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My world does not have stagnant technology, and of course there is going to be an industrial revolution. In the real industrial revolution, it began with the need for textiles, which led to the spinning jenny, then the waterframe, and so on. I was wondering how is it possible for a fantasy world to industrialize, but with another product to start it instead.

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    $\begingroup$ The cool thing about worldbuilding is everything is possible unless you choose to disallow it. What's stopping you from saying that industrialization began with something else? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Apr 20 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ The obvious would be iron/steel production. You need powered machines for trip hammers, which basically take over for smith's arms hammering things out. With production levels high enough, you get to build skyscrapers and whatnot... though it'd be weird to see everyone wearing pre-IR rags in such a cityscape. If they have a wilderness, the industrial revolution can be lumber sawmills and whatnot. Most other products require a previous stage of industrial revolution (chemicals, etc) to have occurred just from infrastructure requirements. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Apr 20 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Automation follows value. Clothes were expensive, thread was expensive. $\endgroup$ Apr 21 at 19:26

11 Answers 11

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Q: "I was wondering how is it possible for a fantasy world to industrialize, but with another product to start it instead."

Vaccines and other pharmaceutics

Precursors

The industrial revolution is driven by an earlier industrious revolution,

See: wiki - Industrious revolution

An industrious revolution is driven by demand, not technology. Textiles drove an industrious revolution, as did candle sticks, coinage, bricks, glasswork, alcoholic beverages, and home decoration. Work previously done by individual craftsmen gets organized in factories. For an industrial revolution to occur, the product should require technological advancements.

In below answer, the early industrious revolution around beverages, that is beer, whiskey and liquors would become a precursor of pharmacy, not textiles.

How would this industrial revolution be caused by another product ?

Early history aside, the start of the industrial revolution based on textiles is widely regarded as ca 1760, rooted in the invention in 1734 of the flying shuttle. So.. we need something in the story that will occur before that point in time, requiring a certain product, putting an incentive to produce it in very large quantities, that would make textile production machinery a less relevant factor.

Now, suppose in your story, folks started pharmaceutic industries in the 1740's.

There are many applications of medicine, like aspirin and penicilline, all requiring medical advancements that did not happen. But vaccines may be a good example of having a plausible medical product, that could be in high demand as well. In 1720, the first vaccinating method was experimented with in Europe.

Vaccines

Now suppose the actual vaccine invention, dated 1796 for smallpox would have been a bit earlier, in the 1720's already. Producing attenuated or inactivated vaccines is quite easy, only.. it had to be produced in accurate dose and, in standard size glass packaging. Also, you'd need hollow needles to admit the vaccine.

Fictional part: the 1730-1745 Covid pandemic

Some Corona virus variant popped up and although the pandemia was not as severe as the medieval pest had been, the contagiousness and the resulting fast spread and lost working time impacted the economy for years and it made doctors think.. it accelerated scientific research into contagious disease and it would accelerate industrial production technology, millions of vaccines were needed.

Fictional part: earlier discovery of blood types

This is a key condition to let the medicine idea work: your story could put the discovery of blood types Karl_Landsteiner a few centuries earlier, by experimentation, an army doctor discovered blood types around 1702. This research was conducted in a way modern folks would find disgusting: prisoners of war were exposed to a variety of blood samples, accurate book keeping resulted in the discovery of 4 blood types. A few years later, a primitive clinical method was devised, involving coloring blood samples, to predict the safety of the vaccine.

Fictional part: earlier hollow needle

Injection is a technology already conceptualized in the 15th century, but it was not until 1659 until in Britain, first experiments were conducted. At this point I need a little hand waiving, they were invented in 1844, with the textile industrial revolution well underway. I'm not sure if the history of metallurgy makes 18th century injection needles plausible. But it would certainly require accelerated technological advancement to produce steel hollow needles. The offspin of the development of fine metallurgy may have been multifold and spawn many new products. By 1800, the textiles manufacturing equipment would look common, the pharmaceutics industry would be at the center of development.

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Like textiles, you need something people are working on every day.

Really, the same story played out in the change from our hunter-gatherer society to intentional farming; intentional farming is a kind of "industrialization" that lets a few people work so that everybody doesn't have to spend their days searching for naturally occurring food.

That was "industrializing" the "-gatherer" part of the equation, but in reality, there is evidence that we first "industrialized" the "hunter-" half with animal husbandry; domesticating and leading goats as we walked our annual gathering routes. We find signs of goat feces and bones along the path. And goats are the easiest animals to domesticate, they can eat any kind of vegetable matter (even sticks), they are relatively docile and provide milk and meat on occasion. We also "industrialized" hunting by partnering with wolves instead of going it alone.

That is in terms of "industry" in the sense of intentionally organizing and pursuing some beneficial activity.

So you might focus on what remains in labor for the critical processes of producing food, many of which were done by hand. Weeding. Harvesting. Cooking. Threshing. Grinding, for flours, that is extremely laborious by hand, but the first water mills used water wheels to turn stones for grinding grain. The first windmills were machines to harvest wind to turn grinding stones.

Water pumping, even today in primitive countries, people (mostly women and children) walk hours from their villages to wells to bring back water. A simple windmill (or even water wheel in a river) could provide the energy to lift water to pipes high enough to flow downhill to a village.

So didn't the Roman Aqueducts, about 19 BC and some 31 miles long, constitute an "industrialization" of water collection? They literally built their own river from the mountains to Rome, over 2000 years ago, and (kept in repair) the Acqua Vergine is still a functioning aqueduct.

The Archimedes screw is a clever but simple machine for raising water from a lake or river to height, and with a tiny bit of imagination it can easily be powered by a windmill.

Feeding of a herd of animals; goats or chickens or cattle, for example hay production.

Even the automation of tanning hides. In many equatorial climates, textiles are not absolutely necessary. But even there, sensitive genitals tend to be protected, and leather protective gear was often devised for battle or working in the field, dealing with thorns or bitey animals or sharp rocks. Like leather gloves and vests, which we still wear when working with thorny plants, wood, metal or livestock. Or definitely hot and often sharp metals in a forge. Not to mention shoes to protect our feet from rough ground and the many sharp corners it offers our feet. The tanning of skins into leather has several steps ripe for mechanization and industrialization.

Not to mention many other aspects important to civilization that can be mechanized, or machines could multiply the strength of a specialist. Digging, for example. Forestry, such as felling trees, stripping branches, sawing, etc. That is what the early "sawmills" did, used river flow to run huge saws to process trees into lumber.

On the Digging front, humans have been processing bog iron (naturally occurring iron-rich accumulations found in swamps) into steel for a few thousand years, and both mining, refinement and the forging of steel are target rich for automation. The Bronze and Iron ages did not come about without mining and forging. Roman swords and armor did not magically appear. Steel production began four thousand years ago.

Human industrialization truly began thousands of years before textiles, with the mechanization of tasks in ways that relieved us of work. Textiles was just a convenient place to experiment with this. But it certainly is not the only starting point, you can start with any life-critical, time-consuming task.

The most obvious being the needs for food, water, shelter and weapons, for offense or defense.

Think about the necessities of primitive life, and how we have utterly mechanized and industrialized our production of those necessities. Read up on the history of those, and find the seeds that started them. The textile industry was likely just a cultural accident, a focus of work to which a clever inventive mind happened to be deeply exposed, so that is where they focused their efforts.

But really, isn't it just an extension of the automation of cotton or flax production by farming, harvesting and threshing (in the case of flax)? Isn't it "what you do next" after you are reliably gathering a ton of fiber?

it could have been anything, I think. I see this all as a piece, we automate and "industrialize" one step at a time. Frequently we have been focusing on the most work and time intensive tasks we deem necessary for survival.

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    $\begingroup$ Got to upvote any recognition of the need to protect sensitive genitals from biting animals! Especially goats. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Apr 26 at 18:09
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It almost has to start with textiles

The point of starting the Industrial Revolution with textiles is that it created the conditions for a very large number of people to join the workforce, which created the conditions for the continuation of the Industrial Revolution.

To put it bluntly, you cannot have a proper Industrial Revolution if you don't have a large workforce available to work. If all your workforce is busy with some vital activity, then you will need to pay them very well indeed to entice them to work in your factories, which will make your products too expensive, which will limit your volumes, which will stunt the industrial development.

Before the Industrial Revolution, textiles were really really expensive; expensive in terms of money, yes, but this only reflected how expensive they were in terms of time consumed to produced them. They were so expensive that it was perfectly normal and reasonable for a man to include his clothes and bedsheets in his will, and to specify their distribution among his heirs.

Before the Industrial Revolution, basically all women spent all their time not consumed with housework and cooking spinning thread and sewing and weaving.

The standard epitaph of an ordinary Roman woman was "she was a good wife; she weaved cloth".

The other advantage of industrializing the production of textiles is that cheap textiles can be exported anywhere. Cloth is cloth, everybody wants cloth, and if you can make textiles significantly cheaper than everybody else then the entire world is your market. This brings money and raw materials into your country, and enables the expansion of the Industrial Revolution.

Chain reaction

In real history, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution went something like this:

  1. Industrialize the production of textiles.

    This liberates about half the working time of the female population, which is now suddenly available to work for wages in factories. For example, making paper, which drops the prices of books, which raises the literacy level, which creates the conditions for the next stages.

  2. The world has an insatiable appetite for cheap textiles. The merchant class sees the unprecedented opportunity and starts exporting textiles worldwide.

    This makes a lot of capital available for investment.

  3. Seeing how profitable the exportation of cloth is, merchants put pressure on the early industrialists to make more. But the production of cloth is limited by the availability of wool. The price of wool rises to the point where many land-holders are incentivised to switch the use of their land from growing crops to growing sheep. This makes a large number of agricultural workers redundant, creating a large worforce pool ready and willing to work for wages in factories.

  4. With available capital sloshing around and with a large workforce willing to work for wages, the industrialists can now expand the new work models into producing metal and ceramics goods, which were the second wave of industrialization.

  5. At this stage, your country is the factory of the world. You can make many essential goods much cheaper than anybody else, which gives you a world-wide market, which brings even more money and raw materials into your country. The cycle reinforces itself.

Conclusion

  • It is this positive feedback cycle that you need to imagine for your Industrial Revolution to take off. In real history it started with texiles because (1) everybody in the world needs textiles, and (2) the difference in price between hand-made and machine-made textiles was so great that industrializing the production of textile gave a tremendous competitive advantage to the early industrial powers.

  • And don't forget that your industrial workforce still needs to eat. In real history, the early industrial revolution was accompanied by a maybe less well known Agricultural Revolution which increased agricultural productivity so that a smaller agricultural workforce could feed the ever increasing industrial workforce.

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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with you on the importance of fabrics, do you have an idea beyond my iron idea what could start is for a species that just doesn't need clothing (hot planet or them being furry)? $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDyingOfLight textiles aren't just for garments - as you said in your answer, ships are essential to move goods and ships need sails, also rope (have a look at early Industrial Age rope-making factories), plus other uses such as the bedding mentioned, tents / sunshades in a hot climate... Excellent answer, +1 just for the final dot point on the Agricultural Revolution being a necessary precondition for the Industrial Revolution. $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 While I'm not 100% sure about this I believe that clothing was historically the largest market for fabric. It's not that the need for it disappears, it's that the market is much smaller. Say you are dealing with lizards sleeping on preferably heated stone. I wonder about the alternative. $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ Textiles aren't the only option for the feedback cycle. Farm machinery would also work: historically, upwards of 90% of the population was engaged in food production; today, it's around 1%, and much of that comes from more efficient machinery, not better crops and fertilizers. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Apr 20 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ The thinking is right, but textiles is too narrow. The process works for ANYTHING with a couple of criteria: pre-industrial production takes a LOT of work time and has a wide need customer base. This applies to food, maybe there is a universal tool that that species need to replace a "lacking" digit on their hand, even glasses if short-sightedness is near universal in the species. Anything goes here that fullfills the two criteria. Textiles is just what did it for us humans $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 21 at 8:15
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Iron and Steel

The Southern Song dynasty almost industrialized in the 13 century. Iron production seems to have been the main driver behind it all. They failed because the domestic market was weak, the bureaucratic state held too many monopolies, Chinese culture made it harder to question the classics (preventing an enlightenment movement) and getting crushed by the Mongols probably didn't help either.

As I see it you need a few things to industrialize:

  • One (or more) high value processed products with a huge market and low barriers to market entry
  • A workforce (workers and capitalists) that can actually decide what it wants to do (no caste system, this is probably what killed India in this respect)
  • A merchant class to distribute the goods economically, thus generating capital for investment
  • A sufficiently hands off state or one where the merchants and capitalists are already in charge (see England for the former and the history of merchant republics and political power in all the other successful parts of Europe (especially the Dutch))
  • A competitive environment where those who stick to dogma will only drive those who seek to explore new ideas into their enemies laps, sowing the seeds of their own destruction
  • enough infrastructure to support cities and to transport goods (this means rivers and canals, forget land transport for bulk cargo (it's called the silk road for a reason))
  • probably a host of other factors I forgot to mention
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "forget land transport for bulk cargo (it's called the silk road for a reason)" ? $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Apr 20 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ @breversa Your land transport is limited by how much you can carry per camel, cart, slave, ... Given a mass restriction a perfect trade good has a high value to mass ratio. Spices, gems and other luxury articles fulfill this rule. Among them silk, as it was value dense enough to justify carrying it across Asia. This doesn't mean you can't trade less value dense goods over land, but your distances are limited by the value vs the transportation cost. Ships are faster and cheaper, thus you can access more markets. $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the clarification that "silk = high value to mass ratio" which makes road transport still viable. $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Apr 20 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly on breversa, if the species is universally nearsighted for example, glases could be exactly this product, and they would be valid via land transport as well owing to their high price to weight ratio $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 21 at 8:17
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Automate weapons manufacture or some industry that is key to warfare.

This would be in a world where some small niche is already using steam power but it's not spread yet. Then a major war and someone from the industrialized industry realizing their tools can be used to augment a critical warfare industry. With that happening the war could last longer, maybe the smaller country wins, or any other imbalancing factor would be a spark to get other country governments/leaders to take notice and then to seek out the same industrialization in their domestic war industries. And then in peacetime you'd still have those devices around and people across the economy could start applying the industrialized tools to their own native industries.

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If you want to have an industrial revolution in a similar fashion to Britain, at the simplest level you need four things:

  1. An existing cottage industry producing a widely desired and used product that's not too easy to make. In the case of Britain this was textiles, before the mills there were thousands of cottages where wool, hemp, cotton and other raw materials were turned into clothing, painstakingly by hand. It was slow and productivity was terrible, but it was able to consume the materials available.

  2. Some event that rapidly increases the quantities of these raw materials, and the demand for the finished products, so much that the existing cottage industry cannot possibly keep up. In Britain, this was mainly from imported cotton from Egypt, India and the US thanks to the reach and influence of the empire.

  3. Significant scientific and technological capabilities. Industrialisation needs scientists and inventors, otherwise there's no technology available to improve how it's already being done in the cottages. Europe had this pretty much since the renaissance.

  4. A reasonable amount of wealth and prosperity, and a culture of entrepreneurship. These are your keen eyed tycoons put two and two together, and use the advances in science and technology to address the oversupply and meet demand, by turning the cottage industry into a modern factory based system. Obviously they need some wealth to get started, to build the buildings and fabricate the machines, and clearly nobody is going to do it if they can't get stinking rich! (or at least get some kind of reward or prestige). And again, Britain near the peak of its imperial might had lots of wealth and plenty of people willing to take a risk to make it big.

I think with these criteria, you've actually got something pretty flexible. You can swap out textiles for something else, though really it's the perfect product for this sort of thing. Pottery and glass perhaps, though perhaps with those you could just have the demand suddenly skyrocket, causing a labour shortage, since in most places clay and sand are plentiful. Maybe some metals, though due to their durability it's hard to make demand go up suddenly. But I think you could could come up with something.

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You need to justify the lack of textiles. Even if people wear only fig leaves, you have sails, and ropes, and nets, and bags.

What is a textile: A flexible material of 1 or 2 dimensions, with a reasonable strenth to weight ratio. Textiles now are used to make jets and bicycles. (Carbon fiber cloth composit)

Steel and wood come to mind as replacements. Concrete for dams and canals for water control.

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It depends on what's readily available.

Textiles are useful for many things, as other answers have pointed out. If the society you're writing about is broadly similar to humans on Earth, they will need some form of cloth - not just for clothing, but for nets, sails, flags, furniture (upholstery)... and that's not even getting into associated products: a society without twine, rope, thread, or yarn would almost certainly be very different from the humans-on-earth baseline.

Rather than obviating the need for those things, it might be easier to explain why their manufacture is trivial. In many societies on earth, some "cloth" usages were commonly leather instead of woven material. So run with that - include a few other creatures or plants that produce materials similar to the various things we, in our world, used textiles for. Maybe there are giant pufferfish whose flesh remains supple after washing up on land, or trees with tough-but-flexible bark, or giant onions whose skin is easily adapted.

Having gotten rid of the need for textiles, we come to the question at hand: what other products are constantly necessary, and time-consuming to produce?

Well, let's tackle "constantly necessary" first. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs points to physiological needs being the most important. It would be tricky to alter the places of air, food, or water without producing a society unrecognizable and difficult for your audience of humans on earth to identify with. Clothing would also be on that list, but that's the textiles you're trying to avoid. How about shelter?

If the world has few readily-available resources that can consistently stand up to the forces that act on the structures of the world, it would be plausible that most people spend enormous amounts of time on the upkeep of their dwelling. A combination of tornadoes (ripping up structures above ground) and earthquakes (making below-ground structures unsafe) could tie up a lot of time in the repair of houses. Or maybe acid rain that eats structures away and pools below-ground, so that people are forever repairing the roofs of their houses and other structures.

Some innovation that helps people's buildings stand up to their environment would open up far more people's time to, well, do other things - invent things, manufacture leisure items, come up with increasingly-complicated art.

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First devise your society, then build their automation around what they need.

If you envisage cities of marble, industrialise quarrying and cutting masonry.

If you envisage amphibious frog people who build beaver style dams and dens, industrialise around harvesting all that wood.

If your society is constraint to not have available metal, perhaps you'd industrialise around making fiberglass style kelp-reinforced ceramics or polymers.

If you envisage a society of ruminants, perhaps industrial scale Sauerkraut is more efficiently digested than grass. As a bonus, anything that helps your inventors be healtier or more efficient is a good innovation multiplier.

If you imagine a mountain kingdom hostile to draught animals, perhaps transport is the starting point for mechanisation.

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Building on the answer from AlexP "It almost has to start with textiles".

What you need is a product that is

  • A scarce good that is needed on a more massive scale. Only products or services made on a massive scale can justify industrialization.
  • Hard or labor intensive to make manually. If it's easy to make manually, industrialization doesn't really serve a purpose.
  • Easy to manufacture with simple machines. Since you are talking about starting industrialization, you have to assume that the technology isn't instantly very advanced.

Textiles are the prime candidate; they meet all criteria perfectly. If you want to avoid starting with textiles, you would almost have to start with a civilization that doesn't need textiles in the first place - that is, a civilization in a very mild climate.

The second and third candidates I can think of are ones that also drove the real-world industrial revolution: transportation and communication.

Finally, one other options are the sins. In particular, drug production, as well as possibly mechanical pleasure devices. Gambling probably wouldn't work because there is nothing to be produced; it's just redistributing.

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Plastics.

This may seem like a leap, but hear me out. Natural polymers, like rubber, Shellac, and various gums and resins, are all around. All you need is for the dominant culture in your world's history to have a strong relationship with one of them to excuse the idea that they might experiment with them, and/or try to create synthetic versions.

There are a lot of synthetic polymers, and a lot of methods for making them. The earliest ones in our own history were discovered during the industrial revolution, partly because that was what created a large scale demand for certain naturally limited materials (rubber, ivory, etc.). These early plastics and plastic molding techniques often involved relatively accessible ingredients; Parkensine, one of our first plastics, is a treatment of cellulose in Aqua Fortis. Another, Galalith, is made through suspending Caesin in Formaldehyde. Vulcanization, a process for hardening rubber, works with natural rubber and sulfur. Natural scientists from the era leading up to the industrial revolution had access to these materials - they just need a reason to experiment with them, and the freedom to do so.

Pre-industrial revolution, education is far more of a luxury, and thus scientific research tends to be pushed towards immediately practical purposes. However, there are always exceptions. In our history, research into electricity mostly started as a hobby for a handful of well funded scientists around Europe and its colonies that was showy enough to earn funding from the ruling class. If you come up with a reason why a wealthy society might fund otherwise eccentric research into manipulating natural plastics, and from that grow into synthesizing plastics, I think its very possible to imagine certain plastics being discovered early, a demand for them growing, and their production slowly becoming systemic until it is a legitimate industrial process.

This would fill the exact niche that textiles filled in our own history - the creation of something malleable, something standardized and useful from which all manner of other products could be developed in a deeper spiral of further industrialization. Whatever unit of plastic is made standard, it can be molded, stretched or hardened to fit any number of possible practical uses, serving as the backbone of an inescapable new economy.

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