In my fantasy setting there are dwarves, inspired by the "stereotypes" and traits presented in Dwarf Fortress, and thus, partially inspired by the LotR lore.

It has the implications that dwarves use magic, but to an extreme extent, and even then, it's mostly for industrial usage of mining, refining, smelting, manufacturing and so on. My dwarves are practically on the brink of entering an industrialized era, rather being pre-industrialized like most traditional fantasy races.

Because of it, I started wondering, what inventions of the Industrial Revolution might be possibly practical to research, invent and manufacture for such a race, and the radio grabbed my attention.

For the record, my setting consists of multiple closed communities with varying tech level, from prehistoric to pre-WW1 era, meaning that the radio may already exist in this world. Thus, I can imagine dwarves obtaining a single radio, analyzing its mechanics, and replicating it.

My questions:

1) What preconditions are necessary for such a community to be able to invent the radio? Assume an abundance of any kind of metal, and that electricity is not widespread but they have proficiency with it.

2) What are the conditions necessary for mass-manufacturing early 20th century radios? Again, assume abundance of metal, proficiency in electronics, but also the existence of the concept of factories: assembly lines, separation of steps, etc.

Related question: what are the possible obstacles for such actions to happen? E.g. lack of fine mechanics

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    $\begingroup$ "what are the conditions necessary for mass-manufacturing 19th era radios?" – I doubt that there were any radios in the 19th century that could have been mass-produced. Do you mean the 20th century (the years 1901–2000) instead of the 19th (1801–1900)? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @TannerSwett no, I'd like to restrict tech level the pre-WW1 era. Maybe very early 20th century is OK for me but that's all. $\endgroup$
    – Z..
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Reverse-engineering pre-WW1 receiver and transmitter equipment should be easily possible with the skill sets you outline. Inventing would likely be a more difficult matter. $\endgroup$
    – glen_geek
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ "obtaining one single radio and analyzing" - radios existing isn't as important as there being broadcast radio signals. That blows this wide open. It'd be hard to not invent a radio at that point, especially if you have crystals and some wire laying around. - Having electrical power to push your own signal; that's the gate keeper, and the definitive line IMO between the I.R. and the modern age. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ What I feel is generally forgotten is how the physical basis of most of our technology is based on an extremely limited set of laws. Nevertheless, our scientific and engineering approaches create amazing devices. Add in "magic" as an additional basic capability, we should get an incredible set of devices. $\endgroup$
    – Keith
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 2:29

5 Answers 5


Crystal radio.

crystal radio



Patented by Braun and Pickard in 1906, this was the most common type of crystal detector, mainly used with galena but also other crystals. It consisted of a pea-size piece of crystalline mineral in a metal holder, with its surface touched by a fine metal wire or needle (the "cat whisker"). The contact between the tip of the wire and the surface of the crystal formed a crude unstable point-contact metal–semiconductor junction, forming a Schottky barrier diode... Only certain sites on the crystal surface functioned as rectifying junctions. The device was very sensitive to the exact geometry and pressure of contact between wire and crystal, and the contact could be disrupted by the slightest vibration. Therefore, a usable point of contact had to be found by trial and error before each use. The wire was suspended from a moveable arm and was dragged across the crystal face by the user until the device began functioning.In a crystal radio, the user would tune the radio to a strong local station if possible and then adjust the cat whisker until the station or radio noise (a static hissing noise) was heard in the radio's earphones. This required some skill and a lot of patience.

A cool thing about the crystal radio - it requires no energy inputs, but runs off the strength of the transmitted radio signal. Tesla's dream of broadcast energy come to life! The skill and patience part is perfect for dwarves and of course they would use flashier crystals. I envision radio rooms where large crystal rigs and similar geologic amplifiers allow the dwarves to listen to radio broadcasts from a distant civilization.

The dwarves do not know how to make their own radio broadcasts and see no particular reason to do so - the radio stations they get now have jazz and classical music better than anything the dwarves themselves can make.

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    $\begingroup$ Does this make it all "rock music"? xD $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ But - only until the world moves on from AM to FM... $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ Note that a crystal radio might even be "invented" accidentally. $\endgroup$
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ Can you make a broadcasting station? $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 17:53

Before you ask whether a society would be able to invent a technology, you first would need to investigate whether they have a reason to invent that technology. When a technology does not provide a tangible advantage, then it is unlikely to be developed, and if it does get developed nevertheless it is unlikely to stick around.

Most stereotypical Tolkienesque depictions of dwarves see them as living mostly underground. Radio is not a very useful communication medium for a subterran society, because rocks shield radio waves. If they need some form of real-time long-range communication, they would likely stick to mechanical or acoustic communication systems at first. When they electrify their society, then they will likely switch to telegraph wires and later telephone wires (still the standard for communication in modern underground mines). They are unlikely to develop radio technology unless they reached a level of technology where radio becomes a trivial side-product of other, more useful technologies.

...or if they have some pressing problem where radio technology could be a solution. Most of these problems I could think of would involve the surface. When a couple brave adventurers start surface expeditions, then radio could become a useful communication medium. Another possible use-case could be surface radio relays for communicating with far away settlements where tunnel connections are infeasible. A possible underground application could be short-range radio for communication within a very large and densely populated cave (I am thinking of walkie-talkies).

  • $\begingroup$ This. Just line the tunnel with a pair of wires, add socket every given distance, and users can plug in pretty much wherever they need to. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ Or this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaky_feeder. After all, dwarves like to keep moving. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 20:53

I have an ME (electrical) degree and 50+ years experience.
Give me 1900s technology and I can give you a radio system.
Give me Roman technology and 1900s knowledge and a cooperative patron and I can give you a radio system.

You need an energy source - batteries are "easy enough" but take cooperative resource.
You can have an electric motor based transmitter - and the Romans COULD have built them with their technology and 1900s (or quite a lot earlier) knowledge.
Copper wire. (Doesn't HAVE to be copper but it's doable).
A crystal detector material is useful but not essential.
Razor blade edge type detectors are doable.
Flame detectors if you must.

More details if it looks like people think the answer is useful.
You'd need to make a comment I'd see as I otherwise may not check back for a while.


People have queries how hard it would be to make a "detector diode" - known often as a 'coherer' in the early days of radio. Plain iron filings can be used. A flame can be used. A sharp edge such as a razor blade works, and a naturally occuring "Galena" (lead oxide) crystal, and quite a lot more.

Modern Spark gap TX and Iron filing coherer RX |

From this highly informative webpage -

De Forest Flame Coherer -

enter image description hereDe Forest flame coherer](http://www.geojohn.org/Radios/MyRadios/Coherer/FlameDiode.gif) and Many many coherers, receivers, ... here

enter image description here

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As a comparison of what COULD have been achieved with 'available technology" long ago.

As a parallel.
History tells us of Hero's Steam Engine - created by an Alexandrian.
A novelty / toy / diversion.
They COULD have ended up with steam catapults / chariots / ships / ... . They didn't.

Wikipedia - Hero's Steam Enine

Aeolipile images

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    $\begingroup$ The aeolipile couldn't have powered catapults, chariots, or ships: it generates only trivial amounts of torque, and is horribly inefficient at doing so. Turning it into the modern steam turbine requires 1900s knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want. There was a vast gap between Hero's engine and the development of the modern steam engine. Ctesibius* of Alexandria described the same basic device in around 200 BC, Hero mentioned it in about 100 AD and "practical" engines are then recorded around 1700 on. If either of the above had developed based on what they had our current history would be an alternative one :-). There is no reason that the Aeoliopile in not too developed form could not have been used for powering real devices. ... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark The laws that govern its power output are much the same as for an early steam turbine - but the basic 2 nozzle output limits power. Somewhere along the way you "discover" a multi path disk "nozzle" and a turbine rotor appears. Somewhere :-). If you have ever tried to produce decent pressure from a DIY gas turbine run as a "compressor" (I have) you rapidly come to appreciate why real world ones rotate at such immense RPM. Re radio I said "Give me Roman technology and 1900s knowledge and I could ... . The same applies to a mechanical expert (or even me) and a turbine. ... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ Roman technology might work for a radio (the only tricky part is the diode, and I presume natural galena will work for that), but Roman metallurgy won't work for steam power. Newcomen's engine, at ~13 kPa, was pushing the limits of what early-1700s metalworking could handle, and even Watt's late-1700s engines didn't go much higher than that. Try to make an efficient steam turbine with Roman metallurgy, and it's an open question whether it'll break first from vibration fatigue, a disk explosion, or a boiler explosion. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ Better metallurgy didn't come from "we want a steam engine", but from completely different branches (which was then folded into better steam engines). You'd have to bootstrap other industries to get steam technology up to snuff, which in turn is going to require other technologies. This recurses into an entire industrial revolution; replicating one part of an industrial revolution without the rest of it starves to death. But the industrial revolution is not just a technological problem; it also requires structural changes in society. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 17:50

Yes, with some difficulties. Especially if they could reverse-engineer an existing radio. There are many ways to make simple radios, including using three pennies.

Normally there would be great difficulty in making small wires and diodes, but you say your dwarves are already proficient in electricity, which means they are already familiar with capacitors, diodes, and even magnets. The most complicated part of the items I've linked above would be the speaker (converting electricity to sound), but you can see the description of basic speakers here and here.

With an understanding of - and ability to use - electricity, a race with plentiful metal and proficiency in simple manufacturing could definitely make a radio.

The question of mass production, however, is a bit more complicated. It is quite tedious to make reasonably-sized radios (ie radios you can carry) because the components have to be so small. It is unlikely to be able to produce small components without the use of machinery.

That said, sticking with larger, 1800s-era "simple" radios, mass manufacturing could be done assembly-line style. Note, however, that this is not easy to be done at once: there will need to be mining, then creation of the components (wire, baseboard, magnets) as a second step (metal takes time to cool). Then transport those components to a location where dwarves solder and assemble the pieces together.

Note that the complexities here are (a) organizing many dwarves from many different areas (mining, metalworking, assembly lines) to cooperate, (b) finding a fair way to balance the wages and values of each step, and (c) convincing all these dwarves to participate. In other words, it's a large organizational undertaking, which is why capitalistic societies tended to mass manufacture first; these types of things involve so many moving pieces in so many areas. I'm not saying is has to be a capitalistic society, only that the organization capacity and cooperative ability of the dwarves would definitely be a limiting factor.

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    $\begingroup$ only that the organization capacity and cooperative ability of the dwarves would definitely be a limiting factor. - isn't that granted by default in a streotypical dwarven society? Mining on its own requires enormous cooperation, can't imagine a society that can do extensive mining but no sane way of manufacturing. $\endgroup$
    – Z..
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ The "three-penny radio" you link to requires, in addition to the pennies, an integrated circuit -- the pennies are just a fancy substitute for copper wire. That's not something that fantasy dwarves will be able to reverse-engineer. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ Also, diodes are by no means a simple feat... $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Vilx- Spark gap TX and Iron filing coherer RX | and a De Forest flame coherer and Many many coherers, receivers, ... here $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ Just a note on wire: the art of wire-wrapping for jewelry dates to at least 1500bc, and was extremely common, so I think anything that requires wire, including delicate coils and wraps, should be considered trivial by 1800s standards. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 14:58

Sorry, you can disregard this. I just reread the original post more carefully and I see that your dwarves have a tech level at the beginning of industry. It's someone else who has a tech level closer to WWI.

If you're asking what I think you're asking, the answer is yes. I think you're asking if a society can invent a radio before having World War I technology. In real life, the radio was invented in 1895 so that's not a problem. The fact that these people are a little shorter and wider on average than we are is irrelevant.

If you're asking whether they could have more advanced than we did in 1913 while still having broadly pre-World War I technology, then I'd say yes. Different technologies aren't guaranteed to advance at the same pace. It's possible to have a society who's radio technology is a little ahead of where ours was while being a little behind ours in a few other ways. Maybe they haven't invented airplanes or cars but their electronics are advanced.


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