A new book I'm writing has a time traveler go back to the Dark Ages.
These people are of course unfamiliar with technology like a computer or even simple machines that perform functions. It's a pretty straight forward question- These people probably think it's magic or evil stuff, how do you physically explain computers to people in the dark ages?


closed as off-topic by Mołot, L.Dutch, Hohmannfan, Azuaron, Youstay Igo Mar 22 '17 at 20:59

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why does he have to? Does he bring his laptop with him? Its going to run out of battery soon, and then its a lot easier to explain what a brick is than a computer... $\endgroup$ – kingledion Mar 22 '17 at 15:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "simple machines" is way too broad and would cover things they would no problem understanding and even things they already had. You should be more specific. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 22 '17 at 15:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @kingledion you have portable solar panels now. $\endgroup$ – PatJ Mar 22 '17 at 15:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Do you want your character to explain what computers do or how they work? Is he talking to the country's lead scholar or to a common uneducated man? $\endgroup$ – PatJ Mar 22 '17 at 15:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What time period and location? Advanced counting machines existed on several places during the year 1000. I assume you've done research on the time period you'll be covering? $\endgroup$ – Mormacil Mar 22 '17 at 15:51

You don't.

Most medieval peasants, and even a large number of nobles were illiterate. Those people wouldn't even be able to read and understand the interface, let alone understand the concepts behind a computer (logic, processing, etc.)

At most you might explain simple concepts such as a solar panel needing to be exposed to light, but anything more complicated would probably be beyond their understanding.

This is not to say that someone couldn't learn to click a few buttons/icons and accomplish something, just that I don't believe they'll be able to grasp why/how that device/software works.

Consider the knowledge barriers:

You: This laptop runs on electricity, which is stored in the battery.
Medieval Scholar: What's electricity?
You: It's a flow of electrons which can be used to power devices.
Medieval Scholar: ??????

Or perhaps explain how you've taken their picture:

You: Here's a picture I took of you.
Medieval Scholar: (in shock) But how? It's so realistic! So much detail! And so quick!
You: Well, this is really a simplification, but what the camera on my laptop does is capture the light reflecting off of you in order to create this image. In fact, that's exactly what your eyes do as well. Medieval Scholar: ??????

Furthermore, you run the very real risk of seeming a sorcerer, or some such thing, and that will probably guarantee you a very quick trip to the stake. I'd be careful about demonstrating your tech.

If you managed to convince the authority of the land that you are a traveler from the future, and that your "demonic powers" are actually technology which humanity will one day be able to build, then you might engage with some enlightened thinkers, and explain some of our scientific knowledge to them.

However, consider how open minded those people would have to be to accept the existence of microscopic particles which move and create power. The existence of elements other than "fire, water, earth, and wind". How much basic science you'd have to teach them in order to grasp even the most basic concepts, and how much that knowledge might contradict their own beliefs (imagine getting into genetics, hygiene, and diseases). There's other landmines you may want to avoid as well:

Medieval Lord: Truly your technology is a gift from God. What is the purpose of this wondrous device?
You: Oh, we use it to listen to music, watch videos, enjoy art, write documents ...
Medieval Lord: Truly fascinating! You must be a great scholar among your people! Perhaps even a lord!
You: Oh, I'm just one of millions of students. Pretty much everyone owns a personal computer.
Medieval Lord: You mean everyone knows how to use these devices? Reads? Writes? Has the time and money to patronize the arts? (eyes narrow)
You: (oblivious) Oh yes. Humanity has come quite a long way in a thousand years.
Medieval Lord: Truly it sounds like Paradise. And your nobles? Do they posses more powerful devices? (he innocently asks)
You: (oblivious) Oh, we don't really have nobles anymore. There were a number of revolutions, and the whole system of government is democratic now!
Medieval Lord: Oh, really? (gestures to the guards)

Your best bet is to claim that it's "magic from the future", and leave it at that. You may even wish to claim that scientific discovery was driven, or inspired by the church, or that God guided these discoveries in order to avoid complications.


To them, it really is magic (significantly advanced technology), and your time traveller should just go along with that theory. They're never going to actually understand what it is, and magic is the only thing in their frame of reference that would come close to an actual definition, so using that makes the most sense I think.

The traveller should take some solar panels back too, and hide the computer other than the screen, having it render a windows screensaver or something equally mundane, then tell them it's a spell for communicating with whichever magical being the locals find least threatening. At that point, they can dole out advice via speech synthesis, and eventually become some sort of wizard of Oz.

As Andrei states, there's significant risks in this, but why even take a laptop back if you're not going to exploit it in a risky manner?


They would call magic slide ruler. So if TT explain "there are number that are easier to add than multiply and this is a ruler that make it faster and this glowing thing make it even faster. Please don't burn me I'm not a witch".

Also he risk a very high probability of being killed because he shoved what cool things you can do on computer and someone want to have that to themselves. Like that app on iPad that help you set up a mortar.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That's “slide rule”, and they didn't have them in the middle ages. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Mar 23 '17 at 10:00

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.