In an alternative universe, Maxwell’s equations still apply but ferromagnetism doesn't exist. That is to say, the laws of electromagnetism are the same as in our universe, but things like iron aren’t magnetic.

What form of generators could a pre-electric civilization (think USA before Edison and Westinghouse) develop to provide for the electrification of society? And, what would be the most notable differences in everyday life as compared to our modern era in this scenario?

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    $\begingroup$ Questions like "How would a human-like civilization develop in this universe?" are pretty much the definition of entirely too broad to be reasonably answered on this site. $\endgroup$ Mar 4, 2020 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime I would normally agree, but I think that ferromagnetism (rather than just plain "magnetism") is narrow enough that it becomes possible to list the differences comprehensively. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Mar 4, 2020 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ There is no such thing as "ferromagnetic force". Our universe in an universe in which ferromagnetic force does not exist. As a consequence we already know how the human civilization developed in an universe in which there is no ferromagnetic force. (Or, do you mean a world in which ferromagnetic materials are scarce? That's very very unlike Earth; iron is very abundant on Earth. It is also essential for human life.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 4, 2020 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm I'm not sure it is... you'd have to go back as far as the invention of the magnetic compass, and then rewrite history from there. That's a lot of work, to say the least. $\endgroup$ Mar 4, 2020 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ We have to go back and review the planetary dynamo effect and what implication the lack of ferromagnetism would have on Earth-like planets. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Mar 4, 2020 at 18:09

4 Answers 4


The evolution of technology up to the industrial revolution could mostly proceed along the same lines as earth, with the exception of the magnetic compass. Early exploration of electricity was based on galvanism (as mentioned in the Bagdad Battery answer) and Triboelectric sources (amber+cat fur).

The discovery of the connection between electricity and magnetism would have greatly delayed absent permanent magnets. This means there would be very little adoption of electric motors and generators since their output power and efficiency is dependent on ferromagnetism. What are termed air-core devices -- devices that use air instead of materials like iron -- would still work but would be less efficient and less powerful. I think this would mean that society would be dependent on steam power as its primary power source for much longer than our world was.

Since the development of plasma physics followed the discovery of the electron — which wasn’t dependent on ferromagnetism — and the invention of electronics followed from plasma physics, I think that there would be ample pressure for electrical power sources leading to advances in battery technology and faraday disks and Van de Graff Generators. Developments in electronics lead to semiconductor technology which leads to LED and Photovoltaics.

So your society ends up kind of where we are at today with solar cells and led lighting and the rest of the stuff we have today in terms of computers. And, your world might look kind of steampunk for applications we use electric motors an electric generators for.

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    $\begingroup$ Society will not be similar with where we are today without electric motors. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 9, 2020 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think you can even get to modern computers without electric motors of some kind. You'd have to jump directly to solid-state storage media, which seems... difficult, to say the least. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2020 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ electric fans would still work since the load is so small, they'd be bigger and less efficient, but still fast using electromagnetism. You are right about storage media. Maybe paper tape would have really gotten very advanced because 'Necessity is the mother of invention.' I suspect electronic digital computers would have been a much later invention, and that analog computing would have been more advanced -- imagine a general purpose baggage's engine. Steampunk world by necessity. $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    Mar 10, 2020 at 20:44

What form of generators could a pre-electric civilization (think USA before Edison and Westinghouse) develop to provide for the electrification of society?

Purely electromagnetic ones. Plenty of AC motors are built without any permanent magnets, because the rotor can be magnetized either entirely by induction, or by running current through a commutator to power magnetic coils. Similarly, a generator can have a stator composed entirely of non-ferromagnetic electromagnets. You just wire it up so that the generator's own output energizes its own stator coils. You need a tiny bit of starter current to set up a seed field before the generator becomes self-sustaining, but that's easy to provide with a chemical starter battery, or a capacitor.

(Note that the Earth itself is just such a self-sustaining dynamo. The geomagnetic field is not ferromagnetic in origin, so we're all still safe from space radiation.)


A Kelvin water dropper generator, or other influence machines operating by electrostatic induction, might also be viable options. Unlike most static electricity generators (e.g., van de Graaf generators, such as are referenced in EDL's answer), a Kelvin water dropper doesn't have any moving solid parts or sliding contacts, which means it would require far less maintenance and could easily be scaled up to very large sizes and voltages. They would be ideal for constructing DC hydropower stations, with none of the mechanical complication of an autoinductive electromagnetic generator. Other influence machines involve moving parts, but no sliding contacts, and so would be no more problematic than normal electromagnetic induction generators. These kinds of devices, however, produce far less power than electromagnetic induction generators, so I would expect them to be rapidly superceded by autoinductive electromagnetic generators as soon as electromagnets are discovered--perhaps sticking around as an alternative to batteries or capacitors for generating the starter current.


The differences is everyday life would be minimal up until very recently. There would be no fridge magnets, and cheap mechanical speedometers for motor vehicles would be harder to design... but that's about it. The lack of ferromagnetic materials only really becomes a problem when you want to design tiny efficient DC motors. So things like cheap motorized battery-powered toys might take longer to develop, if they aren't just completely absent, and things like hard drives, floppy drives, and CD/DVD drives would be bulkier and less power efficient.

Of course, magnetic compasses wouldn't work, and that would imply some major changes in the history of navigation, and thus the history of the world... but there are ways to work around that, and while it changes some people's lives significantly, and changes the broad strokes of history, it doesn't have a whole lot of direct impact on the everyday lives of most people. After all, even in later industrial times, just prior to widespread electrification, what fraction of people in urban society ever regularly made use of a compass?


As pointed out by Zeiss Ikon in a comment, there would be no hard disks, floppy disks, recording wire, or magnetic tape, either. Fortunately, that's not a problem for the initial development of computers--it makes developing rewritable persistent storage media harder, but there are plenty of volatile storage options, which have been used in historical devices, that do not depend on magnetism to function--things like acoustic delay line memory and triode flip-flops. Electret-based technologies might be developed in place of early magnetic storage systems for temporary off-line data storage; the reduced stability of electrets vs. magnets would make such technology unsuitable for archival or distribution in the manner of, e.g., floppy disks or magnetic audio tapes, but could serve as medium-term memory to reduce the need for expensive active RAM. This isn't technology that was extensively researched in our reality, so it's hard to say exactly how far it would go.

Expect, however, to see a lot more usage of things like punched tape and capacitive disks on the way to the development of optical storage. Until the advent of re-writable optical storage, home computing would lack any equivalent of our hard drives or floppy disks; anything you want to save would have to be saved immutably, and if you want to edit something, you would do so by loading the old copy, changing it in memory, and writing it to new storage. Backups become an inevitable side-effect of working with digital technology, rather than something everybody always forgets to do!

And eventually, someone will develop floating-gate persistent flash storage, which is, in fact, electrostatic, rather than magnetic, in function anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ Motors and Generators use iron cores to concentrate the magnetic flux. Without ferromagnetism, these will be much less powerful and less efficient, possibly to the point of being nothing more than gimmicky toys. $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    Mar 8, 2020 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ @EDL They would still work with purely paramagnetic effects; not as efficiently, true, but they would work. $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2020 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ There would be no hard disks, floppy disks, or other magnetic storage media. They all depend on ferromagnetism, starting from the Webcor wire recorders of the 1930s. Electronics, yes -- vacuum tubes and transistors would work, though radios would be limited some by lack of ferrite cores for inductors (air core works, just requires lots more wire). But computers depend on rewritable data storage. Paper tape isn't rewritable... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 16, 2020 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon Computers depend on rewritable storage, yes--but not persistent rewritable storage. You can build ram without magnets. Personal computers didn't always even have hard drives, and it wouldn't be that big of a change to, e.g., load an OS from a punch tape reel rather than a magnetic tape reel. $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2020 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, RAM that doesn't depend on ferromagnetism didn't exist until the 1970s. Apollo, both flight computers and ground mainframes, used "core memory" that used tiny ferrite rings to magnetically store bits; this originated in the 1940s. Paper tape and Hollerith cards are too slow and fragile for long term use, especially high cycle count reuse. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 17, 2020 at 11:12

The Baghdad Battery is one way to electrify things a little. Though it's actual use as a battery is disputed, the utility is very plausible. Essentially, a pot made of clay or terracotta had a copper and an iron rod sticking out of each end and was then filled with some form of acid, producing a mild current. Wine or vinegar would potentially work.

The Baghdad Battery's iron rod wasn't sticking out, so that casts doubt onto whether it was actually used as a battery, but if a civilization made that minor change they would have a little bit of voltage. Stack enough of them together, world wonder style, and you could easily have enough electricity to do simple things like electroplate, create a very rudimentary electromagnetic device (maybe to make a compass, assuming the planet is still polar) are shock people you don't like. Of course, such a battery has limited use, but ancient civilizations were pretty meticulous on working hard for seemingly small results.

The mythbusters did a show on the Baghdad Battery which is worth checking out. Also, my description of its construction is pretty rudimentary and I'm sure there are better ones out there.


There are several ways here are some:

1 Chemical

Used in batteries with compounds like sodium, chlorine and graphene and others.

2 Heat

There is a way to produce electricity directly with heat it's called thermoelectricity.

3 Friction

Like the balloon and a sweater. The problem with this method is how to produce electricity at industrial levels.


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