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From time to time we encounter questions of the form:

What is the earliest time X could be discovered or built?

Examples include:

These are fun questions because they ask us to look backward with 20/20 hindsight and consider what shifts in history would have permitted an earlier discovery. In this regard, they are questions.

They're also prone to being primarily opinion-based due to the scope of the problem. Any one aspect of technology stands atop a mountain of experience, education, and innovation that has been influenced heavily by societal developments including philosophy/religion and government, as well as resource availability. The development of any technology or scientific discovery is quite complex and determining how much of that mountain need not have existed to permit earlier discovery is a challenge.

Because the question type is relatively unique and represents a quality challenge for Worldbuilders, I would like to create an tag that defines the nature of this question, warns of its weaknesses (to avoid closure), and helps guide the development of good questions with (hopefully) a modicum of research.

Question: what guidance should we give to users of this tag? (Alternatively, "what's the best way to ask this type of question?")

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not seeing a good justification for this tag. It's something stated in the question directly and isn't the sort of thing people would search for and therefore want a tag to look up the questions that contain it. To my mind, the purpose of tags is to classify the question up front, for the reader, and to aid in searching for relevant questions later on. It also encourages these vague slippery slope questions. I'm willing to be convinced but I'm not there yet. $\endgroup$ – Cyn Mar 27 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Cyn Tags are much more than something someone searches for. Tags can be followed (alerting interested users when Qs using that tag are posted) and, best of all, they contain the rules for asking questions associated with that tag. their use for categorizing questions is, honestly, the least of their purposes. $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 27 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ Well, the rules are to help in classification and the following of tags is just another way to search for questions on a particular topic. Is there an interest in questions about "earliest time"? Are there people who would want to subscribe to them and would seek them out in and of themselves? $\endgroup$ – Cyn Mar 27 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Cyn, I've seen a fair number of these questions over the 1.5 years I've been here (and I've posted my technology-pyramid explanation on nearly all of them). I'm not asking if this is a good idea, I'm already convinced of that. I'm only asking for community input into its definition. $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 27 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH To play the devil’s advocate, you mention in the question these type of “earliest time X could happen” questions are essentially alternate history questions. What is it about that tag that makes it inappropriate (or at least not fully appropriate) for those types of questions, thusly warranting a new tag? Also, would it not more sense to edit the alternate history tag to add the clarification there? $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris May 11 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @LiamMorris All "earliest time X could be discovered" questions are "alternate-history" questions. BUT! All "alternate history" questions are NOT "earliest time X could be discovered." Worse, the following detailed discussion is 1000X the length of the "alternate history" tag wiki as it is. Finally, this subset of "alternate history" is very popular (it's been asked a number of times since this original posting) and would likely be followed uniquely (remember, tags have multiple purposes). $\endgroup$ – JBH May 11 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Also, as an aside, i agree that tags are more than just a way of categorising a question to make it easier to find. I feel that appropriate tagging of a question is essential for getting appropriate answers for said question. Whilst yes the body of the question provides the context and clarification for the question, i feel the tags are almost as important as the body, they tell a potential answerer what specific areas the question is focusing on. $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris May 11 at 20:09
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Be specific about the tech you're interested in.

The more ambiguous your technology or scientific development reference, the more likely your question will be closed. For example, consider the question, "how early could steam tech be invented?" Here's the problem:

  • The Aeolipile was invented 2,000 years ago.
  • The first commercially-successful steam engine (an engine, not a locomotive) was the Newcomen atmospheric engine in 1712.
  • The first full-scale steam locomotive was the Coalbrookdale Locomotive built by Richard Trevithick in 1804.
  • The Age of Steam was a period of steam-powered industrialization between 1770 and 1914.
  • Steam turbines used everywhere from military naval vessels to electric power generation are still manufactured and in use today.

And that's a short list of major advancements. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of individual technologies that fall within "steam technology." As you can imagine, moving the Aeolipile back 100 years is a very different question compared to moving the development of the Pacific class 4-6-2 steam locomotive back 100 years.

Unless your question addresses a specific technology, answers may span thousands, hundreds, and tens of years and refer to everything from bronze or brass metallurgy to industrialized manufacturing to laser-guided milling; making the question primarily opinion-based.

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Attempt to "discover something early" as late as possible.

The further back you wish to push the development or discovery of a technology, the less likely it can be achieved. Every advancement stands atop a mountain of experience, education, and innovation. Each of those are dependent on social status, government type, philosophical and religious influence, resource availability, and communication. The resulting interdependence of any one technology on a vast web of necessary conditions is considerable (and often difficult to define).

Consequently, the less time needed for the push-back, the simpler it is to justify whether it is possible to do so. It's worth noting that 99% of the technology we enjoy today was invented in the last 150 years — which suggests pulling any modern advancement back another 150 years is very difficult, and pulling it back earlier is next to impossible.

Therefore, if you only need to develop a specific technology 20 years earlier, please do not ask for 100.

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Clearly outline any timeline or resource modifications (limitations & enhancements)

Occam's Razor is a problem-solving philosophy that can be simply (and popularly) expressed as, "all things being equal, the simplest answer is usually correct." If we apply Occam's Razor to the question, "how early could technology X have been discovered?" then, all things being equal, the answer is, "not one moment before it was discovered."

This is due to the natural complexity of advancement, although it ignores the possibility of epiphany. But, epiphany could only advance anything by, perhaps, days or weeks. All of the thought, experimentation, innovation, hypothecation, and experience that came before any specific advancement must logically be required for that advancement.

But, what if there were some change in history that could affect that advancement? Often, the user asking the "how early" question is seeking that change in history, which is the most difficult way to ask the question. They're seeking that quirk of plot that rationalizes the story they want to tell.

It is better if that quirk comes first. Does your plot have the technology for gun powder find its way out of China centuries before it did? That would advance firearm development considerably! What if the bauxite deposits of Virginia (U.S.A.) were discovered in the 1790s rather than in 1915 when they were actually discovered? How would that affect the development of aluminum and, thereby, naval technology during the 1800s? What if coal was scarce in England? How would that have affected the development of Steam and, thereby, the Industrial Revolution?

If possible, the OP should explain any limitations or enhancements to the technology tree that would affect the question. Failure to supply limitations or enhancements may cause questions to be closed as Too Broad.

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Understand the scope of the effort

The best and most obvious reason any technology can't be invented earlier than it was is that it wasn't invented earlier. Any one aspect of technology stands atop a mountain of experience, education, and innovation that has been influenced heavily by societal developments including philosophy/religion, government, and war; climatic issues such as drought and flood, resource availability, and many more issues. The development of any technology or scientific discovery is quite complex and determining how much of that mountain need not have existed (or must be moved) to permit earlier discovery is a challenge.

An example of this issue is the Ring of Fire series by Eric Flint et al., where an American town time-travels to 1632 Thuringia and starts a technological revolution. Among other things, simple steam designs are discussed at length. (Thanks to user LSemi for this contribution!) One person with a library of knowledge did not travel through time because one person, no matter how much knowledge they bring, cannot materially change the past (the amount of knowledge is so great that hundreds of thousands of people would need to be trained, an effort beyond the ability of the single time traveler). However, an entire town, with it's manufacturing and industrial infrastructure, skilled workers, education base, and resource knowledge — that's believable.

To avoid your question being closed as "too broad," you must properly scope your effort to introduce a technology earlier by ensuring all of the necessary elements (knowledge, people, industrialization, resources, opportunity, etc.) are in place.

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