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Could you have advanced mechanical engineering without, say, advanced electrical engineering accompanying it? Thick clockwork, clickety clackety stuff, does it need steam/electricity by default? How would you explain armatures, automatons, wood or metal prosthetics that somehow trump even modern medicine/tech irl in a mostly medieval setting, where this exists in one exclusive location/society? Magic exists in this world, and it's mostly medieval tech, with this one civ having that narrow focus on mechanical somehow. Let me elaborate.

I'm mostly writing worldbuilding/lore, no real plot as of now. I try to find holes in the lore because it really bothers me when that happens, it has to be cohesive or it just crumbles for me. So if you can assist me with that, I'd hugely appreciate it.

I have one civilization particularly that is unlike all the other ones that all use magic in all the more traditional fantasy ways, channeling it and using it offensively; each civ having their own spin on it. Except one civ, which seemingly uses no magic straight up. However, they actually do have access to it in their own way, they don't really channel it and use it offensively directly like other civs, they just have special ores, special resources, and other such things that have, somehow, allowed them to develop advanced mechanical technology in a mostly medieval world. And other civs can't really replicate it, because it's not a globalised world so speed of information is slow anyway, but also, simply because they won't have access to these resources. It's not really advanced mechanical tech we have now, it's more like steampunk, if that makes any sense, you know how in steampunk there's plenty of tech that is honestly indistinguishable from magic? but it's still cohesive in-universe. That's sort of what I want.

The thing is, I don't want gunpowder in this world, I want it to be the typical western medieval fantasy, where magic mostly explains the thousands of years of stagnation. However, is what I've laid out enough explanation for this one particular civ's tech prowess? it wouldn't be hugely overpowered, but it'd still be impressive you see and sort of be able to take on the other civs who do use magic directly. I'll illustrate in a second.

It's hard to conciliate advanced tech where it doesn't belong, so to speak. I guess my question is, can it belong? :p

As I said previously, imagine things like armatures, automatons, wood or metal prosthetics that somehow trump even modern medicine/tech irl. Think of Shingeki no Kyojin/Attack on Titan's 3DMG (I believe special ore is the only explanation for the insane air pressure they produce in such a small device?), Dishonored (tallboys, clockwork robots), Bloodborne's trick weapons, Violet Evergarden's arms, Sekiro's arm prosthetic, the Dwemer in Skyrim/TES (not sure how they did it, maybe I should look into it), I'm sure you're seeing a pattern here of crazy mechanical devices. I'm trying to think of other stuff like it, but can't think of anything atm. Can you have all that without... steam or electricity? Assuming magic could explain it (how would you explain it? I want an in-universe explanation, not just "well, it's magic lol"). Steam tech would be fine and really cool actually, but I have a hard time imagining steam tech existing without gunpowder or electricity, or low level electronics coming right after. If you guys can somehow explain that being feasible, I would love that, I could even start thinking of low tier trains if steam tech is available. But mainly, I'm preocuppied with mechanical tech that is seemingly magical in a medieval world, and it's also "stable", in the sense it won't kickstart a tech revolution elsewhere. It's just this rly unique particularity of this one culture/civilization (this exclusivity I was trying to explain with those native resources).

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So, to reiterate and summarize, the idea would be that this land in particular would have relics or so that can't really be reverse engineered, but humans are crafty and would still find a use for it nevertheless, they'd use them as they are. Maybe an ore that produces that much pressurized air for something akin do the 3DMG, or whatever. Or some relic that can power clockwork robots. This could have a similar effect to magic stagnating tech, in fact, because it would impede "normal" tech progress.

TL;DR How do I have steampunk tier prosthetics working without electricity? Magic exists, but the answer can't be just a hand wave.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. Please go easy with the images: not all users have a large bandwidth, and having to load all those images can make their experience poor. After that, what is your worldbuilding problem? Try to make it clearly stand out. You can find more help in our help center $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 12 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ I apologize, I'll remove some of the images then. I'll make my issue more clear as well. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ You are asking for a lot of different things please narrow down you question. I suggest putting this question through the sandbox first so you can narrow it down. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 13 at 4:00
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What you might be looking for is Earth Mages!

Ok, this may get a little strange and we have to kind of work backwards, but lets start with mechanical engineering stuff. A substantial part of fine and delicate machines all the way up to the modern day (and I'm not including electronics) has to do with material sciences. Fine mechanisms are limited by the strength of the material you are working with. Will a brass gear hold under the strain put on it without deforming? It probably won't be a problem for a larger mechanism but it becomes significant when you are talking about, say, a watch. The tiny gears there aren't strong enough to hold up under much more than a light spring. Also, imperfections become a problem the smaller you mechanism is. A tiny burr on the tooth of a gear means nothing on a larger machine, but gets exponentially more significant the smaller you go. Here is where material sciences matters. figuring out how to make tiny mechanisms that are strong enough and precise enough.

Enter your Earth Mage. Forget the parts about chucking huge rocks around. That's not practical and it takes far too much energy. Put the brakes on the magic system with a very simple "You can only move as much earth or minerals or whatever as you could with your body" type limitation. This keeps your mages from being massively OP in other areas, but it works perfectly when in conjunction with things like material science. Imagine a very precise kind of lens to allow you to see those very tiny flaws. The glass you use could be much clearer much earlier in your history if an earth mage can remove bubbles and imperfections from the glass. Those very tiny flaws in the mechanism could be removed by the tiniest of tools, that could only be manipulated by magic. That would allow for a degree of fine workmanship that is nearly impossible even today.

Add to the precision aspect by being able to magically strengthen an alloy Imagine brass that is strong enough to withstand some of the energy generated from a steam power source without deforming, yet is thousandths of a millimetre thick! Earth mages and engineers working together could build working, almost portable Babbage type mechanical thinking engines! Just Imagine what a Leonardo DaVinci could have done with the ability to create mechanisms that strong and fine.

Your key limiting factor would be power sources. Fine mechanisms would be vastly more efficient, but sooner or later you run in to TANSTAAFL (There ain't no such thing as a free lunch) You can't get more energy out than you put in. You will have to give some thought to the mass of your energy sources. With Purely Steam power, you have to consider the weight of the water as well as the heat source. Flywheels might do well for some applications. Compressed air or other gasses could work too. Electrical power is always an option if you want to delay the advent of the transistor or microprocessor. You could also limit supplies of lithium on your world. That is what makes light weight electrically powered machines attractive in our world. Keep battery tech limited and a lot of applications become inefficient and unattractive. Make crude oils hard to come by and you might not get around to internal combustion engines as fast. I know the Diesel engine was designed to run on vegetable oils, but if droughts are a common enough thing, then the thought of using food as fuel might put a stop to that line of thinking.

To limit other nations gaining access to your technologies, Keep a very sharp eye on anyone who has the magical talents, as well as anyone who can tinker with mechanisms. You need both to create the wonderful machines. If another culture picks up one of those machines, they can't recreate it if they don't have an earth mage. If they do have an earth mage, they can't recreate the tech without a mechanical engineer who understands the mechanism.Establish that artificers of a certain caliber and earth mages have to come up through their respective guilds in an approved fasion, and have those guilds jealously guard secrets, and you can put of replication for a very long time

As to your no gunpowder. All you would need to do there is to make one of the three traditional components rare or hard to get to. You need Saltpeter, Sulfur, and Charcoal. Charcoal and Saltpeter are just too common and available almost anywhere. Sulfur, in the form of Flowers of sulfur could be your rarity. It can only be found (in your world) near active volcanos, is dangerous to get to and so is correspondingly precious. Someone might work out the formula, but with Sulfur being too expensive, it would never grow to the levels of use we see in our own history.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting idea, but if flywheels are storing "magic-level" amounts of energy then precession is going to be a major problem for cyberlimbs, A limb that can't change orientation without overcoming massive amounts of rotational momentum is very poorly suited to acrobatics. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 23:30
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    $\begingroup$ Fantastic overview, yes, artificers is sort of the aesthetic I was thinking of, but hadn't remembered that archetype. You explained a lot I wanted in a satisfactory manner, thank you! Could you elaborate on the comment on electrical power? you said something about it delaying the advent of transistor or microprocessors? How so? What about the compressed air idea, I imagine you mean a magical component that allows so much compressed air to be stored in small devices a la 3DMG in Attack on Titan, right? $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ @nuteraofuro Electrical power would have to be handwaved away along with transistors. Reasoning being that with advanced mechanics there would be no need to pursue electrical avenues for a while. societal inertia or economics, perhaps. I see no reason why it would be stopped by any logical physical means, so you have to fall back on other, less logical ones. As for Attack On Titan, I have never watched that show so I don't know. It would follow that if you can magically strengthen metals you might make compressed air a viable portable power source, like fight for 10 min then recharge $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 13 at 15:11
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 you made me chuckle with the mental image of someone doing parkour and failing because of the gyroscope physics of a flywheel. So maybe no with a flywheel on prosthetics, but how about one on a self propelled cart mounted seige crossbow? or a tank? $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 13 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ @nuteraofuro Additional thought on electricity. there isn't anything in most electronics that isn't also needed by artificers, or is just so common that you can't just handwave it away. That's why I wanted to be more clear that to delay it, you need an external reason to just the materials and science. Societal inertia is a powerful one. Light is another. We switched to electrical power in no small part for a safe way to light our homes. Make a crystal candle that stores light and releases it back with no flame and you have no need for electric light. No incentive for electrical lights $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Apr 13 at 15:30
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You can surely get some clockwork

By the 11th century, clockwork was used for both timepieces and to track astronomical events, in Europe. The clocks did not keep time very accurately by modern standards, but the astronomical devices were carefully used to predict the positions of planets and other movement. The same timeline seems to apply in Europe, where mechanical escapements were used in clocks by that time.

However the main problem with those mechanical devices will be how to power them: if you want something carriable by a single person you have not much more than spring loading, which is rather inefficient. You won't achieve anything like in the references you mention.

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The other nations use magic directly, this nation, indirectly. They have a cave that uses magic to fulfil the needs of the supplicant. Got an arm missing - do a little dance and sing a little song and before you can blink a new mechanical arm has filled its place.

The arm is coated in some unknown dense material and so accessing its innards to ascertain how it works can't be done. This prevents copy cat designs by other nations and solves the power problem... we don't know because we can't know. Maybe it ticks, maybe every now and then it vents steam but who can explain the wonders of magical mechanical arms.

You can put in all sorts of limitations - only works for people of a certain genetic disposition, can only be in the form of hard goods, must meet a need rather than a want etc.

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The ancient Greeks had the means to produce the Antikythera mechanism. It was discovered in 1901 when and ancient ship wreck was discovered. Until then, it was thought the ancient Greeks didn't have the technology to make precision gears and gear mechanisms.

The Ankytheria mechanism has more recently been described as the first mechanical computer as it is believed to have been used to show the position of specific celestial objects.

The ancient Greeks even devised and form of steam engine, even though it was most likely didn't have practical uses at the time.

Useful steam engines were being made in the 1600s.

European science and technology might have developed much earlier had not secular teaching been banned in favor of "Christian scholarship" after the spread of Christianity in Europe.

The ancient world had it share of very intelligent people who development many scientific principles and developed potentially interesting mechanical devices, only to have the ideas and devices forgotten about when people with other ideas attained power.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Antikythera device is even primitive in its machining (if not its design). By the late 1800s, the mechanical devices that could be manfactured were quite amazing, both in shape and to tolerance. The only real drawback to not having electricity is the inability to make devices out of aluminum, so lightweight stuff is mostly out of the question. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Apr 12 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ (1) It turns out that we had prior knowledge about Anticycthera-class mechanisms, but we simply did not know how to parse it! Including a passage in Cicero where he may be speaking of the actual Anticythera machine... (2) Surprisingly, very little actual technological knowledge was lost in the transtion from the classical world to the medieval world. People somehow look at the poor, mangy, illiterate western Europe and forget that it was not all the medieval world -- the Roman empire was still a respectable power, the Arabs were busy collating the collective wisdom of east and west. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 12 at 15:59
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You need metallurgy and precision tools, but not electricity

Many of the most important metallurgical discoveries (e.g. the Bessemer process for steelmaking) came out in the 19th century before electricity was a widespread thing. The real revolution in mechanical engineering had to do with interchangeable parts, which also date to the early 19th century. Basically "blacksmithing" began to be replaced by "machining" and we developed lots of machine tools to make increasingly precise, increasingly repeatable, cutting and shaping of metal parts.

You would certainly need power to operate your machine tools/factories, but there's no reason it couldn't be water power or steam power.

Now, the expense for most "steampunk" technology is a little ridiculous, which is why it's fictional. You could hire 50 peasant mercenaries with crossbows for the cost of one shiny brass automaton, and you wouldn't have to have a mobile mechanic's shop and crates of every possible replacement part to keep them going. Given that this is a fantasy universe though, I see no reason why it couldn't happen.

You don't really need electricity until you want telegraph, radio, electric lighting, or to give your machines a "brain". Although modern manufacturing uses computer-controlled machine tools (CNC machines), manual machining is quite capable of very sophisticated operations. It just took a lot more skill in the day; you couldn't pull some kid off the street and make him a "machinist" overnight.

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  • $\begingroup$ Fantastic to hear. Your third paragraph confused me a little bit, are you saying for the shiny brass automatons to work, you'd need ridiculous logistics to keep it going? $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ @nuteraofuro I would think so, intuitively, wouldn't you? But don't let "realism" get in the way of a steampunk fantasy story. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Apr 13 at 12:18
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In our history, the craftsmanship to make these machines has been around for millennia. Just look at jewelry or armor from antiquity. It is often amazingly precise. Someone else pointed out the Antikythera as another example. What you need is a portable energy source. That is why electricity. That is why gunpowder or steam, waterwheels, windmills, or livestock turning a crank. Sure you might invent a spring that can propel your hook like a gun once, but you have to put a gun worth of energy into winding it up before you can do it again.

If this one civilization is the only one with access to this energy source, say a refined ore like you mention, their technology/magic would be uniquely theirs, or at least very rare in the wider world. Just dream a way to convert that energy into a piston or rotational motion and you are set.

Now, if you really just don't want electricity or gunpowder, you understand that the pre-dreadnoughts operated without electricity. I'm sure we could find ways to build weapons without gunpowder. Mechanical calculators, mechanical weaving looms and sewing machines, really almost anything built before about 1880 would be on the table.

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