Carolyn and I recently began watching the fifth season of Outlander. We aren’t up to date so, for you Outlander fans, no spoilers, please.
If you haven’t watched Outlander, here’s the briefest of descriptions: it’s a historical soap opera set mostly in the rugged countrysides of 18th century Scotland and the American colonies. The protagonists are Claire and Jamie, whose lives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are full of romance and adventure, danger and joy. The twist, which requires a leap of faith, is that Claire is actually from the 20th century, where she had a husband, was a nurse during World War II, and became a medical doctor. She happens into a set of circumstances that cause her to be transported back to the 18th century, where she meets Jamie. It seems that women (including women who are old enough to know better) find Jamie more desirable than Claire’s 20th-century husband (or, for that matter, than any other husband on the planet). Claire can’t resist, and the fireworks begin. Eventually, her daughter Brianna finds her way from the 1970s to the 18th century to be with her mother.
Season 5 finds Jamie and Claire building a life in the North Carolina mountains among the unruly Scots-Irish colonists, several indigenous tribes, and the imperial British governor and his soldiers. The secret of Claire’s and Brianna’s origins is known only to Jamie and a few others.
Over the preceding years, Claire has become known as a healer, because she has used her considerable 20th century medical knowledge to treat countless neighbors, often saving lives. She is frustrated, however, by the limits of 18th century technology and wants to do more. Claire sets out to discover penicillin,160 years before its actual discovery by Alexander Fleming. She places chunks of bread in covered dishes, hoping that mold will grow that can kill bacteria.
Brianna discovers her mother working at her penicillin. Brianna objects vociferously saying, in effect, that Claire’s experiments could irrevocably change the space-time continuum. Of course, Brianna doesn’t actually say “space-time continuum,” because being from the 1970s, she hadn’t seen Back to the Future and therefore hadn’t learned all of the nuances of time travel that Doc Brown explained to Marty McFly. Still, Brianna understood that some things about the future, maybe all of the future, might by screwed up if Claire invented penicillin early. Claire, of course, persists, and it remains to be seen (by Carolyn and me, anyway) whether she succeeds.
A few nights after watching the penicillin episode, Carolyn asked what I could invent if I went back to the 18th century. “Could you invent electricity?” I thought about that for a while and decided that, yes, I probably could figure out how to invent electricity ahead of its time. I don’t know the chemistry to construct a battery, but I know that electrons move in a wire when a magnet passes over it, and from that I probably could figure out how to make a dynamo to generate electricity. Carolyn was duly impressed – it’s useless knowledge of that kind that endears me to her, as I’m not gifted with Jaime’s other, shall we say, more obvious charms.
Of course, I’m not sure what farmers and hunters in 18th century backwoods North Carolina would to do with my dynamo. I mean, it’s not like they had refrigerators just waiting for electricity. I don’t think I could build a refrigerator. Doc Brown could make ice in the 19th century, but he was a better man than I, I guess. How about a light bulb? I suppose I could find a glass blower somewhere in the colonies who could make me some globes, figure out how to create a vacuum in the globes, and replicate in some form Edison’s experiments to identify a proper filament, but it all would take years, maybe decades.
“Okay,” Carolyn said, “forget about what you could invent, and just think about what you would invent.” Hmm. A much different question. I’m living in a cabin in the woods, armed with a musket, a knife, and an axe, hauling water from a stream, growing a few meager crops, and killing rabbits and an occasional deer. What would I want?
Pizza! Of course. We have bread ovens, tomatoes, cheese curds. Sausage had been around for 1000 years; how hard could it be to make pepperoni?
Carolyn said she would opt for ice cream, her favorite food since the day I met her fifty years ago, without the benefit of time travel. Milk, cream, and sugar all were available. Doc Brown hadn’t invented ice-making yet, but maybe we’d move to Wethersfield (back then it still made sense that Wethersfield was a separate town), where we could harvest a plentiful supply of ice from the lakes and streams.
On the other hand, pizza, ice cream, and let’s not forget beer, are so fundamental to human existence that they already had been invented by the 18th century. For sure, beer had made it to North Carolina, and modern pizza and ice cream couldn’t have been far behind.
Getting away from food for a minute (which is about as long I can stay away from food), Carolyn said she would invent credit cards. I asked her what a woman tending her garden, hauling firewood, and spinning wool all day would do with a credit card. What local merchant would accept the card, when the merchant could collect payment only from some bank in another colony, like North Dakota? “Well,” she said, “you’d have to invent the internet.” If we had credit cards and the internet, instead of clearing forests and building a nation, we all would have been sitting around waiting for the Amazon Prime wagon to deliver pet supplies. That really would upset the space-time continuum. Plus, if I invented the internet in the 18th century, what would have been left for Al Gore to do?
How about football? How hard would it be to teach a bunch of pizza-eating, beer-drinking good ole boys to play football a couple of centuries early? Instead of the Bears and Packers, today the Carolina Panthers would be the oldest National Football League franchise.
I’ve puzzled over Carolyn’s question for several days now, and I’ve come up with my definitive answer. If mystically transported back to the 18th century American colonies, I would invent: