Could some method of producing cheap steel in bulk (like Bessemer) have been developed before steam engines?

The Safehold series in which there is a religious prohibition on heat engines & electricity made me wonder about this question. I wondered how much more than in the books could the humans have improved technology without violating the prohibitions. Cheap steel without heat engines would allow a lot of improvement.

Steel wheels on steel rails cut rolling resistance a lot, & so would make land transport of goods cheaper even if draft animals are the only motive force.

Wire rope would allow another improvement in transportation in a world without heat engines to power things.

Another improvement that cheap steel allows is pedal powered machinery, greatly reducing the drudgery of doing work with human muscle power. Cheap steel is needed to make the pedal cranks.

So is there any reason the people of Safehold couldn't do Bessemer or Open Hearth steelmaking using water & muscle power for moving things while using charcoal or coke for the heating & chemistry of steelmaking.

Maybe this should be a separate question, but can others who have read the series suggest improvements on the technologies shown in the books that don't involve violating the prohibitions?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Finery forge. Puddling furnace. They did make steel before the introduction of steam power; not as cheap as it became in the late 19th century, of course. There are inherent limits of how far one can go before exhausting the power of water wheels etc. The industrial revolution started with water wheels; it was already in full swing when steam engines became useful and widespread. (Blast furnaces and Bessemer converters need great streams of compressed air; won't work with puny bellows.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 17, 2020 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ If rolling resistance was an issue for animal powered carts, someone would have made improvements. Nobody did in few thousands years. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 18, 2020 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica: Oh they made improvements. They are called canals. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 18, 2020 at 1:19
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica: Also consider the various horse-drawn buggies of the 1800s, compared to those of earlier centuries. Or even the modern versions (used for sport or recreation, if you're not Amish), that have pneumatic tires, springs & shock absorbers, and so on: coyaltix.com $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 18, 2020 at 4:37

2 Answers 2


Yes and No

Steelmaking processes can certainly be powered by water and animal traction. The industrial revolution on earth started with water and animal power.

The problem is with scaling. Mining sites with nearby suitable rivers are limited, and animal traction to power the pumps is expensive (though less expensive on Safehold due to genetically engineered dragons) Foundries will also be limited in size to how much water power is available. The first steam engines produced in the books are made of steel, and are used to expand the water powered foundries.

Now how cheap steel becomes entirely depends on the demand, the more steel there is available, the more uses people will find to it, since it is superior to iron in pretty much every regard. It will be a lot more affordable, but it will still be a lot more expensive than steel ends up being at the end of the first arc of the Series, I doubt anyone will contemplate building fully steel-hulled ships.

  • $\begingroup$ So if Langhorne et al. had included instructions for such things as the Bessemer process, Safehold could have had railways with dragons pulling the cars, but the limited supply of waterpower would have limited how much rail could be made per year. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Baerg
    Feb 19, 2020 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ Railways can also be built with iron tracks, but it should be possible. Of course, given Safeholds canal system, railroads will likely only be economical where no canals already exist. $\endgroup$
    – Whitecold
    Feb 19, 2020 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ In the large areas where waterways freeze for part of the year rail would be better. In steep terrain ropeways discussed in the link 'Wire Rope' from my original question, would be a very useful supplement to the canals & railways $\endgroup$
    – Jim Baerg
    Feb 23, 2020 at 22:51

As the Safehold series goes on, they do use and develop steam engines: the Charisians deploy steam-powered ironclads, and were developing triple-expansion steam engines. Merlin had secretly tested advanced steam engines on some remote islands to see if they would trigger the orbital weapons platform, but they didn't. Both Charisian Church and the main Church justify the usage as not breaching the Prohibitions because fire, water, and air are allowed to be used and all a steam engine does is use them in combination.

Eventually Merlin deduces that the trigger is probably widespread use of electricity. Steam engines produce heat, but not so much more than used in metal working, which wasn't a prohibited technology, so differentiating between the allowed and disallowed sources of heat would be problematic. On the other hand, electricity by its nature produces EM fields, especially when you're crudely generating and transmitting it, which would immediately trigger sensors looking for EM anomalies, and it's specifically forbidden (if you know how it works) in the Prohibitions.

The logic behind it is sound: Langhorne and his crew of psychopaths would have been aware of Earth's technological development, and while you got a long way with steam tech, it was widespread use of electricity that really got the ball rolling on industrialization, communications, and technology. So as soon as someone starts stringing up power lines, KABOOM! Maybe.

So all that said, that still leaves a lot of room for the Bessemer process and cheap steel.

  • $\begingroup$ Basically the people of Safehold start violating the spirit if not the letter of the prohibitions. I was thinking about how far they could get while staying within that spirit. $\endgroup$
    – Jim Baerg
    Feb 19, 2020 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ The more important reason for avoiding electricity is that radio is one technology that is detectable over interstellar distances, thus risking attention from the Gbaba. Can anyone think of another technology that would make be detectable over such distances? $\endgroup$
    – Jim Baerg
    Feb 19, 2020 at 3:13

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