In our real world we have been blessed with many mechanical inventions throughout the ages. Wind mills, water driven sawmills, rope and pulley systems, cranes, marvels in clockwork and gearing such as the Antikythera mechanism or many ancient automatons. In the real worlds case large scale implementation of these technologies with further complexities was not viable due to cost, reliability, labor, resource availability etc.

For a fictional setting similar in style and current technology to 1200-1400 AD to have a revolution that allows for this much wider implementation and complexity of these mechanical technologies what would need to be different, what factors would contribute to this revolution?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 2, 2022 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ "The steam engine, and a way to make lots of steel quickly and cheaply. Also better materials in general: polymers or at least vulcanised rubber." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessemer_process - the 'dupe' does not answer the question because it doesn't even have the word steel on the page. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Sep 3, 2022 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ How would fantasy dwarves produce steel? "Blast furnace" and then "The bessemer process." - IDC who you are, that's how you make steel. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Sep 3, 2022 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ How to accelerate the understanding of making steel? Learn Chinese. "Economic historian Robert Hartwell writes that the Chinese of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) innovated a "partial decarbonization" method of repeated forging of cast iron under a cold blast." Then it's a question of learning Chinese, begging the question of getting someone to divulge secrets therein or obtain texts not historically available to foreigners. Or I guess, just be Chinese. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Sep 3, 2022 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ It's really cultural. If those in charge believe ideologically that everyone must 'work' no matter how menial or inefficient that work, you'll get no progress. Why build a mill when milling flour by hand would occupy 10 people who might otherwise be 'slacking off'? $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Sep 5, 2022 at 23:34

9 Answers 9


Massive wealth.

Scientists are extremely wasteful and don't produce useful goods most of the time. In fact, with their experiments they often use up a huge amount of stuff. For a scientific revolution you need a place with a massive surplus of wealth so that the wealthy can afford to experiment and advance science.


A society which has no competition has no reason to advance. Guilds and established merchants will strangle progress so they can maintain their monopolies and experts. You need some external challenge to force technology to develop faster.

No slavery.

Slavery massively inhibits technology. You can replace technology with bodies, using slave labour to support your elites or bolster your armies. You need to not have slavery be a big thing.

A lack of major external challenges.

Rival empires can, while one nation focuses on economic development, focus on military development. They can bribe enough experts from your nation to support weapons and mass slaves to invade and take your stuff.

A religion and culture supportive of science.

You need your culture to support spreading knowledge, advancing science, and experimentation.

The solution is an Archipelago

There's some very rich island nation, with countless cities within vying for power. Their external enemies have trouble reaching them due to the sea, and the island nation has massive amounts of trade. This is similar to Britain, or Italy, both heavy industrial revolution islands. They have a culture that values science, vast wealth, and fund vast efforts to explore science faster.

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    $\begingroup$ one downside of island nation is they often lack production and thus a place to implement actually useful innovations, had heron of Alexandria been part of a agricultural city his inventions might have been put to use improving people lives, in mills or moving water, instead of spectacle and ending lives. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 2, 2022 at 15:43
  • Accumulation of capital for investment
    Cutting millstones or maintaining ponds for watermills would be a significant charge to the local economy, but much of it could be funded the old-fashioned way. "Each serf owes the manor a fat pig on Michaelmas, and each serf owes two weeks of labor during planting, three weeks at harvest, and two weeks in between." Some of this labor could be clearing culverts. The capital for larger investments might have to be cash savings, not in-kind contributions. Note that the changeover did happen at the end of the period you mention, you'd have to accelerate it by a few centuries.
  • Training of engineers
    During medieval times in Europe, scholars started with the classic liberal arts. This is not incompatible with a scientific worldview, but there would have to be a way for a watchmaker, say, to gain academic recognition. Which leads to:
  • Break or modify the guilds
    Craft guilds were designed as the professional association of master craftsmen, protecting their income and way of life. Each guild watched their ancient privileges, and came down hard on interlopers who would dabble in their craft without guild permission. An engineer might trample over the old boundaries.

Not expecting this to be a complete answer but, If I had to pick one single thing that spurred the spread of mechanization, the first thing that comes to my mind would be standardisation practices. When tech first tech entered the the world others picked up on the ideas and implemented them the best way they knew how. The tech breaks down, it is made of single hand made parts held together by screws with god knows what rate or twist, springs fasteners etc all made in differing unique ways.

In the same way, currency and weight standards made trade explode. Or even a written language made civilisation expand exponentially. Manufacturing standards accelerated the spread of manufacturing tech many fold over.

Immagin had there been standards the maker of the Antikythera Mechanism would have followed or pioneered cutting the gears of the device...

  • $\begingroup$ Actually, it was the other way around: The fragmentation of currency, small kingdoms and standards became untenable when trade exceeded a certain threshold. Customs unions and later standardization were answers, not instigators. $\endgroup$ Sep 2, 2022 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica Incorrect to say Answers that instigated? $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Sep 2, 2022 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ Well, there is some dialectic at play... $\endgroup$ Sep 2, 2022 at 13:36

The most important cause of a technological revolution is improved communication. That improved communication allows for technological advance to build on previous advances. This improved communication is built on both widespread basic education and easier dissemination of information (printing instead of hand copied books / pamphlets).

The industrial revolution is built upon a number of science advances that were melded together into industrial technologies. Without the rapid communications that came from the movable type printing press, the engineers would not have known what others were doing. Scientists could still write letters to each other and thus, science was moving ahead. But without a lot more people knowing about the science, industrial technology would not move forward quickly.

Compare all the inventions that Leonardo da Vinci created with how many moved into regular use. Because he was not able to get his ideas widely communicated, almost none of them got used. He was able to test some of them with a wealthy patron, but they didn't go any further. He had wealth backing him. His backers had competition (and battles). His culture didn't have slavery. But other people were not able to take his inventions and build upon them.

Thus, today, with the faster communications, we are experiencing a flood of industrial changes.

So, to have an industrial revolution earlier, have faster communications earlier.

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    $\begingroup$ Leonardo da Vinci's supposed genius is mostly a creation of late 20th century propaganda. He never published anything in his entire life, never write a single book. They had printing in his time, there were publishing houses. Compare for example his contemporary Albrecht Dürer, who actually wrote and published books on measurement, geometric construction, the representation of human figures and so on. (They actually knew each other.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 1, 2022 at 22:53
  • $\begingroup$ He might not have published, but his reputation at the time was significant enough. By not publishing, he didn't have the impact that other people did. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Sep 2, 2022 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Not only he did not publish, he never ever actually worked something out. Again, compare Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, which is basically a DeviantArt-class pretty picture, with Dürer's Four Books on Human Proportion (1528) (link to free copy on Archive.org), where he works out actual numerical relationships, gives detailed geometric construction diagrams, addresses human physical typology (from measurements of literally hundreds of actual living people) and published for all to use. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 2, 2022 at 15:21

One thing that is easy to overlook today is the viewpoint of society before 1400 was so very different from ours. From our vantage point in the twenty first century it is easy to miss the importance of the first voyage of Columbus. Today we take discoveries for granted and many assume that discovery must have always been a feature of human life even if the pace of discovery was a lot slower in centuries past. But this was not how it appeared at the time.

Before Columbus and other early explorers, there was no clear cut concept of “discovery” at all. The consensus from the religious traditions at that time was that there was nothing new under the sun. Theology was a matter of interpreting the bible and everything of importance could be found in its pages. If God had wanted us to know how a spider weaves its web it would have been explained in the bible.

Natural philosophy was a matter of interpreting the works of Aristotle and other Greek and Roman authors who had already described everything else about the world that was of interest. But yet scant attention was paid to the facts and no consideration was given to testing anything.

This way of thinking was so entrenched that even when old ideas were shown to be false many chose to simply ignore any such findings. Although there were discoveries and inventions before the time of Columbus these tended to be so infrequent and spread so slowly that they were not “noticed”.

The slow introduction of gunpowder was not seen as revolutionary at the time, because it was far less effective as a weapon in these early days and artillery in the form of the ballista and catapult had been known since Roman times and were similarly effective. It was also not the sort of item that most people would have encountered in everyday life.

Even Galileo writing as late as the early fifteenth century still lacked the Latin words to describe what he had found by looking through his telescope having to fall back on convoluted phrases best translated as “I have seen things unknown to all astronomers before me”. The word “discover” first appeared in its new sense in English in 1554 and in other languages a little before or after that.

But after Columbus there was direct proof that human history was not simply a history of repetitions but could become a history of progress and radical change.

As well as forging the very concept of discovery itself, the voyages of Columbus and other early explorers forced an acknowledgment that that the idea that there was nothing new under the sun was simply wrong and that far from knowing everything of importance, mankind was deeply ignorant about the natural world. Both of these ideas were fundamental to the scientific revolution because with the admission of ignorance came the possibility of discovery and progress. This was a foundational cause of change, although it took a long time to fully take hold.

As a further illustration: when William Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in 1599 he made the small error of referring to a clock striking, although there were no mechanical clocks in ancient Rome. And in Coriolanus in 1608 there is a reference to the points of the compass, but the Romans did not have the nautical compass.

These errors reflect the fact that when Shakespeare and his contemporaries read Roman authors they encountered constant reminders that the Romans were pagans not Christians, but few reminders of any technological difference between Ancient Rome and Renaissance Europe.

Shakespeare quite reasonably imagined ancient Rome just like contemporary London but with sunshine and togas. He had no reason to believe in progress. Shakespeare understood the variety of men but not the variety of historical eras. He had plenty of knowledge of history but no notion of irreversible historical change.

So if the voyage of Columbus and other explorers could have happened earlier the modern world would have probably started to emerge at an earlier date. Another vital item was the metal type printing press and associated techniques, which although also slow to take off, eventually allowed knowledge to be stored more permanently and distributed to a much wider audience much more quickly allowing challenges to the established order such as the protestant reformation and many new ideas in astronomy.

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    $\begingroup$ "No consideration was given to testing anything:" Roger Bacon's Opus Majus was written in 1267. Part VI, De Scientia Experimentali: "Sine experientia nihil sufficienter scire potest. [...] Multi habent argumenta ad scibilia, sed quia non habent experientiam, negligunt ea, nec vitant nociva nec persequuntur bona." (Without experiments nothing can be be sufficiently known. [...] Many argue about what can be known, but because they don't perform experiments, they are negligent, don't avoid what is wrong, nor follow what is right.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 1, 2022 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ And as for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, I don't know why anybody would think that Shakespeare intended or even thought about creating a faithful reconstruction of Rome in the 1st century BCE. He was a playwright, not a historian. Most of the striking scenes in the play, including for example the not-so-subtle yet effective manipulation of public sentiment by Mark Antony, never happened in real history. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 1, 2022 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ Columbus was not the "first explorer" or anything of the sort. By the time he stumbled across the Americas, the Portuguese had been systematically mapping the coast of Africa for a century. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Sep 2, 2022 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ I was not aware of the works of Roger Bacon so thanks for that. He certainly was on the right track but was he the instigator of what came later or someone who was ahead of their time? $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 2, 2022 at 6:43
  • $\begingroup$ No doubt Shakespeare was not intent on creating a faithful reconstruction of Rome, the point is technical details of time keeping didn't seem out of place to him. Nobody writing fiction today would put a smart phone in the hands of a Victorian the anachronism would be all too obvious. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Sep 2, 2022 at 6:47

Access to Inexpensive Energy

 A lot of the above answers focus on social and economic aspects.

There definitely needs to be a market, an interest to motivate the 'mechanical revolution', but on the technology side access to energy and metals is a big one.
Since the world is not interested in a steam engine (coal fired revolution) like ours. It might be motivated by something else like textiles, where there is a great benefit to having a prime mover. For example, a water driven textiles mill. Some of which were multi story very large buildings. There were even [tidal][2] mills that only worked a couple of hours a day.

Even as late as the 1870's watermills still produced 2/3 of the power available for British grain milling. So I would argue that it is a pretty efficient technology.

Wind power is a little more problematic, but of course in some places were also used to grind grain.

Geothermal is very strongly location dependent, and may places where geothermal is available, geysers, hot springs, volcanic vents it may be inhospitable.

In any case, I would make the pitch that in some world setting, if they was motivation an interesting mechanical revolution could be stimulated by innovations in managing the flow of water and extracting the power, or favorable steady wind, or some other source of energy that could result in having an inexpensive prime movers for industry.


The central requirement is that mechanization must be profitable. Everything else follows from there.

The necessary condition for that is that labor must be expensive. Cheap labor, let alone slavery or serfdom, discourages automation. This is a result of historical research into Ancient Greece and Rome: All the knowledge was there — waterworks, even steam engines. But nobody had a profitable use for it. This is still true today: Even in fully industrialized nations like the United States automation is prevented by the availability of cheap labor, as laid out in this article in the New York Times:

Immigrant guest workers [...] are costlier than the largely unauthorized workers they are replacing. The adverse effect wage rate in California this year is \$17.51, well above the \$15 minimum wage that farmers must pay workers hired locally.

So farmers are also looking elsewhere. “We are living on borrowed time,” said Dave Puglia, president and chief executive of Western Growers, the lobby group for farmers in the West. “I want half the produce harvest mechanized in 10 years. There’s no other solution.”

This example shows, in turn, what is necessary to end cheap labor: Emancipated, self-determined workers. In other words, a more equal society. Only if and when you cannot exploit undocumented workers any longer, machines become attractive.

Therefore, short of a time traveler: You must end serfdom and perhaps even absolute monarchy and clerical rule; you probably need a revolution, an uprising, a public realization of the kind Brecht formed into a poem:

A Worker Reads History

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

On a society level, 3 things are needed for scientific/engineering innovation to flourish

  1. Literacy and education, raising a scientist has a chance component, you need widespread literacy and education to so that the people with the potential to be scientists are given the chance. It is not coincidence the are age of enlightenment followed the invention of the advanced printing presses. if a million people read about mechanics there is far more likely to be one that sees a practical use for it than hundred people can read about mechanics. Innovation is not about a few geniuses, it is a history of millions of different people each having ONE good idea. A patent system can help this along, if people are encouraged to disclose how their inventions work they are more likely to find new applications.

  2. Liberty, scientist need to be free to say things without being put to death or becoming a social pariah. Discover is all but meaningless without being about to communicate it. People from vastly different walks of life need to be free to mingle and exchange ideas. without this the very root of science, empiricism, is unlikely to spread, empiricism strongly undermines many forms of authority so it has a hard time flourishing if they can crush it.

  3. A strong merchant class, sooner or later discoveries need to be applied, or they get lost and forgotten. which means you need people who value innovation over things like social status or aristocratic bloodlines. It is not coincidence so many renaissance inventors invented wonderful toys and not steam engine pumps. Aristocrats were the ones who could pay and they did not care about streamlining production costs, but instead about showing off. Merchants also encourage competition, if I can make a better X then I will make more money, instead of an aristocrat who does not care about making grain 10% cheaper because he can just tax cheaper grain to keep his stock competitive. this is why a non-protectionist government helps, but you get that anyway with strong merchants.

Your issue is these three things are the exact opposite of what you saw in medieval Europe; Printing and education was rare, merchants were weak compared to aristocrats and the church, and publishing a discovery either did not like could and did get you put to death.


A pandemic

The population is drastically reduced as it happened during the plague. The result could be:

  • Weakening of the authority opens the way to new ways of thinking.
  • Scarcity of workers forces to find new solutions the reduce their need.
  • Disruption of the economy weakens the domination of the big families opening the way for small enterprises keener to try something new.

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