How different would the world be if a time traveler took a box of 10 iPhones (for example) and left it in the 1800s? Fast forward to 2015. How different would life be? Would the human civilization be more technologically advanced, since scientists would be able to reverse-engineer the phones? Or would it be more of a backwater, as our forefathers fear the advancement of technology?


closed as too broad by TrEs-2b, HDE 226868, bowlturner, Jim2B, Dan Smolinske Nov 11 '15 at 4:14

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  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, since there would be no sophisticated test equipment, they would have an extremely hard time reverse engineering them. It's difficult enough today, with our advanced equipment. Try doing it with a light bulb and a dynamo. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Nov 11 '15 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ What about pre-loading them with chosen information? $\endgroup$ – JArkinstall Nov 11 '15 at 3:30

How different? Not very.

An iPhone, by itself, is nearly useless. It depends on an extensive radio infrastructure for communication, an electrical infrastructure for power, a satellite infrastructure for navigation/location, and so on. There's also a need for a cultural background (and probably a user manual) to understand the meanings of the symbols and words showing up on the screen.

The most likely outcome of leaving a box of ten iPhones somewhere in the 1800s world is that people will find them, turn them on, play with them for a few hours without understanding what they are or how they work, and then abandon them when the batteries run out. Perhaps one or two will find their way into museums, to be re-discovered a few centuries later by investigators capable of understanding them, who will then reject them as obvious hoaxes.

Reverse-engineering won't happen. The only part an 1800s scientist will have the tools to understand is the battery, and even that will be limited: elemental lithium wasn't isolated until 1821. The rest of the electronics are far beyond what they have the tools to investigate: an iPhone switches sub-volt signals at rates of millions to billions of changes per second, where 1800s investigators were working in the multiple-volt, single-change-per-second range. Physical examination of the microchips would be similarly impossible: the internal circuitry of a chip is too small to see using an optical microscope.


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