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I want to create a world where iron is still widely used, but is more expensive than on Earth. Small quantities would still be viable for wheel hub rings, swords, axes etc at a modest increase in cost but large iron objects like steel beams for construction would be very expensive indeed and not generally used.

I have considered using the following means: a) Reducing the availability of iron ore by reducing the number of deposits and moving those that do exist away from sources of habitation and water b) By removing coal as a convenient source of carbon in the iron smelting process (making it reliant on charcoal). c) By reducing the grade of iron ore available forcing a concentration step and making it more expensive.

Would this be workable? And if so what combination of these effects or others would work best/ be most believable? (for example roughly what grade of iron ore might work)

Background: The world is similar to Earth but with much less water / oceans and much more land / deserts. There are roughly 20 million people living across a large (1600 x1600 miles) flat area of land bounded by mountains or uplands on 3 sides and a small sea to the south. This is a preindustrial society with no steam power, gun powder or internal combustion engines, but is advanced in other respects. Other metals are also available but are not suitable replacements to iron either due to their properties or scarcity.

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    $\begingroup$ Iron replaced bronze because it was cheap. If iron is expensive then people will just continue using bronze; before the modern age (and the production of cheap steel) iron was rarely better than bronze. (And before the modern age overland transportation of bulky heavy cheap goods was a no-no. Your 2,560,000 square miles of flat plain will be sparsely inhabited unless by miracle there is a dense network of navigable rivers -- which cannot really be so far from the mountains and the sea.) (And on a 1600×1600 miles plain iron and coal deposits will likely be uneconomically far anyway.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 16 '20 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, and what do you mean by "steel beams for construction" in a pre-industrial world? There weren't any. Steel only became available in quantity a long time after the Industrial Revolution. When the German Krupp steelworks exhibited a 45 tonnes steel ingot at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris people considered it a fantastic achievement of ultra-modern technology. (And the French military became very afraid.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 16 '20 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP a good point concerning bronze. The whole area is drained by 5 large rivers running roughly north to south. The inhabitants are concentrated along the banks of these rivers. Given the size of the area it is not surprising that a number of large rivers exist, although most traffic is north - south along these rivers. With some east west traffic on tributaries and land. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 17 '20 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP In our world things followed their historical course. In this world they don't follow the same course because of the environment. There was no industrial revolution and no Germany. I wanted to be clear that large steel structures were not a significant thing in this altered environment. Seems that steel beams would be even less likely in my world than in ours so I have achieved my aim. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 17 '20 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ Large steel beams did not exist until the end of the industrial revolution, when better steel production was invented. see the Bessemer process. so unless you want a tech level similar to modern times you don't have to change anything. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 18 '20 at 5:20
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Get Rid of the Fuel

Iron is massively plentiful, but hard to produce in large quantities in pre-industrial societies. One of the biggest costs/difficulties in making good iron (from bloomery to final crafting into some useful thing) is the amount of fuel heating and working iron takes. This is one of the reasons why, even though iron ore is fairly plentiful, iron mines are comparatively uncommon. You need not only a good source of ore (easy, heck almost all ancient iron mines were really open pits rather than something underground) transport (riverine or coastal because of the overland transport problem) and fuel (it took about 2 tons of charcoal to make a ton of iron, and yet more to shape it from basic ingots/rods).

So the best way to "realistically" get demonstrably less iron production from a given your area (lots of good rivers for transport, iron is all over the place on earth) the best think you can do is minimize forests and coal. I don't know a lot about coal deposits beyond the basics, but you could argue for a low water table around the rivers which would limit any underground coal exploitation alongside saying it's just scarce. Then for charcoal all you need is to say your area is something more savanna/steppe than wooded/forested, and suddenly iron becomes more trouble than its worth for all but the most necessary of products. Degrading the quality of your ore would also makes things hard, in that bad ore means more fuel use to produce quality iron.

For a lovely explanation of iron from mining to final product in the roman world (and the ancient world more generally) i suggest This.

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  • $\begingroup$ A very good link thanks +1 I'm thinking now that moving most of the iron to the distant mountains might be best but there will certainly be less fuel - very limited or no coal.... $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 18 '20 at 9:18
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Meteoric iron only.

A knife found in King Tut's tomb was made of iron. The ancient Egyptians could not smelt iron so this was a knife hammered from a meteorite. In your world the secret of smelting iron was never discovered and so only iron available in metallic form is used to make things. Fortunately for people who want iron, a lot more meteorites fall on your world. The availability of iron is the only thing fortunate about all these meteorites falling on your world which are otherwise very scary.

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