The Big Idea: Ryan North

I am not saying I am a time traveler. For all most of you know, I am not. But if I were, and remember I am not saying I am, then I would be very interested in Ryan North’s new book How To Invent Everything. Very, very interested. Theoretically.


I wanted to write the most dangerous book in the world.  Assuming time travel exists, I think I’ve succeeded.

The big idea in How To Invent Everything is this: is it possible to collapse our modern civilization into a single text which anyone, regardless of experience or education – or the time period in which they’re stranded – could use to rebuild our world from scratch?  I wasn’t at all certain that it was, but if it were, it sounded exactly like the sort of book I wanted to read.  And the more I thought it, the more it excited me, because this would be a book which – once you’ve gone back in time with it – would absolutely make you the most influential, powerful, and decisive person in history.

So, all I had to do was write it.


I’m probably not the person you’d choose to write a book like this.  Up to now, all of my writing has been fiction: comic books about a girl with squirrel powers, short story anthologies about a machine that knows how you’re going to die, and choose-your-own-path versions of Shakespeare.  This was obviously something different, and I had no idea where to start.  So I began with what I knew: fiction.

I made up a future in which time travel existed and was practiced routinely.  It was a world in which time machines are rented like cars: generally painlessly, though sometimes with the risk that your too-good-to-be-true deal of a vehicle breaks down.  It was a way to ease myself (and readers) into the concept, and it helped me set up some ground rules: you, as a reader, are a temporal tourist.  You are trapped in the past in a broken rental-market time machine.  There is a repair guide, but it very quickly reveals a unfortunate truth: that time machines are for sure the most complicated pieces of machinery humans have ever produced, and that there aren’t any user-serviceable parts inside.  Time machines are so complicated, in fact, that it’s actually easier to tell you how to rebuild all of civilization than it is to explain how a 45.3EHz chrotonic flux inverter works.  So that’s what this time machine repair guide does.

With that, I had my in.  The “corporate repair guide” angle gave me an absurd tone to play with, and it let me keep things funny, light, and entertaining, while still sharing actual (useful!) information.  The only challenge now was to fill the rest of the book.  No problem, right??

I began by researching the inventions I knew I wanted to include.  I’d always wanted to have computers in there – because come on, how awesome would it be to go through life knowing you can build a computational engine from scratch in any time period you care to name? – so that’s where I started.  And I discovered something fascinating: once we’d invented electrical logic gates – the things modern computers are based on – we started seeing them everywhere.  You don’t actually need electricity.  You can build logic gates out of ropes and pulleys.  You can build them out of water.  Heck, you can even build them out of living crabs.  And this meant that there was lots of potential there for a knowledgeable time traveller to invent computers centuries – if not millennia – ahead of schedule.

I soon found that it wasn’t just computers that could’ve shown up much sooner in history than they actually did.  I was honestly shocked to discover how many inventions fit into this category.  An example: we had the raw materials for compasses in 200 BCE: that’s when we noticed that some rocks stick together, or in other words, discovered magnets.  But it wasn’t until 1000 CE that we actually invented compasses.  And here’s the kicker: to get a basic compass (which, I remind you, unlocks navigating the entire world), you don’t need the “tiny sliver of metal balanced on a pin wrapped in plastic” fancy compasses we have today.  You just need to tie your magnetic material to a string.  The string lets the rock rotate freely, the rock points towards magnetic north, and hey presto: that’s your compass.

Figuring out how to tie a rock to a string took us over 1000 years. 

You might think that’s embarrassing (and, you know – you’re not wrong) but I actually found it really inspiring.  And the more examples I found of low-hanging fruit throughout history, of inventions that could’ve been invented at any point in time but which for one reason or another we only figured out relatively recently, the more inspired I got.  Sure, it meant there was tons of room for a time traveller to optimize our timeline (great for my book!) but also meant that it was – and is – very likely there’s still things like that in our own time that we ourselves haven’t yet figured out.  What are we missing today, right now?

That last one is actually the one question How To Invent Everything doesn’t answer.  What fundamentally world-changing invention are we not seeing, even though we’ve already got all the parts we need?  What will people 1000 years from now laugh at us for not figuring out already?

What’s the equivalent of tying a rock to a string, for those of us living here at the end of 2018 CE?

I probably won’t be the one to figure it out, but I can’t wait to see who does.


How To Invent Everything: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

16 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ryan North”

  1. Past-me had pre-ordered this, and while I was excited to pick it up a houseguest got to it first so now I have to wait to get it back. It is such a fun concept!

  2. I guess I voted on the existence of Time Travel by buying the Kindle version of the book? Yes, I do own a solar battery but: 1) I have to remember to pack it, and 2) if I really thought Time Travel existed I’d want this published on something not susceptible to water damage and in as tough a case as can be engineered. Looking forward to reading it…

  3. I have a riff where I hold forth on the unlikelihood of inventing a compass (seriously, a bunch of things have to be connected in someone’s head) , so I might LUVV this book.

    Vernor Vinge touches on this in “A Fire Upon The Deep” as he goes about Uplifting a feudal society.

    Looking forward to it!

  4. “You can build logic gates out of ropes and pulleys. You can build them out of water. Heck, you can even build them out of living crabs.”

    Back in the day, you could find logic gates built out of hydraulics because vacuum tubes couldnt handle the mechanical stresses of certain applications.

    Way back when, da vinci had sketches for a device that looked like a roomba. Experts arent entirely sure what it did, but some belive he built a machine that would move along the floor on wheels using a preprogramned set of cogs.

    Jaquards loom used punch cards to weave textiles.

    Way, WAY back when, some ancient civilization (cant remember who, but i think it was a city in greece) used a method of weighing goods coming into port (to levy a tax on them) that used a giant balance scale and a series of weights, each one twice as heavy as the previous. They had effectively invented the binary number system millenia before computers would use it.

    “compass (which, I remind you, unlocks navigating the entire world”

    Well…… that would be some pretty sloppy navigating. A sextant can give you latitude, which is quite a step up. And a good clock and sextant will give you longitude.

    Hell, just memorize how to build a basic pendulum escapement, and you will either be made a wizard to the king or burned as a witch.

    When it all comes down to it, history says you really only need to know one invention to kick start modern society: a telescope. Without it, religion and dogma rules the world.

  5. I supported the Kickstarter on this, and I am anxiously awaiting my signed copy.

    Ryan North is a Canadian Treasure. Keep on eating nuts and kicking butts!

  6. Which is more important: being able to make, say, a primitive compass, or the knowledge that such a thing is possible? Conversely, DH has a poster that says ‘An amateur is someone who doesn’t’ know a thing can’t be done, so he does it anyway.’ When we choose to follow a specific technology, do we channel ourselves away from alternatives?

    Jacquard loom cards were what Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace based the concept of the Difference Engine on. We stand and build on the works of those who have preceded us.

  7. This reminds me a lot of Jeff Duntemann’s The Cunning Blood, in which Earth has established a “prison planet” seeded with nanotechnological bugs that eat electrical conductors, so the people sent there can’t use electricity (and hence can’t build a star drive to escape). The inhabitants of the planet re-created a technological civilization without electricity at all, exploiting mechanical, chemical, and other technologies for all they’re worth. They had developed mechanical computers of the Babbage type, fluidic control systems, an energy distribution system that relies on compressed air, automatic pneumatic-tube systems for carrying messages, cars and trucks with Diesel engines, and even supersonic jet aircraft. Fascinating stuff!

  8. I bought a similar book a couple of years ago–“The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm”, by Lewis Dartnell. Except I bought a ebook version for my Nook, which makes purchasing it for other than entertainment kind of self-defeating.

  9. I vaguely remember someone in a bar telling me about the invention of a jet fighter plane with a water computer and water instruments so that it could function if an electro-magnetic pulse took out the electrical avionics.

  10. I think we need a wallet-sized card on how to build a magnifying glass along with a tattoo version of this written in very fine print.. Or maybe just a (fireproof or fire resistant) microfilm or microfiche version that you can carry around 24/7, in case you get sent back in time unexpectedly and all you have is a fire and a cave wall for a projector and screen.

  11. Looking forward to the book! I’ve enjoyed fictional treatments of the idea from de Camp, Harrison, et al; putting it in the form of a how-to is brilliant.

    What did you think of “Lest Darkness Fall”? (I’m assuming nobody would write a book like this one without being familiar with that seminal classic.)

  12. I think we need a wallet-sized card on how to build a magnifying glass along with a tattoo version of this written in very fine print

    If you backed the kickstarter to get the book, you get a bandanna with some of these features.

  13. It may have taken a thousand years to learn to tie that particular sort of rock to a string, but the ancient Egyptians were using plumb bobs to build the pyramids about 4000 years ago. Guess what a plumb bob is?

  14. In The Ancient Engineers L. Sprague deCamp discusses some of the tech that showed up long before it became common, then just got forgotten. He concludes that’s because there was no market for selling inventions the way we have today: you found a wealthy patron, built your fancy gadgets for them, and that’s all. Patron dies, the invention is lost.
    The Japanese comedy Therma Romae has a time traveler from Rome visit Japan and remodel Roman bathhouses to incorporate all of Japan’s modern ideas. It’s interesting to see the Romepunk version of modern tech (using slaves to provide brute force can accomplish a lot).