What The Chariot And Uber Have In Common — Besides The Wheel

Bleeding edge technology can be fascinating. It’s a way to magically do things better than they’ve ever been done before. It’s a new tool that, when employed, gets us closer to sci-fi movies becoming real. Like hoverboards and warp drive and stuff.

But does it only belong to our century and this time? Do we need to be on top of trends and feel like only the mentally privileged can wield world-changing tech?

Thankfully, no. We can peer into the past and realize that for however primitive our ancestor’s tech was, they too experienced bleeding edge innovation. Below, we take a brief look at the chariot as an advanced piece of tech for its time and how it was really just a ‘glueing together’ of existing technology that created a new function.

The Chariot Was Around Way Before The Egyptians Used It

Some of us may remember watching Ben Hur race his chariot around the Circus Maximus, or TV shows on the ‘History Channel’ that talk about Egyptian chariot battles (The Battle of Kadesh took place in 1250 BCE with a victorious Ramses II of Egypt). If we can resist the temptation to believe that the chariot was extraterrestrial technology, we’ll see that the chariot had actually existed for 500 years prior to Ramses II, and was developed by folks known as the Hittites in around 1750 BCE.

What seems like a relic that is in museums today, the chariot was a technological breakthrough for its time. Let’s put this in a bit of context:

  • In 1750 BCE on the Eurasian steppe, most people are nomadic because their livestock eat all the vegetation, and it’s time to move on after a while.
  • On the steppe, the tools that people have made for themselves are mostly hunting and livestock related.
  • Life is gruelingly manual — getting water means walking to the river, filling a bucket, then lugging that 40 lbs (5 gal) all the way back to the Yurt. Like a couple times until you had enough for washing, drinking, cooking, and water-gun fights.
  • Fighting others off and away from your resources is also manual: you have to run up to enemies on foot and shoot them with an arrow or reach out and touch them with your sword. Horseback riding hasn’t really become a thing yet, so you gotta run and then fight. With armor on, and a hat, and in thick clothes (cuz it’s COLD on the steppe, yo). Definitely harder than pushing the X button.

Evidence Of Innovation

According to author Christopher Beckwith in Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, there are four main elements of the chariot: a trained horse, the vehicle itself, the vehicle driver, and the archer. We can map these to innovation terms:

  1. Existing Tech: Horses were used for food and hauling things, so horse training experts only had to train the animals to haul people.
  2. The Platform: A quick look at the ox cart reveals heavily constructed vehicles. Woodworkers and toolmakers developed the chariot as a sleek and lightweight version of it.
  3. The System’s Function: The archer usually shot from a stationary position, and it wasn’t too far of a stretch to add shooting from moving platforms as a resume skill.
  4. The User: Maybe an ad for a chariot driver looked something like this: So you want to be a charioteer. Drive horses from behind them on a skinny-ass cart and keep it steady enough not to tip over. Learn new skills like keeping it all together while your horses are getting shot at.

Beckwith also suggests that the Hittites didn’t actually invent the whole chariot by themselves. He observes that when the chariot began seeing use as a war machine, their neighbors to the east and south were experts in horse training. We also have evidence that the Mycenaean Greeks in the east used chariots in war campaigns. We know that archers were always in demand, and folks were already using woven textiles and animal harnesses for trade and tools. Beckwith argues that the machine’s development and the proximity of these mastered skillsets was no coincidence.

The Hittite chariot used four spokes and carried two humans. Ancient ‘economic development.’

Iterating Until You Get It Right

Remember those Radio Flyer wagons? You could get a big rush riding down a hill with a little steering ability. The less than cool thing was taking a spill if a rock or a divot placed itself in front of the wheels.

The early models of the chariot had to have been pretty janky. It’s easy to wonder how many times folks crawled into the medicine man’s tent with weirdly bent legs and arms.

But after multiple iterations, it emerged from trial and probably lots of error as a light, flexible, and strong vehicle that could carry the weight of two humans and their tools rapidly through a hostile environment. Since the basic elements already existed in the form of horse trainers, archers, woodworkers, and textile makers, innovating meant putting their skills together and experimenting with combinations until the thing worked properly.

Back To The Future For A Quick Comparison

On a sunny day about 3,700 years later and in a different part of the world, a man named Travis Kalanick put together a team of folks that would create market disruption using pre-existing tech and would eventually become known as Uber.

We can observe that Uber developed in a similar way as the chariot. Let’s review those innovation terms from Uber’s point of view:

  1. The Existing Tech:

Geolocation — This allowed servers to process physical locations of multiple devices using the built-in GPS function, then filter the data and send only the relevant information to an individual device in a given geographic area.

Push Notifications — Conditional logic that would alert a user via SMS when data conditions met rule criteria.

Payment Integrations — Software that would allow you to pay NOT with a credit card but through your mobile device. Though this is everywhere now, it wasn’t mainstream in 2010 when Uber started.

2. The Platform: That device that we put in our pockets and use to access everything anyone knows about anything. And use to text during meetings and at family dinners.

3. The System’s Function: To make it easier for people to engage in ridesharing, either as drivers or passengers.

4. The User: So you want to be an Uber driver. Or maybe you want to be an Uber passenger. Whatever your preference, you can now summon passengers or drivers using your mobile.

Starting with an idea, Uber’s founders observed that tech folks needed to get around in San Francisco. They hypothesized that while transportation solutions already existed, they could build a tool that would create a better rideshare experience for folks. Uber tested this hypothesis in the city by mashing together a couple of pre-existing technologies that would perform a new function. After gaining traction, the company used communication tools to push into the word market within 5 years. Although the Hittites didn’t use Facebook to get their concept out, there is evidence of chariot use throughout the Eurasian Steppe as trade routes and new peoples were conquered after 1750 BCE.

Same-Same, But Different

We can see evidence of innovation in both cases. In 1750 BCE, the Hittites used existing pieces of the current tech, glued them together, and created a powerful war machine that stayed relevant for many years. In 2010, Uber determined how to use the already existing geolocation, notification, and payment tech in one interface, and changed the way peer to peer transportation worked.

Some of the innovation ingredients at play across 4 millennia are:

  • Mastery of well functioning tools that pre-exist
  • Cooperation of different types of people
  • Usefulness as determined by the circumstances
  • Someone to glue things together in a new way

While there are other things that go into innovation, we can observe that there are some things that have never changed — namely, our ability as humans to continue building on top of our existing tech to create new things.

Getting Back To That Bleeding Edge We Talked About

So from the entrepreneur’s view, this is good news. We can make the case that there is no ‘secret sauce’ that we have to be born with to disrupt markets or change the world. In fact, it’s the same old story: figure out what you (or others) need, look at the pieces you’ve already got, glue them together, and make them do something different.

Innovation is accessible now more than ever to greater numbers of people. What’s more exciting is that the pace of disruptive innovation has increased, which means that more opportunities surface with greater frequency. And if you can read and have the same access to information that most folks do, you can innovate with everyone else, and therefore participate in creating on the bleeding edge.