Age of Invention: Where Be Dragons?

Welcome to my weekly newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. You can subscribe here:

A theme I keep coming back to is that a lot of inventions could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle, one of the most famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution. It radically increased the productivity of weaving in the 1730s, but involved simply attaching a little extra wood and string. It involved no new materials, was applied to the weaving of wool — England’s age-old industry — and required no special skill or science. Weaving had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733”, was how Bennet Woodcroft — one of the nineteenth century’s most important historians of technology — put it. (Lest you doubt that description of Woodcroft, he was, in addition to being an inventor himself, the man who compiled and categorised England’s entire patent record up to 1852, and who collected the inventions that would later form the basis of London’s Science Museum, particularly some of the earliest steam engines — among the most important machines in human history — that grace its engine hall today. My hero!) Weavers had been around for millennia, as had shuttles: one is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope”). As a labour-saving invention, Kay’s flying shuttle was even technically illegal.

I keep coming back to this example, because it goes against so many common notions about the causes of innovation. When it comes to skill, materials, science, institutions, or incentives, none of them quite seem to fit. But I keep seeing more and more such cases. There’s the classic example, of course, of suitcases with wheels - why so late? Was the bicycle another candidate?

It strikes me as odd, too, that there was an explosion of signalling systems like semaphore only towards the end of the eighteenth century. Although there were some seventeenth-century precursors, the main telegraphing systems in Europe seem to have been as crude as Gondor’s lighting of the beacons, capable only of communicating a single pre-agreed message. Ancient China at least had its smoke signals, as did many indigenous American societies, and apparently the ancient Greeks too. So what took semaphore so long to take off? Many of the eighteenth-century systems did not even need multicoloured flags, my favourite being Lieutenant James Spratt’s “homograph”, subtitled “every man a signal tower”, which involved just a long white handkerchief.

The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these cases “ideas behind their time”. I tend to just call them low-hanging fruit. Hanging so low, and for so long, that the fruit are fermenting on the ground. I now see them everywhere, not just in history, but today — probably at least one per week. And I now have a new favourite example, suggested yesterday on Twitter by Jordan Chase-Young: tabletop role-playing games.

I never played Dungeons & Dragons when I was a child, or even a teenager. But a few years ago I became hooked listening to a podcast in which three brothers and their father played a simplified version of the game. I had always assumed it was a highly complex affair, with tomes of rules to master, impossibly-sided dice, and a multitude of maps and detailed figurines. But all of that is actually just optional. At root, it’s simply collective storytelling, with pre-agreed constraints on what you can and can’t do. There’s a reason it worked so well in a podcast - there’s actually nothing to see, only to hear. I’ve now run my own version of the game with a few close friends, and it hardly even requires pen and paper. Most of it is people just describing what they wish to do, and then rolling dice to see if they’re successful. It doesn’t even require dragons or dungeons - you could right now invent your own version set on another planet, in the future, or in the ancient world. The only limit is imagination. It’s infinitely modifiable. And it’s extremely fun.

So why were such games seemingly only invented in the 1970s? Humans have been telling stories presumably since we evolved to speak. We’ve been using dice, or something quite like them, since at least 3,000 BCE. Why did it take us so long to combine them? Certainly, some elements were already present in the mid-1820s in Kriegsspiel, a Prussian battle simulation game, in which regiments had hitpoints that needed to be depleted to remove them from the field, as well as an umpire — much like the later Dungeon Masters — to roll the dice and decide if players’ orders succeeded. Even the 1820s, however, seems rather late.

One of the responses I saw on Twitter was that such games required a bureaucratic mindset - that it’s an essentially modern thing to reduce attributes like health or skills or the strength of an attack to numerical values. Children (and adults) have always played at roles, of course. In ancient Egypt children had miniature wooden swords; in thirteenth-century England, even kings played at being Arthurian knights. But tabletop role-playing games require systematising and formalising that play. It’s not just saying “I pull out a sword and hack the goblin’s head off”. Instead, first roll this die to see if you succeed. But is this really so modern? Obsessive counting of things, at least in the English-speaking world, seems to date at least from the seventeenth century — perhaps it wasn’t that widespread, but lists like actuarial tables and demographic statistics were already being compiled. The craze in seventeenth-century English policy circles was for “political arithmetic”. All in all, if the lack of such an attitude even was a constraint, it seems a soft one. If the predominantly agrarian society of 1820s Prussia could come up with Kriegsspiel, why not earlier still?

Another response I got was that such games needed literacy or numeracy, or had something to do with printing. But the whole thing can be done, and indeed invented, with just pen and paper. It could even be done with chalk on slate, or with sticks in the sand. As for the counting elements of such games, they essentially involve just agreeing a number — your health in the story, for example, or your ability to attack — and then comparing it with another number, such as an opponent’s armour or their ability to attack. It barely requires numeracy, let alone literacy. Tallying would cover most of it. And, of course, games might still be popular among a smaller group of literate people, even if much of the overall population was illiterate. Again, it seems too soft a constraint.

Finally, there was the response that the invention of such games required higher population densities. But that would be an argument against the invention of all games. We’ve had chess for millennia, however, and card games for centuries. If anything, we’ve been storytelling for even longer. An interesting variant of the argument, suggested by Matt Clancy, is that in fact tabletop role-playing games have been invented and re-invented many times, all over the world, but because of the lack of printing and low population densities, they have become lost and forgotten. Perhaps. Though I find it hard to believe that an activity so fun would never have been mentioned.

All in all, these arguments involve extremely soft constraints. Physically, there was nothing that actually stopped the invention of such games centuries or even millennia earlier. It required no special level of science, skill, or materials. So why did it take so long? Rather than there being any constraints, soft or otherwise, I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently. We are, most of us, quite set in our ways. So even today, when there are many more inventors alive than at any previous point in human history, the fermenting fruit still abound.