Short version

How much would reasonably well-educated but unprepared time travelers from the present be able to speed up the technological and social development of civilization from the first empires (early bronze age) to the present level?

Or, to put the same question another way: How quickly could human society theoretically develop from bronze age to the present level? Historically we needed 4.5k years give or take a few, but we had a lot of wars, crises, collapses - surely we could do better.

Long version - story

The scientists told us not to go wandering off into that area. They warned us that if something went wrong with the experiment, any people in the area would end up in the distant past without any means to return. But it was too beautiful a morning not to go running.

And now, here we are. I have no idea where this actually is. People around here speak a language very different from ours; we learned a few words but communication in general is difficult. They say, the land is called Kemet and its ruler goes by the name Hor-Medjedu. Apparently, he is gathering laborers for some large building effort. His subjects seem to be quite chatty - if we could only understand them. Some of them are nice people, some are not, the same as in the world we will now never be able to return to. But honestly - I do not know how they can stand it to live here all their lives. The food is dismal (Imagine, no potatoes, no rice!), the weather is dreadful, there is no clean water, no electricity, no internet, everything is infested with disease, and deadly dangers are lurking everywhere. The other day, we all had to leave behind our shoes when we tried to cross this body of water before realizing there were crocodiles. At daytime, the heat is unbearable while nights are chilly. Soon, the locals say, the weather will turn wet and cold and large floods will rise from the river.

Who we are, you ask? Well, there is:

Alex - he pursued a degree in philosophy but dropped out to work as a carpenter and was recently unemployed, Jane - Alex' martial arts-interested girlfriend with considerable physical strength, a construction worker, Patrick - a gay PhD student in high energy physics - his colleagues were responsible for getting us into our current predicament, and Susan - Alex' mother, a well-established biochemist who always wanted to quit her job to travel the world but could never bring herself to do it. I guess, this time she succeeded.

A small group, to be sure. Now, if this was a fantasy novel, it would surely end up with Patrick marrying the king and governing by his side while Alex and Jane would rule as prince and princes over some other miraculous country and Susan would disperse her scientific wisdom as a motherly teacher to the delight of the common people.

Yet, reality is somewhat more disappointing. We have been told to avoid the local militia as they are said to be ruthless, undisciplined and have been known to enslave unsuspecting travellers. Apparently they are armed with stone clubs, wooden lances, bow and arrows as well as daggers made of a metal that is not iron, perhaps bronze. I have never seen any iron or steel around here nor any other metal that is common in modern age. Lucky for us. Until now, we've been trading the few everyday objects we had with us when we were stranded here for shelter and food. We present someone with a Dollar coin, they will look at it closely, hold it up against the sun, show it to their neighbors. Then, they will perhaps ask us into their house. We give them a bright lime-colored t-shirt and they will give us something to eat. It's not like bartering at all, it's more like mutual gifts. And we are quickly running out of gifts the locals would find interesting.

What will we do? I do not know. I still can't quite believe it. But it's real, incredibly real, brutally real. Will I ever be able to enjoy a decent cocktail again? Will I ever again have the luxury of indoor plumbing? Or of plumbing in general for that matter? I know how it works, broadly speaking. It's not difficult to build. We just have to get the locals to help us with it. They will love it. They just don't know it yet. What about electricity? I saw some copper and bronze items now and then, even some silver - that should make perfectly adequate electrical wiring. How we could make everyone's tasks so much easier! And then the rampant disease - how hard can it be to find some peniciline-producing fungus? If the locals knew how easy and convenient their lives could be! At present, however, they do not seem overly excited about our wisdom. That farm women got angry at us the other day when we tried to explain logarithms to her. Perhaps we would be more successful if one of us would be a little more aggressive and bombastic like Aleixo Garcia or certain presidential candidates?

Long version - out of character

It was pointed out in various other contexts that the disappearance of all technological achievements would make it very difficult to rebuild anything. Fine, you know in broad terms how an electric generator works, a computer, a radio, but you have to figure out the details and you will not find any ready made parts to construct those things from. More worryingly, the same is true for less advanced technology: Steel? A functioning printing press? An oceangoing ship? And still worse, while you might find descendents of formerly domesticated species in post-apocalyptic settings, in the present scenario, there aren't any except for what the bronze age civilization already has. In the region in question: cattle, pigs, goats, dogs, cats perhaps sheep according to wikipedia but crucially no horses; and those domesticated animals would probably still be much less docile than the modern variants we are used to. With regard to plants, the picture is not much better with much less variety and much lower yields. Which means, most of the population will be occupied with agricultural tasks at all times, except, of course, for those engaged in Hor-Medjedu's building projects. You may think that this labor could instead be dedicated to further technological progress, but Hor-Medjedu would not be very enthusiastic about this prospect. The picture is complemented with lack of everyday skills on the part of the time travellers from the present and by the potential presence of other antagonistic individuals, each with their own agenda and little patience for scientific experimentation by the protagonists for the purpose of recovering advanced technologies.

Still, provided that the time travellers survive their integration into bronze age society (Is that likely?), they should be able to give the ancient civilization a technologic boost. It should be unproblematic to write down a lot of theoretical knowledge, say, the basics of modern mathematics, to devise an education system that actually works, and to provide subsequent generations with a few guiding facts about what remains to discover scientifically and how that is supposed to fit together. Does 1k years sound reasonable as a time frame for everything else?

Note that there were a few questions that touched on some aspects of the present question: Here the question was, how long it would take to build a spaceship when starting with a single human without technology (with one answer estimating 60 million work hours). Here the question was discussed how to build and power a computer in the bronze age (but with modern technology available to the protagonist). Here the question was how to speed up technological development with a time machine (but as a planned effort and with many round-trips).

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    $\begingroup$ You'll have to be careful with regard to disease. More than likely it will be the locals who will get sick. Any bacteria or virus the time travelers bring with them will quite likely turn into a plague in the past. $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2016 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ Have you tried searching WorldBuilding.SE for "time travel?" The questions there are not exact matches, as they go to varying times and have varying levels of preparadness. However, the answer that generally appears for those questions is "they can't boost it very much," except by methods such as teaching people to wash their hands to promote long life. I encourage you to use the search feature and read answers about such related questions. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ «Soon, the locals say, the weather will turn wet and cold and large floods will rise from the river.» that’s rather specific for not knowing the language. I think communicating something not present would be especially hard. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ Khufu's pyramid was possibly the first straight-sided pyramid in Egypt, but apparently the step pyramids were built before that. There also seem to have been some early hieroglyphics on monuments. What with those, the big river that floods regularly, and the crocodiles, it seems like working out that they were in Egypt would be much easier than understanding a useful amount of the language. Not that knowing that they were in Egypt would necessarily get them any further. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 6:21

13 Answers 13


Most people fall into the trap of thinking that us folks from the future would be able to absolutely revolutionize the past. The reality (if time travelling to the past wouldn't break the universe) would probably be a lot less glamorous.

Why The Past Is Different

Consider that the populations of the past - even the rulers - are incredibly uneducated by our standards. This means that we could try to explain a great deal to them, but we would probably have some fundamental communication issues, even beyond language.

Furthermore, a lot of our education is completely useless from their point of view. Oh, you know Shakespeare? Those plays only make sense within certain cultural and lingual settings. A bronze age peasant, or even king would not care one wit about that.

Even less so about high energy physics, or philosophy.

Also consider that the people of the past have different interests than us. Or rather, not interests, but priorities. You see, we don't have to worry much about being killed by invaders, starving to death, or dying of disease. Sure, it can still happen, but we're much more concerned with the release of the latest iPhone, whether we prefer Starbucks or some other local brand of coffee, and which micro-brewed beer is best.

These people will not be able to relate to you at all. You may see women being treated as second class citizens, slavery, rape, etc. and seek to drive a social revolution. You will fail miserably, because you and those people do not have any sort of common ground on which to base your arguments.

Try telling the Romans (who were quite "civilized") that slavery is bad. You won't be laughed out of the room - you'll probably be executed as a dangerous ideologist (their entire economy was based on slave labor, and raping one's slaves was perfectly acceptable)!

Similarly, try telling people that tiny, microscopic creatures give them colds and diseases, and predicting certain outbreaks, etc. You're more likely to be labeled a sorcerer and burned at the stake than for the concept of "tiny monsters" to be accepted.

And so, even though you may have some interesting ideas to share, you'll want to be quite careful how you go about it.

Your Situation

So, the fact is that the past is different not simply because people didn't have technology, but because their moral, legal, cultural, and educational backgrounds are fundamentally different from ours.

Tolerance? Equality? Civility? Those are pretty modern concepts.

They would be far more familiar with "Might Is Right", and "The Strongest Survives", concepts which, ironically, we've sort of moved away from in the modern age (at least in the West)

And so, how do the skills of your characters match up with the requirements of survival in the Bronze age? @WhatARoughBeast gave a pretty good assessment of your situation, actually. You are well and truly screwed.

Outsiders who don't speak the language, are dressed weirdly, have no idea what the local cultural or religious hot buttons might be, and act strange. You're very likely to be dragged in front of the local officials and executed just to be safe, but I'd say you stand a 50-50 chance of piquing the interest of the local authorities and being given a chance to prove your worth.

What You Need To Understand

What you need to understand is that the people of the past won't be interested in hearing about your moral or political ideologies. They will either lack the education, or simply have more pressing concerns to want to listen to you.

Instead, Alex & Company need to prove their worth from other points of view. And you're not going to like it, because it all involves violence, and using the "might is right" ideology to bend the world to your will.

My Two Cents

The absolute advantage that Alex and his friends have is that they might know enough history to understand what shaped the rise of successful ancient civilizations. And invariably, that has factor has been military might.

If you're rich, the strong will take your wealth from you.

If you're well fed, they will take your food.

If you live on good land, they will take the land itself.

I think you can see where this is going.

Alex has the opportunity to influence the world in some ways, but most drastically by using simple military principles and tactics, crude communication methods (systems of flags, semaphore towers, etc), and an understanding of politics and religion to build the foundation of a great empire.

But in order to get that he has a life-time of hard work ahead of him.

And so, you can forget about plumbing, or teaching peasant farmers logarithms - that's simply mental. No, start off small. Organize the local ruler's military forces. Design new and more effective equipment for them. Build a reputation, and then supplant said leader.

Build a strong community, and start enforcing your principles and ideals. Start educating the population, and slowly introduce more and more useful ideas and concepts.

But accept that most of your work effort is going to go into simply surviving.

Note: I left my ideas at a pretty high level, please let me know if you'd like me to expand on any particular topic.

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    $\begingroup$ Build a reputation and then supplant the leader- and then you can build plumbing, enact laws, etc. (I hope you remember the formula for gunpowder!) $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2016 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @waynewerner - building plumbing requires a lot of work, manpower, material, and expertise. Sure, he could eventually build plumbing, but it wouldn't be a trivial undertaking, and frankly those resources could be put to much better use. As for gunpowder, it might be difficult for them to obtain some of the ingredients as the tools available at the time were very crude. Not to mention that their knowledge of metallurgy would not be sufficient to build a proper cannon or musket due to being of poor quality. Instead, he should focus on building a forge, making steel, and good armor/weapons $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks; this is truly an amazing and very detailed answer. I would like to add, though, that I disagree on some details. First, as @Brian pointed out, some technological advances (alphabet, theoretical mathematics and physics) require (almost) no tools and are still helpful. Second, early civilizations may have been a lot less violent (and misoginistic?) than commonly thought. For a study on relatively recently contacted tribes in New Guinea, see J.Diamond's "The World until Yesterday". Then again, ancient empires were not peaceful hunter gatherers, they killed peaceful hunter gatherers. $\endgroup$
    – 0range
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ Having been brought back to this by a rep point, I have to disagree with the "using simple military principles and tactics" bit. These folks know all about military tactics and principles (at least, the gentry do), They've lived all their lives with military operations, and have a keen appreciation of what works and what doesn't. You've made the excellent point that modern people don't understand how different the past is, but you've also fallen into the trap of thinking that people back then weren't as smart as we are. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast - I do not for a minute think that people back then were stupid. However, combat tactics and strategy have evolved tremendously, especially as far as communications are concerned. The Romans conquered a large territory precisely because they were at the cutting edge of military innovation, both as far as equipment and tactics are concerned. Someone with an understanding of military history, principles, and tactics would know, for example, that a group of soldiers will always outperform a group of warriors, and go about establishing such a culture. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 18:47

Let me see. You have no usable skills, no currency (local or otherwise), you don't speak the language, and you are not related to anybody in the area.

Only one of the four of you is even remotely trained in fighting, and it will only take one stab or slash to put her out of commission.

Congratulations, slaves. Welcome to your new lives.

Change the tech level of the society? Who listens to the babbling of foreign slaves?

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    $\begingroup$ Right on the money. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ It allegedly worked for Joseph :-D $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 1:31

They'd probably end up dead. But to avoid that, perhaps you should think in terms of the Spanish conquistadors in the Incan empire. Which was pretty much a sort of time travel. As already mentioned, the time travellers are simply a fish out of water, and whatever knowledge they may have (which is probably not industrial or practical) would be too many steps ahead to make a transition between ancient and modern times. They may have tools but the locals don't even have the tools to make the tools required to make the tools of the tool's tools... ah you get the idea.

They'd need to be able to oversee the transition (a multi-generational project), which would require a small army of teachers, administrators, engineers, scientists, etc. And, let's not forget; soldiers and police with enough bullets and supplies to see them through a few wars - who you can trust not to go mental with power and killing the others and stealing all the women and grapes. They all need to be fluent in the ancient language of the time (which the modern folk may not actually be capable of knowing if it is ancient), immunised against ancient diseases, and able to seize control of the population and keep them loyal and compliant to the worst student cramming sessions in history in order to start educating the first generation to create the next level of tools, for their children to make better tools, etc.

It's an enormous project that would require a hell of a lot of planning, resources, documentation, and loyal professionals. A few modern misfits won't even come close. And the most important issue is enforcing their authority over the locals, and then keeping it from neighbouring barbarians. Unless they can seize control somehow (pretending to be gods/witches maybe) everything will be fairly likely to fail. As even if they are teaching the locals good practices (basic hygiene, etc) there's no guarantee the locals will accept it, or even perceive evidence favouring the time travellers correctly. I'd say power, and not knowledge, is the biggest issue here... sorry to be negative.

It can be done! But will require the time travellers to basically be more like the conquistadors who arrived in the Incan empire. Ruthless and opportunistic, and making use of their advantages before the locals get wise to them. That said, if the time travellers included a doctor with a fondness for botany, then perhaps they could gain so much respect and adoration that they can gain the power to do as they like. BUT someone might just get envious and kill them because they don't have the authority they need to be protected/feared.


Improve Everyone's Survival

We're talking about the long game, here. You have the remaining lifespan of four adults to work with, and you want to a modern civilization to develop centuries or millennia sooner.

If you start at the bronze age, you're dealing with short lifespans, with most of everyone's time spent on just surviving. A few basic improvements across the entire population can dramatically improve that situation and bump development forward by hundreds or even a thousand years.

1: Focus on improving food production

The most basic improvement needed to spur technological development is having enough food produced that not everyone has to work as a farmer or hunter-gatherer. In our modern era, only a tiny fraction of the population are farmers. At the dawn of civilization, everyone spent the majority of their efforts towards obtaining enough food to survive and reproduce. This is not co-incidental; the more people who can work on things other than producing food, the more specialization and advancement can occur.

So if your characters want to advance civilization, they should put their modern lay person's understanding of farming to maximum use. Things like fertilizing fields and using crop rotation to keep production up. A plow, even one made from wood, will make planting large amounts possible.

2: Improve sanitation and medicine

Second to food production is medicine, or more broadly, helping people survive stuff that used to kill them. Even basic things like washing your hands before eating, boiling water to kill bacteria, and basic first aid would go a long way. If you can increase the average person's lifespan by even 10 years, smart people will be able to think and invent longer before their knowledge and understanding is lost when they die. And they'll have more time to teach that knowledge and understanding to the next generation.

When trying to improve sanitation and health practices, don't worry about the advanced stuff. Focus on the basics and teach stuff as rituals instead of abstract concepts. For example, teach your fellow villagers that the Gods like clean hands, and will protect you from disease if you always wash before eating.

Figure out how to make mild alcoholic beverages (e.g. ale), and try to make that the standard thing that everyone drinks - this protects people from most of the bacteria and viruses that caused epidemics, and is easier to accomplish than universally-available clean water (which is still a problem today in 3rd world countries).

A major wound such as a large cut or a badly broken bone would usually mean either death or disability for the rest of a person's life. If you managed to stop the bleeding, you would usually die of infection. So, if you can swing it, teach the medicine men to boil water, and use that water to clean wounds. Or, have them use the strongest alcoholic drinks to clean wounds. Teach them to use clean linen to dress wounds, and to change those dressings regularly. Teach them how to set a broken arm or leg. These skills will turn many death sentences into tales of miraculous healing and recovery (which helps with the next part).

3: Spread the basics as widely as possible

Teaching one village basic sanitation and farming skills will have no lasting impact. One disaster could wipe out that village and your entire life's work, and even if no disaster strikes, what you've taught will mostly disappear in a few generations if you don't do something to preserve and spread your ideas.

Once you are established and gain some notoriety for building a strong, healthy village, do your utmost to spread the ideas as widely as possible. Don't try to teach people why it works, just get them to start doing it. Make up rituals and myths that will get told across borders and for generations.

If you can get in the good graces of a king (or similar figure), it gets a lot easier to spread these basic survival improvements throughout an entire civilization.

Bonus points

If you four manage to accomplish all of this in your lifetime, and it looks like you've succeeded in increasing the world population's food supply, survival rate, and average lifespan, you can go for bonus points. Technology develops best when new ideas get passed on to the next generation. Not your ideas. All ideas. So for bonus points, teach people to read and write, and impress the value of reading and writing upon the leaders with whom you've gained favor. You want as many people able to read and write as possible; they'll figure stuff out on their own as long as they have the tools to share ideas across time and space.

Super mega bonus points

If you manage to get a significant fraction of the people (even 1-2%) able to read and write, and you still have any years left, develop the printing press. The printing press allows the same knowledge to be shared widely with ease, and was probably the biggest prerequisite for the modern era. Give people the ability to spread ideas widely, and they'll figure out a lot on their own. You don't have to develop Movable Type or anything; simple hand-carved block prints with a diagram and a few words is enough to get that ball rolling.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, if you can just get everyone washing their hands you'll move society forward 1000 years. $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2016 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ Only a tiny fraction of the population are farmers? Really..? momagri.org/UK/agriculture-s-key-figures/… $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ I'd only slightly change one thing. $\endgroup$
    – Jack Judge
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ I'd only slightly change one thing. Spead the basics as widely as possible; persuade your local sponsor (king) to give away the knowledge that you're giving him. Don't try to use it as leverage with the neighbours, you'll create bad blood, give it away and they owe you. Remember that the whole point of warfare is to make your neighbours more like you and if you're giving away the info and can point to obvious results, well you're gonna end up surrounded by other kingdoms that have a vested interest in keeping you healthy. $\endgroup$
    – Jack Judge
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 22:34

I'm going to be optimistic and say that you can eventually speed things up but probably not in the life times of the time travelers.

Speaking as an optimist, the travelers are different enough in appearance, garb and manner to avoid being thrown into the slave pits, as long as they don't upset the local government or the local natives aren't too superstitious and they get burned for witchcraft.

So what can they do? Let's assume they have benefactors that protect them, and they learn the language. The Bronze age had the beginnings of a written language. However, there's a big gap between hieroglyphics and the Latin Alphabet. Assuming some of your travelers are good teachers, the Latin Alphabet will certainly allow for faster, more detailed scribing. I would consider a detailed written language to be a true time changer.

Mathematics: the use of zero as a placeholder didn't happen until after the bronze age. Even the ancient Greeks didn't use it. Again, teaching modern arithmetic, basic physics (trajectories, refraction, reflection), algebra, etc. will also (eventually) move history up a few notches.

The carpenter might be the one that first puts them in the spotlight in a positive manner. Nothing like a good piece of furniture or carving to attract the attention of the local noble.

Next, we have the biochemist. She should have a good understanding of viruses, germs and disease so there's a lot of potential there. It'd be nice if she's got a hobby of botany or even herb lore but can't have everything.

Don't minimize the martial artist. War, which in your initial question you implied is a detriment to advancing civilization, is a great way to impose your advanced knowledge on other tribes (Some of our biggest technological breakthroughs have been during time of war.) Once your group has taught the tribe a better way to write, better ways to take care of themselves, better ways to calculate and better ways to fight, then it's time to conquer the tribe next door and teach them how to improve their lives.

What you're missing, big time, is an engineer. Someone who knows how to apply physics and biology to technology. As dot_SpOT said, ideally, a metallurgist with practical experience or maybe a sculptor with a chemistry degree might go the furthest in advancing technology.


Short version

They can't really speed up development all that much. Although they oughta be able to make the rest of their own lives quite enjoyable, probably even as constant guests at the high court.

Long version

They can't really speed up development all that much.

While it is true that they can use their knowledge of modern maths and sciences to address some issues and present some nice knick knacks to the people living in this time. Most of their own knowledge will be worthless because the actually useful basics are already here. Maths and physics are around and presumably applied as good as possible with the given materials available.

I dare say none of the people sent back has any idea of working copper or making bronze. They are likely not in possession of the knowledge to build furnaces that can melt iron alas they could indeed be able to create crude copper wiring (that is if they are allowed access to the precious metal).

Their best bet would likely be to become highly-honoured guests of the ruler, by using their knowledge of physics and their knowledge of foreign fighting techniques to entertain the ruling caste and maybe even become personal trainers or such.


As Brian and others pointed out, they can't do much by themselves. If they can find a home at the court of some chieftain/king/priest who is willing to feed four strangers because of their odd but useful ideas, perhaps you have the wrong skill set ...

  • You have to break the language barrier. Nobody speaks those languages any more, and having a trained linguist along would be an improbable stroke of luck. How about a language teacher with academic training in Latin or classical Greek and another language? Or a priest who speaks Latin and Hebrew. They'd be trained to look at grammar and vocabulary in a structured way, which helps them to learn the new language.
  • Bring somebody who knows modern accounting and/or project management principles. Somebody who understands fundamentals like comparative advantage, inflation, or methods like double-entry bookkeeping. Perhaps a paralegal for a tax lawyer. Or the dispatcher/accountant in a small trucking company. (Of course the powers that be might not trust the weird strangers with management positions.)
  • Most physicists or biochemists couldn't even start to build the tools to build the tools of their trade. How about a small-town car mechanic? I wouldn't expect a bronze-age Model T anytime soon, but this person might combine practical mechanics and materials science to come up with some useful gadgets.
  • Somebody who can help to improve agriculture would be nice. An understanding of Mendelian inheritance to improve animal husbandry, plus practical things like contour plowing and crop rotation. (Deforestation and soil erosion were an issue in ancient times, too.)

Your best bet is to make at least one of the group, probably Alex, into a minimalist camping nut. Also make him a bow-hunter. He is going to be best suited to keeping the group alive during the critical initial "What the heck do we do now" period. Construction skills are useful anywhere as well as any-when.

Second best bet is to make Jane a bit of a Military history nut, which actually fits with the mindset of a martial artist. If she's advanced enough in the arts, she should be able to take larger and primitively armed local thugs without great difficulty. Integrate into a small village and begin teaching unarmed combat. Again, construction skills are always useful when she begins to look at stuff with an eye to fortifications and to improve local lives.

Susan is going to look back to her undergrad days with her entirely convenient interest in botany. She can use this to help improve crop performance and to get things rolling on the sanitation/water front. Susan is going to have a huge impact on the "advancing technology" thing. Once food supply is secure, people can begin spending time thinking about other things.

Patrick is going to be, frankly, useless in the beginning unless he has a convenient interest in metallurgy and other material sciences. Even then, he won't be very useful unless he finds local deposits of iron and makes friends with the nearest metal-smith. Once established though He can bring into play things like the Franklin stove or some other sealed iron box heating device.

These, taken with a lot of insanely good luck, might leapfrog a community into the iron age. Maybe with a hodgepeodge with the "invention" of the horse collar. Other things like Rocket camping stoves to help boil water and make efficient use of available fuels. Woodworking and joinery as ways to make a better bow, a stronger structure, etc. Knowing how to lay courses of bricks, and how to make adobe bricks. Hell, even knowledge of arches and vaulting becomes extremely valuable and isn't really beyond the grasp of a hobbyist.

Their best bet for survival would be to get far away from population centers to a smallish village where they can help out until they get much more familiar with the general culture they find themselves in. They would have to learn the local language. They could just say they are from a long way away, trying to escape from whatever.

At least one (probably Susan)needs to be a natural diplomat. Someone very empathic and able to influence the village women and children. She will have to be able to inspire trust and introduce gradual improvements to makesure no one screams "witchcraft"

Patrick will be the eventual key to the larger kingdom wide power structure when he gets to the point of making superior weapons. I can't think of any way to get to a rulers good side than a sword that is not likely to break and will stay sharp. Horses that when shod with iron who won't go lame as fast. That sort of thing.

Have fun and with the aid of coincidence and good luck your tiny band can bring about the iron age several hundred years early.

Side note. Gunpowder has plenty of uses besides guns. Imagine a powder keg heavily intermixed with nails lit and launched by catapult into an enemy formation. One shot, hundreds of casualties. As long as there is wood (to make charcoal), humans (for saltpeter), and a source of sulfur you can get gunpowder. You just have to know how to mix the 3 to make a bang.


The above answers are all pretty great. A historical note to recall: The modern Alphabet, and Arabic numerals are objectively better and more useful than Heiroglyphics. They are easy to draw and write, making widespread literacy far more plausible. The Egyptians (who weren't priests) eventually transitioned to Heratic later on which (I think) was phonetic. HOWEVER, the Egyptian priests jealously guarded the secrets of writing, and there's a good chance they'll prove your main antagonists as they try to keep those secrets for themselves.

Also, Imhotep was the first engineer who's name we know, and was in charge of building the great pyramid. He's probably be interested in any middle-school geometry and physics you could teach him. A lot of the math and physics you learn in school, along with the scientific method, are quite useful, and would form a basis for others to create great advancements.

  • $\begingroup$ I was about to write more-or-less the same things. I will comment instead so you can enhance your Answer. The rise of Geometry was pushed forward in Egypt in order to cope with Nile floods that yearly destroyed good part of field divisions. The epoch is such that a lot of things have already been discovered, but a not of Euclid Geometry would still be unknown. Sell your knowledge. Same with so called "simple machines" now taken for granted; Archimedes of Syracuse made a great show in Egypt using pulleys, several centuries after epoch; that's another thing to sell, together with gears etc. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 18:23

While I agree with most people that the travelers would probably die or have little ability to affect significant change in the world, I do believe if the circumstances were right, that they could have a small local effect, that might ripple out over time. There are a few things that are common today that were not well known at the time that even simple people could understand and apply. For instance, the assembly line, interchangeable parts, crop rotation CPR and rudimentary medical care or sanitation. It would require that the travelers find themselves in a position to impart that knowledge but if that knowledge was passed on instead of dying out with the few people that were educated, it might stand a chance at speeding things up a bit.


The initial problem is staying alive long enough to change society. Assuming you don't get enslaved or burnt as a witch, any basic high school science knowledge could change the world.

Gun powder is 75% saltpeter, 15% carbon and 10% sulfur. With just what I know, I could get society started on gun powder.

The steam boiler and the piston was invented by the ancient Greeks. If they had put the two together, we would have had the steam engine 2000 years earlier.

Sickness is caused by germs and can be stopped by hygiene. Medical tools should be sterilized by boiling. Alcohol can be used to sterilize wounds.

A battery is made of two different metal plates and an acid and so on.

I'm no scientist but even I could change early society.

  • $\begingroup$ Possibly - but do the characters know how to recognise saltpetre, or where it's found? (Sulphur might be easier, as it's found naturally in its pure bright yellow form, which is pretty recognisable). $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ Saltpetre can be made from wood ash, urine and straw or alternatively mined. Romans were using it to preserve meat before 160BC. Huge deposits in India were mined around this period. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, it could be done with Ancient Egyptian equipment, what I meant was do the time-travellers know how? I've read that it's not as straightforward as it sounds ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saltpetre#Historical_production ). My knowledge of how it's done is limited to "something something horse muck", and if the same is true of the time-travellers they might not get very far with their gunpowder. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 5:11
  • $\begingroup$ If they had a geologist, they'd know where and how to mine it. Historians could also know where it was mined and when. Not impossible $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ Makes sense, I was going by the description of the group in the OP, which didn't include either of those. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 5:38

In my opinion there are two technologies that can be very influential without deep knowledge:

  1. Military
  2. Economics

    1. Military techs. They are easy to sell. The wars are constant.

1.1. Gunpowder. Just the knowledge that gunpowder exists and how it can be used is a great breakthrough. And finding something like gunpowder with mordern school chemistry is only a matter of years. Human race needed 1500 years to understand how gunpowder can be used. And we already know that the barrels should be rifled and that we can hit a special stone to self ignite the powder. This knowledge can bring chemistry to the point of year 1700 just by successfully using the tech, because you need to understand chemistry to improve guns.

1.2. Siege machines. If someone remembers how trebuchet looks like then he can build it. It is a 13th century tech that allowed to attack highly defended cities.

1.3. Idea of a biological weapon. Throwing a corpse with Black Death and the defenders will surrender in some time. This strategy realized by Mongols in the 15th century has probably started the Black Death in the whole Europe.

Others: stone castles with a keep in Europe, heavy cavalry of France, long bows of England, archer cavalry of Mongols, general strategy.

  1. Economics

2.1. Trade with Asia and other unreachable countries. It was the driver of wealth for Italy, Holland and then England ending with the Second World War. How compass works is tought at school. Everyone knows how to get from Europe to Asia with Roman ships using school geography.

2.2. Banking. Tampliers were so rich and powerful that the king of France killed them all in the end. The debt of France to Tampliers was too big and their military might was too strong.

2.3. I believe advertising and marketing generally could be influential. In 1990 when European marketing hit Russia people were buying lots of unnecessary staff and loosing money on promising investments.

2.4. Windmills. Some people say was one of the drivers of the wealth of Holland together with peat, but the latter is harder to find near water.


Russian Sci-Fi day goes on

"Ask Caeser"

A very short story by E. Lukin takes a perspective of a defence speach in a court. The defendant in accused of wrongfully using a time machine. The advocate goes on: "Yes, I admit the sole fact! My client used a time machine to go to Stone Age and teach folks there the basics of quantum mechanics. He had the crime intent. But a crime needs a crime action, there is none in this case! Nothing changed in the course of history! There was Ancient Egypt. And Babylon. And Rome. Even Caesar was murdered in the Senate on the Same date, time, and pretence. That the murder weapon was a military laser of all things..."


A yet another, longer story by the same author tells a tale of two Micronesia tribes (heavy spoilers!) whose technology is being progressed by quite respective "elders" (who are secretly allies and whos objective is exactly the boost of progress). The tribes unite and pull a Pearl Harbor on an European caravel and its home harbour. So, the ones more progressed technologically colonise and extract resources from less progressed at the moment. The funny thing is that due to boosted progress the historical roles swapped. The "elders" in fact only wanted them to keep their independence and not go full colonial style, but that did not work.


Technology alone would probably boost the merits from particular wars, especially is technology is not evenly distributed (second story).

Social knowledge might help. But a) use need an even distribution. b) There were some massive social experiments, such as the whole Dominicana in its early years. They obviously failed. So if you cannot control and "bring to light" some aggressive neighbourhood tribes, they might attack your "new world order". And I won't necessarily bet on the "more progressed" guys.


The first short story was just another view on time travel actually. But through better weapons and tools nothing is solved, that's the point of the first story. Technological advancement may reverse the roles, but not abolish the whole conflict, as the second story shows.

If you don't manage to air drop modern worldview (inclusive moral views and non-violent problem solving) to everyone in that world, conflicts will occur. Even worse, if you advance one party technologically, they might become more vicious. It's more economy than moral. The reason for the attack of Spanish port in the second story was "they seem to have a lot of rich iron ores, the ones we desperately need".

So, once again. There will be all old and more new conflicts, even if you do you best to avoid them. But hey, conflict is apparently good for the plot!

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting stories. However, your point seems to be that not only broad historical developments but also the lives of individuals are stable with respect to small random influences; essentially that history is neither chaotic nor complex. I find that unlikely. $\endgroup$
    – 0range
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ Well, I fully admit that the Ceaser thingy is rather humour than a well-founded theory, but what do we know about time travel? ;) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 22:02

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