Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall was first published in 1939. It was one of the first coherent time travel stories and quite well written. The author created a humorous,and informative tale of a history professor who ends up in 6th century Rome and ends up changing the flow of events. The genre has become extremely popular recently, especially with Russian writers. Some send back whole battleships and countries full of knowledgeable people, others use a single protagonist, naked, unarmed and ignorant.
In Lest Darkness Fall, Professor Padway falls into the past while on vacation in Rome. Once he figures out that something isn’t right, he starts by taking an inventory of his pockets.
He strolled up an alley to be out of sight and began going through his pockets. The roll of Italianbank notes would be about as useful as a broken five-cent mousetrap. No, even less; you mightbe able to fix a mousetrap. A book of American Express traveler’s checks, a Roman street-car transfer, an Illinois driver’s license, a leather case full of keys-all ditto. His pen, pencil, and lighter would be useful as long as ink, leads, and lighter fuel held out. His pocket knife and his watchwould undoubtedly fetch good prices, but he wanted to hang onto them as long as he could.He counted the fistful of small change. There were just twenty coins, beginning with four ten-liresilver cartwheels. They added up to forty-nine lire, eight centesimi, or about five dollars. The silver and bronze should be exchangeable. As for the nickel fifty-centesimo and twenty-centesimo pieces, he’d have to see.
I am going to compare these to what a “modern man” of 2012 might have with him. Bank notes, credit cards, house and car keys would all be of limited use. Today’s coins have little bullion value, though might bring some money as art objects. Cell phones, flashlights and PDAs would hold out until the charge would go away, unless it’s a rare solar powered device. I doubt many people could make a phone or a laptop charger from scratch. Pens, notepads, watches, knives would all be quite handy, as would multi-tools.
If a man knew he was going to be whisked back into the past, he would load himself down with all sorts of useful junk in preparation, an encyclopedia, texts on metallurgy, mathematics, and medicine, a slide rule, and so forth. And a gun, with plenty of ammunition.But Padway had no gun, no encyclopedia, nothing but what an ordinary twentieth-century man carries in his pockets. Oh, a little more, because he’d been traveling at the time: such useful things as the traveler’s checks, a hopelessly anachronistic street map, and his passport. And he had his wits. He’d need them.
Padway has the most useful thing in his head, the knowledge of Latin. In my case, the knowledge of English and Russian could be extrapolated to other languages but not well enough to make a difference at first. Even those same languages changed greatly in both written and spoken forms even in the last three hundred years, much less fifteen centuries.
The wish for a gun is entirely reasonable and quite likely satisfied in case of a modern American. A sidearm with one spare magazine would give somewhere between 15 and 35 rounds, hardly enough for anything but emergency use. And this is where fiction and real life would diverge: most of us live a lifetime without firing a shot in anger, and I suspect the same could be true of the hypothetical time traveler. So a neat narrative trick might be to omit the mention of the sidearm at first and introduce it later as something no less obvious than shoes and a shirt. We didn’t specify that the time travelers wore shoes, so why would we specify going armed. Both, in the ideal world, would be so typical of all adults that a special mention would be unnecessary.
The main safety devices remain the linguistic abilities and the attention to body language and expressions of other people. Treading lightly — even if walking heavy — is almost always the best policy. The weapon should be available but it’s the last resort in the past as well as in the present. In the meantime, learning languages and gaining a more classical, practical education are the best hedges against unexpected time travel.