The time traveler’s guide to investing
Time travel stories usually focus on weird science, like fading from existence one limb at a time, and some questionable paradoxes, like becoming your own great-grandfather. But a secondary plotline often has characters trying to use the opportunity to become rich. Assuming wealth—and not becoming your own grandfather—was your goal, what's the best thing you could take along with you to the past?
This is really two questions, since one scenario could be getting rich in the past and staying there indefinitely, and the other scenario could be making a trade that would allow you to bring something back that would make you rich in the here and now.
Since hindsight is 20/20 and there are plenty of collectibles you could get for a song back in auld lang syne, I'll address the first scenario. It would be child's play, for example, to take an old Mercury dime back to 1938 and buy a pristine Action comics #1 with Superman's first appearance to bring back today, but there aren't really any items you could get today to take back a century or two that would have any value. Collectibility only goes one way: past to future.
Of course, we have to establish a few rules. First, whatever you take with you has to be relatively small. Your time machine isn't a container ship, after all. Do you know how many gigawatts of power it would take to get a container ship up to 88 miles an hour? A lot more than 1.21.
Second, whatever you take with you has to be more or less a commodity. That is, it can't be some unique thing or information that you really couldn't get hold of today.
Third, the stuff can't be worth a fortune in today's society. That would defeat the purpose of going into the past to get rich.
Last, it can't be a scam. Don't sell Ben Franklin a laptop computer he won't be able to recharge. Don't take armloads of cubic zirconia and sell them to rubes as diamonds. You can rip people off today. This is about using time to your favor, not ignorance.
Gold costs $672 an ounce today. One hundred to two hundred years ago, it was holding steady around $20. With inflation, that's about $420 in consumer goods. So you'd be losing money by taking gold into the past.
Aside from being expensive yet intrinsically worthless (if the DeBeers cartel didn't control production, the diamond market would be flooded and you could get high-quality diamonds for a few dollars), the market for diamonds has always been fairly limited. Back when real jewels were genuinely rare, only the super-rich could afford them, and any mug on the street trying to sell them would have been suspected of burglary.
If you have the time and brains to learns some really good skills you know would be valuable in the past, you could probably get very rich very quickly by becoming the world's greatest "inventor." This was the main premise of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, of course. His protagonist was an engineer and won fame and fortune inventing bicycles and the like for the folks at Camelot.
Of course, if you go back that far, just applying some modern common sense and creating interchangeable parts, mass production, and such would make you a world-reknown business expert. Sure you could save lives by explaining germs to physicians, but who would believe you? One way to Easy Street would be to memorize a formula for a decent homemade soap that doesn't involve lye.
If you're short on brains or time, you might do well to bring some books along that detail the inner workings of engines, pumps, gearboxes, and other mechanical wonders. But forget electronics. If they didn't have the technology to build Charles Babbage's difference engine, they certainly won't be able to build a circuit board. Stick to the flush toilet.
A lot does change after the implementation of electricity, however. Designs for refrigerators, washers and dryers, and other electrical (but non-electronic) appliances would be very valuable. Good luck trying to sell them to anyone if you don't understand them yourself, tho.
Collectibles may only go forward, but predictions are only good going backwards. Marty McFly bought an almanac of sports scores to take back the past when he visited the future (and Biff used it to make millions). And one of the Connecticut Yankee's best tricks was predicting a solar eclipse. A couple of history books and an almanac could make your reputation as a seer. Of course, warning President Garfield to stay out of train stations might alter the future, and then all bets are off. The Boston Beaneaters could win the first World Series and then your precious almanac would be worthless.
Okay, not magic beans exactly, but Arthur C Clarke observed that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And Monsanto has been producing some damn advanced crops in the last several decades, providing huge yields compared to ye olden dayes. The time it takes to grow crops might make it unfeasible unless you spent a lot of effort establishing your product, and that's practically like working for a living.
You'd have to go back an awfully long way, but salt was once a very valuable commodity (it's where the word "salary" comes from). And, of course, the Age of Exploration was kicked off by the spice trade. People sailed all over the world to get their hands on cinnamon, pepper, and other tasty flavors. The items in your spice cupboard would make you very wealthy if you went back before the discovery of the New World.
Textiles and furs
Silk, velvet, and furs of various sorts were very valuable before modern times. But carrying enough of it to make your fortune would be tough.
The contents of your junk drawer
As mundane as it sounds, common household goods could probably make you rich a couple of hundred years back. A variety of common household goods like Scotch tape, white glue, soap, sewing needles, ballpoint pens, pencils, ribbon, and scissors would be easy to carry and easy to sell yet would have quite high value before the turn of the 20th century. A solar calculator alone could make you a fortune.
Seriously. Find the right group of wealthy libertines, and you could make a pile of money from your old Penthouse stash. They never saw such filth and would pay handsomely for it. Just don't be a dope and bring VHS tapes.
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