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Advancements in technologies made obsolete before they were perfected IOTL

Meadow

A funny tinge happened on the way to irrelevance
Administrator
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Location
Balham
#1
'Perfected' isn't the right word, as any technologist will tell you, but hopefully you get the gist.

A new design of steam locomotive produced today is far superior to, say, Evening Star, the final locomotive built by BR in 1960. The metals available to us, the technologies relating to heating water, coal injection, etc, all mean our hypothetical loco (or one of the real ones being built by hobbyists and inventors here and there). But, obviously, it's also obsolete, because of diesel and electric locomotives. If certain techs hadn't taken off, or didn't work thanks to ASBs, what interesting examples of tech reaching new heights before people stopped caring about it can you think of?

What might sailing ships look like now in a world where steam locomotion just doesn't quite work? How might propeller-driven fighters have fought for control of the skies over Kuwait or Yugoslavia? If metalworking advanced as in reality but gunpowder didn't exist, would kevlar render infantry combat impossible or impractical?

All very silly, of course, but it popped into my head and I was curious if anyone had come up with anything similar.
 

Kato

Resolved
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
#4
Oddly enough, Semaphore lines came into my head as an example of this kind of thing just this morning. I think Thande uses them in LTTW, as does Pratchett. Obviously rendered obsolete in OTL by the electric telegraph, but nothing preventing the technology being more widely and used and developed earlier in history.

The very rapid boom in UK canal building, brought to an abrupt end by the emergence of practical steam railways, is another one that comes to mind.
 

napoleon IV

The Spectre of Communism Is A Planet-Sized Ghost
#5
Modern zeppelins use helium rather than hydrogen. Since helium is an inert gas it doesn't burn, preventing disasters like the Hindenburg. In a world where fixed-wing aircraft isn't a thing the main mode of travel would be helium-filled rigid airships. One particular usage (which IOTL is being studied right now) is using zeppelins to transport cargo for military and rescue operations, since they can glide over difficult terrain and carry more cargo than a helicopter can.
 
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Callan

Absolutely Dire
Published by SLP
Location
Toronto
#8
Concorde surely fits into this category? Just at the point where people might have been talking about a replacement, the internet blows a lot of the assumptions about business travel out the water.
Oh, yes, I like this.
There’s a PoD with supersonic airliners but I think it has to involve butterflying away the 70s oil shock and economic crises, which killed off the potential of such aircraft to make any money. It only really flew at all because British and French politicians foisted them onto then-state-owned airlines, it’s hard to see an immediate replacement being remotely serious without a different economic reality. The aviation industry without the OTL 1970s would be a super-fun TL.
 

RyanF

Abbot of Unreason
Published by SLP
Location
Falkirk
#9
One from the world of entertainment, how might practical effects and stop motion animation have developed if the craze for computer generated effects never got off to its early 90s boom?

As much as The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day might have shown the possibilities of CG it wasn't until Jurassic Park that the boom really began. The majority of the dinosaur effects were originally meant to be done with go motion, a variation of stop motion developed by Industrial Light & Magic for The Empire Strikes Back. It differed itself from other forms of stop motion by incorporating a motion blur into the action - Spielberg claimed it still looked jerky and eventually the move was made to computer generated dinosaurs. A different director might have been more willing to accept the already very good go motion for the non-animatronic dinosaur effects.

The use of CGI was perhaps inevitable with the increased capabilities of computer graphics in the 1990s, but without such a debutante ball as was Jurassic Park we might not have ended up with it being so ubiquitous. After the release of Jurassic Park IL&M shut down it's go motion workshops and moved entirely to computer animation, who knows what advances in animatronics and animation might have been made if they had kept innovating old techniques?
 

Ed Costello

throwing discus for Liverpool & Widnes
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Location
The Pool of Life
#10
Digital audio fidelity was the first thing that springs to mind. I suppose it's not technically obsolete, but when was the last time (or the first time, come to that) you saw somebody with a Pono? The problem, I suppose, is that it's very hard to get past the simple issue that lower fidelity is the payoff for being able to store more songs on your digital player; not that this kind of concern hasn't affected music technology in the past (CDs have a 75-minute audio play-time thanks in part to a very specific performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony).

Suppose the first commercially successful digital music player is developed by an audiophile who prioritises fidelity over storage and convinces the industry to adopt a higher-quality file type as standard; given the demands on memory, that could well ensure the digital music player remains a standalone piece of tech instead of being subsumed into the smartphone. If the file quality is high enough, that has knock-on effects for streaming (and not just in terms of file size; what's the benefit of advertising 'CD-quality' streaming if digital files already surpass CDs?). And what if the labels decide they aren't getting a big enough slice of the pie from downloads alone, and decide to move into the manufacturing side as well? If you thought DRM was bad in OTL, imagine what it might be like if one of the Big Four labels decides their players can only play music from their artists and subsidiaries, and the ensuing retaliations, price wars and all-round bad feelings...

(Am I doing this right?)
 

Oppo

Mike Pence’s hair
#11
I think the clearest example of a technology rendered obsolete before it was perfected would be the ongoing attempts to make a hydrogen powered car, despite the runaway success of electric cars.
I remember seeing an episode of Top Gear around 2008 where they had a Honda Clarity fuel-cell car and the first Tesla. James May proclaimed the Honda to be “the most important car for a 100 years” and brushed off the Tesla.

Goes to show how much has changed in ten years, although Toyota is still stuck trying to use hybrids and hydrogen and practically ignoring EVs.
 

Md139115

You have not even begun to grasp the madness
#12
The original incarnation of the Stirling engine was rendered obsolete by the Diesel engine before it was optimized. It’s only just starting to be re-examined now.
 

Tabac Iberez

Impetious
Published by SLP
#13
Modern zeppelins use helium rather than hydrogen. Since helium is an inert gas it doesn't burn, preventing disasters like the Hindenburg. In a world where fixed-wing aircraft isn't a thing the main mode of travel would be helium-filled rigid airships. One particular usage (which IOTL is being studied right now) is using zeppelins to transport cargo for military and rescue operations, since they can glide over difficult terrain and carry more cargo than a helicopter can.
Humorously enough, rigid-hulled airship designers of the times preferred helium to hydrogen when they could get it. What really killed them was their inability to handle high winds and rough weather, as well as the danger that encompassed their regular operation. When something like this:

los angeles handstand.jpg
(image courtesy of USNI)

is not terribly uncommon, you can see where confidence issues come in! The loss of many early airships (Akron, Makron, Shenadoah, literally anything touched by the English lighter than air...) was absolutely tragic, and these early shudderings of faith in the technology are why advances like contrarotating airscrews and aluminum skins couldn't bring it back from the very narrow brink. The loss of Graf Zeppelin wasn't the stake through the heart- rather, it was the final nail in the coffin.

Which, of course, is made worse by the fact her canvass envelope was painted with a zinc paint known to be highly flamable, and then accented with red stripes containing iron oxide. Hint to the crowd- that's thermite. That's bad shit- and when the envelope caught fire, not the hydrogen!- the craft crashed. After that point, the hydrogen vessels expanded from the heat, burst, then caught fire, and the dreams of rigid-hulled airship designers were now dead as a doornail, Rest in Pepperoni.
 

Cook

an obscure historical reference.
#14
What really killed them was their inability to handle high winds and rough weather...
No, it didn't. Heavier-than-air-flight was not significantly safer than lighter-than-air-flight prior to the late-1930s; both forms of flight would by modern standards be considered unacceptably hazardous. Nor could rigid wing aircraft of the period handle high winds and rough weather any better than a dirigible could; they were unpressurised, underpowered, mechanically unreliable and there were no radio navigation aids in existence at the time to guide them through a storm. Of the two, lighter-than-air could probably put a credible case for being the safer form of transport; of the 97 people on board the Hindenburg when it crashed, 62 survived. Even the British R101, the worst airship disaster in history, had 6 survivors, whereas when Boeing 247s crashed, everyone on board died.

What killed lighter-than-air flight for large-scale commercial passenger transportation was, quite simply, the cost. Airships were expensive. The Douglas DC-3 could transport passengers and cargo at significantly less cost than could a dirigible or zeppelin.
 
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Stateless

Sajid Javid broke international law in making me
#15
It's a point often made that longbows had a better range, penetration and rate of fire than the musket (or arquebus), but required so much strength and practice to use that that they were impractical for mass use. But without the advent of gunpowder there could be further longbow developments, making them out of lighter and more pliable materials, and then earlier invention of compound bows, would have the same democratising effect that gunpowder had.
 

Redolegna

Champagne Socialist
Location
Paris
#16
Thanks to @Comisario, I do wonder about Teletext and 1980s fibre optics and whether it could have evolved into an early internet predating our own by nearly a decade.

If we're extremely lazy about it and assume similar social trends, you might see the emergence of the alt-right movement during the Noughties.
I shed a single brown-inked Minitel-shaped tear.

All the features of the Internet were there. Including the porn. Especially the porn.
 

Thande

Brexit Out Now, Funk Soul Brother
Published by SLP
#17
This is a very good thread idea.

Less world-shattering than some of the big things discussed so far, but there are plenty of good examples in the field of audiovisual recording media, a topic I have become increasingly interested in lately. (This Youtube channel will steal hours of your life if you're into this sort of thing)

There is no real reason why we couldn't still be using something directly derived from VHS tapes right now, for example, if things had gone differently--if optical discs had never come down in price, for example, or Sony had never made the PlayStation 2 which really helped the takeup of people switching to DVD. We might even be using them for computer recording media like the compact audio cassettes before them--there were peripherals that allowed this in the 90s, but they never caught on. If you're thinking they wouldn't be able to live up to today's technology - The D-Theater VHS format from the early 2000s had an image quality comparable to Blu-Ray, and (not VHS) tape designs are still used today in the computer industry for large-scale data backup. D-VHS qualifies for the OP's description of technologies that advanced too late to be of much use. I've been known to refer to tapes in distant future sci-fi because there's no real reason why the basic idea couldn't come back again if technology shifts and new storage techniques mean it can conveniently store more than solid state again.

Laserdisc also had Blu-ray quality as early as the mid-90s with its Hi-Vision version (but only in Japan) but again, it's the activation energy of getting enough people to buy it.

Another quirky one is the Advantix camera system (which had another trade name but I can't remember what it was) - it was a huge improvement over conventional film cameras, but came too late and was swiftly crushed by digital. In a world without digital cameras, I could imagine that everyone except photography professionals would have switched over to the simple cartridge system and the setup that let you play the photos on a TV or upload them to a computer using a special peripheral with a slot in it.

Of course, a good real-life example of what the OP is talking about is the vinyl LP: now that actually has made a real comeback, we might start to see things done that would have been impossible in its heyday with new materials and manufacturing techniques.
 
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Tabac Iberez

Impetious
Published by SLP
#18
No, it didn't. Heavier-than-air-flight was not significantly safer than lighter-than-air-flight prior to the late-1930s; both forms of flight would by modern standards be considered unacceptably hazardous. Nor could rigid wing aircraft of the period handle high winds and rough weather any better than a dirigible could; they were unpressurised, underpowered, mechanically unreliable and there were no radio navigation aids in existence at the time to guide them through a storm. Of the two, lighter-than-air could probably put a credible case for being the safer form of transport; of the 97 people on board the Hindenburg when it crashed, 62 survived. Even the British R101, the worst airship disaster in history, had 6 survivors, whereas when Boeing 247s crashed, everyone on board died.

What killed lighter-than-air flight for large-scale commercial passenger transportation was, quite simply, the cost. Airships were expensive. The Douglas DC-3 could transport passengers and cargo at significantly less cost than could a dirigible or zeppelin.
Ahh, but the issue you're forgetting is unit cost. Losing a 247 is pretty much chump change next to something akin to a capitol ship- 65,000 dollars for the plane and what is presumably millions of dollars for the airship. While I can't find concrete numbers on construction cost, I can find the resources used and extrapolate some from there- and let me tell you, the napkin math puts rigid hull airships in the same cost catagory as ocean liners! Seventy-five tons of duraluminium aproxamently, thousands of square meters of goldbeater skin, at least four massive engines up to a possible eight, upwards of a million liters of helium or hydrogen- I can reasonably say that these craft were at least a million to a million and a half dollars apiece.

When the risk analysis comes out as roughly the same, you're going to go with the cheaper option. That's rather unfortunately how business works.
 

Ed Costello

throwing discus for Liverpool & Widnes
Sea Lion Press staff
Published by SLP
Location
The Pool of Life
#19
One field related to the airship discussion is that of ocean liners. There undoubtedly continue to be colossal improvements in shipbuilding technology, but there has been no Blue Riband holder since 1952. Imagine how Queen Mary 2 might look if she were expected not only to be the height of opulence, but also to maintain an average speed of 35 knots or more?
 

Thande

Brexit Out Now, Funk Soul Brother
Published by SLP
#20
One field related to the airship discussion is that of ocean liners. There undoubtedly continue to be colossal improvements in shipbuilding technology, but there has been no Blue Riband holder since 1952. Imagine how Queen Mary 2 might look if she were expected not only to be the height of opulence, but also to maintain an average speed of 35 knots or more?
Good point - it seems very odd to us in retrospect, thinking of ocean liners in contrast to aircraft as the slow and civilised option, that there used to be competition over how fast they could cross the Atlantic.

It's a bit like - to use another example I found from that channel I linked to above - in the 1970s, digital watches were this amazing new thing and cost more than a Rolex and were only worn by the wealthiest people, yet within a decade had become the cheap mass-produced option.