Like many, when Ryan North watched Back to the Future as a kid, it blew his mind. “I kept thinking about what I would do if I got stuck in the past and what it would be like,” says North, the creator of Dinosaur Comics. He’s also now the author of How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler (out now from Penguin), which tries to answer that exact question.
How to Invent Everything is formatted as a helpful tool for you, the reader, who has just decided to rent the FC3000™ time machine. There’s a list of fun FAQs (“Q: Can I give myself lottery numbers? A: Any lottery numbers you give will benefit another you, and not you personally”) before it gets to the meaty stuff: 17 sections that don’t need to be read in order, and which cover everything from farming and nutrition to major schools of philosophy to “how to invent music.”
The Verge spoke to North about why he undertook this project, how he tackled the research, and the most interesting things he learned.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What made you want to write this “time travel survival guide”?
I realized that if I got stuck in the past, I don’t know anything. I’d show up being like, “hey past, the future is great, we got computers” and they’d be like “how do you get computers” and I’d say “I don’t know.” I wanted to be a competent time traveler. I don’t worry about it, exactly. It didn’t negatively affect my life. But I kept coming back to the fantasy of being stuck in time travel and then finally I said, I’ll write the book I want to read. And then tons of people were like, “I’ve thought about this all the time, too!” That worry of what you’d do in the past might be a lot more common than you think, even though it’s very unlikely anybody will be sent back in time.
This is such an enormous topic. Did you feel overwhelmed taking it on?
I felt 1,000 percent overwhelmed. The idea of the book is, “let’s collapse civilization into 460-or-so pages” and I wasn’t sure if that was possible. I ended up writing the first 50,000 words before I sent it to anyone just to make sure that it was. The book is supposed to be fun and funny, but I wanted it to be a sincere approach to some of the problems so there was a lot of research.
How did you decide what to include?
I started making a list of stuff I’d like to see in the book. Sometimes I’d take stuff away. There was a section on weaponry and I was like, “well, this is a pretty optimistic book” and also, if you want to make a weapon, most things explode in the right circumstances. I knew at the end I wanted to build up to computational machinery. It’s such a huge leap forward! Humans are pretty lazy, we want to get the most work with the least amount of effort, and so computers can help do that.
There’s also a section on birth control that I thought might be impossible. But turns out there’s a plant the Romans used as a form of birth control called silphium. They ate it to extinction, but if you were a time traveler and could get it before that, you could use it.
What was research like?
It was a lot of books. Honestly, the joy of writing this book was being able to answer all these questions for myself. One of my favorite types to read is a book that takes a single subject and tells you a single subject. So I read great books on salt and paper, where at the end of it I was like, “I know so much about salt! Now to put two pages of that into my book.” I read a lot of generalist work and then did deep dives into specifics.
Was there a particular book that was most helpful?
One was The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell about surviving the apocalypse. A lot of books about surviving the apocalypse are bad and this one is “if civilization is destroyed, here are things you need to know.” It’s not dissimilar from what I’m doing, but it’s approaching things from different sides of the time coin and it was great for inspiration.
What changed the most as you were writing the book?
I was worried at the start that farming would be really boring. I was babysat in a farm when I was six and I thought cows weren’t interesting. But it was fascinating and there’s a huge amount of stuff that took humanity so long to figure out. Like crop rotation, the idea that different plants take different nutrients from the soil, so it’ll exhaust the soil. The solution is just to rotate crops, but if we had known that before, it would have saved millions of lives.
Was there anything you came across that was particularly interesting? A “greatest hits”?
That’s like asking me to choose the prettiest star in the sky. Well, there was the thing with air balloons. So, humans have basically always wanted to fly because we evolved on a planet with birds and who can look at a bird and not think “I’d like to do that”? There’s been this dream of humanity for thousands of thousands of years, when we figure it out in 1783 with the hot air balloon and the Montgolfier brothers. They did not know what they were doing, they think it’s rising because they captured a mysterious gas that they called... Montgolfier gas. It works almost by accident.
But we knew that in 3000 BCE, the Chinese were launching paper lanterns powered by candles and it took us so long to scale it up. The first hot-air balloons aren’t silks, it’s paper and burlap. And a single person who knew what they were doing, and had enough plant fibers to spin burlap, could have a hot air balloon at any point in human history. The realization that we could technically have flown at any point in history, we could have had hot air balloons, blew my mind. It seems almost science fiction-y to imagine.