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The concept is that my world has a permanent chaotic geomagnetic field going on. Sort of a perpetual Carrington Event, only the source is not a solar storm.

In theory, this should make electronics be hard to develop, be very limited, and quite unreliable for that technology to have any significant use to the society (justifying the steampunk setting's lack of electrical devices, including radios) if telegraph stations straight up electrocuted the operators.

Would that have any side-effects on life (Humans, particularly) being exposed to such an environment?

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    $\begingroup$ To have any side effects in should have a main effect in the first place. What do you suppose is the main effect of such a perpetual electromagnetic storm on ordinary lifeforms? (And electromagnetic shielding is a real thing, is not all that hard to do, and was developed quite early in the history of electrotechnics. Just wrap the cables in a conducting sleeve connected to the ground.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 27 at 12:08
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    $\begingroup$ I meant the side-effect of it existing. Like side effect of high ambient radiation levels being cancer. $\endgroup$ – Darth Biomech Oct 27 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ As a rule of thumb, when writing about strange places that don't have a given tech, the less reasons you give for it the better. Having something not explained at all is magnitudes better than having a poor explanation that people can scrutinize - specially in today's world. If you don't want electronics, just write your world without any. Try to explain it away with bad science, and you'll be in a world of pain from critics and theory-makers all around the globe. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Oct 28 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like Pandora $\endgroup$ – Giancarlo Ventura Oct 29 at 5:48
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Assuming intensity levels similar to the Carrington event?

At human scale, absolutely no biological effects.

At human household scale, no effect on metal objects, structures. a LONG metal warehouse or metal ship will need to be earthed every several meters, to prevent increased rust rate due to galvanic action.

It only becomes a problem when you have LONG conductive structures that have very low electrical resistance AND are not earthed. Or electronics that are sensitive to very low voltage AND attached to significant lengths of conductors. For example a railroad's track will NOT be bothered, due to them being effectively earthed all the way, but a telegraph/telephone/power cable is affected because it is conductive and not earthed for very long distances. Radio masts may be a problem, but then radio transmission as a whole will be iffy, and subject to very high noise levels.

Yes, anything relying on the planetary magnetic field will be useless. Bird navigation, magnetic compasses, etc. I would also be concerned for the radiation shielding ability of the planet's magnetosphere, permanent auroras will wipe out astronomy, etc.

Tesla would have loved this place. Free radiant electricity everywhere, just build half a transformer of large enough size and sit back.

There is absolutely NO impediment to electronics.

I believe the OP is conflating the effect of an EMP pulse with the much more diffuse effect of a geomagnetic disturbance. EMP is very short duration but, for those EMP events that concern us like those from a nuclear explosion, the effect are some twelve MAGNITUDES more intense.

For reference: At its peak, the Carrington Event imposed an electric field of some 4 volt per kilometer. Yes, ONLY 4 volt per km of unshielded, unearthed, continuous wire length.

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    $\begingroup$ No, I'm not conflating, old-timey early electronic is actually impervious to EMP due to lack of any semiconductors (Just like vacuum lamp-based electronics would be) and overall unsophistication of the whole thing, and I wanted to specifically delay those earlier experiments with crude circuits. Can we min-max the strength of the effect so that it would still be harmless to people and non-electric (But probably conductive... Is brass conductive? I think so...) infrastructure while causing problems for studying the electricity's applications? $\endgroup$ – Darth Biomech Oct 27 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ Can do, but you need something 100-1000 times Carrington level. At THAT level, you encounter problem with the Earth mantle melting into the crust over enough time! Think movie 2012 $\endgroup$ – user79911 Oct 27 at 17:32
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There would be quite interesting side-effects:

  1. Electricity from the "air". Tesla's way! While it will be hard to develop electronics, primitive electrical devices utilizing this geomagnetic electricity could appear in late middle ages. Who need Voltа's column if any long metal object can produce enough electricity to light a bulb?
  2. This would lead to absence of really large/long animals, like giraffes, anacondas, etc. (whales might be protected by salt water, might be - not).
  3. No "traditional" nocturnal animals - nights will always be lighten up with auroras
  4. No birds/fish migrations - geomagnetic storms mess up animals navigation systems.

As for health - there might be higher risks of heart problems (among all the animals), more aggressive behavior. But if this storm is going for long enough - animals (including humans) will adapt to it in about hundreds of years. So this will not differ much from current situation.

But that adaptation time would be the time of great wars and several civilizations (may be even all of them) would fall to ruins. It means:

  1. Lots of ancient ruins and remains of migratory animals all over the world
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  • $\begingroup$ Alessandro Volta. The volt is the only unit of measurement named after a person and mangling his name. (And "abscence" is a great new word.) (And how come you are worried about giraffes and not about trees?) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 27 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Something vexes thee? :-) $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 27 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ It's not clear to me why large animals would hurt? Animals are not great conductors compared to telegraph lines. $\endgroup$ – Harabeck Oct 27 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Harabeck The larger and/or more complex the animal, the more the brain and nervous system relies on electricity. Ksbes has made a good point, although I'm not sure if the amount of electrical disruption needed to stop complex life from forming wouldn't disrupt it all (which was AlexP's point). $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 27 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ My point is that larger animals are more affected by geomagneitc storm than smaller ones. Thus there would be hard evolutional pressure to size reduction. It is like larger whale would found less food due to more frequent headaches and stronger navigation desruption. It is not about whales dying from seizures. $\endgroup$ – ksbes Oct 28 at 9:06
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If what you're looking for is a reasonable justification for the condition of your world, thumbs up!

If what you're looking for is to actually know, really, if a situation like this could bring about the retardation of advancement you're looking for?

Nope, won't work.

All something like this does is force people to use more powerful signals. Radio would work just fine — it would simply need to be pushed out at a higher power level and won't quite have the range of today. Filtering out the noise might (maybe) be a bit more problematic — right up until digital is invented with serially-encoded data packets and then all the noise would disappear. Light bulbs? They'd work just fine, too. Automobiles? They're all chassis-grounded anyway and all you're doing is moving the chassis-ground around. Houses would need more grounding poles driven deeper into the soil and you might have a tendency to more stucco because the chicken wire used as a backing could be grounded like a Faraday cage, but all your consumer electronics would work. Long transmission lines? Like @AlexP says... shielding.... So, no problem.

Please remember, electronics work because of a voltage potential difference, not because there's "voltage." In our daily lives we say things like "my stereo runs on 120 volts AC!" but what we're really saying is "my stereo runs on a potential difference of 120 volts AC!" The reason this is important is because the reference can be anything: 0v or millions of volts. So long as the difference between positive and negative is the necessary voltage to operate the electronics — they work just fine. And all an electromagnetic storm would do is move the reference around. In reality, it would cause a few different developments in the tech time line (Electrostatic Discharge or ESD control would come about sooner) — but ultimately, nothing would change.

Conclusion

Use the idea for your story, don't try to explain it, and tell a great story!

Or, if you just can't stand not having a scientifically-valid reason — find another way. This isn't it. Sorry.

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