Created By: HaruAxeman on September 9, 2011 Last Edited By: HaruAxeman on January 21, 2013

Law of Temporal Reverse-Engineering

Possession of a superior piece of tech from the future does not guarantee a higher technology level.

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Possession of a superior piece of tech does not necessarily guarantee a higher technology level.

Let's say you've received advanced technology because of time travel, and it's way in advance of your society's tech, be your current era a Medieval European Fantasy, the year 1632, or even modern times. Now at first glance, it would seem that the logical solution is to integrate this into the current society, which will revolutionize it almost immediately, resulting in great leaps and bounds for your society.

Erm, no. You're only about half right.

There's the problem of whether you'll be able to reverse-engineer it, considering how advanced it'll be. As an example, let's say a time traveller dies in Victorian London, and scientists working for the government conspire to take a look at his technology. They are utterly flummoxed though, as Victorian technology is based on moving parts. So a device like his control collar which is far in advance of modern (By which I mean the date this trope was submitted as YKTTW ) computer technology-anything using computer technology, really-would make no sense to them as they are at a level of technology that means they can barely comprehend our level of tech.

Almost always comes into play in ISOT stories, where the Fish out of Temporal Water protagonists realize their current lifestyle and technological level is unsustainable because the people of the current time can't reproduce their tech. In that case, they will have to 'gear down' as the protagonists of 1632 call it. No scenarios not directly caused by time travel here, please, for that would lead to this trope bleeding into the Black Box.

  • The 1632 series acknowledges this trope when protagonist Mike Stearns is quick to notice during an emergency council meeting that they cannot make more of most of their technologies, so they must 'gear down' as he puts it, and go back at least 150 years technologically to balance things out, resulting in the oil-fired power plant being fueled by steam. Currently, as a result of the 'gearing down' which prevents the Americans and Germans from relying on technology which few of them understand and fewer can repair, the setting is powered by steam but supported with technology from 2000 wherever appropriate.
  • As the series which provided the Victorian time-traveller example, (because 1632 was already referenced twice.) the utterly insane Type X alternate history (see the Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility) Burton and Swinburne series has this trope come into play. Originally, it was about Sir Richard Burton being hired to go find Springheel Jack and investigate reports of werewolves, by order of the Prime Minister in an alternate past caused by Queen Victoria's near-assassination by Edward Oxford actually being successful, which is dominated by the Technologists [hottip:*: who were inspired by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to build incredibly anachronistic but effective machines and breed animals to be used as transportation.]] and the Rakes[[hottip:*: A culture of The Unfettered.]]. Then it turns out Springheel Jack was actually a time travelling descendant of Edward Oxford who went back in time to prevent the assassination and slowly went completely insane as a result of all the time travel and possibly caused the assassination by driving his younger self insane (Time travel in this universe tends to drive people insane. For some reason.) and he was killed at the end of the first book. His time-travel apparatus, a suit made of millions of tiny batteries, and its control collar were secretly seized by the British Empire in spite of Springheel Jack's warnings to destroy it. Anyway, the control collar for the time-travel suit was shown to Burton in book 2, and the prime minister mentioned they could not figure it out because it used no moving parts. All for the best, really.
  • Lampshaded by a Japanese officer in the Weapons of Choice series, when he tells one of his superiors that for all of the advancement of the technology they get from the future, such as a sophisticated future iPad made of a flexible substance and powered by the user's body heat (Please don't ask me to explain how that works. I'm no scientist and I'm just the writer.) it is something of a useless gesture to reproduce or widely introduce because of how advanced it is.
Community Feedback Replies: 13
  • September 9, 2011
    Also, there's the fact that a lot of modern technology requires a power source that was not available 100 years ago, making it useless once the batteries ran out.
  • September 9, 2011
    Could also work for isolated bits of tech from Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, which amounts to the same thing but is probably even harder to reverse-engineer.
  • September 9, 2011
    If this is limited to time travel, then ignore the following:

    • The Soul Cube in Doom 3. When the Martian excavation team gets their hands on it, they can't figure out how to get it to work, what powers it (Which turns out to be souls, duh), or whether or not it's even functional. It isn't until all Hell breaks loose (literally) and the Doomguy acquires it that it begins to respond. Or talk.
  • September 10, 2011
    @ Phantomreader I know, and I also know this could work for Lost Technology, but that risks this trope becoming the same thing as Black Box, kind of like this one YKTTW I also saw here called 'The Unfair Folk'. If I was to restart this thing and make it so it's not just a Time Travel Trope, then I need to figure out how to keep it from becoming the same thing as Black Box. Anyone have any ideas how I can do that, because the thing I have above, it... seems too limited by just having it be about time travel.
  • September 10, 2011
    • The Terminator franchise plays with this trope. Miles Dyson got some clever insights from studying the bits leftover from the T-800 from the first movie. It allowed him to come up with some very specific advances in that field, but not enough to revolutionize the entire technological field.
  • September 10, 2011
    This trope is an inversion of Possession Implies Mastery.
  • September 10, 2011
    I think the distinction you're looking for is:

    • If you have a Black Box, you may be able to make it do one or two canned things, but you don't know everything it is capable of, and you might not even know how to investigate it safely. (Example: ANIMA from Bliss Stage.)
    • If you have a device with No Plans No Prototype No Backup, you know what it does and how to make it do everything in its repertoire, but you don't understand how or why it works, so you can't improve on it, repair it, or replicate it. (Example: the stargates in Stargate.)
    • This trope is for when your scientists do understand how and why your gadget works, at least in principle, but you haven't got the technology base to build a factory that could make more of them; perhaps not even to make proper repairs to the one you have. (Example: the fancy turbine power plant in Sixteen Thirty Two.)


    ISOT time-travel scenarios are the most common case of this trope, because the characters come from a civilization that did understand how to build and repair their technological gadgets, but they don't get to bring everything necessary with them. In Sixteen Thirty Two, for instance, at one point one character regrets that the time bubble didn't include the university in the next town over, with its laboratories, libraries, and engineering professors. But you can get this with alien tech too: in Old Mans War there is a captured piece of Sufficiently Advanced Alien technology that includes complete blueprints and they still can't build more. And it could easily also pop up in Schizo Tech and Scavenger World scenarios.

  • September 10, 2011
    Yeah! That's exactly it, Elwoz! THX!
  • October 19, 2011
    Bump? Also I'm not sure I like limiting this to time travel.
  • January 18, 2013
    Bump for more examples and a better title.
  • January 21, 2013
    IIRC in Back To The Future 3 (or possibly the Sequel Hook at the end of 2) Doc Brown in the 1880s has changed his time travel device from the Delorean to a steam train, because that's the only thing avialable which can go 88 MPH.
  • January 21, 2013
    One of the arguments I've heard against reverse engineering more advanced technology involved an example of Victorians trying to figure out a nuclear reactor. At most they'd be able to figure out that the bars of weird metal get hot and produce steam, before the scientists suffer inexplicable gruesome deaths from radiation poisoning.
  • January 21, 2013
    • Stargate SG 1:
      • Referenced in "Between Two Fires". Sam mentions that the Tollans' ion cannons are too far in advance of even the SGC's technical understanding for them to have a hope of reverse-engineering the weapons. Turns out it doesn't matter, as Anubis had already developed a countermeasure that made the cannons useless.
      • Referenced again in "Prometheus" when Sam is giving a tour of the titular battlecruiser. The cover story is that Prometheus was reverse-engineered from a UFO that crash-landed in Alaska in the 1970's, and that only at the turn of the millennium had Earth's technology reached the point where they could make use of it.