In October 1962, a nuclear war is fought between the Soviet Union Anschluss the United States of America, along with their allies. The nuclear war lasts only about 4 hours, but causes mass destruction. The global population is reduced from 3 billion to about 900 million. Countless cities are turned into piles of rubble and ash, and the lives of millions across the world are forever destroyed.

My story takes place about 600 years after the war, in the mid 26th century. By then, most people live in small farming towns and some large cities states. Most people are forced to be subsistence farmers, and others are living in hunter-gatherer tribes. The technology is on the same level as in the 1680s.They want an easy source of energy, like coal or gas, to try and rebuild the work to its former glory. But there is a humongous problem. The surface level coal and oil, that is easily accessible has all been depleted, so there pretty much stuck where they are until they find another cheap energy source to use.

My question is, is there another fuel source, possible of giving energy as cheap or nearly as cheap as coal and oil that they could use, or are they stuck as farmers permanently?

  • $\begingroup$ depleting oil is likely but depleting coal is unlikely there are orders of magnitude more coal available quite a bit of it at the surface. there is a lot of coal we don't mine just becasue it is not as clean as other deposits, eia.gov/energyexplained/images/charts/…. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 17, 2018 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ The actual historical industrial revolution began with hydropower: the first factories were powered by waterwheels, with the power distributed by transmission belts. Stem engines came about a century after the start of the industrial revolution. @John is right: we cannot deplete coal. Earth has lots and lots and lots of coal. And anyway, the war was in 1962: why is petroleum depleted? Petroleum was very far from being depleted in 1962; in fact it still is very far from being depleted. You may have heard that oil producers such as Saudi Arabia and Russia suffer because of low prices. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 17, 2018 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP that sounds like an answer not a comment. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 17, 2018 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ I commend to your attention the megaseries that started with 1632, by Eric Flint and the associated Grantville Gazette at Baen and its own site; while not all million-plus words are about (re)building modern technology with a 17th-century base, it is a notable theme therein. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2018 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ "Cheap" changes over time as the infrastructure changes. Early steam engines burned wood and peat...because it was close and railways were limited. Coal and oil and gas (methane) and wind and solar became "cheap" only when infrastructure was in place to make them so. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Mar 17, 2018 at 21:03

3 Answers 3


As @AlexP writes, the industrial revolution started with hydropower, and in fact continued with it for a very long time. It was far into the 19th century before coal became more important as a energy source. To this day, hydroenergy (in the form of hydroelectricity) is an important source of energy, in some country the most important one.

Coal, however, was usable not only as an energy source, but also as an direct ingredient in metallurgic processes, a role that it still plays. In a country like Sweden, coal is something you see in a museum, or read about in history books. But the high-tech Swedish steel industry is only now discussing changing to visionary coal-free steel production.

Also, if the war destroys only a third of the world's population, and vast areas are therefore fairly untouched by the war, and large proportion of mankind not only knows how to read and write, but also has a very clear memory of technology and information and medicine and steel and so forth, why would they after six hundred years be stuck in a pre-industrial stage? I mean, even the inhabitants of the worst shanty towns of third world countries know much more of technology and the world than even the most erudite of pre-industrial scholars?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "even the inhabitants of the worst shanty towns ... know much more of technology and the world than even the most erudite of pre-industrial scholars?" It's a very dubious assertion that most people -- wherever they live -- know enough about technology to reproduce it. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Mar 17, 2018 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ They may not know how to reproduce it (after all, how many readers of this site could build a car or smartphone (or even an ordinary wired telephone) from scratch? However the knowledge that it can be done is often a powerful incentive to learn and redevelop once the initial supply is consumed. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Mar 18, 2018 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides people in the early middle ages knew all about Roman technology but failed to reproduce it for various reasons. Interestingly, this period lasted about 300-600 years, right in line with the OP's scenario $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2018 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 I changed "Africa" to "third world countries" $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Mar 19, 2018 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think it reads better now. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Mar 21, 2018 at 1:20

They still have the sun and geothermal sources. Though they may surely lack the technology (and the energy) to build solar cells, they can still build solar concentrators and generate hot steam with that.

At the beginning the yield would be low, but still it will be better than burning wood (mind that the first steam engines had no insulation). That tiny amount of cheap energy might be used to trigger again the industrial revolution.

Though it all depends on the level of knowledge and culture they have. If they have dropped into a religious and intolerant culture dreading technology there will be for sure less chances.

  • $\begingroup$ the last paragraph is completely unnecessary. there are scarcely few examples in history where governments, even theocratic ones, suppressed science and technology to a large-scale, systematic extent. Usually the suppression is towards a small set of narrow subjects (evolution, hereditary genetics, psychoactive drugs, climate change, etc) relevant to the authorities. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2018 at 14:54

The question can be divided into two parts actually:

  1. How to trigger an Industrial Revolution, and:
  2. How to find cheap energy in post apocalyptic environment?

Question 2 can be answered in a multitude of ways. After 600 years, much of the forest cover of Earth would have regrown, and wood can be accessed directly as firewood, converted to charcoal for more energetic fuel (charcoal is the fuel of choice for industrial processes like smelting pre coal, and in the modern era, we convert coal to coke, which serves a similar purpose). For higher energy portable fuel, wood can be converted to wood gas, and cars were powered this way during WWII. So woodlots and careful forest management can provide the fuels needed.

On the question of founding a new Industrial Revolution, there are still lots of questions why the first Industrial Revolution happened.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans had plenty of machinery. Hero of Alexandria wrote a book on mechanisms we would identify as low powered steam and atmospheric engines, and the Romans knew of machinery like cranks to convert rotary motion from waterwheels and the like to linear motion, and items we would recognize as clockwork. The Antikythera mechanism is an elegant hand made analogue astronomical computer, and there is no reason to think it was the only one ever built (although there is no reason to suspect they were common either). Despite being decent engineers and having the ability to create and understand machinery (torsion powered Ballista are actually elegant and sophisticated machines), neither the Greeks not the Romans ever embarked on an Industrial Revolution.

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Modern reproduction of the Antikythera mechanism

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Torsion powered Ballista

In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, nations as diverse as the Hanse and the Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta developed sophisticated social and economic institutions. Venice even has a prototype assembly line (Arsenale di Venezia). However, despite these advances, neither the Hanse nor the Republic made the move to an Industrial Revolution. The origins of the Industrial Revolution in England are most likely explained in social or organizational terms, since many of the factors in England existed in other nations and other times. Even the handwave of suggesting the Steam engine and coal mining isn't quite enough, people have mined for millennia, and both the Ancient Romans had a form of steam engine, and the modern steam engine was patented in Spain by Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont in 1606 (also for the use in draining mines).

You could in fact end up with a society using hand built wood, charcoal and coal gas powered machinery. This society could even be relatively sophisticated, with long distance trade and a relatively high standard of living, yet not having triggered an Industrial Revolution.


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