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I am thinking of a planet (I suppose one would call it a parallel earth) where the industrial revolution never happens, and people live with 1700s technology forever. What differences in resources/weather/environment/available land area could ensure that it doesn't happen, and what impact would these changes have on other aspects of society?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. You're asking what we call a high concept question, which isn't a good fit for our site. The SE model is one-specific-question/one-best-answer and you've asked two - one of which (impact on society) is too broad/opinion-based to answer. Please edit your question to meet our help center guidelines. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 12 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ 1700s tech includes the printing press, the telescope and the microscope and good clocks; there are already universities teaching science. I think, industrial revolution is almost unavoidable at that point and can only be delayed. $\endgroup$ – jknappen - Reinstate Monica Apr 12 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ While not everyone agrees on the no fossil fuels thing, if you go that route, there is a very easy scientific way to do it. Most of the world's fossil fuels exist because plants developed cellulose 60 million years before any organism learned how to digest it; so, every plant that died was unable to decompose and became fossil fuels instead. Eliminate that wait, and you have no fossil fuel industry. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Apr 12 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ @GreenieE. The industrial revolution did not rely upon steam engines (more the needs of the industrial revolution inspired more interest in steam engines). Also, changing the chemical structure of water carries far more dramatic effects than just inhibiting steam engines. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 20:13

18 Answers 18

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Limit the availability of raw materials, in particular fossil fuels and iron. Without fossil fuels you are limited to wood burning as a power source which is far less energy dense and a much more finite supply. Without iron it's much harder to make much of the earlier engineering feats.

This means you don't get useful steam engines or railways which were two of the largest factors in industrialization. This would also extend out to mining which becomes harder, etc.

The life of most people would not be impacted as much (iron, steel and in particular steel weapons would be extremely rare and valuable) but would continue as normal.

Eventually you can expect people to find a way around these limitations so there would still be technological advancement but it would be much slower. So you can't achieve "for ever" but you could conceivably have centuries of millennia of very slow advancement before enough breakthroughs are made to unlock alternative technologies.

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    $\begingroup$ Really, just limit coal -- you'll keep steel an expensive luxury item, used in swords and armor (by the rich) and little else. You'll be centuries just developing the ability to drill for oil. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Apr 12 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @genesis You could, but wood is limited by arable surface (think wood as a very, very inefficient solar collector). There isn't enough surface to fuel an industrial revolution. Fossil fuels are a solar battery that was filled by tens of millions of years during the Carboniferous. $\endgroup$ – Eth Apr 12 at 14:27
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    $\begingroup$ The industrial revolution does not need steam engines. Water power works as well, and wood fired trains run fine too, even if not as efficient, and necessity might get people to look earlier at oil or gas fired trains, or use alcohol as fuel. Never underestimate the ingenuity of people, the absence of coal will change but not stop the industrial revolution $\endgroup$ – Whitecold Apr 12 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ Alcohol! That's what I was looking for! Or biological gases! $\endgroup$ – genesis Apr 12 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Whitecold Not only does water work, it did work. Factories had 50-100 years of using water power before steam engines replaced it. And even then, the layout of factories and the size of steam engines was dictated by driving the old water-powered machinery. $\endgroup$ – Graham Apr 12 at 18:45
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That is far too advanced to expect technology to remain static for long. Technology advances without new resources - new resources certainly shape how technology advances, but better methods and processes develop using the same resource constraints.

Coal is not the cause of industrialization, so eliminating it will not prevent advancement. This may be suggested as people misunderstand the industrial revolution and think it was caused by steam-power, but the industrial revolution was already well underway before that became widespread (causality runs the other way - it is the industrial revolution which leads to the development of steam power as innovators sought ways to feed the rapidly growing power needs). Charcoal is nearly as good for most purposes anyway, so you would see all the effort that went into coal mining go into tree farms and kilns, and likely transport of charcoal from areas with plentiful forests.

Water power was extensively used for industrial purposes but was supplanted because conditions made coal-fired steam engines cheaper. Canals were being built at a rapid place to facilitate trade before railroads became cheaper. Windmills were used where water was either scarce or slow-moving (I've been fascinated by the Dutch sawmills). While certainly more expensive and more constrained than steam engines, these still power development.

Imposing sufficient constraints to prevent people developing beyond the 18th century standards would be sufficient constraints that they would be unable to attain even that level of development.

Developments like capitalism, assembly-line production, standardized replaceable parts, cargo containerization, and most of the truly innovative changes which allowed the amazing economic development we enjoy today do not rely upon any resources beyond the human mind.

The constraint will need to be societal in nature, like a strong religious prohibition on any changes, but that will not last forever as there will always be those who question.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have to disagree. You can sustain limited industrialization with sources such as water wheels, charcoal burning engines, etc. There just is not enough space to grow enough trees to replace coal as a fuel source. Obviously it will not stop it completely but progress will stall once it is not possible to kick-start it with millions of years worth of stored solar power in the form of fossil fuels. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Apr 12 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB I don't see this argument work in light of what the answer says about wind and water power. There is possiblity of moving from water to gas, for example, bypassing coal. Obviously you would have limitations due to coal used extensively in heating things, but the problem doesn't appear insurmountable. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Apr 12 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB Not only was the industrial revolution well under way before steam engines (whole factories were built around waterwheels and it took a long time after their invention for steam engines to replace waterwheels), but coal is not necessary. Had coal not been available, industrial processes would have shifted form rather than been impossible. In the United States, where trees were certainly plentiful, charcoal was preferred until the mid 19th century and at least one charcoal blast furnace lasted until the end of WW2. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ Charcoal would have become prohibitively expensive also. As the demand for charcoal rose without coal replacing it, many countries would have deforested their landscape. Eventually, they would have to rely on water or wind power, but with devastated ecosystems. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Apr 12 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Sonvar that would not have stopped people from using charcoal, many countries deforested their land anyway. Really the big invention that kick starts the industrial revolution is the invention of the metal lathe which creates the ability to make precision machinery. $\endgroup$ – John Apr 13 at 2:00
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The (misconception here, there's been many industrial revolutions in major & minor countries over quite some time - even Switzerland had some) Industrial Revolutions have not just been about technology, but also about society.

The change from homeworking and small manufacturing to central factories and exporting goods had to go hand-in-hand with changes in how society worked and accepted these paradigm shifts.

  • People had to have reasons to work in these new factories powering new industries.
  • Laws had to be accommodating these new structures and allow for them - many medieval laws actively prevented any advances that destroyed working places, this changed with the renaissance..

Instead of removing resources, prevent changes in law - thus prevent reformation of societies. This will prevent any advances in industrialization and technology much longer than removing some resources.


TL;DR You can't prevent industrialization by getting rid of resources, but you can delay any huge technological advances by keeping society static.

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You might not need a reason. We assume that just because something has happened to us it seems natural but consider that in Australia they never invented bow and arrow.

There might also be fewer political or economic forces to make such inventions attractive. Given good farmland humans might be able to live on very few hours of work a day and be perfectly happy. I think Harari's Sapiens was discussing this.

I'm also not sure if you would still consider this industrial revolution but it is not (immediately) obvious (to me, at least) that many of the achievements of the steam engine could not have been done without it. Wind energy was already popular.

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    $\begingroup$ There are many indigenous peoples around the world who never made it to the industrial age - even to the present day. The key is to have a society whose sole job is to sustain their lifestyle. Once you give people 'free time' to invent, they will find new things. Reading and writing allow people to advance because they build their knowledge base. $\endgroup$ – Tracy Cramer Apr 12 at 17:34
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I think that you will find that strong property rights are a common characteristic of peoples and nations that innovate in the way the English did in creating the industrial revolution. Why build a mill if somebody else is going to destroy it or take it away from you?

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  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget copyright, patent, and trademark laws. While they stifle certain kinds of innovation, they allow the big leaps that bring technology forward by protecting large capital investments. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Apr 12 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ Speaking of property rights, there are some theories which claim industrial revolution should be traced to the process of enclosure in England, which sparked development and thus why they lead in industrialization. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ Since Rome has been brought up so many times as a failure to industrialize, I'd like to point out that they experienced the same phenomenon following the Punic Wars with the establishment of Latifundia style farming. In certainly encourages urbanization, but numerous civilizations urbanized without industrializing (Rome, China, Egypt, Greece, etc). I feel like, most civilizations actually stagnate when they urbanize because it so strongly encourages social disparity, and ideological monopolies. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Apr 13 at 18:32
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Here are a number of ideas, some are more speculative and handwaving than others.

  • No Coal Deposits

Have some kind of bacteria that rapidly decomposes dead wood develope when trees come around. They would need to be quite resilient and have some extremophile cousins to decompose wood in anaerobic environments.

  • No Colonialism

This is really speculative but could work story wise. Have a ghost plage-ship reach the America 200 years before Columbus or have the Norse colonies on Vinland and Markland succeed. Both events would allow the Americans to develop immunities to European diseases, which killed 95% of the population before the Europeans came to colonize. The technological advantage would not have been sufficient to conquer native superpowers during that time. No American colonial nations would hamper European economies, because there would be fewer export markets. Without the colonial successes in the Americas the tedious adventures in Africa, South-East-Asia and India wouldn´t have a base. Especially the case of India is interesting, as the looting of India by the British and it's use as a resource mine and market might have been crucial for the industrial revolution to happen.

  • Slavery

Brasil isn´t a world power. That´s really odd as it is a huge, resource and manpower-rich country. The reason for that is that they didn´t industrialized, as their economy was slave-based. European economies weren´t slave-based because the Pope prohibited the enslavement of the recently baptized in 1435. Never let this happen and you got slave economies in Europe.

All that said I don´t feel that option two and three will be permanent. Option one with no coal means no industry or the rapid collapse of it when the forests are all cut down. An example of this would be the Mioan copper industry on Crete. This would hit all the countries equally. Options two and three would only hamper Europe. In that case, my money would be on one of the Mughal Empires Indian successor states or Japan starting the spiral of technological development. India had been one of the most industrialized regions of the world for millennia until the British came plundering. Japan had already developed high-sea ships, but they were shocked into isolationism upon contact with the more advanced Europeans. Keep the Europeans primitive and a Japanese colonial Empire could be the first step in and eastern technology arms race with Korea and Qing. But both the latter options would give you a few centuries longer of pre-industrial Europe to play around with.

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    $\begingroup$ None of these actually affect the industrial revolution. Coal comes close, but that is largely a misconception due to coal being heavily used in how the industrial revolution developed. Slavery is absolutely irrelevant (maybe even retards development), and colonialism likely cost more than it provided. There is simply no mechanism for those to be necessary for an industrial revolution. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi 1. How is coal a misconception? Without it as a dense energy surce there will be no steam engines. Wood won´t work due to deforestation. 2. Slavery is absolutely relevant, as the industrial revolution was about making work more efficient. Slaves are cheap workers who can be bread en masse if needed. Additionally slaves don´t buy as many products as free workers, so the markets would not demand industrialised production. 3. What kind of colonialism are you talking about? The Americas where maybe financially negative, but Asia was most defintively not. $\endgroup$ – TheDyingOfLight Apr 12 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ 1. The industrial revolution got started without widespread use of coal. It was used extensively out of convenience, being relatively cheap and energy-dense, but there is no requirement for it. Coal certainly helped expand development more rapidly than without it, but this is not the same as being required for industrial innovation (one could even argue that it retarded technological developments in efficiency as it made inefficient processes less prohibitively expensive). I see no way that lacking coal would have prevented technological innovation. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ 2. Slavery is irrelevant because it has no significant influence on the industrial revolution. Personally I find that excessively reductive to the point of being misleading. Development has a multitude of causes, of which slavery is not determinative (not least of which because of how you define "slave" vs serf vs itinerant worker). Climate, disease, cultural traits, good governance, extractive colonial governments, etc. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ I would add, a big factor why slave based economy countries are not developed is mostly due to the way the government operated. In a semi-free country, such as western Europe, the government were somewhat held accountable, thus managed the country better, allowing for better economy to flourish. In most slave countries, the government had little regard for the people and thus treated them hard and would take from them what they wanted when they wanted. This would stifle development. Just look at Brazils turbulent and corrupt history for that. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Apr 12 at 23:14
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Don't change the planet, change the animals living on it.

Do you remember the story of John Henry? As the story goes, he was the best railroad track layer in the country and he challenged a steam hammer to a track laying competition. If he could beat the steam hammer, then the railroad company would use manual labor instead. He was fast enough to win, but he died of exhaustion, and the railroad company used steam hammers anyway. But... what John Henry was just an average railroad track layer, and there where other guys much stronger and faster than he was who could leave a steamhammer in the dust?

Now imagine a world where biology is just better across the board. Horses that haul several ton carts at interstate speeds, people who are dexterous enough to weave clothing at the pace of a loom or carve furniture at the speed of power tools, and Oxen that can plow and reap fields with all the speed of a tractor.

You don't need to make animals Marvel action hero better, just better enough that creating a technology good enough to beat good-ol-fashioned elbow grease would require too many individual improvements to get from point A to point B for people to ever get there. After all: if steam engines and water mills are never needed, no one would have come up with all of the hundreds of incremental advancements in modern metallurgy and mechanics necessary to finally make people obsolete.

The effect that this would have on society is that tools powered by man or animals would just be seen as better. After enough steam powered contraptions come and go, they would begin to be regarded with so much skepticism that even when someone does have a good enough idea to improve things, most people would laugh it off, IE: "A turbine engine? Haha, that's just a fancy steam engine. If I want to fly cross country, I'll just ride a giant bird like any reasonable human being. Good luck not exploding!"

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  • $\begingroup$ Technological development carries on even without the next marginal improvement being the one which renders it superior in all ways. Steam engines themselves went through a century of tweaking before coming up with something practical, and even then that is a generous description. It might reduce investment, but won't stop the technological progress of nerds investigating weird stuff just for the fun of it. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ This kind of gets out of the realm of reality and into more magic. Most biology is at or near its optimal performance levels now. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Apr 12 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi, the Roman's developed the steam engine centuries before their fall and never pursued it because they could not find a use for it. Renaissance inventors, had watermills, and saw steam power as a way to build what was already a useful tech in places without rivers; so, to them there was an immediate use. If watermills were useless too, then they may have never pursued either technology long enough to get to modern industrialization. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Apr 13 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Sonvar There is no science-based tag. That said, evolution only optimises to the point of fitness to one's environment, not to the limits of what biology is actually capable of. For example, if you take a planet with a less tilted axis than Earth, seasons would be less severe and more animals would have access to year-round food. Animals could operate at less of a margin driven by conserving resources for winter and selective fitness would become more about having the most overclocked metabolism. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Apr 13 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ Also, it only takes the evolution of one new cell structure, enzyme, or protein to revolutionize the way life works. Cellulose evolved and plants went from little mossy things to 100ft trees overnight. A similar mutation might replace neuron myelination multiplying the speed at which animals can think, forcing animals to change everything about the why they function for our bodies to keep up with our minds. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Apr 13 at 18:08
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Massive solar flares on a regular basis.

Also, possibly, a much weaker planetary magnetic field.

In 1989, a solar flare knocked out the power in Quebec. Big solar storms capable of knocking out power happen often enough but luckily most of them miss us. And we have a huge magnetic shield around the planet thanks to our active core so smaller storms don't have much impact. (Mars, for example, does not have this magnetic shield, which is a big problem for future colonization plans.)

So, I'm thinking:

The sun for this planet is far more active than ours. The planet is closer to it. The planet's magnetic field is weaker, offering it much less protection. Under conditions like this, my thinking that any sort of advance towards electricity tends to fail so regularly that it's simply not pursued as anything more than a fun hobby for toys that sometimes work. "Steampunk" (mechanical devices driven by simple engines) become normal and electricity is rarely if ever pursued.

Also, they probably have really spectacular auroras.

Further reading: https://earthsky.org/space/are-solar-storms-dangerous-to-us

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It's been argued the fact that Western Europe was splintered into competing and often warring kingdoms, with an independent Catholic Church, following the fall of the Roman Empire contributed to a culture of learning and technological innovation that eventually led to the Industrial Revolution.

Yes, Europe benefited from a unique geography, fertile soils, and a rich abundance of mineral resources. However if Europe had been united under one secular and/or religious ruler, as in China or the Ottoman Empire, new and disruptive thinking, financial innovations, and technologies could have been easily suppressed.

If the Roman Empire had persisted under one emperor, and indeed expanded into Germany, Eastern Europe, and perhaps farther east, I can't see the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, or the Industrial Revolution happening in Europe or anywhere else on Earth, at least not by the present time.

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    $\begingroup$ The Roman Empire, in many ways, was already at the door step to the industrial revolution. they had power consumption needs to power their lives, hey had some centralized industry to satisfy their needs and for trade, and they were developing new technologies and techniques to make their lives better. Problem was, Rome was very corrupt and only the rich and powerful were protected from a thuggish government. Only a small group oligarchs were able to invest in large capital projects. So progress was slow $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Apr 12 at 22:57
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A possible catastrophe to stead the progression of technology would need to force people away from cities/ prevent people from gathering in large groups to create a disposable work force (factories would not be able to staff up to full production). A new flu strain might make people weary of large gatherings and tight proximity, a law might be in-place to prevent talk of uprisings and challenges to the powers that be, maybe a disease that only effects woman has killed off most of the females of our population and those left are forced into exclusivity to protect their female resources. The how is pretty broad, but one of those scenarios would be an interesting place to build a world out of.

In terms of impact, the amount of humans the earth can support would be dramatically reduced. Up to current time, population spikes have been met with new technology in the agriculture space to support the new boom. The industrialization of farming is what allowed large populations to be sustained during the industrial revolution, and also allowed for large amounts of the populations that did not have to farm. People all over the world would be starving, likely forcing more people into indentured servitude or slavery as those ways of life would likely be the only way to get fed. It would start its own apocalyptic world, where a large portion of the world is doomed to die of starvation. People likely would turn to cannibalism and the fabric of society would quickly unravel.

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    $\begingroup$ A viral strain that targeted wheat before the advent of biology or genetics. Much of the western world would have been decimated before anyone would have known what was going on. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Apr 12 at 23:25
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Religious oppression.

Religion won't allow certain advancements.

The impact is fairly obvious, disease and starvation remain rampant, people never live very long, knowledge is rarely passed between generations.

Here's a simplified view.

Generation 1: Man needs wood for his fire, he can only collect fallen trees. He spends his entire life collecting wood and hunting. His son grows up.

Generation 2: Seeing his father busy from wood hunting, her tries to use tools he already has to cut down a tree. Smashing it with a rock doesn't work, but eventually the rock splits and becomes sharp. This new sharp rock works much better. His son sees this.

Generation 3: The Axe is born, the man goes out and cuts down a tree, brings it home, and raises a family, the son is a baby.

---Religious fanatics attack claiming this new axe invention violates gods rules of the world. The man is killed and his axe destroyed.

Generation 4: The baby grows to be a man, and has to go collect wood for the fire by hand, not knowing about the lost invention of the axe or how to make one.

The cycle repeats forever.

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    $\begingroup$ "The dark ages halted the development of civilization for a long time. It was a time where math and science was evil" This is actually a bit of a myth. However, if the mediaeval period had been like this then indeed we would have been proper stuck (probably regressed, even), so your suggestion is still sound. $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races with Monica Apr 12 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ Such tight control would never allow 18th century achievements, which was already quite modern in many ways. Also, "the dark ages" were not really a thing (unless you are talking about post-bronze age collapse Greece in the 12th century BC) - that idea is a holdover from before we had properly developed history as an academic field. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi Would the Amish be a better example of religion suppressing technology? $\endgroup$ – Trevor Apr 12 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that this regime will most probably be destroyed at some point by a rival one that didn't outlaw technology. The Amish only exist because they live in a bigger technophile regime that both tolerates it and protects it from others, which by definition cannot be scaled up to the entire world, especially a pre-industrial one. $\endgroup$ – Eth Apr 12 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ More generally, the religious fanatics excuse is often lazily used to justify some bad quirk in worldbuilding, generally in a nonsensical way based on long-debunked clichés like the medieval dark ages, or the medieval/renaissance Catholic Church/Muslim empires supposed flat-earther anti-science stance. $\endgroup$ – Eth Apr 12 at 15:34
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The industrial revolution happened because of advances in technology.

Technology improved because of advances in science.

Science (and art) improved because more resources and people time became available.

This Renaissance happened because a substantial portion of the population suddenly disappeared (Black Plague), leaving a population with far more resources and infrastructure per person that they had ever had before.

So, if you want to prevent the industrial revolution, you have to first eliminate the Renaissance. And you can do that by eliminating the Black Plague, and allowing Europe to continue existing in the dark ages.

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    $\begingroup$ It's not like technological advances were inexistent during the medieval period in Europe. Architecture, engineering, fabrication, materials science; They all progressed. Even without a plague it is certain that technology would have kept progressing. $\endgroup$ – Gabriel C. Apr 12 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ This may exacerbate the need to colonize other lands. The population of Europe would have been way too much for the local resources to have supported, triggering mass migration else where. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Apr 12 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Sonvar, that's what the Crusades were for. $\endgroup$ – Ray Butterworth Apr 12 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ Without the Black Death, there would have been fewer advances in medicine spread to the serfs, so the population would have been more stable. And while technology was progressing prior to the Black Death, it wasn't focused on doing more with less population. The Black Death kickstarted that. And when the population recovered, they had excess capacity as a result. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Apr 13 at 13:28
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Limiting fossil fuels would only had delayed the Industrial Revolution from taking off. So that's not going to cut it.

You'll need a massive shortage of materials, like metal ores being depleted or unavailable (think the collapse of the Ringworld civilization in Larry Niven's novels.)

The world would have to have been very unusual, either most metals sunk to the core, or some process depleted them. Then you have humanity with nothing but stone, wood, bone and clay. Too extreme me thinks.

One thing that could delay progress is Plague. Think some form of plague that's cyclic, like the cicadas, with a high mortality rate, but with the cycles changing unpredictable over time, tied to some migratory vector species.

The Old World went to crap several times because of the Plague, and it were plagues introduced by Europeans that utterly destroyed all Pre-Columbian civilizations, from the agrarian all the way up to militarily strong, sophisticated empires.

So if you throw a wrench at humanity in the form of a recurring, unstoppable, high mortality rate, then whatever remains of humanity will be forced to hunker down in fragmented areas, which grow and then break over and over.

The cycles should be long enough for population to semi-bounce and spread and create new bunkers, and then to experience massive, widespread death when the plague comes.

I have a hard time seeing humanity escaping from being illiterate nomads with a few feudal lords here and there.

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    $\begingroup$ The OP wanted 18th century, which even at the beginning thereof is substantially more advanced than illiterate nomads with feudal lords. The time was presumably chosen as being on the cusp of practical steam engines (Newcomen's steam engine was patented in 1712 but more primitive designs had been around longer) $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 12 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say my idea of cyclic plagues would do the trick. Hit humanity hard and unpredictably every 3-4 generations. A few rounds of that, and humanity would go from 18th industrial revolution to illiterate nomads. $\endgroup$ – luis.espinal Apr 13 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ Not only do I disagree with that premise, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the question, which is not "drop people from 18th century to illiterate nomads", but is to keep people at 18th century levels forever. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 14 at 22:22
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While not quite at the same level of technology, I suspect better sanitation would be a small, reasonable change.

With better sanitation, the black death never rips through Europe. The grip and authority of the church is never challenged in the same way. The population of Europe remains high, preventing wealth and knowledge from accumulating the same way. As a result, people remain in limbo, or at least advance much slower

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The Industrial Revolution would have looked very different, if it could have happened at all, if not for surface deposits of coal (and secondarily oil).

Coal is formed by the decomposition of plant matter in peat bogs by anaerobic bacteria. Therefore, a different microbiome during the carboniferous era (and later) might have produced much less coal near the surface where it could have been easily mined. This might involve a new species that was better at decomposing plant matter in water before it could become coal, either aerobic or anaerobic, or the kinds of bacteria that started the process never evolving.

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No scarcity of wood

People in England started using coal for heating because charcoal became too expensive due to massive deforestation. The steam engine was invented to pump water out of coal mines so that more coal could be mined! It was a desperate move to use that dirty toxic underground mineral rather than wood.

No overpopulation in cold latitudes

Of course, wood would not had become scarce of the number of people in England was not large enough to provoke a massive deforestation. If the number of people in cold ladies head remained in balance with the rate of forest recovery, the steam engine would never have appeared.

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The history of mankind is one of progress. There must have been many opportunities missed by mankind, and yet here we are. "missing" the industrial rev would not stop progress, the technology would advance, only in a different way. This would be an interesting idea to work with... How would the technology advance differently?

Let me know if you do anything with this, I would be interested to hear what you write.

Edit:

One example of us missing an opportunity would be periods of tech slowdown like 1971-now. Where tech advance has been limited to only the world of byts. Peter Thiel would say it's because we have become (most people) indefinite optimists, I would say it's because we had some social innovation instead.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems to be more of a comment than an actual answer. Do check out the help center and tour so you can get a better idea of how Worldbuilding Stack Excchange works and what is expected of good queries and responses! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Apr 12 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Thanks I will. $\endgroup$ – NCT 127 Apr 13 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. You're proposing what we call a frame challenge. It's a perfectly valid answer, but ideally comes with a more thorough explanation of why the OP's original premise is inadequate or invalid. You obviously couldn't have known that without reading our Meta, but did a passable job nontheless. Cheers! $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 13 at 0:58
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You have to derail the western civilization early. It's not natural resources nor technology that brings about industrialization but the social setting. The West industrialized first because it had a global trade network increasing the demand for goods since the great navigations, massive internal migrations from the villages to the cities since the 30 years war devastated the countrysides of Europe and the enclosures finished the jobs and a complete lack of reverence for the natural world that allowed it to exploit both the nature and the fellow men (the lack of reverence for the nature came from christianity killing the ancient animism and illuminism killing the link bewteen man and god).

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