Today, I answered a question in an essay which related to time travel and what I would do if I could go back to a historical period. This got me thinking, and I came up with a hypothetical scenario in which I take a holiday to a Swedish village at the height of the Viking age (let’s say 900 A.D.) in order to explore the time period. I arrive dressed in period clothing, except for my satchel, which thanks to me forgetting to empty it out contains my MacBook Pro with a fully-charged battery.

Now, let’s say I was to seek lodging in the house of a family in the village. After gaining a valuable insight into how the Vikings lived, their religion and their culture, I come back to the house and decide to write up the valuable historical information I gathered. However, I stupidly forget that I am in the Viking Age and casually pull my laptop out of my satchel, boot it up and create a text document to write down all that I discovered about the Vikings, on the table in the middle of the family’s house. What would the Viking family think when they saw my laptop? Would they destroy it out of fear? Would I be worshipped as a cargo cult god?

As an additional time-travel experiment, what if I also carried in my satchel diagrams and descriptions of a crude steam engine (designed as plausibly as possible for the metallurgy of the time), a flintlock musket and gunpowder, as well as some fragments of modern knowledge, and attempted to kickstart the Industrial Revolution? In this scenario, I would find the relevant people (herbalist for gunpowder, swordsmith for the musket and blacksmith for the steam engine) and attempt to combine my modern knowledge with the equipment and materials they had on hand to create gunpowder, a musket and a steam engine. If they had the raw materials to create those things, assume that I have an excellent working knowledge of those technologies and can try to coach and assist them in whatever metallurgy and construction techniques are possible with their equipment.

If it was possible to create those things with the equipment I found, I would demonstrate the musket in front of the village on a mannequin, or perhaps livestock that needed slaughtering, and fit the steam engine to a small boat to demonstrate potential applications.

My question to you is: what would come about of my efforts to create those three technologies, and what would the world look like today? Would they be simply impossible to create at the time, or would they receive massive attention and significantly alter the course of history? Perhaps they may be seen as curiosities and end up like the Greek aeolipile or the Mayan wheeled toy animals.


  1. I speak fluent Old Norse
  2. I have enough of the local currency to accomplish what I want to do
  3. I am immune to the grandfather paradox (If I somehow alter history so that I am never born, I will be able to trace my lineage back to a family of alien space bats.)
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    $\begingroup$ It is unlikely that anyone in the relevant time period would have any concept at all of what a laptop (or even computer in general) is, or its significance. To them, it wouldn't be technology; it would be a "glowing rectangular thing cold enough for the stranger to touch". Now keep in mind that at the time, "light" pretty much meant either daylight (sunlight) or some kind of fire. People back then were not stupid but they did have very different ideas about what the world was like and what was possible. The laptop probably seems more magical than 3100-era tech would to us. Proceed accordingly. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 20 '16 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you should teach local blond hair girl how to use loom from early days of industrial revolution? I give it bigger chances than steam engine. $\endgroup$ – Shadow1024 Dec 20 '16 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid, you wouldn't change history that much. Firearms and steam engine are more a product of their era than product of pure technical ability. Industrial revolution happened not because steam engine was invented, but because there were devices that needed to be powered. Without mechanical looms and lathes, steam engine is nothing but a loud toy. There needs to be a need to use steam engine instead of water wheel or animals, and that requires much bigger and denser population than Earth 900 AD. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Dec 21 '16 at 5:33
  • $\begingroup$ They would burn you at the stake as a witch? $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 21 '16 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ what they will do is largely going to based on their individual personalities and how quick with words you are. Also these are two distinct questions please ask them separately. $\endgroup$ – John May 8 '19 at 18:55

"MacBook Pro with a fully-charged battery' So like two hours tops?

Jokes asides you would be the Marco Polo of the Vikings. OR just another merchant with his silly things from other lands we Nords don't want to invade (yet). Gunpowder in Viking age? So like 100 years before first KNOWN written down recipe for that? Flintlock musket is similar story - after the gunpowder came to Europe we very quickly upgraded it to gun-like usage.

So that two things would appear in the timeline slightly faster (or maybe not, remember that the Nords were present in the Byzantium so they could have access to Mongolians and gunpowder, they may be just uninterested in this ).

Remember that gunpowder guns for hunters may be useless as they are very loud, slow and heavy.

About the steam engine? I think you are guessing right with the aeolipile. I think the Egyptians also have used steam engines to "magically" open doors.

So until you force the need to use them (blacksmithing maybe) there would be no use to kick-start industrial age with them.


Not much, I'm afraid.

Too many links are missing, below, I'm trying to outline how different factors tie together.

Industrial Revolution

Industrial revolution is a complex affair, stretching far beyond simple technical ability. Nothing happens just because it can be done, there needs to be a need for it to happen.

Steam Engine

Steam engine is an effective power source, but is nothing but loud and stinking toy without devices to power, and those weren't invented until just before industrial revolution. You need widespread adoption of mechanical looms and lathes which desperately need powering before you have real use for steam engine. Initially those tools would be powered by wind, waterwheels, animals or people, but steam engine would provide power source that is more reliable than wind, more cost effective than humans or animals (if used for mass production) and not bound to geography like waterwheels. For ships of the time, steam engine isn't cost effective either, this is a reconstruction of largest Viking ship ever discovered, for comparison, this was the first boat ever fitted with steam engine (it has almost double the displacement of reconstructed Viking ship) and this is one of the biggest warships contemporary to said steamboat (with over 35 bigger displacement than linked Viking-style ship). When you already have massive Ship-of-the-line warships and cargo Galleons, jump to cost-effective steam powered ironclads and cargo paddlers isn't that big. On Viking ship, your engine would take too much space and usable weight to be useful.

Mechanical Tools

To have mechanical looms and lathes (or other mechanical tools), you need fairly precise metalworking, and just as was the case with steam engine, you need to have a need to use them. What's the purpose of looms and lathes? Mass production.

Mass production

For mass production to happen, you need economic incentive for it. You need people to sell your produced goods to, and those people need to be able to afford them. Apparently GDP didn't change that much in centuries before Industrial Revolution, so perhaps second part would hold true, but European demography changed by a factor of 5. It's quite possible that population and population density of the time would make mass production ineffective, even if it could be done with technology of the time - you need industrial scale coal mining or woodcutting to power your steam engines, you need a lot of workers to utilise the devices, you need industrial scale metalworking and construction to build the devices in the first place, and you need to make it all big enough to afford running it. If you can't you are better off with small scale construction, for which steam engine isn't necessary. You may think that small workshops could use steam engines too, but you would be only partially right. Small enterprises did use steam engines, but they existed in environment where big factories, through economy of scale, drove the steam engine setup cost way down making it all a mixed blessing and necessity at the same time - improved power sources became cheap enough, but competition made sure that at the same time they would be necessary to compete.

Pre-Industrial mass production

English wikipedia is surprisingly devoid of information on the concept, including staggering revelation, that apparently English doesn't even have word for pre-industrial factory. Fact is, division of labour (where single worker makes single part of the bigger product) and production line are NOT concepts exclusive to industrial revolution. Those concepts appeared as early as ancient times, however were mostly singular in application until centuries preceding industrial revolution - XV is when they started appearing in Europe enough to start having meaningful impact on manufacturing. As early factories grew bigger and more common, there was increased demand for power, creating environment where steam engine would indeed be useful.

You said that you have enough wealth to achieve what you want to achieve, but that's you, and only you. As a wealthy eccentric, you can have your expensive novelty toys. Unless somehow others have incentive to use them, they remain your personal toys.


Europe adopted firearms almost as soon as they arrived on the continent (brought most likely by invading Mongols), so perhaps you could at least achieve this goal. Biggest advantage of firearms over bows is ease of training, it takes months at most to train arquebuser or musketman, but years to train bowman, this however comes at the cost of lower accuracy - muskets are only good for about 70m, no matter how good shot you are. Vikings did use bows, but were not renown for their archery, so perhaps they would be interested in handheld firearms, though I would expect them to be more interested in cannons to be used in their raids (their ships could perhaps carry one or two bow cannons too). However, first gunpowder weapons are dated back to XII century China, thus they pre-date Industrial Revolution by very far margin.


I'm of the opinion, that Europe 900 AD lacks infrastructure as well as economic incentives that would make accelerated industrial revolution possible, even if you managed to bring and explain all the necessary knowledge of geology, mining, metalworking, construction, physics and chemistry. Fact that Vikings were both world famous warriors and world famous merchants does make them exceptionally recipient for innovation in manufacturing and weaponry, but missing infrastructure is just too great. Goal of early introduction of firearms, is however possible.


Any sufficiently advanced technology is not distinguishible from magic

I have read somewhere that the first native American to see an european on a horse could not sense they were two beings, but they felt it was a single magic creature.

Or also look how a nowadays kid reacts to a cassette player or to an analogic phone.

You can expect the same when they see your laptop or the schematics of a steam engine: "Wow, a luminous magic flat stone" or "Wow, a fancy decorated sheet of sheep skin which is thinner and whiter than sheep skin".

You would probably need to search not for a common villager (who may probably kill you because you do weird things with your flat stone*), but for a smart and influent enough person whom to demostrate some of your wonder (start easy with a torch light or with a gas lighter, then move on to more complex things).

Did the Vikings had a Leonardo da Vinci?

*Petronius reports that the inventor of tempered glass was sanctioned to death by the emperor after demonstrating its invention, on fear that the bronze would turn useless as compared to it.


Advanced Metallurgy would be necessary to build a steam engine, because the boiler has to be strong enough to hold the pressure in, and this is not possible without very strong steel or originally wrought iron, which is relatively difficult to make without impurities that make it useless.


The Vikings would be interested in advanced metallurgy if you showed them a stronger sword, more unbreakable than their swords. Then you could progress to engines, and suchlike.

In fact, making better axes, then building a set of rails from the place where trees are cut down to where the ships are built and making a horse drawn cart that can go on the rails might be a possible way of gaining their good will, because it will significantly speed up the process of ship building.

By working this way, i.e. creating something that meets a need, you could change history and bring on the industrial revolution much earlier and the present would be completely different. Perhaps the Vikings would end up ruling Europe and from then on everything would be completely different.

You could bring a solar charger for your laptop, of course. If you were there between 950 and 1250 AD there would probably be enough sunlight because this was the Medieval Warm period, when temperatures were warm enough in Europe to make Greenland (now virtually a chunk of ice) more habitable. After this of course was the Little Ice Age, when the inhabitants of this part of the world suffered a climate induced famine and came down in their ships to raid the unfortunate people of Cornwall etc.


Of course if they had steam power in those days, the Little Ice Age may well not have been so disastrous for the people living in Greenland, as they would have been able to travel more easily and import coal from Germany, and heat their villages. Alternatively they may well have been far more effective at raiding Europe.

Either way, everything today would be different.

Question: are your Vikings Christians or Pagans? Or is this happening in a period when both are intermingling?

Because on beholding your laptop, a tablet on which magic writing appears and tells you things you couldn't possibly know yourself, the Christian Vikings may well react with a different variety of superstition. They might think you are a devil, and might well try to kill you - think Beowulf which is an Anglo Saxon tale about a Christian Geat killing a devilish monster in Denmark.


The Pagan Vikings might think you are one of the Norse gods - specifically Hermoth, or Hermod, the messenger of the gods, (a natural assumption considering your magic tablet on which writing appears in a strange tongue) or Wodin perhaps (depends on how big your beard is - if you have one and are male! If you are female I'm not sure which Norse goddess they would think you are.

Note also that in general in the early history of this interaction some Christian Scandinavians considered the Norse gods/idols to be inhabited by devils or demonic powers, while essentially being powerless against Christ, later on, the legends about the gods etc were thought to be worthy of being recorded by Christian monks etc because they were seen as simply legends, interesting stories that people might like.

A further thought - it took an awful lot to make the Christian Danes and Geats in the tale of Beowulf react hostilely - the Danes asked the Geats to help because Grendel was murdering them indiscriminately in extremely violent attacks. Quite often throughout history Christians were welcoming to rather strange manifestations - such as the Green children of Woolpit (or Wolfpit).


So what I'm saying here is - they may well have been welcoming and hospitable. I think it depends on whether they are fundamentally friendly people or not. Could be either - you get both types in any culture.

  • $\begingroup$ Just added the 'further thought' and elucidated why advanced metallurgy is necessary. $\endgroup$ – Robert Denethon Dec 22 '16 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ Probably worth pointing out that the atmospheric steam engine is a far safer and less-difficult to build steam engine that doesn't require anything like the tolerances of a pressurised engine. $\endgroup$ – Matt Bowyer Dec 22 '16 at 1:12

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