Would it be possible for a society to start an industrial revolution based around electric engines and windmills?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ With earth like air currents wind can be unreliable even with modern materials, so getting what you’re probably picturing is unlikely. That said, a different planet might give better results. $\endgroup$
    – Random
    Feb 4 '18 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ I would say no. Coal was very important for industry. First machines that burn coal for kinetic energy was invented on coal mines. You can not run trains dependent on wind power and you can not come up with electrical engines without first figuring out more basic engines. $\endgroup$ Feb 4 '18 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ The actual industrial revolution started with hydraulic power. Waterwheels to be specific. The first steam engines which could be used to power machinery, thus replacing waterwheels, came more than half a century years after the beginning of the industrial revolution. Modern eolian power generators use highly advanced materials and are computer controlled. Electric engines and hydropower stations would be much more plausible. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 4 '18 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ "Sorry, factory workers: It's calm today, so no work and no pay." One assumes the factory owners (and financiers) are a bit smarter than being beholden primarily to the wind. After all it's their fortune at risk. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Feb 5 '18 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 This would be a civilization with no easy access to coal or oil, it wouldn't be them choosing to use wind power, but them having no other choice. $\endgroup$
    – Sasha
    Feb 5 '18 at 21:09

It might be possible, but with an non avoidable delay.

Thermal engines are much simpler than electrical ones.

First (workable) steam engine is ~1775, with theoretical work (Carnot) in 1824+

First workable electric generator (Pacinotti "ring") is 1860 with theoretical work (Maxwell works) just a few years after.

Wind power has been tapped into many years ago (Holland and Greek mills are centuries older), but they are confined to certain geographical areas (due to wind variation); this is not a (severe) limiting factor because also coal is not that widespread (this concentrated industrial revolution in certain areas like England and Germany).

OTOH the severely limiting factor is transport: while coal (or gasoline) is easy to transport in small quantities this is not true for electrical power; this means a wind/electricity powered Industrial Revolution would be completely different from the coal/steam one; the former would rely much more om large static plants than the latter.

  • $\begingroup$ electric engines are far simpler than combustion engines. $\endgroup$
    – user47242
    Feb 5 '18 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ @James: it depends on your definition of "simple". Hero of Alexandria already had a firm grasp of some parts of Thermodynamics. Almost two millennia before any practical use of electricity. Nowadays electrical motors are far simpler and better understood than "reciprocating engines", but that wasn't true till relatively few years ago. Truth is thermal engines were initially developed empirically and later studied theoretically, OTOH electricity was a "scientific curiosity" for centuries before someone understood it could have practical application. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Feb 5 '18 at 2:57


We used fossil fuels because they were there and they were easier than the alternatives - not because there were no alternatives.

As AlexP said, water mills powered the first factories.


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