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I am writing a story where the technology of the time could be roughly characterized as akin to ours back in the 90's, if not quite the history that led to it being that way. So you'd see things like 16/32-bit game systems, early cell phones and cable TV, but I'd like to find a reasonable way to explain why air power (both for military use & transportation) developed much later and so is behind.

So no commercial airlines and certainly no space flight or orbiting satellites. The most I'd like to allow would be a blimp or zeppelin, as high speed flight would require changing a bit too many things in the setting (which has a high focus on the magic/superhuman abilities of the military's ground forces, and it would mess with some other things I'm fairly committed to keeping).

My first thought would be to limit some material(s) to explain this, but I'm already doing that to explain why nuclear weapons aren't the premiere power over their replacement (very little fissile/fissionable material), so I'd like to avoid repeating that if possible. Would the fact that the major nations have often been at war for more than the past half century (including a few world wars) be enough justification, or is there a better way to go about this that I'm not considering? There's really no conflict between most of the use of the magic and the technology, so that's not the worry for me either.

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    $\begingroup$ Not a complete answer by any means, but I would say that major powers being at war would do the opposite of what you want. Airplane development was accelerated by world wars, not retarded. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jan 24 '20 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop That's a good point. Do you have any other avenues that would make more sense? $\endgroup$
    – Gibdos
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ You cannot have zeppelins and not have airplanes. They use the same materials, the same engines; they are at the same technological level. (And practical airships were actually contemporary with airplanes.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ What about rockets? Do you intend to outlaw rockets too? Asking because during WW2 the Germans made 5,200 V-2 ballistic missiles... I cannot imagine a powerful rich nation going through several wars and not developing advanced weapons platforms. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP No rockets either. Haven't entirely worked out if it makes sense, but I'm assuming the the power system led to certain weapons systems not being developed (or if developed, abandoned due to having a better, non-trechnological alternative). $\endgroup$
    – Gibdos
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:58
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Toil Without Oil

A solution (which would definitely have more knock-on effects than just crippling air travel) would be to make petroleum virtually nonexistent on your world. Since you've got magic involved, maybe that somehow degraded what would otherwise have been petroleum deposits, making the petrochemical industry impossible.

Without oil, plastics would be a lot longer in coming to fruition (plastics using organic oils would still presumably eventually be developed), but more importantly, without oil, aviation fuel would be a much more complicated chemical prospect. Even prop planes would be difficult, and jet fuel would be nigh-impossible (for example, see today's attempt at biofuel solutions for jet travel). Synthesis from biological sources would probably eventually be possible, but would take much longer, and jet technology would lag similarly.

Conversely, electrical power would likely be more popular earlier. Electric cars were popular before internal combustion was more successful - in this case, the lack of oil would result in extended popularity and probably major battery improvements - so your putative airships could be electric!

This is only scratching the surface of what would happen if petroleum wasn't broadly available, but would definitely hamstring aircraft development!

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent! While I was somewhat iffy about just limiting fossil fuels to accomplish this, the way you explain makes it seem like a simpler solution than whatever I would have come up with. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Gibdos
    Jan 24 '20 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Gibdos - As I say in the answer, there are a bunch of secondary effects to not having oil available that you'd have to think about - materials science would be very different, and your world's "90s" would not look like our world's "90s" in many respects beyond the lack of contrails. But it is the easiest way I can think of to take heavier-than-air travel out of the picture. (And if you like the solution, accept it!) $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jan 25 '20 at 0:43
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I think the biggest plausible change to reality you could engineer is a difference in the development of energy production technology to remove oil and natural gas as fuel options. Your alternate-reality 1990s society developed through an Industrial Revolution in which liquid fossil fuels were never tapped on a wide scale as a source of energy; humans transitioned from wood and coal into more sustainable sources like hydroelectric, nuclear and solar without the oil step in between.

How did that happen? That's your problem to solve. Maybe the first wells that would have been commercially exploited in our own reality instead exploded into massive infernos, killing thousands, poisoning nearby waterways and leading to an international moratorium on oil drilling, much as various nuclear accidents have muted the conversation of ramping up nuclear energy as a substitute for fossil fuel use in grid electricity in our own reality. Coal mining is still tolerated, but the world's growing energy needs led to more widespread adoption of nuclear plants, perhaps despite Three Mile Island or even Chernobyl. To store and mobilize electrical power, battery technology was also accelerated, so your 90s-era society, instead of still using toxic and relatively less dense nickel-cadmium chemistry, discovered and commercialized lighter and denser lithium-ion chemistries on an accelerated timeline.

The lack of oil to replace coal- and wood-burning rail engines required a rail technology powered by grid electricity, thus prompting Eisenhower to build a highly-connected, Federally-funded high-speed rail network, co-opting private and/or State ownership of the existing railroad. Rail, not roads, became the primary transportation grid of the United States (and of many other countries besides), and what road vehicles do exist are battery-powered short-range vehicles, designed for use in "park-and-ride" commutes to drive a few miles to the nearest mass transit station and catch one of the trains running every five minutes along routes closely mirroring major highway networks in and between major cities. Anywhere you want to go, a train will take you, unlike the situation in most of the US's major cities.

However, without petroleum, the energy requirements for a practical commercial aircraft just don't exist. The energy density of even modern batteries can't even be accurately plotted on linear-scale energy density graphs that include fossil fuels and hydrogen. So, while knowledge of the fundamentals of flight are still commonplace, the taboo of oil use stunted the development of powerplants that were small, light, powerful and reliable enough for meaningful flights of large-scale aircraft. Ultralights that run on batteries or wing-incorporated solar panels are toys for the rich (much as they are now), but by this alt-1990s timeline, we never solved the problem of how to get enough energy density into the air with a required level of safety and reliability (nuclear planes were looked at for all of 5 minutes before someone asked what would happen when one crashed in a populated area), and so commercial air travel never developed to supplant rail and ship travel as the fastest, safest way to move humans over long distances.

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  • $\begingroup$ A very solid and helpful response; thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Gibdos
    Jan 25 '20 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ Wood or alchohol burning stirling engines could make viable automobiles in this scenario that would be cheap enough for mass production. $\endgroup$
    – Efialtes
    Apr 28 '20 at 17:40
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Fuel

From the background I am not entirely certain what abundance there is of fossil fuels on your world. But if your world is strapped in this particular resource flight, especially commercial flight will be severely stunted/restricted and horribly expensive.

Whereas cars can drive electrically, I don't see any electrical commercial airplanes flying any time soon for a reasonable price. I won't go much deeper into this as jdunlop covers this quite well in his answer.

Resource scarcity

Having said this, fuel isn't the only restrictive factor. Any kind of important resource missing for modern flight could influence your stunted development of flight. What if your world lacks the meaningful amounts of aluminium needed for large scale commercial or even military flight. (A steel fuselage would be way too heavy, and composite material planes are usually military grade and extremely expensive/costly.)

My take (Somewhat opinion based)

Then there is the issue you mentioned that they underwent world wars. The military would grasp to any means that'd give them an advantage. So even if they have modern planes, they have (very) few and are used sparingly or only in the hour of gravest needs, which in turn would provide you with another plot device centered around the rarity of aviation, especially the modern kind, to make it an exceptionally big threat, yet generally underdeveloped in a broad sense.

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  • $\begingroup$ When the military find that a weapons platform is useful, they always produce it on a large scale. That's how they think. During the second World War, the U.S. was producing three cargo ships every two days, costs be damned. If the military find that aircraft are useful, they won't have very few of them; they will have very very many of them; for example, during WW2, the U.S. made more than 12,000 B-17 bombers, vastly more than they could reasonably use. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:46
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    $\begingroup$ Aluminum isn't the only lightweight, fuselage-worthy material. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ If the cost of military equipment becomes so high the economic loss upon the loss of the unit renders it a white elephant, making its use impractical since if you employ it in wartime, there is always a risk of loss. $\endgroup$
    – Hyfnae
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ In war time, the notion of "economic loss" is much less well defined than in peace time... The Germans made 5,200 V-2 missiles, although they were expensive, required scarce materials and were basically useless as weapons. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:52
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You mention magical abilities of ground forces. Make one of their abilities be to change air pressure and wind direction within some range of their location. That would make early aircraft very dangerous, delaying development. To be safe and useful, aircraft would have to fly high enough to need pressurization, and each airport would need a wide security zone to prevent sabotage during takeoff and landing.

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If helium was very plentiful the cost of large airships might be quite low and this might mean that airships become the accepted means of transportation being able to carry fairly high loads very cheaply and faster than ships at sea. They would not need the extensive runways required by conventional jets and could drop loads at remote locations when needed. The flights would also be safe from fire and vast air liners might develop giving oceanic liners a run for their money.

In this world jets do not really get off the ground as they aren't seen as competitive with airships for the above reasons.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ahh, I hadn't considered this. Do you think these advantages would be enough to stall the development of high speed flight for, say, decades or would it be more along the lines of the greater expense disincentivizing the manufacturing of planes? $\endgroup$
    – Gibdos
    Jan 24 '20 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ Crossing the Atlantic in hours rather than days won't be perceived as an advantage? As for airships not requiring airports, this must be some sort of irony. Airships required vastly more space and vastly more manpower than aircraft. They need humongous airfields, because they cannot really choose from which direction they approach the mooring masts; they cannot change altitude that quickly, and must approach cautiously into the wind; they need gigantic hangars; to land a large airship you need literally hundreds of people. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ Plus, the OP already posted that wars are happening frequently among the nations of their world - having something that can (literally) fly rings around the opponent's airships and doesn't have a huge, vulnerable envelope would be an enormous tactical advantage. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jan 24 '20 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Gibdos yes the idea does not seem popular here because people are too wedded to our current time line and make too many assumptions about how things have to be. In a different world things could have been different. We don't use ballistic missiles to deliver anything other than (potentially) nuclear warheads despite the fact that this would be much faster means of transport because of the cost. There are balances between economy and speed that are not cast in stone. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jan 25 '20 at 0:19

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