I am building a world in which gunpowder was not invented (chemistry is less advanced compared to other sciences), but other kinds of projectile weapons still dominate the battlefield (compressed air weaponry and compressed steam artillery, mainly). But I was asking myself: with significant investment from the military industrial complex, would an electromagnetic accelerator utilizing coils or rails be plausible utilizing 1910s electrical technology?

  • $\begingroup$ What about centrifugal with an electric motor? $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ The fact that the first working prototype was built in 1917 making the answer an obvious yes is readily available with the briefest of searches so downvoting for the lack of any basic research before asking. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ If chemistry is not advanced you may have a lot of trouble getting the materials for a large railgun. (Steel, alloys etc.) $\endgroup$
    – Sascha
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 9:17

2 Answers 2


See the "history" section under https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railgun

The first working prototype was produced in 1917. It could probably have been done in 1910. However, we haven't got a railgun to work reliably enough to be useful 100 years later.

  • $\begingroup$ OP did not ask for 1910 he asked for 1910s, that's 1910-1919 inclusive thus includes 1917, so your answer should be "Yes, definitely, because it was" $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ I think the difference between 1910 and 1917 is not significant. People started to work on the subject before 1917. The working prototype appeared in 1917. The war probably made funding easier to come by, but much of this was developed within the Tudor company. But we still do not have any practical railgun weapons even now, so the answer should also be "No, definitely not". $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ Now .. to practicality .. in the world he details there is no gunpowder or (presumably) any other viable gunpowder equivalent (or the lack of gunpowder would be irrelevant), the lack of practicality is entirely reliant on easier cheaper alternatives so with nothing but catapults and airguns to compete with it immediately becomes far more 'practical' than you're imagining, the metrics you're applying (that it wasn't practical in a real world with gunpowder) are entirely false in the given scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ Oops, ignore my first one, I was guilty of what I accused you of, not reading yours properly, deleted it. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 22:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Here we go this is probably the article I was thinking of something more recent on it here looks like it is in fact working but there are no plans to adopt it into the fleet as of 2020, you might find something more recent if you look, but remember that with with no explosive propelled weapons to compete against the "viability" of the weapon is going to be entirely different than it is for us in the real world. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 22:47

I don't think so.

Here is my reasoning - the 3 main issues are:

1: Power Generation
2: Power Discharge
3: Control

Let's start with the easiest - Power Generation - in order to have a practical purpose on the Battlefield, your Railgun needs to be firing the projectiles at lethal velocities. I'm not talking the Sci-Fi Mach 10+ Rail Gun speeds, I'm talking at minimum 330 FPS (Feet Per Second) - which is the maximum speed a Bullet can technically glance off a Human. Depending on projectile weight this doesn't need to be a particularly high number (in Joules) - but it still needs to be portable. Either a Mobile generator or Batteries - neither of which in 1910s are applicable (but then... not outright impossible)

The next hurdle - this is potentially the biggest - as it's the major impediment to practical railguns today - Power Discharge. So assuming that in our fictional world, we have the means to store large amounts of energy and make it portable - Great! Now we have to be able to discharge that energy very very quickly - we do have Capacitors available in the 1910s (barely) but modern Capacitors don't really come along until the 1950s. The ability to quickly discharge the energy necessary to accelerate a projectile from 0 to lethal velocity in the distance of a barrel length is only just being solved now - see the ArcFlash project and even then, the ArcFlash is probably, in terms of being a weapon, barely functional. I don't mean that as a diss to ArcFlash (I think the project is really cool) - according to sources - the Muzzle velocity of the Arcflash is 75 m/s - which is approx 220 FPS - so below consistently lethal velocities for a Bullet. This is approximately the same speed as an Arrow, so a sharpened tip and a weight similar to an Arrow (assuming this doesn't reduce velocity) is plausible... But then if it's similar to a Bow and Arrow - then why bother?

Finally is the Control - doing a basic Proof of Concept that uses physical switches to toggle the coils on/off is fine in an ideal layout in the 1910s. But in order to move a Railgun into the realm of functional weapon, you need millisecond and microsecond (and potentially even picosecond) response/control times for turning the coils on/off as the projectile travels down the barrel - that level of precision is simply not possible without digital technology - which means at a minimum 1970s/1980s era tech.

So to recap:

At a stretch, I think you could, using 1910s tech, come up with a Power generation solution. But the power discharge and control problems with that era of tech are IMHO insurmountable.

In terms of your technology - Steam Powered Artillery I'd suggest is a no-go as the risk of a boiler explosion behind your own lines is too great. However assuming internal combustion engines are viable - having fly-wheel powered trebuchets/catapults for artillery makes much more sense.


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