For Want of a Nail

by Robert Arvay

(This section will be included in the next revision of Robert’s book, “The Ten Thousand Proofs of God”)

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

History is replete with examples of small details that had dramatic impacts on the world. If no one ever said it, let me be the first. All wars are won or lost by a single, well placed arrow, bullet or bomb. Of course, that may be an overstatement, but probably not by much. For example, the history of the Battle of Midway Island in World War 2 includes numerous instances of minor details that turned the tide of battle against the formidable enormity of the Japanese fleet. Had any one of those minor details worked in favor of the Japanese instead of for the Americans, we might all be slaves of brutal overlords. That would be very dramatic indeed.

But it is not only in wars or battles that history is dramatically changed. Consider that Isaac Newton invented calculus, a form of mathematics that quickly solves problems in a few seconds that previously took months. Would anyone else ever have devised calculus? Consider also the invention of the wheel. We consider it to be such a simple, obvious device, that its invention should be inevitable. Yet, in the great pre-Columbus civilizations in America, mighty empires arose, flourished, and even built gigantic stone buildings. Yet they never invented the wheel. What if no one had invented it in the west?

To be sure, we might say that all of these discoveries and inventions would eventually have been made anyway, by someone, some day. But a delay of even a few years could have resulted in a world far different from the one we now live in. Here is an example. We know that the invention of the steam engine was crucial to the Industrial Revolution that transformed civilization. Yet, many people do not know that the first discovery of steam power occurred about two thousand years before the Industrial Revolution. So why were not steam engines used many centuries earlier than they actually were? How drastically might that have changed history?

But, it turns out that no one in ancient times was able to find a useful application for the steam engine. It was a curiosity, people marveled at it, but no one recognized its potential, no one carried it into the further experiments that might have, for example, resulted in the first steam powered pumping stations to force water uphill or into water towers. Steam lifts for heavy construction could have been invented centuries before they actually were.

Consider also that the numbering system we use today, the ten digit system of zero through nine (0-9) was not invented until about the year 500, in India. Until then, numbering systems such as Roman numerals were used, which were unwieldy for arithmetic and computations. Thousands of years of history passed without the ability to perform simple long division. Imagine if no one had ever invented this system!

Again, we might consider these inventions and discoveries to be simply a matter of time before someone had come up with them. But can we be sure? And how much difference would a delay have made?

Albert Einstein is famous for his Theory of Relativity, a scientific analysis of space and time which dramatically altered the course of physics. But he is merely one among many whose ingenious insights contributed dramatically to science. And even Einstein would never have developed quantum mechanics, a theory against which he disputed all his life, yet which now dominates modern physics. If even he would not have devised it, and had not Max Planck done so, would we have transistors today?

So what, we might ask. The fact is that these inventions and discoveries were indeed accomplished, and had their influence upon the world after all.

But one must wonder. What discoveries and inventions have not been made? Is there some simple device that no one has yet thought of that might change world history? Has some ingenious insight been overlooked that might transform civilization? When, in ancient times, Archimedes accidentally noticed how the volume of an irregular-shaped object could be measured by how much water it displaced, he is said to have jumped from his bathtub, and running naked through the streets, shouted “Eureka!” Think about it. Would anyone else ever have invented streaking?

Have we missed a vital Eureka moment? How would we know?

It may be that one day, a spaceship will land on earth, and an alien from another planet (called Zargon, of course) who speaks our language (don’t they all?) will look about, and notice that we have not yet discovered the simple principle of anti-gravity generators. He (or she or whatever they are) may shake its head(s) and mutter, “How could you have missed it? It’s so obvious!” And we’ll have to admit that the principle of anti-gravity has been staring us in the face all these years.

In the meantime, maybe we can teach the space aliens how to shoe a Zargonian horse. It could save a kingdom, you know.

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