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Humans developed technology from sticks and stones to computers and rockets in thousands of years. However most of this is only possible given access to certain elements like iron, copper and the like. So the question is what environment would prevent technology from developing? What should the planet be made of to not allow electronics from being invented?

Due to this the planet would only be able to make use of physical or chemical properties of materials, for building houses or making medicines. To a space traveler this would be "primitive" but the natives would not be stupid. They are intelligent, good at craftsmanship but can't make electronics for some reason.

Saying that they aren't evolved enough or have no desire to develop technology is beyond the point. I also get a lot of comments on my creature design posts that say that humans are ultimately superior and that adaptations are unnecessary. So getting a good reason to why that can't happen would be perfect.

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    $\begingroup$ Electronics or technology? Because the first computer wasn't even electronical but mechanical made by Charles Babbage. Were we unable to do pursue electronics, we'd still have automatic computation available to us. Such a world, might in fact be a lot closer to what steampunk fiction shows with very advanced mechanisms driven by steampower or clockwork. Fun fact: it was Babbage who said "Garbage in, garbage out" baffled by how stupid a question was, thus making him the first SO commenter. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jan 10 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ There is no way to have a technological society and yet somehow make electronics impossible. The first vacuum tubes were made before the first World War, and all the technical elements were available 50 years earlier. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 10 at 14:09
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There are places on earth where metals and even rocks are hard to reach

The plot of The Gods Must Be Crazy (great flick, IMHO) was based on the claim that in the Kalahari desert, the soil is so soft and free of rocks that a glass Coke bottle was the hardest object that a certain bushman had ever seen. I don't know if that's really true of that particular desert, but there are certainly other places where people cannot access rocks. I live in a place where the last Ice Age deposited rocks of all sizes, everywhere, so it seems strange to me, but there are prairies in the USA where you can dig a hole or plow a field without hitting a rock. There are also tropical islands where ancient people made fish-hooks out of seashells because there was no other hard material, and there may be people who live on the tundra and never know what's beneath the ice.

Your world could just be a scaled-up version of one of those type of land forms on Earth: maybe it's a coral archipelago world, or a tundra world, or a vast, eroded prairie that doesn't have tectonic activity to create new mountains.

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    $\begingroup$ There are prairies in the USA where you can dig a hole or plow a field without hitting a rock: but most definitely not a very deep hole. There is no place on Earth where you won't find iron ore within 100 miles if you are willing to dig deep enough; in a zeroth order approximation Earth is a ball or iron and silicon oxide. (And "deep enough" is not all that deep.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 10 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ Right, but (a) you'd have to use a shovel made of wood, and (b) you wouldn't know in advance whether it was worth it to make that effort, and (c) even after making that effort it might take centuries to figure out what use to make of the stuff you found. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Jan 10 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that's in the question. The questioner indicates that the absence of "certain elements like iron, copper and the like" would solve his worldbuilding problem. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Jan 10 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ I really like the idea of a world with a permafrost tundra. You can have some sort of hydroponic-style plants that can subsist in just the surface snow, but nothing has ever really penetrated the permafrost. That would be a very, very interesting world! it would make something as primitive as even fire even harder to come by. $\endgroup$ – NegativeFriction Jan 10 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ The only reason people would bother digging for iron a hundred miles away is if they were already familiar with it and knew its value. In a near-Earth without surface metal deposits, it would be tough to motivate that. Just weaken plate tectonics and let the continents erode flat. $\endgroup$ – arp Jan 17 at 1:34
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No metal ores, neither common metals nor rare metals. Without metals whole civilization progress would be much slower, and some technologies would almost certainly didn't exist, electronics would be main candidate to this.

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    $\begingroup$ Vacuum valves can be used for electronics, and do not require any rare metals $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jan 10 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think the poster was meaning to make all metal ores rare. And there are ordinary metals in vacuum tubes $\endgroup$ – Slarty Jan 10 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ Just as an aside, Cyril Kornbluth describes such a civilization in the short story "That Share of Glory" (not the main focus of the story, but is is a fun read). $\endgroup$ – Eike Pierstorff Jan 10 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Slarty is right, I meant all metals are gone/extremely rare. I've just edited answer to make it clear. $\endgroup$ – Guy with jewels' names Jan 10 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew It would be difficult but not impossible. There would need to be very little iron that was widely distributed with no concentrated ores. Alternatively it might well be possible to create a protein that absorbed oxygen and carbon dioxide like hemoglobin. I'm sure it would not be quite as efficient, but evolution and chemistry offer almost limitless possibilities. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Jan 10 at 17:42
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Basically, for devices identifiable as electronics to be possible in a similar manner as the technology's progression on Earth, you need the following to be common on the planet:

  • A ferromagnetic metal (preferably iron, nickel or cobalt if you must)
  • At least one Group 11 transition metal (copper, silver, gold)
  • At least one post-transition metal (tin, zinc, indium, aluminum)
  • At least one noble transition metal with a high melting temperature (tungsten, rhenium, osmium)
  • At least one metalloid (silicon, germanium, boron)
  • A gas that is chemically inert even at relatively high temperatures (noble gases mainly; neon, argon etc)

If you have all of these, you can at least get to the vacuum-tube era of electronics. Progressing beyond this level requires a wider variety of "rare-earth metals" and other substances, but you can get to a basic electronic computer if you have a relatively plentiful supply of at least one of all the above options. If you have a basic idea of why they're needed, skip the next section, otherwise keep reading.


Ferromagnetism is a requisite for the efficient generation of electricity. Moving a magnet within a coil of wire is how about 97% of the world's grid electricity is originated (photovoltaic solar power, the most common non-inductive generation method, produces only about 2.5% of infrastructural power, even taking replacement of actual grid power with roof-mounted systems into account). Iron is the ideal candidate for a ferromagnetic metal useful to humans, and is pretty easy to find on Earth. Nickel and cobalt metals and their alloys are magnetic too, but these happen to be ridiculously toxic to human biochemistry, so sleeper-ship colonists reduced to "off-the-grid" tech wouldn't want to be anywhere near an open-air smelter of any ore containing either metal. Neodymium is not itself magnetic, but in a crystalline alloy with iron it boosts iron's potential to be magnetized, thus allowing stronger magnets with less material. It would be nice to have but isn't critical.

With the basic material to induce electric current, a soft, ductile, highly-conductive but nonmagnetic metal is what we tend to induce that current in. Copper is one of the first metals to be harnessed by humanity, and fairly plentiful on Earth (though our demand for it in industrial and post-industrial economies is making it a more expensive commodity of late). Metals in the same elemental group are rarer on Earth, to the point of being stores of value, but on a planet where gold was very common, that would do many of copper's jobs better than copper itself (copper would be relatively lighter and a little more durable, offset by gold's natural corrosion resistance reducing required maintenance). Silver's closer to copper in most of its properties (including unfortunately that it oxidizes or tarnishes easily) and again if relatively common on some new planet it could do most of copper's jobs, but silver's commonly found

Having generated and conducted electricity, you need to use it. Resistive emission ("intentionally wasting" electrical power to generate heat and light through electrical resistance) was one of the first discovered uses of the technology, closely followed by inductive motion (using current to generate a magnetic field that pushes or pulls another magnet); heating and lighting filaments and inductive coil transducers (motors, solenoids, speakers/microphones) remain the two largest classes of electrical "doers" on the planet (even as a much more efficient alternate form of light emission using semiconductors has become the most common form of light generation).

While Group 11 metals work well for induction as they conduct electricity very well, that same conductivity (and their low melting points) means that they're relatively poor at resistive applications. Iron, especially as a high-carbon steel alloy, is a passable resistor especially for heat generation, but it's relatively inefficient at generating light (the "color temperature scale" of room light is calibrated based on the spectral emissions of iron heated to the prescribed temperature, giving you some idea how hot iron has to be to glow white and how much power that takes), and the heat involved speeds corrosive oxidation. Various organic compounds like graphite make good low-power resistors, but turn up the voltage too much and they'll literally explode. The generation of electric light involves forcing electrical current through something that does not conduct well, but is also not physically or chemically altered by the electricity flowing through it or the heat it's producing. The best such element we have in what we'd call a plentiful supply is tungsten, a member of the "refractory group" that also includes metals commonly alloyed with iron to produce stainless steel, including vanadium, chromium and molybdenum. The platinum group is another good area of the Periodic Table to have available, with rhenium having the second-highest melting temperature after tungsten, and being very corrosion-resistant. Platinum itself is used in PCBs, though it's not a critical requirement.

A low-melting-point post-transition metal has a number of uses in electronics, for instance as a solder material to form high-continuity wire junctions. These post-transition metals are also valuable as fuses, as resistive heat eventually exceeds the melting point and breaks the connection. Tin's a very common choice nowadays, replacing lead especially in plumbing for what should be obvious reasons. Aluminum has a number of uses for conductivity of heat and electricity in electronic devices, however at its actual melting point it will also burn readily, and its dissociation temperature (where it will separate from the oxygen and become a useful metal) is ridiculously high, making aluminum a precious metal until the Bayer and Hall-Heroult processes made aluminum refinement commercially viable by WWII. More exotic ones include indium, which you can melt in a glass beaker over a Bunsen burner (or even a good hotplate) and is very rare on Earth.

The metalloids have several uses. Primary among them is that most are dielectrics; they do not conduct electricity (at least not below an arbitrarily high voltage not typically relevant to benchtop electronics), but they can become polarized by electric charge, and by so doing allow electrical interaction to occur through them. This property, especially of silicon (one of the most plentiful elements on Earth) has led to a wealth of uses in semiconductors, from capacitors to transistors. The development of germanium- and then silicon-based solid-state transistors is what enabled the proliferation of modern electronic devices. However, and earlier and more primitive, but no less critical, use for metalloids is as glass. Glass containers are airtight, nonconducting and non-magnetic materials with relatively high melting temperatures, making them very useful for containing high-temperature air-sensitive components like charged plates and filaments. Modern electronics would not have been enabled by the MOSFET solid-state transistor if it had not been preceded a generation earlier by the vacuum-tube triode transistor, and that in turn required the relatively simple but deceptively difficult artisan skill of glass forming to have been developed and refined beginning before the Renaissance and proceeding into the 20th Century.

I've hinted at uses for inert gases, but to be clear, if you don't have an inert gas, a lot of things become a lot harder to do, because your "vacuum tubes" have to have a true vacuum, and this shortens the life of the electronic elements as the metal literally evaporates into the vacuum under heat and electrical excitement, and deposits onto the inner walls of the glass (a process called sublimation, which we have since harnessed to produce electronic components by etching circuits into layers of sublimated "thin film"). Argon is the main such gas we use, krypton would work just as well but is relatively rarer on Earth and is prized for use in light-generating equipment for its multi-spectral pattern under electrical excitement. Nitrogen, the most abundant gas in Earth's atmosphere, works well enough at "normal" temperatures to exclude oxygen from a volume of space as a blanket, but when you get into the high hundreds of degrees it starts becoming reactive (the Haber process for synthesis of ammonia starts becoming favorable around 400*C, though high pressures and a metal catalyst are also required).


So, if you have a sufficient selection of all of these materials, you can fashion rudimentary electronic components up to and including early 50s-era computers. To progress further, you need the MOSFET, which requires gallium or boron for P-doped transistors and phosphorous or arsenic for N-doped transistors, in addition to either silicon or germanium as the body material. That gets you to printed circuits, allowing progressively smaller amounts of miniaturization. Other elements, reasonably common on earth but not often in the combinations we use them, are used in modern electronic processes, including chlorine trifluoride which is used as a cleaning reagent for thin film equipment (at which it undoubtedly excels; it's the most vigorous oxidizer known to modern chemistry, so nasty to handle even the Nazis had second thoughts about weaponizing the stuff).

A planetary environment lacking significantly in either iron or copper would dramatically inhibit the natural development of electricity-based technologies similar to our own. Of the two, iron deficiency would also inhibit multi-systematic life forms as we know them; a dearth of iron would preclude the popular development of iron complexes like hemoglobin for oxygen capture and transport, which on Earth would have stunted eukaryotic life at the plant level. Sentient plants have been sci-fi fodder for a while, but at least on Earth the energy reserves and transportation mechanisms of even the very largest or most energy-dense plants are far too low and too slow to fuel the more complex neural networks found in animal life.

So, making copper an impractically rare trace element would be the most likely way that life forms we'd recognize as such could develop to sentience, but which would limit the development of modern technology as we know it. In fact, without an easy-to-smelt and economically-useful metal, such a civilization would likely be trapped in the Neolithic era of human development.

Which, as we know from our own history, is a totally valid steady-state; the Mayans, Incans, Aztecs, Pacific Islanders and other New World cultures managed to develop quite advanced civilizations and technology based around stone and organic materials, with little if any knowledge of metallurgy. However, again evidenced by the fate of New World native civilizations, carving stone only gets you so far, and New World knowledge of forming and using metal was relatively limited.

The most common metal known to be commonly worked by New World civilizations, rather ironically, was gold, whose ore is basically the raw metal with impurities that are fairly trivial to separate, and is relatively easy to melt and to work. These same properties, however, make it less useful as an infrastructure metal even if plentiful; it's not a very strong or stiff metal, and it's dense (#8 on the periodic table overall, out of all elements we've been able to accumulate a cubic centimeter of at one time and place for an empiric test). Copper would have been known, but its relatively higher rate of corrosion (not to mention the higher difficulty and inherent hazards of smelting copper out of the higher sulfur- and arsenic-containing ores) would have made it less economically viable than in Europe. The relative dearth of zinc (most plentiful source in the Americas was thousands of miles northeast of the Aztecs' widest range, in the Mississippi and Tennessee River valleys) and of tin (currently mined in Peru, but with modern methods of extraction and refinement not developed until the Industrial Age) would have limited the New World's knowledge of alloying, giving Europeans about 4,000 years' head start including about 2500 years' experience with iron and eventually with steel as of when the conquistadors first set foot on continental South America.

This lack of knowledge and of available materials also meant that New World civs, much like any hypothetical extraterrestrial race developing on a similarly-deprived planet, would have less opportunity to discover electrochemistry and start connecting the dots. The generation of static charges is the most commonly-identified early source of harnessed electricity, however it was Alessandro Volta's invention of the "voltaic pile", a copper-zinc metal-acid cell, that produced enough sustained electric current to enable focused scientific study. This would lead to Oersted's accidental but repeatable discovery of electromagnetic fields, in turn leading to Farraday's laws of electromagnetic induction which fully link electricity and magnetism as a unified theory of a fundamental physical force, not to mention powering the world as we know it.

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Electromagnetic pulses would be the first to come to mind, those can be caused by heavy lightning, objects passing through the plants atmosphere or solar flares.

If they are powerful/frequent enough they could disrupt the development process so much that the alternatives become more attractive with this becoming an obsolete industry.

Those would not be the healthiest circumstances but seeing your "humans" developed on the planet their biology should have adapted to it.

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  • $\begingroup$ EMP can be shielded against... $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jan 10 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ The destructiveness of EMPs is proportional to conductor lengths. This would certainly prevent technologies like the telegraph, but smaller electronics would be far less vulnerable. What's more, regular and powerful EMPs would almost certainly speed the discovery of electricity and perhaps the development of technologies (i.e. electronics) that tap it as well. $\endgroup$ – Gene Jan 10 at 20:31
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Get rid of the rubber trees. Unless they are ludicrously simple, electrical components need insulating materials. Historically, this was rubber, as other materials available (e.g. glass) would be rigid, rather than flexible. I'm struggling to think of a natural material that could replace it.

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    $\begingroup$ Wool, resins, wax-impregnated linen... in fact latex is actually pretty poor as an insulator, not only because of its electrical properties but because it degrades so quickly. We didn't start using a flexible insulating conduit for electrical conductors until the 1950s, before that residential wiring was largely "knob & tube". $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jan 15 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ KeithS, all those aren't waterproof though. Or they degrade quickly. Even for knob and tube, I thought we used latex (that's definitely before my time though!) $\endgroup$ – Riddles Jan 15 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ The cables do degrade - i.stack.imgur.com/04Ig4.png - but not as quickly as you'd think. The wax or resin impregnation is for waterproofing, and if you expected the cable to be in a wet area (i.e. outdoors) you ran it through sealed plumbing pipe, where nowadays we have NMC conduit specifically for this application. However I cannot find any evidence that even low-voltage wire ever used latex as a wire insulator; until PVC was developed almost all of it used a braided fiber wrap (commonly asbestos on high-voltage). $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jan 15 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ For latex read rubber! This mentions it's earlier use - researchgate.net/publication/… $\endgroup$ – Riddles Jan 15 at 15:13
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You might consider not only changing the planet they develop on, but the actual universe. If you don't want your humans to be able to develop electronics, consider removing the electromagnetic force. It will definitely affect a lot more than just whether or not your people can use electronics, although I'm not sure what the side effects would be. The other advantage of this is that they would still be able to use metal, which is an important part of civilization and the absence of which would affect a lot more than just the developement of electronics.

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  • $\begingroup$ Removing electromagnetism would destroy the universe. $\endgroup$ – user71341 Jan 11 at 14:19

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