Near Misses in Technology

For six years I’ve used this blog to aid beginning writers, but starting today I’ll occasionally take on other topics. Technology is fascinating to me, and today’s topic is those near misses in history when someone developed a technology before the world was ready.

What do I mean by ‘near misses?’ I’m talking about when an inventor came up with a new idea but it didn’t catch on, either because no one saw the possible applications or because there was no current need.

When you compare the date of the invention to the much later date when the idea finally took off, it’s intriguing to imagine how history might have been different, and how much further ahead we’d be today.

You’ll get a better idea of what I mean as we go through several examples.

Computers

The Antikythera Mechanism was likely the first computer, used for calculating the positions of celestial bodies. Invented in Greece in the 2nd Century BC, it contained over 30 intricate gears, and may have been a one-off. It is interesting to speculate how history might have been different if they’d envisioned other uses for this technology, such as mathematical calculations. Imagine Charles Babbage’s geared computer being invented two millennia earlier!

I was fascinated by the Antikythera Mechanism and the mystery surrounding its discovery in a shipwreck, so I wrote my story, “Wheels of Heaven,” with my version of those events.

Lasers

It’s puzzling to me that inventors came up with radios (1896) before lasers (1960). After all, radio involves invisible electromagnetic waves, but lasers are visible light. Sure, the mathematics behind lasers (stimulated emissions) wasn’t around until Einstein, but with people monkeying around with mirrors and prisms, it’s strange that no one happened upon the laser phenomenon ahead of its mathematical underpinning.

Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot came close in1899 when they developed their Fabry-Perot etalon, or interferometer. Again, imagine how history might have been different if lasers had appeared sixty years earlier, before radio.

My story “Within Victorian Mists” is a steampunk romance featuring the development of lasers and holograms in the 19th Century.

Manned Rocketry

The first manned rocket flight may have been that of German test pilot Lothar Sieber on March 1, 1945. It was unsuccessful and resulted in Sieber’s death. The first successful manned flight was that of Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961.

But did Sieber and Gagarin have a predecessor, beating them by three centuries?

There is an account of a manned rocked flight in 1633, the trip made successfully in Istanbul by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi. It’s fun to imagine if the sultan of that time had recognized the possibilities. My story “To Be First” is an alternate history tale showing where the Ottoman Empire might have gotten to by the year 1933 if they’d capitalized on Çelebi’s achievement.

Submarines

The earliest attempts at underwater travel come to us in legends and myths. Highly dubious accounts tell of Alexander the Great making a descent in a diving bell apparatus in 332 BC. There are vague references to the invention of a submarine in China around 200 BC. True submarine development really got its start in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s.

Still, think about how much more we’d know today about the oceans if the ancient accounts were true and people of the time had make the most of them. My story “Alexander’s Odyssey” is a re-telling of the Alexander the Great episode, and “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” is my version of the ancient Chinese submarine.

Steam Engines

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed the first commercially successful steam engine. Later, James Watt and Richard Trevithick improved on Newcomen’s design.

However, these inventions were preceded by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. He developed a small steam engine called an aeolipile, though he considered it an amusing toy.

What if Heron had visualized the practical possibilities of this engine? Since the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution, could humanity have skipped ahead 1700 years technologically? My story, “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” imagines a practical use for Heron’s engine along with a reason it didn’t catch on.

Other Near Misses?

You get the idea. I am intrigued by the number of times inventors hit on an idea, but society failed to recognize it and take advantage of it, so it had to wait until much later. Are there other examples you can think of? Leave a comment for me. Your thoughts might well be featured in a post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Wagging the Long Tail

A few authors sell vast numbers of books, while most authors sell very few. If you could amass accurate data on that, it would probably look like a decaying exponential curve. It would have the Pareto property, where 20% of the authors sell 80% of the books—those on the left. However, today we’ll focus on the right side of the curve. Statisticians, with their penchant for arcane, hard-to-understand terminology, call that part “the long tail.”

The curve I present here is approximate and intended for illustrative purposes only. Note the vertical red line. Believe it or not, the number of books sold to the left of that line equals the number of books to the right.

Out on the tail of that curve are many, many authors who sell very few books. Looks a little lonely out there, doesn’t it? Most of those authors would love to move left on the curve, ideally all the way left. Readers only have so much money to spend on books, though, and they’re more likely to read books by authors they know.

Very few of those “long tail authors” will move much further left from where they are now, and only a tiny fraction will make it near the vertical axis into the stratospheric heights of the best-seller lists.

That may sound depressing, but let’s squint and take a closer look at that long tail. Each author represents a single point on that curve, but book distributors look at the curve differently. These days, they see the near-infinite length of the long tail as a new profit opportunity.

Distributors have realized we now live in the age of instant and easy searches for obscure information. With the ability to print books on demand, it doesn’t matter how few readers seek, for example, alternate history books about trips to the moon. What matters is that the book “A Tale More True” pops up in response to that search and a sale ensues.

In Wikipedia’s article on the long tail, they quote an Amazon employee as saying, “We sold more books today that didn’t sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.”

You might have to read that again and let it sink in. I’ll wait.

In fact, now is the best time to be a long tail author. Let’s consider the set of those readers searching for steampunk books about planet-threatening comets. They easily find my book, “The Cometeers.” Among that admittedly small set of readers, I’m a best-selling author!

Here are a few more examples included for instructive purposes, and certainly not for crass self-promotion:

Readers search for books about: They find and buy:
Alternate histories involving the Ottoman Empire To Be First  
Romance stories taking place in Ancient Greece Against All Gods  
Stories involving Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions Leonardo’s Lion  
Sequel to War of the Worlds After the Martians  
Shakespearean clockpunk Time’s Deformèd Hand  

If you’re a long tail author, don’t despair. You have plenty of company; readers can find your books more readily than ever before; and book distributors now regard you as a profitable part of the book-selling enterprise. Happily wagging my tiny part of the long tail, you’ll find—

Poseidon’s Scribe

½ Price Sale on Many of My Books!

You’re looking for some great beach reads for your Kindle this summer. You keep hearing about that author—what’s his name?—who everyone is talking about. That’s right, it’s Steven R. Southard, the one who calls himself Poseidon’s Scribe.

You’ve been meaning to read my books, but you keep thinking they’re so darned expensive. Well, you’re in luck. Your wait is over.

For the month of July only, Smashwords is offering many of my books (the ones in the What Man Hath Wrought series) for ½ price! That’s right, get two for the price of one.

Here’s how to take advantage of these great prices. When you click on any book at my Smashwords site, a message will appear telling you to use a specific code at checkout to get the discount.

Here’s the list of stories and their prices during July:

AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians
$2.00

 

RippersRing5Ripper’s Ring
$2.00

 

TimesDeformedHand3fTime’s Deformèd Hand
$2.00

 

TheCometeers3fThe Cometeers
$2.00

 

ToBeFirstWheels4To Be First and Wheels of Heaven
$2.00

 

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry and Last Vessel of Atlantis
$2.00

 

ATaleMoreTrue3fA Tale More True
$2.00

 

TheSixHundredDollarMan72dpi-1The Six Hundred Dollar Man
$1.50

 

ASteampunkCarol3fA Steampunk Carol
$1.50

 

AgainstAllGods4Against All Gods
$2.00

 

LeonardosLion4Leonardo’s Lion
$2.00

 

AlexandersOdyssey3fAlexander’s Odyssey
$2.00

 

WithinVictorianMists4Within Victorian Mists
$1.50

 

WindSphereShip4The Wind-Sphere Ship
$1.50

 

Better take advantage of this limited time offer before Smashwords wakes up and realizes what they’ve done. Heck, you could buy all 14 books for a cool $26. How’s that for value?

Remember, go to Smashwords and grab these deals while they last. Tell ‘em you were sent by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Making an Ottoman Spacecraft

Yes, the title of this post is correct, not a misprint. And, yes, I’m aware the Ottoman Empire did not build any spacecraft. At least, not in our timeline…

ToBeFirstWheels4I’ve been blogging about some 3D-printed models made by a close acquaintance that depict gadgets and vehicles from my stories. Today I’m featuring the Ottoman spacecraft from my tale “To Be First,” which is combined in one book with another of my stories, “Wheels of Heaven.”

IMG_0104The model she built is the way I imagined it while writing. I pictured a variant of the Apollo spacecraft, but with a Command Module shaped something like the dome of an Ottoman mosque.

For inspiration, she used this model, designed by Dan Marohl, who is known as sterling500. For mine, she deleted some harder-to-print details like retrorockets on the Service Module, and substituted the mosque-shaped Command Module, with a very impressive spire.

IMG_0105When painting the model, I added some writing on it. I would have loved to write “Ottoman Space Agency” in Ottoman Turkish, but I settled for what I could easily find—the motto of the Ottoman Empire, pronounced “Devlet-i Ebed-müddet” or, ironically, “The Eternal State.”

IMG_0107“To Be First” takes place in an alternate historical timeline where the legendary exploits of Lagâri Hasan Çelebi really happened. That is, a man actually took flight in a rocket-powered chair in the year 1633. (I found out about this legend watching an episode of the TV show Mythbusters.)

IMG_0109In the backstory of my tale, that event did not fade into obscurity, but rather prompted the rapid development of rocketry by the Ottomans. Three hundred years later, when my story takes place, the Empire is a vast—and advanced—superpower. It’s just 1933, and the two heroes of my story are on their way back from the first manned mission to the Moon.

IMG_0108Before re-entering Earth’s orbit, they encounter a weird ionic storm, which sends them to an alternate universe…ours. The story involves these two Ottoman lunanauts dealing with a comparatively backward Earth in the grip of a worldwide economic depression. On this Earth, the Ottoman Empire is gone and rocketry is in its infancy.

“To Be First” is really about the two rocket-men themselves, as Yazid learns from Kemal about the human yearning to explore.

I’m very pleased with the model, and would love to read what you think about it, when you leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

How I Inspired an Expedition

According to news accounts here, here, and here, divers will use a special diving suit (called the Exosuit) to explore off the coast of Antikythera Island near Greece. The site is a debris field left by a Roman merchant ship estimated to have sunk around 60 B.C. in 200 feet of water.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1They’ll be looking for more pieces of “the world’s oldest computer.” It’s a geared calculating machine, discovered by divers in 1900. No one credited the ancient Greeks with much knowledge of gear technology, until the discovery of this machine.

The question you’re probably wondering is, why now? The mechanism has been known about for more than a century. Why are scientists and explorers suddenly interested in finding out if they are missing some parts of the machine, or if they already have extra pieces and there were two devices aboard the ship? What prompted this new expedition?

I might have had something to do with it.

ToBeFirstWheels3fYou see, I wrote a story about the Antikythera Mechanism called “Wheels of Heaven,” and it just got published (by Gypsy Shadow Publishing) a couple of months ago. In my tale, I explain what the machine is and how it came to rest at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

You’d have to agree this can’t be a coincidence. Obviously someone read my story and got to thinking, “I wonder if he’s right? Is that how it happened?”

No one associated with the expedition is likely to admit it, of course. They might even deny it if asked. After all, no scientist wants to confess to being inspired by a mere fictional short story.

But we know the truth, don’t we? The connection is too strong to ignore. They can refute it all they want.

At this point you’re probably curious what the fuss is all about. You can purchase “Wheels of Heaven” along with another story “To Be First” here, here, here, and other places too. Sail along on the ship Prospectus with the Roman astrologer Drusus Praesentius Viator, and a common sailor from Crete named Abrax as they argue over whether the machine can tell the future.

Once again we see mysterious parallels between the breaking news of today’s world and the worlds depicted in my stories. A few weeks ago, I told you about the upcoming landing on a comet, an event similar to the one in my story “The Cometeers.”

The question we must ask, then, is which will be the next story of mine to have some strong link to the news headlines? Which of my other books of alternate history will prompt the next scientist, explorer, or engineer to undertake a grand investigative effort? You can offer your own answer to this question by leaving a comment to this blog post.

Strange how this keeps happening, isn’t it? If you want to know the science and technology news of tomorrow, simply to turn to the works of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 21, 2014Permalink

The Story Behind “To Be First”

ToBeFirstWheels5As the launch date for “To Be First” and “Wheels of Heaven” nears (this Tuesday, July 1st), and excitement builds, I think it’s time for me to reveal the story behind “To Be First.”

A few years ago, I watched an episode of the TV show Mythbusters where they replicated a feat supposedly performed by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi in the Ottoman Empire in 1633. Çelebi is said to have constructed a rocket chair, launched himself into the air, and flown down safely using a wing-like apparatus. The event was intended to commemorate and honor the birth of the Sultan’s daughter.

The Mythbusters team considered the myth busted, but it got me to thinking. What if such a marvelous flight had taken place? What if the Sultan had understood the geopolitical and military implications?

LagariThink of it. Manned rocket flight in the 17th Century. Defensive city walls and high castle walls would mean nothing to a country with armed rocket-men. Rather than expanding and then beginning its slow decline to finally die with the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire might have spread much more quickly and farther.

Had the Ottomans also embraced the science behind rocketry, they might have hastened other technical achievements, and been the source of those advancements rather than watching America and the rest of Europe prosper.

It seemed like an interesting basis for an alternate history tale, so I wrote one. In my version, it’s 1933, three centuries after Çelebi’s flight, and two Ottoman astronauts (called lunanauts) are returning from the first manned flight to the Moon. Yes, I said 1933, not 1969.

Nuruosmaniye_MosqueI imagined their space capsule being about the same size as the Apollo capsule, but dome-shaped with a central spike like the roof of an Ottoman mosque.  The capsule would have a couple of windows and there would be some of that beautiful, flowing Ottoman Turkish writing on the outside.

As the story commences, the lunanauts encounter a strange ionic storm in space, and their capsule passes into an alternate universe. The tale takes off from there.

My central characters, Yazid and Kemal, hold differing views on what it means to be an explorer. What are the motivations behind those who roam beyond all prior journeys, who probe far into unknown regions? Do they do it for the money? For fame? For love? Or is it something simpler?

If you read my story, perhaps you’ll be motivated to become an explorer, and you’ll write your own gripping story of heroic and fantastic adventure. You, too, can manage ‘To Be First.’ At least, so says—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Launching July 1st

It’s the event anticipated all over the world and throughout the known universe, and it’s happening July 1st. For those not in the know, that’s the date of the launch of my newest ebook.

ToBeFirstWheels72dpiIt’s part of the celebrated What Man Hath Wrought series published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing, and once again you’ll be getting two alternate history stories for the price of one.

“To Be First” follows two space voyagers from an alternate universe as they return from the moon, in 1933. In their timeline, manned rocketry began in the Ottoman Empire, which advanced and spread. When these Ottoman lunanauts end up orbiting our comparatively backward world, they have a choice to make, one that will forever change their future and ours. Along the way, one of them will learn something about why humans explore.

In “Wheels of Heaven,” an arrogant Roman astrologer finds a geared Grecian machine for predicting the positions of celestial bodies. Today we know the device as the Antikythera Mechanism. On the voyage back to Rome, the seer meets a sailor who dismisses astrology, an astonishing notion in 86 B.C. But when the sailor’s prediction is right, and every one of the astrologer’s is wrong, he begins to question his most basic beliefs.

The star-studded cover, designed by Charlotte Holley, not only demands attention, but it illustrates the connection both stories have to outer space.

You’ll be able to purchase the book in all the usual places: Gypsy Shadow Publishing, Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, etc.

Now you’re caught up with everyone else in the universe. No need to thank me. It’s all part of the service provided by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Cover Teaser

ToBeFirstWheels72dpiHere’s the amazing cover designed by artist Charlotte Holley for the next book to come out in the What Man Hath Wrought series. The book contains two stories: “To Be First” and “Wheels of Heaven” and will be published by Gypsy Shadow Publishing.

The image captures the essence of both stories and is aesthetically engaging. As for the stories themselves, I’ll post more info about them as we get closer to the book’s launch date, currently planned for July 1st.

Sorry to leave you in suspense about the stories, but I’m actually thinking of your welfare. Too much excitement and anticipation too early could be harmful to your psyche, so I’ll release information in stages to avoid such damage. No need to thank me; it’s all part of the services provided by—

Poseidon’s Scribe