The Best Thing Since the Wheel

I once made an argument that the rifled gun barrel was the most important invention in human history since the wheel. Granted, it was somewhat facetious, but still well researched. Unfortunately, since a computer crash ages ago took out many old files, I no longer have the original text, but I will try to piece together the argument and evidence as well as I can from memory. The first thing I am usually asked—before I can even get to it, you impatient bastards—is, “What about the Internet?” And my reply has always been, “Shut your yap. I’m getting there.” (The second thing I’m asked is usually, “Why are you doing this to me?” To which I reply, “Just stop struggling, or I won’t be able to make a clean cut.”)

pictured: cheap suit

Anyhoo, one cannot look at the progression of technology as simply a beneficial agent in the evolution of humanity. To gauge something’s importance we must look at it through the other things it helps bring about. Unfortunately, that puts us in sort of a quandary: where do we start? One might argue that we should start at the invention of gunpowder, clearly a game changer, and certainly the beginning of a new era of human evolution. Counterpoint to that, though, is the notion that gunpowder was around for a couple hundred years before someone figured out a better, more efficient way of killing. While gunpowder certainly made killing easier, it wasn’t necessarily more efficient, and it didn’t particularly change the way people did battle or lived their lives—it was simply a bigger badder version of what was already out there. Soldiers still maneuvered in neat columns, met on prearranged fields, and, when they ran out of shot, they still did much of their battle hand-to-hand. People still lived in more or less closed communities, and while they knew almost everything about a twenty-five-mile-radius circle of the world, events beyond the horizon were often irrelevant. Efficiency, rather than a step up the ladder, was a lateral move that opened up room for much more upward technological movement.

At some point, it became necessary to stop unnecessarily wasting lives by lining men up in fields and having them shred each other with increasingly large weapons. Someone figured out that if you could stand a mile away and shoot the guys operating the man-shredding artillery, you could then just have the rest of your guys walk over and take the territory with a lot less hassle. The other guys, understandably irked by this trend, would develop (or steal) these rifles and then try and shoot the guys who were shooting their artillerymen and officers. And thus was born the sniper: a man separate from the line of battle, who would shoot important targets and other snipers in order to disrupt the enemy lines. This also allowed, in normal life, people to hunt for food over much longer and safer distances than before, with accuracy and killing power that made providing food much easier and much less risky.

Back in battle, though, we now see fewer open columns on open fields, and we see front lines growing farther and farther apart as the range and accuracy of standard infantry weaponry increases. We also see the standardization and mass production (efficiency again!) of ammunition, which allows for such innovations as the machinegun.

Cover is more important if the enemy can hit you easily from several hundred yards away, or can spray hundreds of bullets a minute at you when you get close. In order to flush men out from cover and make them vulnerable to the more accurate rifles and machineguns, artillery adopts the rifled barrel, increasing accuracy and range. But then the enemy starts shielding their locations with new building materials and techniques, some of which have applications in the civilian sector, improving the quality of life for the home base. To penetrate these shielded locations, bigger payloads must be used, which means innovations in explosives technology and in manufacturing and machine building.

With men and equipment spread over a wide area, quick, efficient communication becomes increasingly important. The horse messenger gives way to the telegraph, but since telegraph lines historically follow the railroads, they are a little easy to find and cut. Telephone lines can be put up wherever, and are great until they, too, are cut. Radio is easy, and, as time and technology move on, the equipment for it becomes smaller, lighter, and easy to carry. The main drawback is that anyone can listen to radio signals, so coding has to become a very serious art. Finding a less breakable code becomes more and more important, but there is only so much that a human coder can do in a given amount of time, so we start building machines that can do the calculating and coding for us.

Between wars, these inventions make their way into the public sector, improving the quality of infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, shipping, medicine, and agriculture. And as a natural extension of the one original change toward efficiency, people finally created the machines that gave rise to the Internet.

None of these creature comforts change human nature, of course, and when we’re back to the job of killing, we’ve got airplanes and rockets, then jets and computerized guided missiles, and then satellites and ICMBs. Battle lines cease to exist, and killing becomes global—because it’s more efficient that way. Losing tens or even hundreds of thousands of men in a single bloody battle may have been the order of the day a couple hundred years ago, when gunpowder was relatively new and running someone through with a sword was the tried and true method of killing, but now, losing a few thousand people over the course of a couple of years is considered a disaster.

Promises, Promises

My pledge to you is that I will bring an end to the needless killing. My innovation is, like the rifled barrel, is a lateral step to a ladder with no top rung. The obedience chip will revolutionize the human race, and if you’ll have me (which you will, gladly, once the chip is installed), I will be its leader.

And, yes, I will put dolphins in your Internet. It’s about damn time.


One thought on “Efficiency

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