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Given a world with with absolutely no access to saltpeter (a key ingredient of gunpowder), and a wide-spread society at a medieval-level of technology, how long before this society would reach a non-medieval, Renaissance-type level of technology?

Background

  1. No magic, although there may be "wizards" or "magicians" (illusionists) because...
  2. Any other real-world chemical reactions are allowed.
  3. There is a feudal system in place (a potentate, nobility, peasantry, etc.)
  4. There are independent bodies of scholars.
  5. Religion plays only a minor role in society, i.e., no one is beholden to the whims of the clergy.
  6. Standard medieval technology
    • Military: Cavalry, leather/metal armor, swords, bows, crossbows, castles, wooden catapults/siege weapons
    • Civil: Horse-drawn heavy plow, architectural vaults/arches/domes, mechanical clocks, water/wind mills, basic printing

I'm working under the assumption that if gunpowder was never introduced, medieval technology would not have graduated as quickly. I'm wondering, though, what technological advances would be made regardless of access to gunpowder, and how long it might take to make those advances.

I'm interested in all technologies. Gunpowder is the only thing that's lacking in the world, so naturally, military technological advances would probably be hit the hardest. However, necessity is the mother of invention, right? Many of today's everyday goods and services were born out of modern military research, e.g., the Internet, microwaves, GPS, etc. In medieval times, if there was no gunpowder, no doubt people would still develop creative and effective ways to kill each other - but there would be no need to defend yourself from guns or cannons. A social effect I can see happening is that revolutions and uprsisings would be far less successful, since guns vs. guns is a much more even playing field than trained bowmen/swordsmen/etc. vs unskilled peasants... but what effect would this have on all technological advances during that time?

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking how long it would take to develop non-medieval technology without gunpowder? And by technology, you're talking only technology for warfare? $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Feb 17 '15 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'll edit to clarify $\endgroup$ – Seth Feb 17 '15 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ I agree it needs to be a little more clear. Most of that tech is still available! ;) $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 17 '15 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding your last paragraph, bowmen actually were mainly peasants. $\endgroup$ – CoolCurry Feb 17 '15 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ The advance of technology may seem inevitable to us, but societies can get "stuck" for a very long time, and a lot of historical research has gone into trying to figure out how Europeans got so far ahead of older cultures like the Chinese, the Aztecs and the Egyptians. $\endgroup$ – Beta Feb 18 '15 at 1:47
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I cannot give you years. But even without gunpowder, book press and steam engine would be invented, and industrial revolution will continue just fine.

War would be different until chemist invented Nitrocellulose in around 1800. Then, it is back to killing humans as with gunpowder.

BTW would be fun to see steam-powered catapults and ballistas - or even human powered, just to punch some knights.

Also, there is another strategy which is independent on gunpowder, and would eliminate advantage of knight's heavy armor: war wagon, developed around 1420 (some more images about how it could be used if many wagons circled to form mobile fortress (in czech). It was nice to have guns to defend of such fortress, but defense would be almost equally effective with just crossbows (which are simpler to use and require less training and strength than bows). And if knights attack wagons (using melee attack), defenders can punch them over head with flails and pikes.

With gunpowder or without, rule of knights was about to end.

Never one strategy will remain effective for long, because everything always has weaknesses - opponent will develop strategy attacking those weaknesses, and game continues.

Social effect of such war wagon must have been devastating to the knights: mere peasants not only successfully resisted their attack, but were superior and almost invulnerable to anything knights might throw at them.

Of course advantage of such mobile fortress disappeared with more effective gunpowder weapons. In your world, it's advantage would be longer-lasting. Read about hussite wars - hussites defeated 5 crusades against them. Maybe with no gunpowder used against them, hussites (unskilled peasants) would be able to resist more effectively, more effectively challenging the authority on Roman Catholic church.

But by 1700, situation would be close to "traditional" history.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hussite peasants were the ones using the handcannons quite effectively, not the knights...no? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Feb 17 '15 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ The Hussite war wagon used gunpowder weapons in real life as its defense. Crossbows and subsequent improvement would put paid to the age of the knight as well in this world as gunpowder did in ours. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Feb 17 '15 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for misunderstanding. My claim is that hussite wagon fortress defense would be as effective with crossbows (no gunpowder), and they were defeated by gunfire after breaking defense (as result of feigned retreat) of another wagon fort $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Feb 17 '15 at 22:25
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It's actually much harder to eliminate Saltpeter then you might think as it's a relatively simple chemical in our nitrogen rich world. There is an amazing number of sources that can be used to refine it and can be created from whats found in batcaves and wood ash.

Wiki lists a couple techniques (given that it's to create saltpeter I can see some reluctance to give full descriptions):

French method[edit] Niter-beds are prepared by mixing manure with either mortar or wood ashes, common earth and organic materials such as straw to give porosity to a compost pile typically 1.5×2×5 meters in size.[17] The heap was usually under a cover from the rain, kept moist with urine, turned often to accelerate the decomposition, then finally leached with water after approximately one year, to remove the soluble calcium nitrate which was then converted to potassium nitrate by filtering through the potash.

Swiss method[edit] LeConte describes a process using only urine and not dung, referring to it as the Swiss method. Urine is collected directly, in a sandpit under a stable. The sand itself is dug out and leached for nitrates which were then converted to potassium nitrate via potash, as above.

Potash, as described above, is about 10% of the weight of wood ash.

Even if 'saltpeter' wasn't readily available in mined form, odds are there is some method or another to create this. Early Chinese were refining it considerably earlier than it's traditional 'saltpeter' usage...it was a salt readily found in marshes. It has uses from fertilizer to soap production as well. It was used in glass and bleach production as early as 500AD. In 1270AD, a Syrian recorded how to refine it.

It's really challenging to say a society lacks access to gun powder as it's a relatively common component of our earth and any society with basic chemistry should be able to being manufacturing from a relatively wide spread number of sources...I would assume Renaissance-type level chemistry would include the knowledge of refining potassium nitrate.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, yeah, the idea of a world without saltpeter leads to all sorts of questions and implications. OP would have been better off, I think, to have just said "assume for whatever reason that gunpowder is never invented". $\endgroup$ – Jay Jun 24 '15 at 20:04
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The technological levels we associate with the modern era have more to do with social organization than scientific understanding. Remember that the Renaissance was literally the "rebirth", i.e. the rediscovery (and eventual surpassing) of Roman-era art, science, technology, and so on. The medieval era was a rebuilding of European social order from the social collapses of the Western empire that led to the Dark Ages.

It doesn't matter if you know (theoretically) how to build an aqueduct, if the largest political / economic entity that you're a part of doesn't have the resources to build one. And if the political or economic strength isn't there, then the theoretical knowledge is more likely to be lost over the generations. This problem is more pronounced in the case of large-scale technology, but still holds true for smaller-scale stuff. There are a thousand little problems that have to be solved in order to make, say, a printing press (not the least of which is making thousands of identical letters), none of which are going to be solved if the market for books is tiny because only a few people can read.

Conversely, if your social structure is diverse and complex, you have powerful nations, rulers, economic powers, and so on, then technological progress will continue apace and, even in the absence of one particular element of our conception of modernity, something closely resembling it will still occur.

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It's not clear to me that use of gunpowder is the sole element in changing warfare to have effective guns. Steel making is also important. Crude cannons or early firearms were not that effective, although the former did have a major effect on the usefulness of castles.

Remember that swords were carried by "infantry" into at least the 18th century (Culloden, 1745).

Even for cannons, steel making technology is essential in developing cannons sufficiently powerful AND mobile. Early siege cannons looked impressive and could intimidate, but took a long time to move around. The combination of shipbuilding advances and naval gunnery change that.

It's worth thinking about China and the rest of East Asia as a slightly alternate history. They invented firearms, but not the other advances (with a handful of famous exceptions) necessary to really move much beyond medieval technology. This is despite a high population and mostly stable political system.

With that example, a medieval-level of technology could last a long time.

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Its really not a matter of when. Technology plodded along steadily, around the world, until the factors for the renaissance luckily aligned.

Steel has been forged in China for almost two thousand years. The printing press was churning out Buddhist texts in India centuries before the invention reached Europe. Gunpowder itself was commonplace in China for many centuries before the first arquebus was invented.

The Renaissance was a cultural event resulting in technological progress. The Black Plague devastated Europe severely. The universal power of the Catholic Church was broken: those who had lived through an apocalypse could no longer believe in a merciful god as they had before, certainly not in the form of the lords and the priests. Rebellion was seeded. Rebellion against the church, the crown, the nobility, against even the culture.

The cultures of Europe were thrown off for successive generations, while technologies were eagerly imported from abroad, as well as texts, leading to the arrival of the printing press, gunpowder, and the lost classical texts, all imports from the world at large, by a Europe eager to throw off the past and move into the future.

So, to answer your question, it is not a matter of how many years, or even how many centuries. Its a question of culture and opportunity. Do you happen to have an invalidated prior culture and a truck-load of natural resources? You might be a good place for a renaissance!

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I don't think gunpowder is a main factor in technological development. It (and the canons, guns, bombs and firework technologies that use it), are just one set of devices which may be good against knights, who are a medieval icon, but knights don't really hold back technology, so I wouldn't say gunpowder or knights really affect technological development in general.

Nor does technology or scientific or industrial thinking necessarily emerge after a certain amount of time. It depends on culture, circumstances, and the history of ideas, which can and did take turns away from from such developments. Look at Rome, Egypt, Persia, China, Babylon, Japan... they all had centuries of prosperous intelligent cultural development, rivaling medieval Europe in some ways, but not leading to a technological revolution.

So, I would say a world could stay practically forever at a medieval level of technology, as long as the cultural, intellectual, and stability situations never went there, for whatever combination of reasons.

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Hmm, the premise of the question seems a little odd to me. I don't see how gunpowder was particularly a driver for other technologies. So suppose a society does not have gunpowder. Warfare would be different, of course. Let's get back to that. But I don't see how that would affect in any way the development of steam power, electricity, internal combustion engines, steel and other metals, etc etc. I don't see that the invention of gunpowder really led to anything else. Maybe there was some scientific knowledge that was gained by experiments that required gunpowder. I don't know of any, but I wouldn't make blanket assumptions.

The key thing that would be different would be warfare. The next question becomes, do people find some other way to kill each other that is as effective as gunpowder, or do you end up with trains carrying armored knights to the front? Soldiers riding motorcycles and carrying lances to do battle with other motorcyclists? Catapults where tension is created with electric motors? Etc. It makes for some entertaining fanciful scenes.

One could imagine cannons powered by steam -- people have built such devices. Not really as effective as gunpowder but it works. And of course once other explosives are invented -- dynamite and so forth -- there are plenty of efficient ways to kill each other again.

Would Europeans have dominated the world like they did without gunpowder? I think they had enough other technological advantages that they would still have been on top, but the process might have been slower and less complete. China and Japan might have been able to stand up to Europeans if neither had guns, for example.

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