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I want to create a work that is eternally stuck in the steam age, because they have no means to generate electricity. What elements would have to be missing/rare in the planets crust to make electric dynamos impossible/inefficient? For example, if dynamos require copper, there could be extremely low concentrations of copper in the crust, so that harvesting it would be impractical. I am not looking into any social or religious reasons electricity is not used, but that electricity would be so hard to generate that using it is impractical.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you are getting to the steam age without copper. Or iron for that matter. You'd need to find a way to stop magnetism but iron is inherently magnetic. With just a little bit of residual magnetism in the core of your generator, you can use that to produce a current which can be used to bootstrap more magnetism via an electromagnet around the core to produce even more current. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding, please enjoy our tour and refer to the help center for useful stuff regarding the mechanics of the way we work. Do you mean in material terms in the environment? Because there might be societal reasons. Could you edit to clarify. $\endgroup$ Commented May 4, 2021 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ You would have to be looking at almost all metals, ferrous and non-ferrous. That means no steel, no aluminium. Better just leave it that no one figured out how to generate electricity. We found out how to do it pretty much by haphazard luck. $\endgroup$ Commented May 4, 2021 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ Without iron (and other ferrous metals) dynamo would become a "high-hanging fruit" on technological tree. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ Well, you could say that your world has no (or very little) iron, nickel, and cobalt (any of which would work for the magnetic circuits of the motors and generators). The problems are that such a world is so much unlike Earth that (1) you won't have humans in it (because we need iron for our blood) and (2) you won't get to the steam age... (P.S. Historically, steam and electric power were developed almost simultaneously; the first steam powered intercity railway opened in 1830, the first industrial dynamo was made in 1844. Electric power was widely used throughout the "steam age".) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 0:05

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I don't think fundamentally changing your world's chemistry is a very strong path forward, you'd have to write off too many physics constraints or cosmology constraints to explain how you end-up with an Earthlike planet that's nothing like Earth.

However, there's one strong area that is easily written off - read below.

Production Issues: Take away fossil fuels: coal/oil in particular, and you effectively destroy the path forward from discovery of electricity to its practical uses. Without oil/coal you'd have to discover Uranium/solar-power to generate electricity portably.

People could still develop hydroelectric or wind-electric generators, but the problems there are that electricity generation needs to be portable because:

Transportation issues: Electricity generation is Direct Current (DC) and DC doesn't go very far. Edison Electric was building power plants practically for every neighborhood, almost block-by-block. Alternating Current (AC) changed all of this and centralized production. AC transmission easily goes further than DC transmission. Without oil/coal to fire the steam-generators, electricity generation block-by-block simply doesn't make sense and so you effectively kill the technology tree.

There's barely any demand where there's water power or wind power, and so those power sources are DEPENDENT upon AC transmission. If someone were to build a little dam somewhere to make hydroelectric, chances are it isn't near a dense population center to be consumed. So it's stuck in the "academic curiosity" phase.

HVDC transmission (high voltage DC transmission) has so many technological issues that it wouldn't be discovered for a very long time, without electricity being consumed, there's likely no reason to discover it.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question asks for a world stuck in the steam age. Hard to have a steam age without lots of easily accessible coal. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ Au contraire. Charcoal production was what was used enmasse during early steam Era. Coal benefited electricity production. You can explain away a carboniferous Era that produced fossil fuels. Cities chewing up forests to fuel their steam powered world also is pretty cool. Also alternative heat sources are pretty cool too. And being in limited supply would not lend well to making electricity. For instance natural uranium. Warm enough to produce steam but not concentrated enough to make enough therms to drive steam turbines......but principally charcoal preceeded coal and steam engines used that $\endgroup$
    – IDNeon
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Hydroelectric schemes produce AC output - they could produce DC, but then, as you observe, the power couldn't be practically transported elsewhere. Why are you thinking that only fossil fuels can be used to produce AC? $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2021 at 2:51
  • $\begingroup$ With charcoal only, the world would back away from the steam age very soon after reaching it. We can't have large scale sustainable firewood production. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 3:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander I don't think so because that's not what happened. And the most useful application of steam other than electricity could arguably be a locomotive and many of those were fueled by wood.....also retorts can be built to mass produce charcoal, and coalgas can be used to run more efficient boilers. So I think it's the optimal stop to technology progress. Can probably have something like bamboo/white-fir or fast growing pine farms to fuel the boilers. Or peat farms like in Ireland and Scotland. $\endgroup$
    – IDNeon
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 3:23

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