O-Ring Industries vs the Seven Wonders.

O-Ring industries are ones in which a number of interrelated tasks must all be completed successfully – ones in which a moderate increase in workers’ skills greatly increases the probability of success.  The idea was originated by Kremer, and further developed by Jones.  It helps explain why the richest, smartest  countries produce entirely different, much more sophisticated ( and profitable)   goods than the poorest, dumbest countries – because they can.

It strikes me that maximally-complexity O-ring-type projects might be serve as an index of a society’s capabilities – something like the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, but a better measure. This tells you something different from peaks of individual intellectual accomplishment.

So, Boeing and Airbus jets are pretty O-Ringish. Same for jet fighters and nuclear submarines.  CERN and LIGO certainly qualify.  Jack Parson’s Lab is a steady producer.    Modern computer chips are good examples, as are operating systems.

What were the O-Ring Wonders in 1500? ? 1 AD?

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110 Responses to O-Ring Industries vs the Seven Wonders.

  1. Anonymous says:

    O-Ring Wonders in 1500? Cartography? Portuguese and Spanish discoveries?

  2. georgioxblog says:

    “What were the O-Ring Wonders in 1500?” Cartography? Portugese and Spanish Discoveries?

  3. Gord Marsden says:

    Orings as in Butyl N space shuttle O rings ?

  4. Jason says:

    The printing press would be one of the easy ones for 1500, I guess. It would have been about 60 years old by then.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Venice was coming to dominate book-making by 1500. I suspect a list of what Venice was good at economically — e.g., printing, international trade, glass-making, self-government, etc. — wouldn’t be a bad start for answering this question.

      • shadow on the wall says:

        Venice had absolutely zero “self government”.
        Republic of Venice was ruled by tiny self chosen oligarchic elite (few thousand men from the Golden Book families) in the strictest secrecy. “The people” had no part in the government even in the limited sense as in other Italian cities of the time, and were not consulted in any way.


        In fact, Republic of Venice was the closest thing that ever existed to Curtis Yarvin’s proposal for “neoreactionary” absolutely secure cryptographic based dictatorship.
        And it was one of most advanced , most prosperous and most powerful states of the time – maybe Moldbug is onto something?

        • Vishal Mehra says:

          Self government doesn’t mean direct democracy or maximal participation by ordinary people. Few thousand Venetian men involved in ruling Venice is self-government of Venice by Venetians.

          • shadow on the wall says:

            By this definition, every backyard tiny village ruled by local petty nobleman had “self government”. This is not how is this term usually used.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          During the age of absolute monarchy, Venice was considered an impressive holdover of the republics of the ancient world.

          • shadow on the wall says:

            Nope. Among intellectuals who valued these things, Switzerland was seen as remnant of “ancient Greek liberty”. No one at the time saw Venice as something to be emulated.

            Venice was known and feared as tyranny based on universal spying and omnipotent secret police.
            The “lead chambers” of Venice were infamous all over Europe as Lubyanka of the time.

            • shadow on the wall says:

              of course, whole Venetian government with its diplomatic service with ambassadors on all European courts and its secret police watching everything and everyone is excellent example of “O ring” that Mr. Cochran had in mind.

              • josh says:

                The little-known Venetian conspiracy is maybe my favorite kooky conspiracy theory. An under-appreciated empire.

  5. Ulysses says:

    Gun / cannon factories? Intercontinental shipping? Cathedrals?

    • Ulysses says:

      For 1500. For 1 AD I’d guess Mediterranean shipping, colosseums / stadiums, a uniformly armed and armored professional standing army?

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Up through about the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the ability to manufacture and use big cannons on ships was a crucial test of whether your country was a Great Power or not.

  6. DiogenesNYC says:

    1500: The Guttenberg Bible, Zheng He’s Armada

    0: The Codex, The Colosseum

    • dearieme says:

      Zheng He’s Armada was a show-the-flag operation in well-known waters. It was utterly trivial. It doesn’t compare to the methodical Portuguese exploration of the winds and currents in the Atlantic, and the West African coast, which led to rounding the Cape.

      The hard one to classify is Columbus: important in effect, but the first voyage was an intellectual nonsense based on a horribly flawed understanding of the size of the Earth and the size of Eurasia.

      • reinertor says:

        I agree that the Portuguese effort was in a sense superior, but I don’t think Zheng He’s Armada was trivial. You had to build lots of big ships, man them, and coordinate them, it’s not a trivial undertaking from a logistical standpoint. At a minimum, you needed a big centralized state.

  7. wiijy says:

    gunpowder, land reclamation, ocean going ships

  8. pyrrhus says:

    In 1500, building square rigged ships as gun platforms…In 1 AD, making superior swords and the like through superior metallurgy

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Roman times: building domes, like the Pantheon and Santa Sofia.

      Then the West, at least, lost the capacity to build big domed buildings until Brunelleschi’s Florence Cathedral in the 1400s.

      • NumberOneCustomer says:

        I immediately wondered about the Pantheon. Earlier today, curious about how advanced the whole “round dome” construct really was. But, then I went down a rabbit hole of how the original (Agrippa) compared to the later rebuild (Trajan?). Interesting stuff.

      • david says:

        Id say the pantheon is still beyond the capabilities of most countries 1900 years later

        • Steve Sailer says:

          The Pantheon is wonderful to visit.

        • engleberg says:

          Nashville Tennessee built a copy that’s supposed to be good.

          • Karl Narveson says:

            Nashville has a replica of the undamaged Parthenon. Don’t know about any replicas of the Pantheon, but there’s less need of one because the original is intact.

          • Michael Eisenstadt says:

            The replica in Nashville at Vanderbilt U. is of the Parthenon, not the Pantheon. Vanderbilt’s Parthenon is built of cement, not marble and sited in a depression in the ground instead of on a hill like the original on the Acropolis. All in all, pretty inane.

      • István Nagy says:

        You mean the lost recipe for roman concrete?

  9. meagain says:

    Offtopic: I would pay to see Greg’s review of Joe Henrich’s new book https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/10/joseph-henrich-weird-people/615496

    • Unladen Swallow says:

      He sounds just like another anthropologist who ignores genetics, no doubt why the review is highlighted in The Atlantic. I’ve heard of this guy before, is the establishment trying to make him the new Jared Diamond? Greg reviewing it would be fun though.

  10. PhilippeO says:

    Army, Taxation and Justice System is obvious one, and always active from prehistory to now. All needed competent bureaucracy, overseer to prevent corruption, good transportation and ability to deal with unexpected trouble.

    As for material :
    0 AD : Road (for military and messenger), Aqueduct, Grain Shipping
    15 AD : Cathedral, Ocean Navigation, Cannon, Townclock, and city wall

  11. Paul says:

    I feel like o-ring sectors not only require many jobs done well in a complementary manner, but we could also rank their outputs on the degree of precision required in these jobs – by just how thin of a thread does the whole thing hang.
    Portuguese long distance trading operations seem like a good candidate for 1500. Although while some precision was necessary to keep any given boat afloat, it’s no space shuttle, and anyway they sank or were delayed pretty often. The organizational innovations of the various East India companies vis. managing risk added extra jobs which needed to be done well to allow for some imprecision in the shipping, say. Precise insurance and shareholding arrangements to make up for imprecise shipping. Always strikes me as pretty impressive.

    Since you mention the ancient world, Greg, curious if you have any thoughts on just how damn precise Egyptian diorite vases, quartz boxes, pyramids, etc are, whether Egyptologists appreciate this, and just how o-ring these things were.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      In some ways, some crucial innovations helped make economic activity less sensitive to disastrous imprecisions. For example, the traditional partnership made each partner liable for the other’s debts, so the chance of ruin was high. Around 1600 the Dutch invented the corporation, which said that you could only lose what you’ve invested.

      The Internet is somewhat similar in that it has so much redundancy that a message will almost always get through.

      In contrast, in the mid-20th Century, a national telephone system was a classic O-Ring Industry. America’s Bell Company was the best, while even European countries like Italy had a hard time with a convenient telephone system. But now innovations and cheaper hardware lets even anarchic Somalia to have cell phones and Internet.

      So much of progress consists of making things less O-ringish, less likely to fail disastrously if one thing goes wrong.

      • Yeah, I’m not sure that a lot of these comments really grasp the essence of “O-ring industries”: sensitivity to small points of failure. That said, I’m not sure O-ring theory itself grasps what industry and profit is: after all, the space shuttles for which “O-ring” is named were nothing but giant money sink jobs programs that produced nothing.

        Perhaps a good preface question to Greg’s, “What were the O-Ring Wonders in 1500? 1 AD?” would be, “What are the O-Ring Wonders of 2020? Of 2000 AD?”. If we can agree what the modern O-Ring Wonders actually are, it may help draw a bead on what were the O-Ring Wonders of earlier eras.

        Your telecoms example is spot-on. Older (up to 2000AD-ish) telecoms had very O-Ring-ish circuit-switched networks which were vulnerable to failure at any point along the circuit so they required high standards all along the chain, and so when they worked—which was generally only in WEIRD places—they worked beautifully: crisp clear sound and no random drops. By 2020 the industry has shifted to much less O-Ring-y packet-switched networks. Your phone call is converted to redundant data packets scatter-shotted through network until enough gets through to recreate your voice on the receiver’s side. The quality is meh, random drops and static spikes are common, but it’s good enough most of the time and works about as well in Somalia as in WEIRD countries.

        Telecoms is another case like your good example of the 1600-ish Dutch equity corporations: an innovation that de-O-Ring-ed business that was formerly highly O-Ring-ish. As a result, the business flourishes spectacularly, though the margins on individual ventures probably dropped.

        An industry that remains highly O-Ring-ish is aviation, as the 737-MAX debacle showed: some obscure f*ckery with the MCAS sub-sub-system software brought down entire aircraft. It is no coincidence that aviation is almost exclusively still built in WEIRD places (N. America + W. Europe + a little in Japan and S. Brazil and E. Europe), even though it is now in use everywhere. (It also may be no coincidence that the faulty MCAS software may have been subcontracted out to third world code farms.)

        From a business/profit perspective, an O-Ring state may not be desirable. It means your best people are tied up in keeping the O-Ring show on the road. On the other hand, if you already happen to have a surfeit of the most capable people, and the O-Ring industry is genuinely productive, then O-Ring industries function like de facto monopolies: no one else can replicate your massively productive systems even if the technology and methods are not secret.

        By that light, I suppose ancient Roman logistics and warfare are good candidates. Renaissance Italian accounting, commerce and art. Ancient Greek thought, art and warfare. Ancient Egyptian logistics and agriculture. Mesopotamian (irrigation canal-based) agriculture. Sixteenth century Dutch windmills?

        The printing press is a de-O-Ring-ing example, like equity corporations and packet-switched networks. Formerly, maintaining written texts was a demanding, high-skill craft maintained by a literal priesthood: that was the O-Ring state. An error by a transcriber in the year 800 might reverberate down through the centuries. But the printing press ended this by simplifying and democratizing production: errors proliferated but quantity proliferated even more. Instead of one text with one error from AD800, you had 10 texts in five languages with 500 errors from AD1500, but you could collect and compare and make up your own mind (hence Protestantism, but I digress).

      • Candide III says:

        I beg to differ. Somalia does not manufacture any of the hardware or software used in its communications systems, and its engineers study from foreign manuals. The production of all these is, in fact, much more O-ringish than what Bell did 70 years ago. What did happen is in my opinion two things: (1) technological progress has permitted a vast increase of output of these production processes, basically through introduction of printing, such that even a backwards country can now afford them, and (2) cheap computing power has permitted a vast decrease in the amount of skilled labor required to operate the capital that is the output of these production processes in order to deliver desired services to the end users, such that even a backward country can scrape together or hire enough personnel to operate them. Compare the numbers of skilled telephone technicians, telephone operator girls, automated switchboard repairmen etc. and the systems of training and quality control that had to be set up to manage them in the Bell era.

  12. O-ring, 1st century BC:
    “Others, I doubt not, shall with softer mould beat out the breathing bronze, coax from the marble features to life, plead cases with greater eloquence and with a pointer trace heaven’s motions and predict the risings of the stars …”
    “… you, Roman, be sure to rule the world (be these your arts), to crown peace with justice, to spare the vanquished and to crush the proud.”
    Aeneid VI

  13. P.P.A. says:

    Maintaining outposts on the other side of the world, whose autonomous adventurer-conqueror commanders remain loyal to the homeland. Maintaining communications with them, integrating them into national military strategy & logistics, and having them send trade goods back home reliably.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      The Spanish empire kept a printing press going on Guam on the far side of the world for most of several hundred years. For awhile there were as many printing presses on Guam (one) as in the Ottoman Empire.

  14. 1500, what we would now call “financial services.” The interplay of accounting, taxation, loans, and investments that were not speculative so much as founded on a network of information from hundreds of remote and competent sources. Jakob Fugger being the standout example.

    1AD I am less certain, but the consolidation of information from widely dispersed places in order to trade wheat, fish sauce, pottery, olive oil, and wine required a network of a) shipping and road technology, b) tradesmen with the ability to read and write, and c) trust.

  15. Steve Sailer says:

    Is the term “O-ring industries” named after the part that failed on the 1986 Space Shuttle?

  16. Tom says:

    The Dujiangyan irrigation system 256 BC

    • Steve Sailer says:


      Yes, a number of irrigation and canal projects in the ancient world, which required annual maintenance to keep them functional, were genuine O-ring projects in that they allowed the population to expand past the old Malthusian limits before the water project, so if they were allowed to fail, famine would likely ensue. This tended to be especially true in China, where women married younger than in Europe and population thus grew faster in good times, making bad times worse.

  17. Gordon William Marsden says:

    Isambard Brunnels Block and tackle machines around 1800, 1000 block and tackles needed for 10000 ships. first large scale industrial perfection. made the Royal Navy the most powerful in the world. and eventually most of the world industry speaks english.

  18. Steve Sailer says:

    Making guns was traditionally not an O-ring industry because master gunsmiths would make each one by hand, making sure each piece fit together. Eli Whitney’s American System for gun-making turned this around, making standardized pieces and then having less skilled labor assemble them. That was a big change and it was only a couple of hundred years ago.

    • NumberOneCustomer says:

      “making guns” — The fact that Fourier’s work on heat transfer, in order to make better canons for the French navy, led to the math (which is cool as f-ck, btw) underlying most of modern digital communications … is one of my favorite things of all time

    • engleberg says:

      Roy Dunlap ‘Ordnance Goes to the Front’ wasn’t real impressed by WWII standardization for WWI and WWII rifles. Standardization for gun parts was kind of real, if you had a file, a micrometer, gunsmith experience, and ten or so of ‘the same’ ‘standardized’ part, so it was a big step better than nothing.

      Portolans were the ‘O-Ring’ achievement from 1-1500 AD. Every pilot and artist who contributed to a portolan or pilot’s chart had to be on their best game or everyone sailing by the chart went glub, glub. You knew what country was best at navigation because everyone used their charts.

      • Henry Scrope says:

        Yes, rutters, the English loved a Portuguese rutter.

        And the companies of merchants that backed the pilots that produced the rutters and the share of the profits granted to the pilots.

        In 1 AD it must have been roads.

  19. Steve Sailer says:

    Different countries specialize in different O-ring industries. For example, most people avoid Italian cars due to reliability problems. On the other hand, Italians get a lot of big contracts for dams, like the vast Blue Nile dam in Ethiopia, which I sure hope they are doing a good job on.

    • dearieme says:

      Italians do good civil engineering. The hill country roads in Tuscany are beautifully cambered, for example.

      For 1500 how about the production-line manufacturing in the Venice arsenal?

    • I’ve long had a sneaking suspicion that the Italian penchant for foreign dam contracting has less to do with Italian dam building abilities (lots of countries build dams, heck even literal animals build dams) than with Italian foreign contracting abilities. Italy marries the Southern Italian attitude to local corruption with Northern Italian production capacity. Even beyond the ordinary corruption inherent in third-world construction projects, dam building involves an extra level of laissez-faire:

      “Hmm, this dam project will flood these three villages and that UNESCO site…”

      “No problem, no problem. You build, I move villages. (You make ‘donation’.)”

      Two years later, dam built…

      “Hmm, those villages are and the UNESCO site are still there…”

      “No problem, no problem. Fill lake now. (You make ‘donation’.)”

      Italy doesn’t seem to have the domestic SJW organizations whose threats routinely paralyze more NW Euro companies. Also, while crusading American lawyers prosecute you and your company for FCPA, the Italians are tax-deducting their “donations”.

  20. Thos. says:

    I think the closest thing to an O-ring project that you get in the middle ages is a cathedral.

  21. Cpluskx says:

    Almost everything Sumerians have invented (probably 80% of civilization)

  22. James Thompson says:

    Verge escapement mechanism, by 1500 using weights, a little later using the pendulum, which got everything properly synchronized.

  23. Smithie says:

    1 AD: Roman artists producing copies of Greek art?
    1500 AD: Renaissance artists?

    If you think about it, a lot went into these things. Rome needed the military capacity to conquer and defend Greece It needed the shipping capacity and technique to ship the molds, the marble, and the statues. The instruments to take the measurements, and chisel. Let’s not forget the paints. The school to produce the artist, and the economic complexity to produce the patrons.

    Renaissance artists arguably needed the organization of the Church, or the wealth of bankers, or complex trade networks. Sometimes, they needed a large church to display the art.

  24. Henry Scrope says:


    Did you almost have a crack in your O-Ring in 2007?

  25. NobodyExpectsThe... says:

    In 1 AD, I would say the scale and extension of Roman civil engineering

    • Robert X says:

      I see your reply now after posting my brainstorm way below the fold (pending sniff test), though I still speculate that what is connected to the axle is where development would be focused and gain the most in importance to further industrialization aside from goat readings.

  26. Henry Scrope says:

    Impressive, was dilution of population enough to bring down Rome, or climate problem caused by Vulcanism? I mean could the Roman eagle have landed on the Moon in 900AD if something hadn’t happened and precisely what? Is that the question being asked?

    I mean from 1500 on there wasn’t much Volkswanderung happening except Europeans to America and development was pretty uninterrupted but that may stop in the West, and the West is the sparkplug that keeps this engine going.

    • j says:

      Europe and China were under permanent attack by mounted archers till 1500. There were impotent to stop them. Till the Russians got fire guns and pacified the steppe for ever.

  27. Anonymous says:

    The O-ring theory implies that affirmative action is a really bad idea. 13% of the workforce being less capable than the average. Spread around evenly around all job descriptions in all industries, the federal government’s ideal result, it could mean than no products were competitive with those produced by a high quality workforce like Japan’s, to pick a country completely at random. Are AA and Equal Opportunity Employment the (a) cause of manufacturing moving to East Asia?

    Affirmative action hits employers that don’t require college degrees very hard. The somewhat high admission standards at colleges coupled with standards for graduation interacting with a particular population’s high time preference and dislike of academia Kashmir

    It strikes me that two high-wage manufacturing poweerhousd nations that managed to retain industry in a Chinafied world, Germany and Japan, have very conscientious and high IQ populations. They sell China the things that make things and the things things are made from.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      “The O-ring theory implies that affirmative action is a really bad idea”

      It is. Just how bad an idea, we’re going to find out. A country as rich and powerful as the United States was in 1960 can survive a lot of stupidity, and run on sheer momentum for a while, but this isn’t infinite.

    • david says:

      Its a grave blow to the free market and efficiency of every industry. It includes women as well. The women ive worked with seem to hate everything about their jobs, except the talking, meeting, and special events of course.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        The theory seemed to be that you could shunt the more incompetent women off to HR where they couldn’t do any damage while still getting the benefit of the more competent/less disgruntled ones. This theory seems to have been proved fallacious recently…

    • Affirmative Action is a bad idea for lots of reasons, but the problem here isn’t AA, it’s Marxism.

      Just because a population group scores low on IQ (basically system II thinking) doesn’t mean that everyone in that population group has a lower IQ–there is still a distribution, or that members of that group (and other groups) with lower levels of system II abilities aren’t useful.

      In every large enterprise there are lots of tasks that System II thinking doesn’t really help much, that are much better done with System I thinking–that IQ tests don’t measure. Jobs like program/product managers, benefits administrators, assemblers, wire pullers, etc. Important jobs where skill is as or more important than flat out intelligence.

      In a “High O-Ring” industry there is room and requirements for lots of different kinds of people, the problem is that they must ALL be willing to work for the common good and consider themselves part of the same tribe.

  28. moscanarius says:

    1AD (or a bit later maybe): Roman glass, made with the new technique of glass-blowing and a spatial division of centers that made the glass versus those that worked it. Chinese porcelain was likely similar. Aqueducts and canals deserve a mention.

    1500AD: the same, plus ship building, fireweapons, and clockwork.

    2020AD: anything involving biotechnology. It’s amazing how difficult it is to do anything in biotech when all your reagents are substandard…

  29. pavetack says:

    1 AD? In the west, I’d vote Roman concrete (https://www.sciencealert.com/why-2-000-year-old-roman-concrete-is-so-much-better-than-what-we-produce-today). Some of the other items listed – amphitheaters, roads, aqueducts, harbors – were a result of that.

  30. Rob says:

    So O-ring theory says that industries were low ability, untrustworthy employees have a cost much higher than the deadweight loss of their salaries suffer disproportionately. That seems like a theory that must be true. It is a killer argument against affirmative action, Equal Opportunity employment, and immigration of people with low genetic potential, The federal government’s ideal result is a particular population’s even representation at all jobs at every company would mean we couldn’t produce anything more complicated than grain.

    AA/EOC has hit positions that don’t require college degrees especially hard. The admissions standards and difficulty of college interact witth high time preference, laziness, low IQ and lack of conscientIousness to ensure that college graduates were at least somewhat meritorious. That students have a low monetary standard of living is a feature from societies perspective.

    Manufacturing jobs that don’t require degreess and we’re located in areas of a high concentration of a particular population were especially plagued by quality problems when non discriminatory hiring was forced on them. Japanese companies took a huge chunk of the auto industry away from Detroit.

    Is diversity AA/EEO largely responsible for manufacturing decamping to Asia? Supposedly it was driven by wage differentials, but Japan and Germany are high wage countries, but they have low time preference, high IQ, and conscientious homogenous populations. They’ve moved to selling China parental products, the machinery and materials that China uses to make consumer goods.

    Labor management relations seem very important in light of that theory. Labor-labor are also important. Japan and Germany are famous the former, and homogenous meritorious workforces helps with the latter.

    O-ring theory explains why companies are so risk averse when they hire. Most businesses prefer to pass up good people to avoid bad ones. Companies that hire a bunch and winnow them down tend have people working in parallel on shallow goods and services. Parallel like a bunch of consultants working on a project can both cover for a few dumb ones, and from the consulting firm’s perspective, only one project suffers for a bad employee. For the economy as a whole incompetent consultants may cause a lot of downstream loss, but the consulting firm doesn’t see it.

    R&D seems like something that can survive in a third-world population America. Lots of the work is done individually, and tough degrees keep out the riffraff.

    Greg, what kind of future do see for America when it is half third world? Can we maintain a first world economy, at least for the first world portion of the population?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Joseph Jett, at Kidder Peabody. remember them?


      • Toddy Cat says:

        I never heard of this. Good Lord…

      • Rob says:

        Seems GE sued to get his bonuses back, and lost. I criticized lower-end people in my comment, but thinking on it some more, dim, untrustworthy people at the top, corruption optional, can kill a business faster than skells lower down.

        The last CEO of Boeing outsourced a lot of work, and the market rewarded him bigly. Turns out $10/hour engineers aren’t always the best at what they do. A brighter man might have noticed that the Indian aviation industry is not a world-beater, and wondered how that could be the case. I keep hoping that Boeing will sue former execs who caused the shareholders so much.

        A more honest and conscientious CEO might have kept engineering heavy on the sort of people who knew how to keep planes in the air, but a CEO responds to incentives.The outsourcing-crazed investors drove up Boeing’s stock price, and smart investors surely avoided buying it. The market is giving them their just returns.

        I’ve sometimes wondered about the C-suites of American companies. They are compensated with short-term stock options. They naturally respond to those incentives to goose the stock price today, regardless of the effect that will have on the companiy’s future position. In theory, this would not be possible. The market would price future failure into the price of the stock today. But, executives know more about the company than investors do, and investors are subject to every failing known by lesser men, those with jobs, plus many hold the greater fool theory of investing.

        There’s also the fact that it is possible that investors think the corporate culture hasn’t changed since they were young men climbing the greasy pole. They don’t think executives would hollow out a company, leaving it a dry husk after they’ve sold off the productive assets to juice the stock price. But the executives really would kill the company to get those option dollars.

    • Is diversity AA/EEO largely responsible for manufacturing decamping to Asia?
      Every race has it’s share of low-IQ, high time preference individuals, and they tend to gravitate to low skilled factory type work.

      If you look at when manufacturing started “to decamp” (which it really didn’t–we made just as much stuff as ever, we just started buying a lot more) you see many things kick in:

      Increasing use of automation/robotics–this decreases low skilled jobs while increasing production levels.
      Unions and union work rules making higher and higher skill levels uneconomic.
      OSHA and EPA rules making certain processes and chemicals illegal in the US.

      Note that at the same time that US Manufacturing was supposedly decamping to Asia (and mexico) it was also moving from union friendly states to those less friendly. I’ve got a Subaru manufactured not in Japan, but in Indiana. There are several car factories scattered across the southern US.

  31. josh says:

    Closed urban sewer systems?

  32. Erik says:

    The Venetian Arsenale Nuovo. It was an early form of mass-production assembly-line that could output a finished ship per day, had similar repair capacities, and was one of the reasons little Venice could match large European nations in navy. (The other reason being money.)

    • Difference Maker says:

      Venetian assault galleys in the siege of Constantinople. I’ve mentioned them here before. The flying bridges and assault towers must’ve been impressive. In my imagination, at least

  33. Douglas Knight says:

    I find these examples extremely unconvincing. No one is giving reasons that these examples are o-ring as opposed to generically impressive. (Except engleberg, who, ironically, left it as a comment to Sailer, who explicitly argued that an example was not o-ring.)

    Why do you think that Greek fire was an o-ring industry? Shouldn’t secrets be a sign of the opposite?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Making Greek Fire was complicated enough that it could be kep[t secret – and then they managed to do so for hundreds of years. Includes lots of gear for projecting it.

  34. Maciano says:

    I once visited the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul Sultanahmet. That was an impressive underground construction to have built without modern tools.

  35. iffen says:


    Won’t the planes actually have to stay in the air for Boeing to qualify?

  36. shadow on the wall says:

    Shipbuilding is correct answer. To build large warships, the battleships and aircraft carriers of the time, you needed learned naval architects using the most advanced mathematics and geometry of the time, hundreds of skilled and experienced craftsmen, and thousands of laborers.
    Most people who replied in this thread do not understand what O-ring means, most things you cited as example were done by single craftsmen with few apprentices at maximum.
    O-ring problem means not just exact, skilled and demanding work, but many such workers working together on megaproject of the time, where nothing shall go wrong, where failure of one means failure of the whole thing.

  37. shadow on the wall says:

    Here is how premodern O-ring failure looks like, with the typical timeless CYOA that follows.


    As Vasa passed under the lee of the bluffs to the south (what is now Södermalm), a gust of wind filled her sails, and she heeled suddenly to port. The sheets were cast off, and the ship slowly righted herself as the gust passed. At Tegelviken, where there is a gap in the bluffs, an even stronger gust again forced the ship onto its port side, this time pushing the open lower gunports under the surface, allowing water to rush in onto the lower gundeck. The water building up on the deck quickly exceeded the ship’s minimal ability to right itself, and water continued to pour in until it ran down into the hold; the ship quickly sank to a depth of 32 m (105 ft) only 120 m (390 ft) from shore.

    Surviving crew members were questioned one by one about the handling of the ship at the time of the disaster. Was it rigged properly for the wind? Was the crew sober? Was the ballast properly stowed? Were the guns properly secured? However, no-one was prepared to take the blame. Crewmen and contractors formed two camps; each tried to blame the other, and everyone swore he had done his duty without fault and it was during the inquest that the details of the stability demonstration were revealed.[33]

    Next, attention was directed to the shipbuilders. “Why did you build the ship so narrow, so badly and without enough bottom that it capsized?” the prosecutor asked the shipwright Jacobsson.[34] Jacobsson stated that he built the ship as directed by Henrik Hybertsson (long since dead and buried), who in turn had followed the specification approved by the king. Jacobsson had in fact widened the ship by 1 foot 5 inches (c. 42 cm) after taking over responsibility for the construction, but construction of the ship was too far advanced to allow further widening.[34]

    In the end, no guilty party could be found. The answer Arendt de Groote gave when asked by the court why the ship sank was “Only God knows”. Gustavus Adolphus had approved all measurements and armaments, and the ship was built according to the instructions and loaded with the number of guns specified. In the end, no-one was punished or found guilty for negligence, and the blame effectively fell on Henrik Hybertsson.[35]

  38. Philip Neal says:

    An early modern equivalent of the Challenger disaster might be the flooding of polder or similar wetland drained mechanically by a complex of technologies including windmills, pumps, locks, canals and dykes. Maintenance of such a complex required permanent coordination between different groups of people with mastery of each technology, and failure at any point might lead to catastrophe.

    The Romans and the Han dynasty Chinese achieved impressive feats of engineering, but it is not easy to think of cases which relied on a number of different technologies deployed in combination. Possibly the Romans lacked the kind of social organisations (guilds and municipalities with corporate personality) which could sustain an operation of this kind over many lifetimes.

  39. Difference Maker says:

    1 AD: crossbow triggers

    I’m late to the party, so much has been said, and do not often have time to sit down and think, so this will be cursory.

    The ancients had a relative dearth of technical inventions *, though certainly more vs the stone age, and so we must think about social innovations and complexity.

    Antikythera mechanism, engineering and art have been mentioned already, but there is something remarkable about Hellenistic art. It is difficult & sobering to imagine the modern day populations there achieving something of that sort, though the coastal / high iq peoples can get something done with the aid of modern computing, machining, and transportation.

  40. Robert X says:

    1500? Glassmaking and lenses would be my guess as a supporting product made with increasing Q&Q, analogous to the O-ring example.
    1AD? Err, that’s a toughie.

  41. Robert X says:

    OK, after a brief review of some bad compilations of historic inventions, development of Water Wheels was in vogue the previous century before 1 AD. Pretty useless, like the Hero Steam Ball, without further R&D in Gears and Transmissions. Take that, you smarties!

  42. Peter Lund says:

    1 AD: The Roman dole. Not sure it was a good idea but it was definitely not easy to organize — and they did it for centuries!

  43. albatross says:

    The opposite of an O-ring industry is something like McDonalds–optimized to allow most of their employees to be bored teenagers with a couple days’ training, but still produce an acceptable product.

    • Michael Sanders says:

      An interesting aside below (cant remember who/where I picked this up from)…

      ‘One simple example is an assembly that is bolted onto the frame with 4 bolts. The obvious bolt pattern is a rectangle. Unfortunately, a rectangle pattern can be assembled in two different ways, one of which is wrong. The solution is to offset one of the bolt holes – then the assembly can only be bolted on in one orientation. The possible mechanic’s mistake is designed out of the system.’

  44. Richard Harper says:

    Democracies are the O-Rings of politics.

  45. Redundancy, they made redundancy says:

    The most capable societies would not make complex integrated processes dependent on executing every step perfectly, which were also important to the success and failure of those societies.

    If any did, I don’t expect them to be around too long.

  46. In addition to the public architecture and infrastructure, I sort of like Roman pipe organs as an example of this:


    Probably same story with geared mechanisms, such as the Antikytheria orrery. They all seemed to originate in high tech hubs like Syracuse and the Alexandrian Musaeum where there were many skilled craftsman and libraries available.

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