Pre-industrial production system: means of production where the vast majority of goods are made by skilled craftsmen specialized in that field (I.E. Carpenters, blacksmiths, millers, weavers, and woodworkers) and not mass-produced in a factory.

Tied to is wood a viable material to build spacecraft? I am making an alien rustic civilization where the species, due to a low population, never had an industrial revolution while also having post-industrial technologies such as microchip computers, electricity, internal combustion engines, aircraft, and spacecraft; whereas everything is made in workshops, mills, forges, and labs by specialized individuals who are trained from birth to do that single task/the whole product opposed to our factory-based production system.

My question is, how far could you actually get with this system of production?

  • this species has a total population of 6 million all concentrated in one big rustic settlement
  • food, water, and electricity are the only things mass-produced/mass-refined due to everyone needing food and water and electricity is needed in most workshops/labs
  • no mass production, no aluminum or titanium since it's too hard to refine
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    $\begingroup$ What does it mean to have 6 million people in "one big rustic settlement"? 6 million people in one place is a pretty good-sized city, like Dallas or Toronto. Cities aren't generally known for their rustic qualities. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Feb 23, 2023 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ "trained from birth to do that single task" this is industrialisation, specialisation into small tasks is what production lines are all about, you must mean something else cos in the wider context of your question what you have there is an oxymoron, pre-industrial craftsmen would be trained from birth in a specific craft but do everything within that craft from preparing the wood to making the product and the product might be anything made from that material, a chair, a table, a cart wheel or a spice rack, pretty sure you've used the wrong words to convey what you mean. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 23, 2023 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ With no mass production of textiles, clothing is very very expensive and just about all the women are employed in spinning thread and weaving cloth. This cuts you workforce in half right from the beginning, and it goes downhill from there. No, you cannot have microchips. Yes, you can have a few dozen internal combustion engines and half a dozen wire-and-fabric aircraft, for what good it does. And there is no such thing as a "big rustic setllement" of 6 million people. They will starve to death. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 23, 2023 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ "no mass production, no aluminum or titanium since it's too hard to refine" How is this too difficult but not microchips? No high speed steel either and definitely no carbide for your machine shops because no cobalt or tungsten. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 24, 2023 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ If you do not have aluminium, you will almost certainly not have the Czochralski process which is much harder, so you will not have microchips. That's OK, neither did the Apollo program. The much bigger problem is going to be sheer scale. How many people can you spare to staff this? $\endgroup$
    – pjc50
    Feb 24, 2023 at 11:09

6 Answers 6


I think this question misses what was realistically the biggest improvement of industrialization.


A skilled craftsman can make incredibly complex and 'modern' machinery; for example, the story of the Ferrari 250 GTO where 'None of the panels match from other models' due to each being handmade. Even today, prototype firearms (as an example) are made as one-offs by a skilled machinist/fitter (See AKJesus- AK50 build video series).

Each screw, nut and bolt is an individual item crafted specifically for its purpose and mated to its specific opposite.

This is where the Industrial Revolution really accelerated things - standardization means you can take a box of standard bolts and a box of standard nuts and know they will fit together without any modification.

Think about the history of firearm manufacture before and after industrialization - there were firearms in the 1700s but the price point of manufacture was significantly higher (as the number of skilled man-hours to produce was higher) - what industralization meant was that the speed of manufacture and the standardization of components was improved.

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    $\begingroup$ You are incorrect. Industrialization started far before standardization, which was a feature of the "American method" developed around the beginning of the 20th century. (You're right though that standardization is an enormous boost to productivity). $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Feb 24, 2023 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ Very good point about something you need to advance past Renaissance level tech, but this does not actually answer the question. So, if standardization allows a cottage industry to advance further, the answer should say how much further you could get with standardization $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 24, 2023 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @fectin - Perhaps I could have phrased it better - Once industrialization started, it required standardization - an artisan craftsman can make fine adjustments as needed, but on a mass scale, this doesn't work, so standards are required. My point was - with pre-industrial methods, you can make (with enough time) one-off machines that are as complex as the tech we have today - but without standards, you can't do it repeatedly or quickly. $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2023 at 20:08

Not very far

There are lots of problems with the idea of trying to get a total population of 6 million, all in one location, to Space Age technology. To avoid writing a book-length answer, this will just concentrate on a few of the issues - there are more of them:

Natural resource availability - assuming that this world is basically Earth-like, not all of the minerals required will be available in usable quantities in proximity to a single city. Iron is almost certainly available because it is so common, but what about everything else? Copper, tin, gold, silver - by the time microchips are getting manufactured just about every non-radioactive element and vast numbers of compounds are required in very pure form. For that matter, are the resources to smelt just iron available? Either vast amounts of wood are required (for turning large amounts of wood into small amounts of charcoal, requiring a large workforce), or coal (which requires a significant workforce for mining). Even if some freak of handwavium means that every element and compound required is somehow available in close proximity to the city...

Workforce (un)availability - This society does not have enough people to fill every niche required of a technological society. There are not enough people to mine everything that is required, let alone manufacture all of the parts needed for a pre-1900 culture. Once manufacture of electronic components and custom machined parts is needed, the minimum population to support an industrialized society is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.

Price of goods - Factories take advantage of scale efficiencies to produce goods at a much lower unit cost than cottage industry production allows. AlexP correctly pointed out in comments that without industrial production of textiles, a vast amount of labour within each household is consumed simply producing clothing for the household. See the articles in this series for detail about just how much effort was required in ye olde days. This applies to absolutely every product imaginable. Just to look at two examples:

  • Rope used to be an extraordinarily expensive item because hours of work were required to produce each length, whereas now I can drop by a hardware store or even a supermarket and buy as much as I want out for any reasonable purpose with minimal impact on my wallet.
  • The famous essay I, Pencil goes through the vast number of processes and people involved in the manufacture of a single pencil. When you first read the essay, the automatic question is "Why is manufacturing a pencil done in such a complicated way?" The answer is that pencils are much, much cheaper individually when they are made this way.

If everyone in a society is paying workshop prices rather than factory prices for items then this is a poor society. Which has the following consequences...

Minimal surplus wealth = minimal R&D - there is not much surplus wealth to go around. Assuming this is not some unexplained utopian society there will quite a few wealthy families and individuals who may choose to be patrons of inventors (rather than following the normal practice of patronising artists who can produce pretty pictures and sculptures of the patron), but there are insufficient creative resources to allow rigorous programs of research and development. (Everyone is paying workshop prices for paper, which makes it very expensive to even record research notes, let alone publish them.) Even if electricity is discovered, the society will lack both the manpower and the culture to employ thousands of people to build electrical generation facilities and all the supporting infrastructure required.

No long range transport - It is not explained why all of these six million people have remained all settled in the one area. However, the fact that they all are in close proximity means that there is no motive to develop efficient long-range transport. Without distant settlements that are farming or mining things that cannot be obtained locally, there is no pressing need to develop long-range sailing ships, let alone railways or aircraft! (Short range railways make sense, but if it is to cover a specific, short route of importance then it is more likely that the relevant hill will be smoothed out to allow the oxen to pull the cars along the rails than the sustained effort to develop an efficient steam engine will be undertaken.) There may be a casual desire for exploration, but if the exploration is not followed by colonization then it will just be an intermittent fad, not a societal imperative to keep the trade flowing. So it is very difficult to see why such a society would invest effort in developing aircraft or even cars, even if it had the population to do so.

No big wars - Wars are generally agreed to be bad [citation required] but it is also generally agreed that the pressure of wars, especially those that go on for a long time, lead to vast technological improvements. The problem here is that this city + surrounds of 6 million has no one to war against, which means that any fighting is likely to be small scale internal struggles that will end before side A has time to develop type AA armour that inspires side B to develop type BB weapon to defeat type AA armour, and so on. This also means that there will be no non-military spin-off technology that advances society as a whole (eg improved metal forging techniques to make stronger tools or better pressure vessels for engines).

Societal traits - Combining the lack of impetus for long-distance travel and the lack of industrial warfare with the concept of a society where everyone is trained from birth to do their job - this society is not going anywhere. Whatever stage of technology it is at when the practice of training people from birth for their lifetime employment starts, that is the level of technology that this society will remain at, because it can't train people for jobs that do not exist yet but are vital for the next step of technological advancement. Actually it will only remain at that technological level until the non-renewable resources in the vicinity of this settlement are exhausted, then it will regress to a lower level.

TL;DR In summary - this society lacks both sufficient natural resources and population resources to reach the desired technology level and it uses the resources it has inefficiently. It also lacks the social drivers and culture for the development of a technological civilization to be believable.

  • $\begingroup$ so, instead of one large settlement, have a bunch of small ones and a higher population. their is a reason why they want to go to space that I sorta just forgot to add, they expand out to scavenge alien ruins and study them. I'm also playing with the idea of alt technologies and the species literally having no concept of economics in their society, and people make things and trade them because they can and just want too $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2023 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ Re: war the necessary ingredient is competition, and regardless of its other properties war is definitely that. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2023 at 14:33

Mid-1900s Level Technology

...this race develops tech inspired by the remains of a highly advanced precursor race that is long dead ...

While such a small population may never get all that advanced on thier own, once you cut out the pressure of RnD, and only consider logistical limitations, you can actually get pretty far.

There are a number of modern machines that are small and cheap enough to be owned and operated by an individual household that came during or after the Industrial Revolution that could significantly improve a Cottage Industry. All of the tools (except for the microprocessors) in a small modern machine shop can be made in a small modern machine shop by an expert craftsman. This includes metal lathes, mills, injection molds, pumps, compressors, gauges, looms, sewing machines, various printing machines and paper mills, various chemical processing equipment, precision kilns and smelters, etc.

As for materials: aluminum and titanium smelting can be done at a small enough scale to fit in a family run house-hold attached business IF you have a modern power infrastructure to feed it. The chemicals and machines needed are actually pretty easy for a very small number of chemists and machinists to set up, it's the power that is the hard part, but since that part is industrialized, you should be good for making aluminum and titanium alloys. The more problematic metals will be the rare earth metals used in modern electronics. While Titanium and Aluminum take more power and chemistry to extract than Iron, thier complexity is nothing like Neodymium, Scandium, or Dysprosium which can take thousands of passes of refining to get those few parts per million of useful stuff out of their ore.

The other significant material limitation you will face is modern polymers. I once looked up the manufacturing process for Kevlar and found that it took dozens of separate refining processes and a number of fairly complex pieces of equipment to get from raw materials to plastic. This may still be doable by a small number of chemists working on different parts of the production chain, but plastics won't be the cheap alternative to wood and metal that they are today.

The one thing you absolutely can't make is computers... at least nothing nearly as powerful as we have today. The equipment required is simply too sensitive, complex, and precise to be done by some guy in his garage, and as previously mentioned, you can't even refine a lot of the needed rare earth metals. This however, does not mean that you can't make more simple electronics. Simple household businesses could make all of the components you'd expect to find in a minicomputer or other pre-microprocessor electronics. In fact, up until the late 1900s quite a large number of the electronic devices you'd buy were first prototyped in people's homes.

No Central Industrialization also means no Planned Obsolescence

Many modern industries can only stay in business by making products designed to break easily and be hard to repair. Industrialization does not just help us produce everything we need, but it actually produces WAY more than we could ever consume, meaning you could still enjoy a lot of modern luxury at affordable rates even with a much less efficient production chain.

Modernish vehicles like cars, trucks, planes, barges, etc. will exist, but without centralized industry, they will be a bit different. Industrialized automotive factories for example can't build cars to last more than 10-20 years even though they know how to make cars that could last 100, and then they fill them up with tons of expensive niceties that break easily or add luxuries that were not in last year's model to encourage people to buy cars who already have cars.

Without industrialized factories you will see far more utilitarian vehicles and machines made. So, while a basic household car may be more expensive and not nearly as fast, powerful, quite, or comfortable as a comparable modern car, they could still become ubiquitous over time as you will see a lot more people driving around in thier old father's or grandfather's vehicles. Overtime, the same people who hand make cars will get most of thier business from keeping cars working than making new ones.

Most Mid-1900s household items will also still exist. Air conditioning, heating, refrigeration, radios, microwaves, gas/electric stoves, lightbulbs, etc. will all be available. Again many of these will be much more expensive than they are today, but last a whole lot longer. For example, a hand made incandescent lightbulb can last for over 100 years, when you don't have industrialization forcing planned obsolescence like the Phoebus Cartel which engineered the life expectancy of a lightbulb to only 1000 hours; so, even if a hand blown lightbulb is a 100\$ commodity, the cost is easy to bare when your 30 year old home still has most of its original lights.

  • $\begingroup$ On that top blurb in your question, you're actually close, this race develops tech inspired by the remains of a highly advanced precursor race that is long dead, scavenging what they can on (and later off) world and copying it for themselves+ a bit of classic f**king about and finding out $\endgroup$ Feb 24, 2023 at 17:01

There is an example of a rustic settlement with post-industrial technology right in our own world, and you may find it instructive.

First of all, being rustic forces it to have a dispersed population, and as a result it takes quite a lot of space. It is actually the size of a country. (Spoiler: it is, in fact, a country.)

It currently has a population of some 25 million, rather bigger than your society of 6 million, but otherwise it shares many similarities. It is largely cut off from the rest of the world economy, in which sense it is very much like your alien society, which also does not have other economies to trade with. Admittedly this country does not have spacecraft, but they do have intercontinental ballistic missiles, which is not that far off. I am not sure if they produce their own microprocessors, but they do have their own operating system (a version of Linux for those interested) and their own internet (not connected to the world's Internet), so it is conceivable that they could have developed their own microprocessor industry if they so chose.

But because of being an otherwise rustic country which chose to concentrate its scarce and dispersed resources into such resource-intensive projects, it also developed some, shall we say, problems. Like losing about a million people to a famine in the 1990s.

Yes, I'm talking about North Korea.

Now you can argue that North Korea also has an oversized army, which you do not mention as a feature of your alien society, and their hardships could have been a result of spending too heavily on that army. But spacecraft is expensive too. NASA's budget, at just shy of 15 billion USD, is in fact comparable to North Korea's total GDP, estimated at 16 billion USD. Even that amount of money is insufficient to maintain manned vehicles capable of traveling beyond low Earth orbit. For your alien society, any sort of spacecraft programme is going to be a tremendous expense, throwing the rest of its economy into misery North Korea-style if it can even afford it at all.

...which can actually lead to some very interesting world-building! I mean, think of the tensions within your alien society as its leaders push the population to ever greater sacrifices in the name of space exploration. How do they keep a lid on their citizens' restless moods? Is there maybe a revolution brewing?

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    $\begingroup$ About 65% of the workforce of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea is employed in industry and services. It has many large factories, about 1970s state-of-the-art. It is definitely not a society where "the vast majority of goods are made by skilled craftsmen". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 23, 2023 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, but. 'Industry' here means the secondary sector of the economy, i.e. the processing of raw materials into finished goods. It does not necessarily mean factories and mechanised production. CIA World Factbook has figures for employment (which arrives at the 65% figure by lumping services and industry together) and for contribution to GDP, where industry and services together account for 77%, making them not much more productive than argiculture. So basically North Korea has factories which produce at an efficiency of a craftsman. As a model of artisanal economy, it's close enough. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Feb 24, 2023 at 0:15

Citing out of memory, during Venice golden age, its arsenal could build a war galley in 1 day, only relying on craftsmen and what is under many points of view a precursor of chain production.

No fancy materials were used, only carefully arranged processes and supplies.

I think your people can reach something similar.

  • $\begingroup$ Venice was never "rural". And the Arsenal of Venice employed thousands of workers... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 23, 2023 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Yup. There's a big difference between "pre-industrial" and "artisinal". There's been plenty of various manufactories long before the start of the industrial revolution - and all it really ever needed was concentrating people. It shouldn't be surprising that these structures develop in places that are constrained in space and have ready access to raw materials (i.e. shipping) - Venice, Netherlands, Britain... As long as they don't have too much access to slave labour, that always kills any chance of increasing labour efficiency (Venice did trade in slaves, but relied on skilled labour). $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Feb 24, 2023 at 7:12

Whatever you want

How much and what are you willing to automate? What tools and materials are you willing to allow or forbid?

You've forbidden "mass production", but specifically allowed the computer chips necessary for mass production. Your people are going to rapidly reach the point where they're constrained on what they produce based only on "I need to produce 1000 bolts for my spacecraft and to keep things simple, I should make sure they're all compatible. I have the tools and technology to make as many as I want." Why do they choose not to do that? Is there a cultural prohibition on automation? How do computer chips with hundreds of millions of transistors get around that? If there's no industrial revolution, how did they get the technology necessary for computer chips?

3D printing technologies are approaching the point where you can print just about anything given the right input materials and tools. That includes tools and upgrades / replacement parts for your 3D printer... A single "craftsman" with a 3D printer just needs the instructions, a compatible set of tools / printing head / tables, and the knowledge to put the pieces together. Assembly lines are becoming more and more automated. Put "advanced 3D printer" together with "automated assembly line" and "a few skilled workers", and you've got a factory - whether or not you call it "rustic". The key development here isn't the "industrial revolution", tungsten or aluminum but the computer chip. Popular part designs will essentially become standards.

Add in some CNC mills and lathes, some automated delivery capabilities, automated chemistry to produce materials different from what you directly mine / farm and you're pretty quickly reach a society where machines can create anything, including other machines.

The "workshops" might be kinda large, but since you're apparently allowing most modern and near-future technology, this seems completely compatible with your world. Maybe the robots do everything off in the woods or underground and just deliver goods to the intelligent population, so that it still "looks rustic".


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