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Here are what I wants in my world:

  • Early generation of computer with a bulky size and very limited capability, like the text-based computer in Fallout universe.
  • Limited guidance and detection system. Missiles do exist but the range is very limited and could be avoided with countermeasures or even by a skilled pilot. Radar & sensor exist, but like above, the range is limited and might show a false alarm.
  • Early generation of jet engines that are slow enough for the fighter pilots to occasionally engages in machine gun dogfight.
  • Colored television exist. So does the handheld transceiver.
  • BONUS: No atomic bombs and no space exploration.

The problem is I want the electronic devices in this world to stay in early cold war era for as long as possible. Let's say, it need a thousand years or more to discover smartphone, or even better: NEVER.

Since magic does exist in this world, I had been thinking about making the people in this world (or even the world itself) to emits Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that would fry any electronics that use transistor but not the other one that use vacuum tube so they'll only have the "classic" electronics.

Does the EMP really works that way? Does the absent of transistor really matter for a world to move forward the era? Or actually the vacuum tube is enough to recreate the world we currently living in? Do you have more plausible solution to this problem?

EDIT: Even though I'd used the "cold war era" term in here, it doesn't have to be about the alternative reality where the conflict between "USA vs Soviet" happen, instead, I mean it to be simply a technological era in the middle 20th century. Think about it like medieval era; This era can be related to the alternative reality universe like Assassin's Creed or a fantasy universe like Lord of the Ring.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not 100% sure on historical accuracy, but if you do away with the transistor or make it so it was never invented, your going to be stuck in an WWII era. Its pretty easily to freeze technology in a story, simply by letting something never be invented or conceived of in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Dec 12 '18 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ Related questions: Stunting Technological Growth After World War II and Is a world with no technological improvement possible?. $\endgroup$ – Elmy Dec 12 '18 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ This wont actually stop development it will just mean circuits will be larger and higher voltage like early transistors. If these are the existing conditions technology will develop around it not be susceptible to it like real world technology. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 12 '18 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ There's also the 3rd option, relays. Like vacuum tubes they are bulky and not ideal for building compact applications. $\endgroup$ – Amarth Dec 12 '18 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ Btw Russian fighter jets using vacuum tubes far into the 20th century. Because they wanted immunity to EMP, or more specifically EMP caused by a nuclear detonation. See MiG-25. Despite the lack of transistors, this is obviously quite a modern jet and not something that would do 'dogfighting'. $\endgroup$ – Amarth Dec 12 '18 at 17:07

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Your question is great and opens a whole lot of possibilities.

Just get back to the basics. Don't let yourself to be dragged to the overly complex scenarios that would undoubtfully disturb many other parts of the world you are trying to create.

Concentrate on the facts that make semiconductors based on silicon or (in earlier years) germanium suitable.

Some theory

Let me give you a brief physical overview.

Both silicon and germanium have 4 electrons in the outer valence shell. Both can form pure stable crystals. Both can be easily doped with 3 valence or 5 valence impurities to create n-type and p-type semiconductors.

And by connecting n-type and p-type semiconductors the miracle is created. Basic NP junctions create the diode. Basic NPN or PNP junctions creates a basic bipolar transistor that is the basis for example for the amplifiers. Somewhat different NPN junctions create the FET transistor that is the basis for digital electronics.

You can just change some minor physical property of each and you can basically limit the whole electronics development. For example, silicon is much worse semiconductor than germanium but it has some properties that make it superior in real-world applications:

  1. It forms a better and more stable crystal lattice
  2. It creates great oxide (SiO2) that is also great insulator - the key to the creation of integrated circuits (ICs) or chips (you need to efficiently but easily and cheaply electrically separate different transistors within IC).

On the other hand, germanium was firstly used as semiconductor because it was more easily purified.

And implementation

From what you said you want to keep electronics at around 50s to early 60s.

Therefore you are needing the semiconductors to form simple transistors but not large ICs.

You can just make the silicon-oxide to be unstable compound unsuitable for use as an insulator. You have mass-produced and cheap transistors, but not ICs.

You can define that silicon can't form stable crystals at room temperature. The silicon is off the table and you have just germanium transistors. You have transistors but they are about 10+ times more expensive.

You can define that silicon and/or germanium have crystal lattices that are prone to dissolving through time and/or usage. You have small integrated electronics that is very expensive with limited life-span that frequently fails - the military would use it but for the common public, it would be over-expensive exclusivity. Imagine - electronics that can only run for 12 or 24 hours after turning it on.

If you do a small research on IC production methodologies you can even block the IC development at certain levels.

You can rule out VLSI scale and stop integrated electronics development at the early 70s.

You can allow only VLSI and stop computer development at the mid to late 80s with 8bit and expensive 16bit processors and with no more than 1MB of memory.

If you are doubting that such simple changes could have such profound effect on the whole human and industry development - keep in mind that such "small" obstacles are keeping us today from having, for example, commercial supersonic transport or using fusion as an energy source.

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In order to halt the development of electronics, you could remove silicon (and German and gallium) and force technology to stay with, or return to, vacuum tubes.

In my proposal, I'm not going to remove it, rather make it unfit for purpose. Silicon is one of the most abundant elements in the crust. It will therefore be a great feeding substrate to an alien species of bacteria that landed on earth with one of the meteors impact during the late 40s, early 50s. For instance, in February 1947, a large bolide impacted the Earth in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, Primorye, Soviet Union. It may take a decade for the bacteria to expand throughout the planet and start happily munching silicon and related compounds. So, even if you discover transistors, they'll degrade quickly, eaten by our visitors, and far too quickly to be used in any meaningful manner. Of course you could encase the circuits in plastic, but these nasty bacteria can sense the silicon within and will perforate the casing with the ease and restlessness with which their earthly cousins go about making oral cavities.

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    $\begingroup$ Why not from the start? Have spores of these bacteria present everywhere, they just need elemental silicon to form a colony. We haven't noticed them before because they oxidised all available silicon then went into stasis. Now that we're kind enough to refine more silicon for them... $\endgroup$ – nzaman Dec 12 '18 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ they sudden upheaval of every ecosystem on the planet and the collapse of agriculture as all soil is destroyed will be a much bigger problem than a few wafers. I think you underestimate what "one of the most abundant elements in the crust" means. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 12 '18 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think you were onto something with your "unfit for purpose" - rather than making it the primary food source for alien bacteria, why not just make it unfit for electronics? Remove its semiconducting properties, or its ability to readily form insulating oxides, and you have a much harder climb to solid-state electronics. $\endgroup$ – Chris M. Dec 12 '18 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ Also things like carbon, tin, boron, and lead compounds are also semiconductors and these are essential for organics. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 12 '18 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ Plus one, not for specific context, but for the fact that you'd have to break the universe to achieve what OP wants. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Dec 13 '18 at 0:06
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A simple one that has come up in a few stories I've read (and at least one I've written) is that magic bends physics, just a little.

Magic, at its most basic, is the ability to violate the usual laws of physics. As such, using magic has a measurable effect on its surroundings - the laws of physics fluctuate when magic is used. Not much, but enough to mess with things. Simple things, like the relationship between voltage and current, or the speed of light in a vacuum, or the exact size of a Planck length, are altered. The alterations are small (using whatever definition of "small" makes this work), so on a macroscopic scale, you don't really notice much. Perhaps you feel dizzy, or see distortions in the air, etc. However, it can wreak havoc on delicate machinery. The more delicate and finely-tuned, the more damaging the effects.

So, a large machine won't mind if its gears change size by a millimetre or two, but a microchip, whose internals (in our world) are built to tolerances measured in nanometres, will stop working entirely. Biological processes are a little more resilient, and unlike machines, living things can heal. You could even say that magic is tied to life force, so living things are protected from these effects by their own magic (to a certain degree).

This effect is always present, with the usual ambient magic that drifts about the world causing continual subtle shifts in the fundamental physics of the world - small enough to be unnoticeable on a macro scale, random enough to largely average out over time, but juuust enough that there's a limit to how small or delicate any electronics can be. A modern-day microprocessor simply cannot function in this environment, and any large magical exertion amplifies the effect to the point where it can ruin even the relatively robust components of earlier computers if they're caught nearby.

Simply adjust the size thresholds between "totally unusable", "feasible, but destroyed by large magical outbursts" and "resilient enough to be viable" to wherever your story needs them to be.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that biological processes are even more sensitive to stuff like that than machines would be. Semiconductors can deal with minor fluctuations in their work function (which defines how much energy is needed to remove an electron) just fine, after all your phone works at -5°C just as well as at 35°C. On the other hand biological processes like protein folding would be very, very sensitive I imagine. And if creatures just project a kind of shield against that, why can't you just wrap electronics in flesh Terminator style? $\endgroup$ – SecMov Dec 13 '18 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ @SecMov "Why can't you just wrap electronics in flesh Terminator style?" Because nobody ever got any advanced electronics to work in this environment. Why would they want to shield a piece of garbage? $\endgroup$ – ElmoVanKielmo Dec 13 '18 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ Because you can understand that this would work long before you build electronics on a modern level. Quantum physics and condensed matter physics that explained the behaviour of semiconductors that modern integrated circuits are based on was well established at the beginning of the Cold War. The fluctuations induced by magic would be quite easy to measure, and measuring why they don't affect biological processes would be a no-brainer then. $\endgroup$ – SecMov Dec 13 '18 at 13:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Living tissue doesn't block the effect, it resists it. No amount of shielding will protect you from the fact that the laws of physics are fluctuating; you need your own innate magic which adjusts you along with those fluctuations so you don't feel it, and only living things have that sort of innate magic. Yes, biological processes can be pretty delicate, but they're also protected by virtue of being alive. Also, in most cases, a body can heal from the odd mishap here and there (sure, sometimes it cases cancers or prion diseases, but mostly not) while electronics need everything to work. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Dec 13 '18 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ It's less like radiation and more like gravitational waves - they're hard to measure because your measuring equipment is also affected, and they're affecting the fabric of the universe so there's no blocking them. Also, remember we're not trying to make it impossible here, just impractical to the point where nobody would bother. Sure, you could probably make some kind of workable computer, but with all the self-correction and magical countermeasures it'd need just to function, it's easier to just build something from vacuum tubes or even just clockwork and then enchant it to do the rest. $\endgroup$ – anaximander Dec 13 '18 at 13:18
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Natural EMP sources in the environment. Call it an excessive sunspot activity. That means microcomputers and integrated circuits are extremely unreliable, it takes individual transistors or better vacuum tubes to work reliably.

You would have to handwave why hardening methods are not applied in your setting, but it could be explained as chicken-and-egg. Microchips never work for long, and so nobody bothers to build and shield them.

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    $\begingroup$ This is going to have side effects you haven't accounted for. Most notably, long power and communication wires are horribly vulnerable to geomagnetic effects. If you've got solar activity generating EMP capable of taking out integrated circuits, you've got geomagnetic storms that will destroy any power network larger than city-scale, will make long-distance phone lines impossible until the discovery of fiber-optics, and will disrupt all non-line-of-sight radio. $\endgroup$ – Mark Dec 12 '18 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark It would break our long distance wired infrastructure. Obviously if it was a permanent phenomenon, things would be built so that they don't break, such as using opto-isolators at short enough intervals for communication, or using line-of-sight optics (instead of finer optics, until they become viable). Also using local power transmission (generating interesting economic effects and strategic importance for good places for hydroelectric plants etc), underground cables to extend the size of viable power networks etc. $\endgroup$ – hyde Dec 13 '18 at 15:58
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You say magic exists in this world. This gives you great license to pretty much do whatever you like.

First of all, the fact that magic even exists could have the knock on effect of making electronics a lot less interesting and less in demand. Many of the "nerds" who would have been researching electronics are a lot more interested in magic and so things like transistors and furthermore electronics are left unexplored. There is no great push for this kind of thing because magic can do many of the jobs that early electronics could do.

Colossus, for example, would never have been invented if someone could magically decode the enigma messages in WWII (and Enigma might never have been used if the Germans magically encoded their transmissions in a way that was beyond the capability of any computer, or found a way of magically delivering messages that couldn't be intercepted).

Alternatively, perhaps magic itself emits a sort of EMP or maybe some sort of electromagnetic pollution that renders transistors or other electronic components useless. If this were the case, it would have been very difficult to even invent them, if we assume that people wouldn't know about the pollution until the electronics stopped working around spells, if they never worked in the first place, they'd have no reason to suspect magic as the cause or even that electronics could have worked.

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    $\begingroup$ This: <i>First of all, the fact that magic even exists could have the knock on effect of making electronics a lot less interesting and less in demand. Many of the "nerds" who would have been researching electronics are a lot more interested in magic and so things like transistors and furthermore electronics are left unexplored.</i> $\endgroup$ – Bill Blondeau Dec 13 '18 at 10:50
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How about high static energy? So the electric energy does not come from the People or the World itself, but exists in the athmosphere.. if you walk, you are loaded with a little energy and if you touch something metallic, it is released. Electronics are very easiely destroeyed by this. In the real world, you unload before working with electronics. In the setting's World, there could be so much static energy that it is not possible to unload enough to let electronics survive. Vaccuum tube electrics are much more resistant to this.

So you can have any Tech that will not be destroyed by electric energy, but no transistors, no CPUs and so on.

While the moon landing was computed with the equivalent of a 386, it would be hard to impossible to do this without integrated circuits.

This should prevent nearly everything from your list, but with atomic bombs I do not see why they should not work - on a 1945-1955 level. You could still have drop-down-bombs, but no ICBMs, no cruise-missile.

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    $\begingroup$ Ehm... Michael Faraday would like to exchange a few words with you. $\endgroup$ – NofP Dec 12 '18 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I know about that. But that does not mean that anyone in this world would understand a faraday cage - and understand stat a faraday cage could save electronics (which were never invented in this setting because they were destroyed with a touch). $\endgroup$ – Julian Egner Dec 12 '18 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ Except the Faraday cage was invented over 100 years before modern electronics and transistors. $\endgroup$ – Amarth Dec 12 '18 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ But how to make a transistor in faraday cage if the scientist themself emits high static? $\endgroup$ – arlilo Dec 12 '18 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ A gentleman by the name of Wernher von Braun demonstrated that ICBMs work just fine without fancy electronics. $\endgroup$ – Mark Dec 12 '18 at 22:04
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Their planet is in a binary system. One of the stars is an orange or red-dwarf main-sequence star that is responsible for providing temperatures that allow liquid water to exist (but at a distance closer than what the Sun does for Earth). The other star is a magnetar that is responsible to screw up electronics to the hell. The two stars orbit each other in a close orbit enough to deform the main-sequence star. Not very far from them, the planet orbits the pair.

Quoting wikipedia:

Magnetars are characterized by their extremely powerful magnetic fields of 108 to 1011 tesla. These magnetic fields are hundreds of millions of times stronger than any man-made magnet, and quadrillions of times more powerful than the field surrounding Earth.

[...]

The magnetic field of a magnetar would be lethal even at a distance of 1000 km due to the strong magnetic field distorting the electron clouds of the subject's constituent atoms, rendering the chemistry of life impossible. At a distance of halfway from Earth to the moon, a magnetar could strip information from the magnetic stripes of all credit cards on Earth.

This means that any attempt to develop microeletronics would fail because the magnetic interference is so great that every microeletronic circuit go nuts immediatelly without any reliability. Researching microeletronics would be economically and practically impossible. Shielding microeletronic devices would be prohibitely bulky and expensive.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't really get it. Why shouldn't my planet to have a magnetar star only? $\endgroup$ – arlilo Dec 13 '18 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ @arillo Magnetars have no habitable zone. So, a second main sequence star provides that. $\endgroup$ – Victor Stafusa Dec 13 '18 at 15:57
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o.m. came close, but lets look at what we know that could actually do this: Coronal Mass Ejections.

The star is very prone to throwing small coronal mass ejections about--the planet is pelted on a routine basis. As these are smaller ones they aren't as nasty as a nuke exploded at the edge of the atmosphere but they're plenty nasty and they're even more wide-ranging than the nuke would be.

These induce nasty surge currents in wires everywhere. From the start most wires were buried because of this. The really high power wires that aren't practical to bury (high current = heat, high voltage = lots of insulation needed = keeps in the heat) are carefully engineered to dissipate the surges in ways that aren't too destructive.

Shielding semiconductors is far harder than shielding tube electronics. While the transistor is known it's fragility means it sees little use and the technology is still in it's infancy, the main focus is on better and better tubes.

As for how it meets your requirements:

Computers--crude computers are room sized, plus they need a lot of cooling.

Missiles--since the seeker heads work on tubes they'll be crude. Think of the early Sidewinder--4 sensors, the missile tried to steer to keep the signal intensity the same in all of them. As sensitivity is low the range at which a seeker can detect a target is low. While in theory a missile could fly out and then acquire you can't send much in the way of a command to guide the missile so a target that zigged would be outside the acquisition cone when the seeker went active. (Even today we see something of this--torpedoes and anti-ship missiles have fairly small acquisition cones, if you can keep the unit that fired it from guiding it on the way in you then might be able to maneuver outside it's acquisition cone and render it harmless.)

Jet engines--unaffected by electronics. However, the lack of good computers to design them will hold back jet engine design.

Television--tube-only color TV existed. It would still exist.

Space--it won't be completely prohibited but since you're using tube electronics you need a lot of power and without semiconductors there is no solar power. Satellites are in a very bad way and manned is a suicide mission.

Atomic bombs--big problems designing them, the devices themselves are unaffected. You'll need to do something else if you want to get rid of them.

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Solid state electronics doesn't work. They are stuck with thermionic valves. These can actually be shrunk to the size of a kidney bean and run off a fairly low "HT" (ISTR 24V), but they are still power-hungry and you can still only make one or two at time (dual triodes; if anybody ever made a triple or quad triode I haven't heard of it).

Why? Solid state requires ultra-purified silicon (or germanium, etc). Something in your universe prevents that being possible. One possibility might be that magic causes very slight spontaneous transmutation of some elements, and Silicon and Germanium are vulnerable.

You might make something out of the old meme about Iron being magic-proof. The commonest isotope of Iron is 56, that of Silicon is 28. Maybe stray thaums tend to cause a very low rate of spontaneous fusion of Silicon which is enhanced if the Silicon is in a perfect lattice (which of course, Semiconductor-grade Silicon would be). One part in 10^14 per annum is all it would take.

The same is a perfect excuse for not having anything nuclear. The fissionable elements all suffered thaumatically induced fission a very long time ago. Their periodic table stops dead at Lead or maybe Bismuth.

Anyway, you can do somewhat portable radios, colour TVs and primitive computers with thermionic valves. We actually did all of those. The Russians even did slightly sophisticated avionics that way. However, the number of even miniature valves per cubic meter is very limited by the power and heat dissipation issues.

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A second idea:

No Digital Computers At All

Analog computers got a head start for scientific applications. Why would one go back to 8 Bits -- only 256 different values -- for any important purpose? Those digital circuit boards, they're toys for theoretical computer scientists. Did you read about the Turing machine? A fascinating concept, to a boffin, but where would you ever get a punch tape of infinite length, that can punch and re-seal holes an infinite times?

Nope, analog computers are it.

Such a future would have to reduce the role of code-breaking in computer science, and emphasize engineering and physics.

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    $\begingroup$ 8 bits. 8 Bytes is 64 bits* which is 2^64 = 18446744073709551616 different values. (*: that is when using 8 bits a byte, which historically hasn't always happened, but is a given these days) $\endgroup$ – Jasper Dec 13 '18 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Jasper, yes, a "thinko" by me. Fixed. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 13 '18 at 16:14
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First, I don't like the idea to use magic at all. It is the permission to do anything and break any rule carelessy. So, let's avoid it the most that we can.

Let's suppose a world that is very different from Earth. It is an ocean world covered by a thick ice layer (like Europa or Enceladus, but larger) and is inhabitated by intelligent and technological creatures that lives in the bottom of the seas (see my question about that).

Such creatures are probably blind to eletromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. light) and they "see" using high-resolution sonar. Color sonar vision is possible by assign different colors to different sonar echo frequencies.

However, developing technology, specially eletronics in the deep ocean floor is very challenging. Inventing and controlling electricity in this environment is way harder than it was for humans in Earth. This means that they will probably build machines out of components that work with water streams, differences in water pressure and perhaps heat.

Let's see what are their machines:

  • Mechanical devices that emit or amplify sonar signals are the replacement for radio. A lot of people would work and research very hard to be able to put this into a handheld device.

  • Missiles are only mechanically guided explosive submarine machines.

  • Jet engines are in fact very complex mechanical submarine propulsion systems.

  • Computers are machines that uses water streams and water pressure differences to calculate things without employing electricity.

  • Television or a cinema would be very different for them than what is for us. A TV is probably an object with a lot of almost-microscopic components that can change their density accordingly to finely individually controlled water pressure devices.

  • Atomic bombs? No way! Have a good luck into performing nuclear research in the deep ocean floor.

  • Space exploration? Hahaha! Digging through the outer ice shell layer is something very slow, difficult, laborious and expensive. Out there, there is just an ice wasteland devoid of any useful resources bathed with all sort of nasty radiation coming from the invisible-to-sonar sun and inhabitated only by very few extremophile bacteria.

  • Smartphone? You must be kidding!

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer, but it won't fit the theme of my world. I was asking about how to make a "justification" theory in my world, not replacing the whole concept of my world to make it "justified". Anyway, if this question helps you to improve your world, then I wish the best for you. $\endgroup$ – arlilo Dec 13 '18 at 15:35
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Letting handwavey "magic" explain an otherwise inexplicable stasis very rarely makes for a satisfying foundation of a story. A technological stasis could be explained by cultural reasons (religion, aversion to IT risks, etc.), but these would not organically arise out of early cold war roots, at least not simultaneously on both sides. Another thing to think about is that microelectronics contributed a great deal to the economy, and it was the increase of material prosperity (on both sides) that relieved some pressure and kept the cold war from going thermonuclear. And even then, in our relatively short cold war, we had many close calls and are quite lucky to still be alive. If it went on another 50 years, I'm pretty sure that luck would run out and the cold war "stasis" would end very radioactively.

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Solid state devices depend starting with VERY pure silicon or germanium. When Bell Labs started work they expected it to take 5 years to get materials pure enough. Given that we're talking about impurities on the order of a tablespoon of salt in a freight car of sugar, it doesn't take much to mess it up.

If magic is available then it takes very little magical power to either mix the dopants (the necessary impurities to make transistors work) or to remove them completely. Also having the crystal structure very even is critical.

So: An ordinary mage can disrupt a VLSI circuit very easily. A really powerful mage can do the bigger moves to disrupt a transistor. Since it takes more magical power for both a larger move and a bigger volume, it's not practical to spell a transistor, but very practical for smaller circuits.

A less skill mage may be able to remove .000001% of hte atoms in the semi-conductor resulting in a whole bunch of voids in the crystal structure, disrupting the conduction characteristics.

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Magical Silica

Transistors need hyperfine silica (or gallium or germanium or whatever) as its substrate which as @Loki points out, all have 4 valance electrons. Turns out, the magic is also facilitated through elements with 4 valance electrons, which interferes with semiconductor operation. Perhaps it would be possible to build something analogous to a Faraday cage, but it wouldn't it be worth it.

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