The title is pretty self-explanatory. I'm wondering, more specifically, what societal, environmental, and/or scientific ramifications might result in an extra-planetary, humanoid civilization with greco-roman levels of technology to rapidly discover things like steam power, electricity, or even nuclear technology in a matter of decades or centuries.

I know this sounds extreme, but it seems reasonable to assume that any civilization on a world other than our own would discover certain technologies and scientific principals before we did (relative to their own age as a species), while discovering other things after. If you do not think this is the case, please explain why. If you do think it's the case, please explain what circumstances might lead to the technological scenario described above.

Once again, this is a humanoid species on a more-or-less Earth-like planet (although the specifics of the environment, such as geography, weather, resources, etc. are up for alteration), with previously greco-roman levels of technology and scientific understanding. How might such a civilization rapidly make modern-era discoveries, such as electricity and nuclear physics, in a matter of decades or centuries, rather than millennia?

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    $\begingroup$ By "discover" you mean to discover on its own, without discovering, for example, an artifact from another civilization? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Mar 21, 2018 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ ...or books and training recordings from an earlier (pre-apocolyptic) version of their own society? $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2018 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ The first paragraph asks about what "ramifications might result" from very rapid discovery, but the title and last paragraph asks for how a civilization might "rapidly make" such discoveries. Do you want answers on how rapid discoveries could happen, or the effects of them being so rapid? $\endgroup$
    – Giter
    Mar 21, 2018 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Giter Actually the OP states "ramifications might result in" not from, so it would appear he wants to know what could lead to discovering the mentioned things quicker. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2018 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @C.S.Wright, In Ann McCaffery's Dragon Riders of Pern series, a medieval society finds a teaching computer which was buried by a volcano soon after their ancestor space-explorers colonized the planet and before subsequent challenges drove them down from a space faring technology level to their current medieval status. With the computer's help, the civilization masters electronics and other sciences in about a decade (approximately the time needed to train a senior electrical engineer). Despite that speed, the story is reasonably believable. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2018 at 22:11

6 Answers 6


Go and read "Gunspowder, germs, and Steel" it details how civilizations evolve.

In short you will need:


This culture needs easy access to protein, their staple food should be easy to plant and last a long time in stock.

Draft Animals

Your culture needs to have strong animals around that could be tamed and used to help around the farms.


They need to have easy access to minerals to start foundry.


This civilization should have no slaves in any shape or form, they will probably have a strong social element to prevent the creation of a cheap labour source.

Romans had come to the concept of steam machines, but they never used it simply because slaves were cheaper.


Preferably this civilization should be a island near a big continent, they will be able to heap the advantages of the commerce with the continent and be relatively safe from invasion.


The cold climate will give this civilization an incentive to create cities and research ways to generate heat.


Your civilization need access to easy source of paper to kickstart their sciences and make it easier to spread knowledge.

There are many other factors for the rise and fall of civilizations, seriously go read that book it will explain everything better than I ever could.

  • $\begingroup$ I've borrowed the book from my library. Thanks for the answer and the recommendation! $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2018 at 19:06

In our history, it took some 18 centuries to get from the golden age of the Roman empire to the Apollo Moon landings. Let's see how these 18 centuries can be characterized as useful or not in the relentless progress towards more and more advanced science and technology:

  • The 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries are disastrous; we could do without them. (Economy so far: 300 years.)

  • The 6th century is middling; in the west it was a disaster, but in the East the Roman empire stabilized and began to grow again. There were actually some advances in construction, there was a tremendous advance in law -- Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis was issued between 529 and 534. We need to keep at least part of this century. (Economy so far: 350 years.)

  • The 7th century was a disaster. It was in this century that the Arabs conquered Egypt and Syria and in so doing killed the last hope of rebuilding the classical world. We can do without it. (Economy so far: 450 years.)

  • The 8th century was partially very useful -- it marked the beginning of the Carolingian Renaissance, which set the basis for the development of science in the west. We must keep at least part of it, and we must keep the 9th century which marked the turning point from the night of the early Middle Ages to the development of the High Middle Ages. (Economy so far: 500 years.)

  • Further on, the only century we can really do without is the obscure 10th century, when nothing good happened. (Economy so far: 600 years.)

With massive but still reasonable good luck you can accelerate techno-scientific evolution by about 500 years, maybe even 700 years if your civilization is extremely lucky. More than than would be quite surprising. You could have railways and steam locomotives and telegraph by 1350 CE, or possibly by 1150 CE with massive luck, but not earlier.


  • The peak of the classical civilization was in the 2nd century, the time of the five good emperors; after Marcus Aurelius it all went downhill.

  • Let's say the civilization is lucky and somehow avoids the crisis of the 3rd century (which in our timeline sealed the fate of the western empire), and somehow manages to reach an accomodation with the Germanic peoples. This sets the basis of avoiding the deep dark night of the early Middle Ages...

  • And it also gets lucky and avoids the 6th century plague of Justinian...

  • And it avoids the silly theological dispute which alienated the monophysites and made them easy converts to Islam...

  • All of which eliminates the technical and scientific stagnation of the western civilisation between the 3rd and the 9th century, so that the Carolingian Renaissance can start in the early 4th instead of the late 8th century. Up to this point we have gained some 450 years over real history, and we have used only four pieces of amazing good luck.

  • If the civilization is stupendously lucky they could also avoid the division between east and west; let's say that somehow Belisarius is an even greater general than he really was and succeeds in reuniting the empire for Justinian, and that Justin II, the successor of Justinian, is actually a competent emperor and doesn't lose Italy and pick up a stupid war with the Persians. Without the division between east and west, and with the Islamic conquest avoided (see above), the western civilization has an economic base strong enough to sustain the Renaissance quite a bit earlier than in real history. So we now have some 550 years of advance over real history.

  • We can imagine that another 100 years can be gained by avoiding the massive loss of books which occurred in real history during the Middle Ages. So, in total, with an unbelievable amount of good luck, we have some six and a half centuries of advance.

Note that from the early 17th century to the middle of the 20th our civilization advanced in technico-scientific matters just about as fast as humanly possible, with a breakthrough in physics once every 50 years. So you cannot really accelerate the advance after that point -- you must concentrate in reaching the technical and scientific level of the late 16th century as early as possible.

  • $\begingroup$ He is talking about an alien species in another planet. $\endgroup$
    – Sasha
    Mar 21, 2018 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Sasha: Yes, he is. And I am suggesting how this alien species on another planet could have gotten from "Greco-Roman levels of technology" to modern technology faster than we did, by having the good luck to avoid some of the roadblocks which delayed us; and noting that from the roughly 18 centuries which, in our history, separate the classical civilization from the Moon landings, some 10 or 11 are absolutely necessary and cannot be squeezed out. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 21, 2018 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ Working from this logic, I think even more time can be shaved off. Avoiding the disastrous centuries would avoid the drop in population, and it would avoid loss of knowledge - two factors RL Europe had to contend with when it started growing in technology again. So maybe another century gained through not losing momentum? $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2018 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Galastel: Avoiding loss of knowledge is already considered -- see last bullet point. Avoiding the loss of population is indeed only partially considered. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 21, 2018 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, all good points. I would add that is we were to incorporate the benefits gained from something comparable to the Golden Age of Islam (a profound advancement in scientific understanding in the early Middle Ages), we might shave off even more time, especially if such a period effected more than just one part of the world (Europe, obviously, did not immediately enjoy the benefits of this advancement during the Dark Ages). In short, it's important to remember that, while Europe suffered academically during the Dark Ages, other parts of the world actually experienced growth. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2018 at 21:02

An early printing press and a trade-focused economy could allow a civilization's rapid advancement. It definitely wouldn't (and realistically couldn't) happen in decades, but would certainly be measured in centuries and not millennia.

Printing Press: In the mid-1400's, the fantastically bearded Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press which allowed the (relatively) cheap and easy printing of books throughout Europe. This allowed an unprecedented spread of knowledge, as scientists of all fields could now find, access, and reference exact copies of work from their peers and predecessors. Being able to build upon prior work rather than starting from scratch is critical for innovation, as it allows people to specialize more and more in specific fields.

Trade economy: Farmers and miners are cheap, so a self-sustaining, rural economy with little competition has few incentives to pursue expensive innovation. However, artisans and craftsmen are expensive, so an economy which heavily relies on exporting finished goods would want to produce those goods as cheaply and efficiently as possible. There's a reason that the textile industry in Britain was the first to see major industrialization and innovation: relatively simple machines resulted in big production increases, and had plenty of colonial markets to sell to, along with competitor-filled foreign markets. Thus, there was a large incentive to both start innovation to improve their trade power, and continue innovation to keep their edge.

In short, if this hypothetical civilization had their own Gutenberg and a trade-based production economy, it's reasonable to think they would have an early industrial revolution. It would still take centuries to reach a modern-level of technology, but that would certainly be quick compare to real-life innovation.

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    $\begingroup$ both excellent points. The dissemination of information (namely through the written word) is perhaps the most crucial element of a technologically and culturally advanced society, as is the time and incentive to improve rather than merely to perpetuate the status quo. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2018 at 21:06

By conquering a more advanced but decadent or weaker outfit and assimilating their technology. It's happened many times in history.

Mongols, Gauls, early Romans etc,. all benefited hugely through warfare against more advanced peoples. Crusades advanced Western science and knowledge in almost all fields.

Alternatively the way the Pacific Islands went from stone age to industrial age in a couple of generations. Outside knowledge and teaching.


For a natural, quick technological advancement from antiquity to industrial era, you not only need to skip middle ages. Advancements in science and technology must be accumulated in the background, so when luminaries like Da Vinci and Galileo start to appear, they should appear in a society that is still ostensibly antique.

Let's split the development in two phases:

  1. Background accumulation;
  2. Rapid advancement;

Some inventions can appear in the first phase, while others would make your world "non-antique", and thereby "start the clock". And, as the question stipulates, phase II should be compressed into a few centuries or even decades.

I would put the historical divider here with the time of Galileo Galilei (circa 1600 in Earth history). Most of the inventions that came before Galilei can fit within an antique society. Everything that came after him would necessarily change it.

So, this is a basic checklist:

  1. Maintain a multinational, growing civilization with stable trade. Uniting all nations under one rule is a recipe for crises and stagnation;
  2. Resist any social changes. New nations should adapt the superior "antique" model;
  3. Maintain ancient Greece-like appreciation of arts and sciences;

This will result a thriving "antique" world which would cause peripheral nations and tribes to adapt its traditions rather than fight it. The point is to keep it both thriving and "antique" until scientific discoveries will skyrocket.

Once discoveries have started, speeding up phase II (rapid advancement) is quite difficult. The world has already been moving pretty fast since 1600. We may shave one century out of 4, coming to about 300 years, and I believe this is the fastest a civilization can get from antique to space-faring.


They gain access to an encyclopedia from an advanced alien civilization. It's all there, down to the detailed blueprints. Equivalent to a full copy of Earth's entire Wikipedia.

A few years to translate. After that, it'll still take several decades to a couple centuries for actually implementing the knowledge.


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