3
$\begingroup$

Clarification: Oil, coal and natural gas still exist but have never been exploited. And the Industrial Revolution is capitalized to emphasize on the massive episode in human history spanning from the 18th century to the early 19th century.

With these in mind, what would the Industrial Revolution of history look like on a resource other than fossil fuels?

$\endgroup$
11
  • $\begingroup$ Not much difference, if it happens, when it happens. There are syntetic and renevable alternatives, it just way less convinient, and to make other options more attractive u need to continue handwavium - nuclear power as an example. If your handwavium is just some prohibitive conditions, and no nuclear then they will be forced for using second options and it will cost them more energy and efforts. So to understand the situation, u need to fill blanks in u q, describing more of your restriction context/details. Fossils were/are used cuz convinience, alternatives were used and always available. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 11 at 3:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg I don’t think you can build a nuclear reactor without using fossil fuels to make materials. $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Jul 11 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ You do of course realize that you are asking strangers to imagine your entire world for you. (And our own Industrial Revolution started without the use of fossil fuels. The use of fossile fuels to power machinery started when the Industrial Revolution was about a century in the making. To see how an Industrial Revolution without fossil fuels looks like just look at England or France around 1700. But of course this was revealed by you dilligent research.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 11 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Hey, I'm exploring options before putting them in my world. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 11:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure an industrial "revolution" is just impossible without energy-dense fossil fuels. You'd get a much more gradual and slow change of paradigm, which as one of the answers below had said, would devastate the environment much harder. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 12:17
5
$\begingroup$

A world going through an industrial revolution without using fossil fuels would be a deforested wasteland.

I cannot remember the exact reference, but as I was reading Macaulay's History of England the author talked about how growing energy requirements (including heating, but also industrial applications) in the late 1600s were leading to massive deforestation.

Fortunately, the author said, the people started using coal instead.

Kerosene also replaced the need to get oil from whales, saving the whales from being hunted to total extinction.

Taking advantage of fossil fuels arguably saved the environment from more severe and direct exploitation.

$\endgroup$
10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Reaching an equilibrium with the forest would be impossible NOW. For us. Result of preceeding with bio-fuels could be a waste land. But history will shape itself according to conditions that evolve, and not according to the expectations of people like us, with future views. Without abundant fuel, there will be little incentive to develop heavy industry of any kind. World population rise kicked off in 1830-1900, because of our large scale industry. Without it, world population would have become much smaller. One human can plant a thousand trees.. Not having oil does not impy being stupid ! $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jul 11 at 12:32
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ England had already been deforested long before the Industrial Revolution. In fact most of it had been deforested by the time of the Norman Conquest (the evidence is in the Domesday Book). $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Jul 11 at 12:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Massive deforestation" in the late 1600s"? In fact the land area covered by forest declined by just one percent between about 1650 and 1750. The rate of decline between about 1100 and 1350 was much quicker. and the biggest reduction of forested land had already been done before 1100. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Jul 11 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Goodies but a large increase in population is the inevitable result of rising standard of living and falling child mortality. Also without large population industrialization is not getting very far, industrialization requires a lot of specialized labor. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 11 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ @John without precision instruments, advanced laboratory equipment and a proper microscope, all these great medical developments of the 19th and 20th centuries would not have happened. The standard of living would change much slower. Without the Industrial Revolution, all developments would go slower, including population. The population increase we saw in 19th-20th century was also caused by the Industrial revolution itself: rising demand of (child) labour and worsening life conditions, urging people to procreate and let their children work, to stay alive.. All that would not have happened. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jul 11 at 15:09
4
$\begingroup$

Any "industrial revolution" will require a large energy source, to replace human and animal power.

The problem with the simplest alternative energy sources to fossil fuels - wind or water power - is that they are not mobile. Industrial-scale production is useless without mass transportation of the end products, and mass transportation of food in the opposite direction to feed the localized industrial cities. (Consider that some of the early UK railways were built to transport perishable food products like fresh milk 150 miles from the farms to London!)

The UK industrial revolution initially solved the "transportation problem without mobile energy sources" problem to some degree by digging canals, but that was extremely labor intensive, and only provided a small number of transport routes, and was dependent on geography. The UK doesn't have any long and high mountain ranges, but even a 500-foot hill is an impassable barrier to a canal unless you can go round it or tunnel through it. The original energy "mobile energy source" for the canal system was animal power - i.e. horses towing barges.

An alternative scenario would require an alternative mobile source that was as simple to use as fossil fuels and steam power. Electricity or nuclear fail the "simplicity" test - we still don't have large scale electrical powered transportation, except on fixed routes like railways. (A few electric cars with limited range don't count in the context of industrial scale transportation of goods)

$\endgroup$
4
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Using the power of falling water to turn a wheel has been around for centuries. Such industry as there was prior to 1800 made extensive use of water power to turn machinery. Winess the textile industry in Manchester, England, or Manchester, New Hampshire. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ I see little justification for defining an industrial revolution as being exclusively about fast land transportation. More rapid mobility certainly allows greater trade of highly-perishable goods, but that is it. I fail to see how "fresh milk" is a requirement for any industrial activity (and keep in mind that the industrial revolution had already been underway for well over a century before the development of railroads). Steam power itself was a later development spurred on by the industrial revolution outstripping the ability to use water power. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Without fast food transport, large cities become nonviable. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Jul 11 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi it is about fast an cheap travel overall, if you want a factories you need to feed a lot of people which means you need to move food and labor quickly. Perhaps more importantly you need it to keep the cost of goods down so you can sell your goods outside the local market. Yes you can mass produce textiles but if the price increases 10 fold due to shipping you can't sell as much as you can produce. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 11 at 19:23
3
$\begingroup$

Exactly the same when it comes to manufacturing and goods

There's a popular misconception shared by all other answers that the Industrial Revolution hinged on steam engines. In fact the Industrial Revolution only needed steam engines for draining mines to extract more ore, and it only needed that because Europe had spent 2000 years using the easily-available resources.

The Industrial Revolution started in the late 1600s or early 1700s, and it was actually powered by water wheels. Every major manufacturing site in Europe was by a river with a decent fall of water. New villages were built from scratch around the factories. That's why Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire were the major areas of industry in England.

After roughly a century, steam engines had got to the point where they could take over from water power. By that point, the Industrial Revolution was already in full flow. Steam engines certainly made things easier by enabling new manufacturing sites in lowland, but they were very much a result of the Industrial Revolution and not a cause.

And in most of Europe, most manufacturing kept going in the same places. So like I said, business as usual.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ Business as usual, without a doubt.. the Flamish textile painters used "half products". There was large scale metal milling from ca 1650. Pottery was produced in the Netherlands on an industrial scale, early 17th century. Bronze casting, cannon factories.. Only question is, if you would extrapolate that period after 1760, but going without steam engines, or steam only, without any oil and gas.. would we really regard 1760-1840 as revolutionary ? Could steam be applied large scale without fossil fuels ? imho the period would become an Industrial evolution, rather than an Industrial revolution. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jul 11 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Goodies In England, the steam engines in major factories were just replacing water power until well into the 19th century. The "revolution" was in the combination of mass-manufacture techniques and mechanical power. As for steam power, I'd be betting on major production of charcoal, which in our world never got beyond a cottage industry. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jul 11 at 21:13
2
$\begingroup$

No fuels, no steam engines, no steel, no weapons industry, no cars, no aircraft

For large scale industrial production, the steam engine was needed, and that thing needed fuel.. Wood at first.. but wood already counts as fossil, wouldn't it ? Another problematic topic is steel. Very difficult to make steel without massive fuel use. In turn, many industrial products cannot be made without steel. Weapons industry would not have had its explosive development, which culminated in war aircraft production in the 20th century.

However, certain other industrial activities, like textiles (industrial in Europe since the 17th century !) and tools making could have developed further.. Wherever water or wind energy are available, large bakeries, milk and meat factories can exist, supporting a scaled up agriculture sector.

Would it have been a revolution ? maybe not. Clothes and food have been produced since division of labour kicked in, late-neolithic age when humans developed agriculture.

We called this period 1760-1840 a revolution, because it eventually resulted in production of these spectacular fuel consuming items, such as cars and aircraft. But that branch of industrial activity, depending on steel, would have been cut off completely, without any fuels. Revolution ? maybe not..

$\endgroup$
8
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ One additional difficulty is that fossil-fuel powered steam engines were used run pumps that kept mines dry (it was one of the earliest uses), so availability of all sorts of ores are reduced and many types of metals therefore cost more. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 2:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 while static power sources like waterwheels could be used to power factories to mass produce goods, without steam engines and eventually internal combustion engines to power ships, trains and other ground vehicles the transport network to support the industrial revolution won't exist. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 2:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Everything depended on steam engines. e.g. trains to transport the labour force.. and goods.. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jul 11 at 2:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ why would wood count as a fossil fuel? also you need portable power for mechanized farming. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 11 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ Deforestation would proceed, it had already started. But wood use only can never result in what we now view as "Industrial Revolution". Also take into account we would not have had the population growth resulting of that revolution. The massive demand for industrial (child-) labour would not have occurred. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jul 11 at 11:59
2
$\begingroup$
  1. Water wheels. Water wheels have been used for power since Roman times. When it was realized that electricity could be generated by turning a magnet next to a conductive coil, a natural next step was to reverse these generators, making the first electric motors.

  2. Hydroelectric power. The energy available from water wheels is limited only by the amount of water available to turn wheels. A frenzy of dam making ensued, with the hydroelectric power captured to turn electrical generators in factories and electrical foundries, which were by necessity sites close to dams. Industrial cities grew up centered on giant artificial lakes and hydroelectric power plants.

  3. Iron engines. Power however was tied to the dams and power plants. There was no way to move the abundant electrical hydroelectric power to mobile ships and vehicles. It was then realized that the power put into iron oxides to separate the metal from oxygen could be reclaimed on reversing the reaction: burn the iron as fuel. https://phys.org/news/2018-09-iron-powder-alternative-fuel-industry.html Steam engines powered by burning iron freed industry from the tyranny of powerlines and allowed for powered vehicles, although energy hungry factories still used electricity.

  4. Aluminum engines. The discovery of the Bayer process and electrolytic refining of aluminum took metal oxidation engines to the next level. The energy density of metallic aluminum greatly exceeds that of iron, allowing less fuel for the same energy output, and lighter vehicles.

  5. The first aircraft: rockets. Metal burning steam engines are too heavy for aircraft. The first powered aircraft in this world are rockets, initially weapons, then unmanned for civilian purposes and finally manned rockets used for trips across the earths surface.

  6. The gunpowder engine and its rocket fuel descendants. In this world, the humble gunpowder engine had long had devotees eager to free themselves from the owners of electrical power and metal fuels. Innovations with explosives and rocket fuel led to the use of these power-dense materials in engines similar to the internal combustion engines of our world. Explosive powered engines emerge as an option free from the monopoly of electrical power plants and their metal powder fuels and the developers of this technology take to the sky in earnest.

$\endgroup$
7
  • $\begingroup$ these are all high precision generators that can't handle the sloppy fit and low material quality of the early industrial age. gunpowder engines in particular do not end well with the slightest misalignment. also mining and refining those metals takes more energy than you can get out of them, so you have no way to refine them $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 11 at 5:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Still some interesting elements in this answer.. e.g. I did not take electricity into consideration, in my above answer. You're right, it's be possible humans would have developed ways to create electricity from hydro, making it easier to transport the energy, decentralizing our energy-intensive activities. But still, the sources of energy would be limited and I think the advanced inventions you describe could have taken 300 years, not 80. Not a revolution, rather evolution. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Jul 11 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @John: "also mining and refining those metals takes more energy than you can get out of them, so you have no way to refine them" - you saw the part where they use hydroelectric electricity to refine them. Not metal burning engines to refine metal to burn. And I know you understand that every conversion of energy to a different form is lossy. If the metals give back 50% of the energy you put into them, 1000 miles away, that is ok. Now lets see that downvote converted into an upvote full of love for metal engines! $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 11 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see why charcoal wouldn't be used as a fuel source, at the very least iron smelting would need the carbon to make steel anyway. Iron-burning engines are too far-fetched for an early industrial civilization (unlikely for any level really), and completely unnecessary anyway. Even with fossil fuels horses and sailing ships still dominated until the late 19th century, which is quite late in terms of industrialization. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi: To make charcoal you need trees. England, Greece, Italy and Spain had already burned almost all their forests when the industrial revolution started, and France and Germany were not far behind. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 11 at 18:37
1
$\begingroup$

You need a portable fuel source.

Water and to a lesser extent wind power can and did power a lot of industry, specifically factories and mills. Solar boilers can even bee developed. But without anyone to sell the goods to, there is little reason to build such industry. You need cheap fast travel and industrialized agriculture both of which require portable power. This is what you need to get the rise in population that keeps the revolution rolling, and more importantly to get the things you likely want out of industrialization like better medicine and higher standards of living.

What can you use for portable power.

Biofuel is the most believable source but has the problem that you need industrialized agriculture to make it possible. So you have a catch 22 of needing biofuel to make biofuel. This works fine once you get things going but you need something to "prime the pump" so to speak. Perhaps a small amount of fossil fuels like peat might work, but if you want a truly fossil fuel free world you may hit a wall here. team power requires fuel and there is not much available on scale you need in a form that does not require much processing. The more processing it need the more you need industry to exist fort to industrialize, which again makes it a no go.

Electricity won't work because you can't get high power batteries, we are still struggling with that today. "Electric" powered industrial equipment today actually runs off steam generating electricity which again requires fuel. You could build electrically powered trains which would be a big help but you can't build long distance ones because you don't have a power station you can build anywhere. You might still be able to build a few in the right place however. your real problem is agriculture, electric tractors will be downright impossible with the level of technology.

Some people might say use wood, but that won't work, you need that wood for other things specifically for construction, cooking, and as a replacement for coke in industrial processes.

Your real hinderance is without oil you are stuck with biological sources of lubricant and lighting. So expect to drive whales extinct while industrial plant oil production ramps up, which again means you need even more portable fuels which will hamper how fast it can grow as an industry.

$\endgroup$
3
  • $\begingroup$ Where did this idea that industrialization means fast travel (instead of industrial production) come from? Rapid transport is only necessary for moving highly-perishable goods long distances - that has nothing to do with industrialization. Non-perishable goods (which is almost everything) and alternative for transporting perishables like changing them into less-perishable forms (refrigeration, canning, turning milk into cheese, etc.) do not require rapid transportation, and none of that has anything to do with industrialization. Mass-produced clothing or machine parts aren't going to spoil. $\endgroup$ Jul 11 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi cheap fast ravel, AKA railroads and steam ships is what you need to supply and create the demand for industrialized processes, to get the industrial revolution to actually be a revolution. to lead to a rapid increase in production across the board. refrigeration, canning, and such come much later in industrialization. Cheap clothing does not have much of a impact mass movement of labor and food and long distance transport of goods does. cheap textiles don't do much good if you can only sell to local markets in a cost efficient manner. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 11 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ do you have any evidence for that claim? The industrial revolution in Britain started ~1760, which is nearly a century before steam locomotives became dominant in transportation. Most products are not perishable, so taking longer to get there is not a significant issue (cloth doesn't spoil easily). Furthermore there is no requirement for fast locomotion for concepts such as refrigeration to be developed, and canning significantly predated steam travel. Textiles were one of the biggest drivers of industrialization as it was such a large market - perishable food on the other hand wasn't. $\endgroup$ Jul 16 at 17:08
0
$\begingroup$

GO SOLAR.

Hot air engines like stirling engines or ericsson accept any form of temperature gradient to work and there is historical precedent of them being used from the sun alone.

It is clean, easy to manufacture and cheap.

The biggest problem, as a lot of people already said here, is moving stuff. Factories would work fine from this type of engine to produce work, but their power to weight ratio is horrible to create moving vehicles.

So, at the start,there would be no vehicles with this energetic source. But when electricity is discovered the things will scale quickly.

Without even the need for complex and efficient batteries, there would be electric trains being powered by generators with hot air engines.

Sorce:https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2871.htm

$\endgroup$

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.