How obvious is technology?

In order to help pass the time on my long-haul flights of the last couple of weeks, I bought a copy of H. G. Wells’  War of the WorldsI’ve read a lot of his work, but somehow this, arguably his most famous book, had previously escaped me.

I should emphasize the obvious point that this book is a work of fiction.  That means that the author doesn’t need to get the science completely right. Also, given that it was published in 1898, quite a lot has moved on in our knowledge of science and astronomy, so there are lots of ‘mistakes’ in there.

One point that really got my attention was the observation made by the central character that the Martian invaders did not appear to have invented the wheel. They had, however, clearly invented telescopes, space flight, the ‘heat ray’ (sounds rather like an intense beam of microwaves that cooks everything in its path) and some pretty viscious chemical weapons. To move about on the higher earth gravity, which causes problems for the poor Martians who evolved in the lesser gravitational field of Mars, they built themselves giant spider-like walking machines, when something with wheels might have proved far more energy efficient.

 So, I was left thinking whether that was realistic.  Could a race develop space flight before developing the wheel?  Seems a bit unlikely to me. In order to land ten ‘pods’ at intervals of about a day, within just a few miles of each other just west of London,  by firing them out of a large gun on Mars, would surely have taken a fair bit of mathematical calculation on the part of the Martians, involving knowledge of the Earth and Mars orbits and rotation rates. I’m sure they’d have to have grasped angular momentum, amongst other things.  The way we teach angular momentum at school and university involves lots of examples of rotating circles (e.g. wheels) so surely they’d have been familiar with rotating discs? Evidently not.

Anyway, as I said, this is fiction, so it really doesn’t matter.

For those interested in speculating about future technology on Earth, get yourself a copy of Wells’ book "When the Sleeper Wakes". Essentially the scenario is that someone, in about 1900, falls asleep for 200 years and wakes up in 2100, surrounded by fantastic new technology including things like newspapers with moving pictures…

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