Let’s say there was an early alien civilization, not yet advanced. They hail from a planet with little to no oxygen. If this planet had electrical storms relatively frequently, could they harness the power of electrical energy before the thermal energy of fire?
The problem with electricity is that to "harness" it you need something to conduct it. Traditionally, that's wire.
And the problem with wire is that you need metallurgy. And you can't use electricity to perform metallurgy without having the metallurgy first to get wires to conduct the electricity (you know, did Adam have a belly button? kind of problems).
And the problem with metallurgy is that it needs heat.
And heat needs either fire or electricity. Well, or chemistry. Maybe that's a path to success? Your people discovered a chemical means of creating heat before they discovered the ability to harness fire?
But that's stretching credulity because your lightning strikes are causing fire. Long before your people understood that the bright flashy thing in the sky could be used productively they'll be running from the bright hot stuff it leaves behind. And it's hard to believe they wouldn't look at that hot stuff first and think to themselves, "I wonder what the pig I just killed would taste like if I used a bit of that bright, hot stuff?"
But your planet has little to no free oxygen
And that means there's no fire left behind by the lightning. But there might be a problem with lightning, too.
In the worst case, lightning in a vacuum isn't visible. There's nothing there to ionize to create light. Oxygen is an obvious light creator because of the tragic Apollo 1 incident. But we live in an atmosphere with 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen.
If your atmosphere has little or no oxygen (no open flames!), what's taking its place? Let's assume it's mostly nitrogen. Check this out (Source):
That's ionized nitrogen (kinda what your lightning would look like! Cool, am I right?). Compare that to the more familiar ionized oxygen...
But I might be digressing. Nope, I'm digressing. As cool as lightning in a nearly all-nitrogen atmosphere would be, the reality is that you need a way to conduct it. Yes, salt water... graphite... but my problem all comes back to the need for heat in fundamental technologies that are required to harness lightning. If you think about it, you need heat just to make durable clay pots. Can't do that using lightning without conductors. And I can't think of any conductors that don't require heat to manufacture them (I'm pretty sure you can't make a Van de Graaff generator with salt water. Maybe if you had plastic or glass tubing... Argh! Need heat!).
So your real problem is how to get heat without fire so you can harness electricity.
Yes! You can do it, but only if you discover acids or other exothermic chemical reactions so you can develop metallurgy. Heat, my friend. All technology begins with heat.
They can develop some crude uses of lightning, but no more than that (and the aliens themselves may not even be possible...)
There are a number of issues to untangle here, but they mostly boil down to "exothermic oxidising reactions (fire) are really fundamental reactions."
I'll start with what should be possible:
The aliens can use lightning rods to get lightning to strike in a convenient place
It won't take long for them to realise that the flashy dangerous stuff tends to hit tall things first. Sooner or later, someone is going to try putting up a stick to get the lightning to hit it (based on what we know about earth-based intelligent life, this will either be a dare or to impress a female - likely both at the same time). Some time later, someone will start putting the other end of the stick somewhere it does something useful.
Applications I can see for this are heat (a corner of the cave that gets repeatedly struck by lightning could make a decent campfire substitute, even if it is going to be... exciting trying to cook safely there) and some form of electro-fishing or hunting. Cause a deliberate lightning strike in a river or over a xenorabbit burrow, wait for the fireworks to end, then collect your new precooked meals.
Pushing this too far means finding a good material for your lightning rods, though, which runs into the second issue:
Harnessing electricity in any major way means conductors, which means metal, which means smelting, which is really hard to separate from fire
Others have already mentioned that getting metals without heat is difficult, but there's a second layer to this as well. A lot of ores (and particularly the ones that are useful for a bronze- or iron-age-equivalent tech level) are oxides - that is, a combination of metal and oxygen atoms. Freeing the pure metal requires persuading the oxygen to go elsewhere, which essentially means getting it to react with something else instead (usually some form of carbon, and often carbon monoxide - which is easiest to produce using fire). For ores that aren't oxides, one of the primary processing methods is 'turn them into an oxide, then proceed as above.
This process can be summed up as "utilising a controlled fuel-and-oxygen reaction" - and it's really hard to come up with definitions such that 'these creatures have mastered controlled fuel-and-oxygen reactions' and 'these creatures have not mastered fire' can both be true simultaneously.
Incidentally, harnessing electricity probably also means batteries, which again mostly involve metals somewhere (see above).
There are some potential alternative chemical pathways here, if you wanted to substitute in chlorine or fluorine (or maybe even sulphur) chemistry for the oxygen - but that's why I said 'exothermic oxidising reaction' above as my definition of 'fire'. At the end of the day, it's going to be really hard (probably impossible) to find a realistic set of reactions that your aliens can use that doesn't have a version of 'fire' in there somewhere, even if it's a fluorine-metal fire instead of an oxygen-carbon one.
Which leads to the third question:
If your planet's environment doesn't support some kind of fire, it probably doesn't support intelligent life either
Humans, as well as basically all other non-photosynthesising life on earth, can be thought of as a really sophisticated form of fire - at least 'from a certain point of view'.
The reason I say that is that all of that life is powered by those same exothermic oxidising reactions I keep talking about.
If you want life, it needs an energy source. Photosynthesis is one, but it's low-output - there's a reason that plants just sit in one place and soak up the sun and all active species are using another energy source.
So for another energy source, we need some pair or set of substances that will react to produce an energy output - and there needs to be a substantial surplus energy over what is used to keep the reaction going, since that surplus is what powers the organism.
So if that's true, then we should be able to also bring those substances together and react them outside the organism - and 'chemical reaction that produces a substantial energy surplus' is awfully close to 'fire'.
The only one I can think of that might not qualify is something like a metal-acid reaction carried out entirely under the surface of a liquid - and even then, there's a reason we talk about acid burns...
It depends on what is meant by "discover".
- Detect? On a planet with a lot of storms, this is not a problem.
- Use and create by yourself? There are many creatures on our planet that can generate electricity on their own.
- Assume its origin? In ancient Greece, it was assumed that all matter consists of small particles, atoms, long before they were discovered.
- Understanding of its origin? If we talk about understanding the origin of electricity, then we can say with confidence that the fire was discovered in the XVIII century. (discovery of oxygen and combustion reaction)
Now in history, the discovery of fire by mankind is understood as its first creation by man on his own, at his own request. Therefore, I think that question and answer 2) is the most correct.
You don't need to get rid of all the oxygen to make it hard or impossible to start fires. So in response to some of the challenges of having no oxygen, perhaps the percentage of oxygen is low. On earth for example below about 16% oxygen you typically won't have a flame. But that might be sufficient for many forms of life.
Without fire - there could still be ingots of some metals gold for example that might be very precious, iron from meteors, but metals might not be unknown. Less corrosion and rust is probably a plus. As a stretch perhaps there are geothermal sources of heat that could be used as furnaces.
There could be a greater dependence on organic chemistries, growing or shaping materials by grinding. A lithic society where obsidian and flint/chert tools are much more common. Discovering how to make glass is tough without a source of heat, and air dried pottery is not strong. But if other chemistry technologies are developed, tree saps resins, natural rubbers perhaps hard pottery as we know it wouldn't be around, but bladders, skins other storage might be more common. It takes effort to shape stone, but depending on the geology some stones can be ground to high precision.
Discovering electricity might be inspired by trying to understand the frequent lightning storms, by noticing the sparking when you rub dissimilar materials together- also leading to the discovery of insulating and conducting materials. One can make electrostatic motors or generators. Discovering batteries would still be very reasonable.
The comment about graphite and carbon being conductive gives another type of condutor to work with. With out fire to make charcoal, maybe natural coal and graphite are more important as conductors instead of as fuel, until they discover how to increase the percentage of oxygen, then that might be a big surprise when things start burning easily. But at some point they may discover oxygen can make things burn easily, which would be a big innovation.
It can but you will have to cheat, somewhat. Give your people an organ that will create electricity like electric eel. This means they means they have a tame way of creating electricity at will. As they get smarter, they will find different uses for their electricity generation. There are different materials that conduct electricity, especially if the voltage is high enough.
After they pass a certain threshold in intellectual capacity, they might wonder if they could harness what looks like supercharged version of their zappy powers. They might think, if we can get it to this place, we can heat up tons of water instead of grams of it or heat their entire home instead of their palms.
Obviously, it might be possible for them to learn about fire earlier than they tame lightning but even with that, the first form of energy they control will be electrical rather than heat.
Maybe. Seems most Unlikely.
Electicity needs conductors, which are normally metals. Metals aren't found lying around in oxygenated atmospheres. To extract them from their ores, benerally requires fire. (Gold and copper are known in native form as minerals, but aren't abundant).
However, we know life existed on Earth before photosynthesis evolved (and when it did, life almost made itself extinct -- the great Oxygenation catastrophe). So, could anaerobic life take a different path to harvesting solar energy, that maintained a reducing atmosphere? In that environment, metals might easily be formed by biology. (It's believed that most if not all native Gold and Copper arises by the action of anaerobic bacteria here on Earth -- or rather, miles below the Earth).
We know very little about abiogenesis, and what other forms of life might be possible. Speculating wildly, maybe a world where as anaerobic life evolved to become multicellular, its equivalent of nerves was actually very fine filaments of a metal. Copper, perhaps. Insulated by a nonconductive biopolymer. Wires!
Perhaps the intelligent life that arises doesn't need to discover electricity as something non-biological, because their biology is more fundamentally electrical than ours? Or even, that evolution there used biological gunk as a stepping stone to bootstrap something that looks more like micro-electronics than life as we know it, even before intelligence arises?
Unlikely does not mean impossible. And in an infinite universe(?) anything that is not impossible by definition, will happen.
MAAAAYBE? If the creatures just need to "get off the ground" with tool making, and some metallurgy to harness lightning. perhaps they could use geothermal to get to at least pottery? pottery/ceramics you can get some chemistry going. some metallurgy. Slow but steady.
As the OP said the race was seeded from a more advanced race. Maybe they left behind a touch stone, sort of a cookbook or encyclopedia how to surpass the fire barrier. Or just plain creativity, some metallurgy might be possible with a relatively calm extrusive basalt type eruptions from volcanoes. Bonus, relatively pure unoxidized ores should be plentiful since there is no O2.
Cadence said it above. Lots of free flowing imagining goes on that is a thought exercise, but these kind of questions should be addressed based on what we know about evolution on this planet since it is our only certain set of facts. Understanding the formative power of habitats on earth is a logical approach to hypothesizing how something could evolve on another planet. How genetically unrelated organisms have evolved similar adaptations to similar environmental conditions on earth is a power lesson. If you start with a limiting condition like lack of oxygen on another world, and that is all you are given, and going on imagining complex beings with technology, in itself is quite a leap.
Discover electricity for what benefit and up to which level of mastery?
Today's usage of electricity (lighting, heating, cooling, appliances and computers)* but at what stage would your civilisation be?
Afterall it is often considered that humans controlled fires which were a side effects of lighting setting organic matter on fire after storms.
Here we need to assume beyond the low oxygen level (or any other local reason which prevents fire from being possible), we'd need something which helps funnel lighting energy. One way analogous to circuit protection would be to have a PTC which would offer low resistance for lighting at first but then would heat up and keep the heat as electricity cannot flow somewhere else.
So could you store heat, electricity would have to flow through either a material or a plant that would have a positive temperature coefficient: something that increases resistance with temperature and surrounded with highly isolating material. The trees could be of this sort while maybe the ground surface grass could be highly isolating. So once stroke by lighting the trees would warm-up and if with a high thermal mass they could do the job (of course they could not be made of cellulose like trees on Earth)
The fruit of those trees could be similar to leyden jars and be charged to high-level once stroke by lighting and the stem of those fruit being say the positive and the skin the negative of those batteries
Electricity Distribution without wires
Neurons can carry electricity and could be used for interconnecting entities. Instead of calamars which were used for studying neurons at first and are rather rare on land, make one of the most prolific animals of your planet one with extremly long and hardy neurons, easy to harvest.
Next could be to weave them in for ever bigger wires, maybe your civilisation could find a spider with instead of high mechanical resistance (like on Earth) spins with a fibre with low electrical resistance. Weaving those together could give you wires for engines and then for machines.
Electricity for machines and Appliances
One a strong enough capacity for electricity distribution is available (wires of neurones or spider-like silk) building machines can be made fairly analogous to Earth.
Electricity for Computers
Making chips without having developped metalurgy might be difficult but maybe your civilisation could skip the transistor and start straight at the artificial neuron stage...
People use electricity for lighting, heating, cooling, and refrigeration and for operating appliances, computers, electronics, machinery, and public transportation systems. Total U.S. electricity consumption in 2021 was about 3.93 trillion kWh and 13 times greater than electricity use in 1950.` as per EIA web site