Basically, I want to freeze the technology of earth at a level reminiscent of pre-Industrial Revolution Europe. I'm trying to figure out what substance or material would have to be absent from the geological makeup of the earth in order to prevent any significant technological advancement past this point, without altering the technological development of the world prior to this point.

I know that of course there will be advancements regardless, but is it possible to limit these as much as possible? If not, then is there a time period where it would be possible to halt development in the manner described above?

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    $\begingroup$ Coal and petrol $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 26 '19 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ As Alexander states, the removal of fossil fuel resources would certainly be a big problem for achieving industrialisation. However, there are alternative options that would likely be discovered eventually such as dry distillation of wood in something akin to a Gasworks. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dry_distillation $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Mar 26 '19 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly, your best bet might be technological stifling due to culture rather than a physical change. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Mar 27 '19 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @ArkensteinXII Even more than that, fossil fuel removal would greatly limit the available energy: until nuclear power is discovered, you are limited to solar (with at best a few percent efficiency, including growing trees) and a few dams and geothermal points. Not nearly enough to feed a IRL-style industrial revolution by far. Industrial revolution may still happen, but dramatically more slowly, which may stifle technological advancement at the same time. $\endgroup$ – Eth Mar 27 '19 at 10:13

I'm approaching this from the "reverse": what you cannot remove since it has been used in pre-industrial era, and see if we can have an industrial revolution.

Cannot remove:

  1. most organic material. Removing it disrupts too much life (including human life), and possible entire ecologies.
  2. all the metals used in antiquity (iron, copper, tin, etc.)
  3. silicon (used in glass)

Concrete has been used by Romans, so would be here.

Steel would be here. Charchoal can produce high quality steel, and can act as a fuel, on a much more limited scale. Canada and Russia would be much more relevant, similar to OPEC countries, due to their enourmous amount of wood.

Hydroelectricity would be here. The amount of hydro would be more than enough to satisfy the energy needs for industrial revolution. Electrical grids can be build. Trains will run on electricity instead of coal. Cars and trucks will be replaced by trolleybuses/trolleytrucks. Ships will continue to rely on sails.

So I would say both industrial revolutions will be there, albeit slower.

Removing rare earth would cripple the electronic industry as we know, and not that important for preindustrial techs. But even then I am not sure that this a showstopper, before asteroid mining becomes feasible.

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The two obvious things would be coal and oil, but because they form from biogenic sources, it is hard to envisage a planet that harbours life without any fossil fuel deposits.

One could suggest that due to the various circumstances, the fossil fuels would not be readily available in Europe, delaying their exploitation. However, the European powers were colonising the world before that, with oil being found in the Middle East and coal being found just about everywhere (for example in Australia, a British colony).

One of the reasons for fossil fuels to not be adopted could be political conservatism or environmental instead. Some of us may recognise this quote attributed to Napoleon (although of questionable authenticity):

You would make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her decks? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense.

The leaders could simply think it is not a good idea, delaying adoption of this technology by centuries. Alternatively, the early industrial revolution was extremely polluting. People could just object to it because no one wants to have a coal-fired plant next to their house.

This could be paralleled to modern times - some people are reluctant to adopt wind and solar and increase adoption of nuclear, because of political conservatism. People are just happy with the way things are and don't want to adopt new things. Having a few leaders in key countries that have this mind set would delay the industrial revolution.

For example, gold was a major contributor to scientific advancement. Rutherford developed his model of the atom by playing with gold foils.

It is also possible to get rid of some of the commonly used metals such as iron or aluminium, but as iron is essential for life, and aluminium is one of the most abundant elements in the solar system and on Earth, it is hard to envisage how Earth as we know it would function without them.

As to chemistry, an easy way to delay technological advancement to let's say early 20th century (albeit after the industrial revolution) is to get rid of all the noble metals. Gold, platinum, palladium, etc. Being noble metals, they are not essential for life. Life could very well evolve without them.

The fact that we even have noble metals is pretty much an accident. All of them were supposed to go to the Earth's core, but a geo-astronomical event called the late veneer (see last part of my answer here) added more of them to the crust and mantle. If this event would never have happened, the development of electronics would very much slow down and stop at a very primitive level (late 19th century).

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    $\begingroup$ From a cultural perspective, the lack of gold on Earth would have caused the entirety of history to have unfolded differently... $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Mar 26 '19 at 23:45

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