass lens (which could be used for early telescopes, a practical military tool) could have been developed centuries earlier. The techniques for making clear glass were discovered somewhere around 900 BCE, by 400 BCE people were clearly making lenses (initially used as burning glasses to start fires), and by 1 CE the ability of lenses to correct vision or magnify things was well-known.

Oh, yes, perhaps the most important: germ theory and basic hygiene. Simple to explain and would have made a world of difference to armies in the field.

EDIT

Regarding the last point, perhaps "Germ theory" is too much (although ibn Sina proposed something like it in 1025), but there's still a lot that could have improved things through simple observation and experiment. For example, John Snow (no, not that one) connected cholera to sewage-contaminated water, and Ignaz Semmelweis connected clean hands to reduced death in childbirth, both before Pasteur confirmed germ theory.

There were all sorts of ideas floating around (ba-dum tish!) about concepts similar to germ theory that, in practice, could have resulted is similar beneficial outcomes, but miasma theory kept them in the background. All it would have taken was for some culture to really hop on the proto-germ theory bandwagon and dismiss miasma as nonsense and it could have had the significantly earlier start.

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    $\begingroup$ Those are all good ones, thank you. Except for germ theory---that required the invention of the microscope, way beyond a simple lens. Until the microscope, the best you could do was miasmatic theory. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6, 2021 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ Your mention of the heliostat made me think of another one---the semaphore. Think of how efficiently the legions could have been managed with semaphore communications. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6, 2021 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ Some types of semaphore systems were used in antiquity. The advantages of the heliograph are that it can be aimed thus reducing the risk of interception, it can used at far longer distances than one could make out human-portable signal flags (you're looking for a flash of light, not details of flags or positions), and it could be operated in concealment (all you need is a hole sunlight can get through and a hole in the direction you're signalling). $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2021 at 3:36
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    $\begingroup$ It could be argued that the earliest application of hygiene is in the Bible, that orders people to, essentially, wash the dishes and wash the hands before eating. $\endgroup$
    – Archelaos
    Jun 6, 2021 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ Germ theory could come about as a consequence of the lens (see Leeuwenhoek); you can move a whole chain of inventions back in time if their precursor is possible. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2021 at 11:07
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Canning in jars was discovered completely by accident in 1809 some 50 years before germ theory was understood. Nicolas Appert, a french brewer and confectioner, experimented with jarred soups and foods for sale as ready cooked meals to the public. He discovered that by cooking the soup in a sealed jar it would not go bad unless the seal was broken. Napoleon paid him a substantial sum of money to publish his findings in a book which spread the idea od canning across Europe quickly. England used this to incredible effect to better supply its naval empire.

It's easily believable that an Alchemist with a passion for food (or trying to discover an elixir of immortality) might discover Canning 800 years earlier than it was. The effects are surprising. There were plenty of ways to preserve foods in the past, many of them long lasting like curing meats. Nearly all long term preservation techniques used additives like salt, sugar, and smoke for preservation. This added cost via labor and materials. Canning reduces that cost incredibly. All you need are the jars and cork stoppers which are reusable.

Glass blowing was invented in around 2ad, which made glass jars much faster and easier to make. Glassblowers would blow the glass out into a sphere and press it into a mold for a semi-standardized shape.

Much the same as real life, canning greatly improved military logistics.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Nearly all long term preservation techniques.." to add to that, I was on cooking.se, purely for a friend, and by accident discovered that pie with meat stuffing, was used as meat preservation. A guy report he used to that as a kid as well, says it does not go bad for a month easily. And theeen I understood the meaning of a pie. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 6, 2021 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Canning, yes. Makes all sorts of expeditions possible. And this put me in mind of another discovery: citrus and other acidic fruits as an antiscorbutic. Discovered in the 19th century, but could have been discovered by the Phoenicians, or even by Egyptian physicians who were good at observations of this sort. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6, 2021 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @molb0rg An advanced form of pie preservation is called "potting" where you completely ditched the pie crust. Instead you cooked the meats in clarified butter, which is essentially butter oil with the milk fat removed. It is solid at room temperature and makes a solid "crust" ontop of the meat. This type of pie was known to last for up to one year if you had a good batch. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2021 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Hippeus_Lancer "meats in clarified butter" - yeah know a similar one, is used in asia(less known asia, not china)(for the case I know it from) no butter just grease fat. I was more astonished by the difference of perceptions of what I counted as just cousine, just fun food, was actually a practical way to preserve food, a clever one - that blew my mind. Todays packages are loosers compared to a "can" which u can eat. And it once again confirmed to me that people in old times were no less smart that we are, they were good (most of the time) at what they did. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 7, 2021 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ I think you underestimate the capacity of cottage industries, especially when a product is mandated by a King or other ruler. Battle of Agincourt used 300,000 arrows made just in England. I imagine that every single King, Duke, and Despot would see the advantage of canned foods for seiges, and warfare. The number of glassblowers would rise to meet the demand. That's not even mentioning that canning can be done with glazed pottery which people also did in the past. They sealed HUGE jars with wax after boiling the contents. $\endgroup$ Jun 8, 2021 at 6:24
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The bow and arrow were never invented in Australia, but obviously could have been tens of thousands of years ago.

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    $\begingroup$ regrettably I do not recall the source, but I've read that native Australians reached the continent with a much higher tech than they have now---boats and domestic dogs are certain, and bows are probable. Then they went through a population bottleneck due to harsh conditions that were different than conditions in their previous habitat, and regressed to a much more primitive culture, at which point they stagnated. So it would be more like not having lost the know-how, rather than inventing it. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6, 2021 at 19:50
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Two things stand out to me: pendulums and clipper ships.

Pendulums are basically just weights on a string, something that there is no reason to invent way earlier in history. This would result in early invention of clocks, which made navigation by longitude relatively easy. (The proper gear manufacturing was observed already in 100 bc in the Antikythera mechanism.)

Clipper ships were an incremental development of the sailing ship, created by adding sails and designing new hull shapes. This gave sailboats significantly increased speed, averaging at their height 16 knots. That's the trans Atlantic passage in about ten days. Though created through research, clippers had no really new technologies, just a lot of good careful design. When compared with other ships of of antiquity, this becomes a huge advantage, as they often couldn't pass 6 knots.

Technology tends to be situational and incremental, so most developments are kind of hard to isolate. There is also a cultural element, in which there has to be a cultural environment that supports trying random things for things to develop. So even things that don't need new technologies, may need a cultural perogative to allow them to be created and develop.

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    $\begingroup$ Clipper ships also required steel shipbuilding (or at least steel framing though many are steel plated too), and thus new material tech, they are therefore, ironically, products of the steam era. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2021 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ Clocks make navigation by longitude easier, not by latitude. For latitude you need a backstaff or similar device, which could also have been invented earlier. And pendulums don’t work on ships, which is why it took the invention of the spring-driven escapement (which probably couldn’t have been much earlier) to let sailers have reliable timepieces at sea and thus determine their longitude. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Jun 6, 2021 at 11:37
  • $\begingroup$ There have been a number of "fast ship" designs over the centuries. Most of the time when you're building a ship, though, you don't need "fast". A trireme needs maneuverability, a cargo ship needs to be big and cheap to operate, a galleon needs room for lots of cannon, and so on. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 6, 2021 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ If you reread the OP, you will note that I specifically excluded gradual improvement in ship design. I did it because it is based on the gradual accumulation of experience by trial and error, mostly, and so cannot happen overnight. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6, 2021 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ The pendulum is a good one. It could stimulate faster development in the physical sciences, from astronomy to kinematics. But the one thing it could not do is improve navigation, because pendulum clocks are sh*t on shipboard, with all the swaying. Chronometers useful for navigation use completely different escapements, specifically to avoid the influence of external accelerations. Still, a pendulum is a step toward these more complex movements. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6, 2021 at 20:02
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As far as I understand, as long as you can make a magnet spin fast enough you get an electricity. Knowledge of an electric field being generated by a moving magnet field will move you a whole epoch forward.

First obvious implementation of electricity is a lightbulb, and then you get electric fences, powerful electric furnaces to smelt serious metal alloys, and an elementary radio, all of which have military applications.

In addition to that, in general, even if you can't imagine a technology invention itself, there's an option of telling a theoretical foundations to the engineers you have (assuming they believe you). Engineers will figure out the practical implementations themselves. An example of that with germs theory was already shown in the other answer. Just this theory alone can lead you straight to a biological warfare.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem with electricity is that it requires copper wire, and drawing wire by hand is very, very expensive. Sure, you could produce electricity centuries earlier, but the necessary supporting technologies to make practical use of it just aren't there. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jun 6, 2021 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Other than toy use of static electricity (such as rubbing your cat, then zapping your sister) electricity, not to mention its connection with magnetism, requires a whole structure of previous inventions and scientific ideas: the concept of an immaterial fluid, the concept of force, algebraic notation, voltaic piles to generate sustained current (you cannot have proper electromagnetism with just static discharges), etc. It thus violates the OP conditions of no anachronistic scientific insight. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6, 2021 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ @RalfB they could use it as ancient Guantanamo torture device. 2AOP producing electricity isn't that hard and build technology on it(not so succsseful attempt raise awareness of that here a lot of letters) is a good thing if one knows what to do, but without education system, sciencific approach it will take a looog time. Education and scientific approach will be main key. 2RalfB do not take things to heart, look at my questions, lol. Also, it seems u have good enough taste to distinguish things, wish u luck with u work, lol $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 6, 2021 at 20:51

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