Time travel is tricky for a frankly frustrating number of reasons. Countless things can go wrong, the slightest misstep can change everything, and the consequences can be comically dire. So, if everything can be changed, a time traveler might as well take a big swing by handing an iPhone to a caveman.


People travel through time for a wide variety of reasons, if they even did so on purpose. If a traveler wants to fix something they think went wrong, they have a lot of possible side effects to consider. If just want to mess around, there’s a lot of fun to be had. Giving radio to the Romans can accomplish both.

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Giving radio to the Romans is the fun general term for handing an item from the distant future to someone from the past. Doing so would leave the recipient with a seemingly magical device they would have no way to understand. Giving a Neanderthal a vacuum cleaner incurs nine or ten levels of confusion as someone then has to explain what a “floor” is. However, human beings tend to be curious and industrious. Given enough time and a bit of guidance, mankind will figure out all the moving parts and how it works. This single action would boost technological advancement suddenly through several periods of development. The after-effects are complex and can take a million different forms.

There are two main ways this trope can take place. Either someone from today comes to the past and hands them something we would consider mundane, or something from the distant future brings us something incredible. The former is essentially a subcategory of Alternate History fiction. There are a few key ways that the typical narrative will approach the radio and the Romans. The hero of the tale may only be seeking to temporarily impress the locals, like Ash in Army of Darkness. These works rarely deal with the aftereffects of leaving modern weapons in the distant past. The locals could eschew technological knowledge and immediately worship their new trinket as a god in a Cargo Cult scenario. A faction within the locals could also use the advancement for personal gain without bothering to do any science, leaving a few as unquestionable dictators and destroying society. But, in the best-case scenario, the time traveler will return to a modern day that is hundreds of years beyond the one they left.

Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a classic sci-fi tale that firmly establishes the comedy potential of Giving Radio to the Romans. The trope is played for laughs more often than not, largely thanks to Twain’s classic. The story follows Hank Morgan, a perfectly average man from Hartford, CT who winds up inexplicably transported to Arthurian Britain. The story is a work of satire, which primarily pokes fun at the differences in life over 300 years and across the pond. Technology isn’t the focus, but it is a fun gag. Hank tries to teach the king and his knights how to use a phone, only to be declared a wizard. He sets to work trying to move technology forward despite a lack of knowledge. The timeline winds up back to normal by the end, but Mark Twain largely built the structure of this trope with this work.

There’s a weirdly common permutation of this trope in which one villain or another decides that handing weaponry of the future to the Nazis will somehow fix history. The first example was probably John Barnes’s Timeline Wars trilogy, in which a villain simply fixed the imperfections in existing Nazi tech, allowing them to nearly win World War II. Doctor Who used this idea multiple times, though never in TV format. Battlestar spin-off Galactica 1980 is built around a scientist who is convinced that aiding the Nazis will result in a more scientifically advanced world overall, better preparing Earth for the Cylons. The early-2000s Justice League cartoon featured a two-parter in which immortal villain Vandal Savage sent a laptop back to himself in the 40s with instructions to lead the Nazis to victory. In the weirdest example by far, the 1983 Dungeons and Dragons cartoon saw the recurring villain Venger give a Luftwaffe pilot a future jet to help him win the war. Amazingly, that plan fails because the Nazi turns out to be too good-natured to do the deed.

This unique trope puts the butterfly effect into perspective with a single decision that may change everything. Like a lot of science fiction ideas, there are just as many grim outcomes as there are good ones. This trope has a long history, countless unique permutations, and a presence in just about any genre. Giving radio to the Romans is a hard decision with infinite possible outcomes and a ton of potential for interesting storytelling.

MORE: 5 Time-Traveling Sci-Fi Movies To Watch If You Loved The Adam Project

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