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My world was colonized by spacefaring humans who lost the vast majority of their technology in an unknown catastrophe at least 12,000 years before the present. They have now redeveloped roughly up to the point of Late Medieval technology (with some adaptations to the conditions of my planet).

We have all heard the famous line about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. I plan on having some "magic" in my world that is simply advanced technology wielded by a select few. My question is, what kinds of modern technology would be viewed as magic by a medieval person that fits within the following constraints:

  1. No gunpowder weaponry
  2. No electricity
  3. No modern material science (i.e. plastics, advanced metals, etc.)
  4. Replicable, i.e., these are not 12,000 year-old artifacts but technology that the people are still capable of making, even if the knowledge is limited to a select few.

I think the obvious answer would probably be some modern medical technology, but I'm excited to get some unexpected answers.

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    $\begingroup$ This has the potential to be closed as an "infinite list of things" question with no objectively "best" answer, especially by allowing future technology (which could be anything). Are these supposed to be 12,000 year old artefacts that somehow still work or are they things that are made with late medieval tech but using secret "lost" knowledge? $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2023 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ @AsekuVena to second that idea: see cargo cults. They literally saw the logistical capabilities of the industrial world as magic. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 30, 2023 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ Tbh, this looks like magic even now. $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    Mar 30, 2023 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ The the phrases "indistinguishable from magic" and "seen as/confused with magic" have very different implications. People recognise things as technology, they might not understand the technology, but they know what it is. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Mar 31, 2023 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ Have you read Mark Twain's 'A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur' (1889) or seen Danny Kaye's movie of the same name (1948)? $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2023 at 21:25

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Modern medicine is probably the most substantial answer.

An engine can be taken apart and looked at - and whilst someone 'primitive' may not be able to understand all of what it does - a reasonable person would be able to infer a cause/effect.

However, with modern medicine (especially vaccines and antibiotics) there is nothing for the person to 'see' (not without a microscope and an understanding of virology/epidemiology) and so it would seem like magic.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! It would be interesting to maybe divide my "magicians" into 2 or more orders. Engineers who are secretive with their methods and training but not viewed as necessarily magical, and Alchemists who deal with chemistry and medicine which isn't visible to the human eye. $\endgroup$
    – DMacc1917
    Mar 30, 2023 at 21:50
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Chemistry

It requires no modern materials or manufacturing capabilities to have an understanding of chemistry, but a chemist in the medieval period would literally be seen as a wizard. As it was, blacksmiths and alchemists were already seen as magic by most people being able to turn rocks into metals, poisons, and acids... but a chemist could do all of the things a blacksmiths or alchemists could do, but way better. And his workshop would be complete with all sorts of esoteric charts, indecipherable notes, and potions of all sorts.

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    $\begingroup$ "As it was, blacksmiths and alchemists were already seen as magic by most people" - Although alchemy was certainly used to defraud people, resulting in the papal decretal of 1317 to prevent alchemy being used to swindol people, I don't know of any source that says blacksmithing was considered "magical" in the middle ages. Especially since it was a 2,000 year old practice and a booming industry by the middle ages $\endgroup$
    – Jarrad
    Mar 31, 2023 at 1:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Jarrad not magic as we now think of it, but there was a lot of superstition around blacksmiths, especially when working with steel ( a process that relied more on passed-down rituals than actual metallurgic understanding) $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 31, 2023 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Jarrad The older stories about "magic" swords are often about just well-forged blades. Ones that cut well, didn't break, etc... $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Mar 31, 2023 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Jarrad The methods used by smiths were largely considered trade secretes up until the Renaissance; so, most people LITTERALLY had know idea how it worked. They knew that if they saw a blacksmith throw a rock into fire, he'll turn it into an axe head, but if they threw a rock into a fire... they still had a rock. It was as unexplainable as turning straw into gold using a spinning wheel, and practically every medieval civilization had stories about the magic around blacksmiths. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ As for alchemists, the Papal decree was that you could not swindle a person through false claims of alchemy... but the Papacy did accept that real alchemy was a thing, and generally regarded it as some form of magic. Like blacksmiths, alchemists were seen as (usually) good wizards who worked against the devil to develop medicines and increase understand about God's creation... in general. The Church cared a lot more about HOW magic was used than if it was used. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 31, 2023 at 15:03
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Maps and mechanical flight computers

It will probably take a ship captain to appreciate, but medieval maps were notoriously inaccurate - and the sailors knew it. 20th century-quality maps, when checked out and found to be true, would look like a result of clairvoyance or omniscience. (Well, the sight from above the heavens technically is omniscience, as far as medievals are concerned.)

Same goes for the navigation slide rules such as the E6B or the NL-10M. The concept is deceivingly simple, but the math behind it and the knowledge required to navigate by them would look positively arcane even to late medieval people.

For the ultimate complexity, look to the "Globus" navigational computer of the Voskhod spacecraft. It was almost purely mechanical (the driver solenoid can be replaced by a spring or an aeolipile-style steam engine), but was good enough to literally pilot a spaceship.

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    $\begingroup$ The 1774 Schiehallion Experiment was designed to measure the mean density of the Earth, and incidentally they figured out how to make topographical maps, and a number of other unexpected findings for cartography, physics, and geology. An excellent example of basic research yielding benefits for the entire world. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schiehallion_experiment $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2023 at 18:43
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Pre-1980's diesel engine, and the fuel to run it.

Prior to the mid 1980's diesel engines did not require electricity to run. Modern electrical systems have since been developed to make them run more efficiently, but to jump from Late Medieval to diesel engines would be magical, and the sheer number of useful things that can be done with a diesel engine are numerous and varied.

Additionally, while we do use electricity now to produce diesel fuel from crude oil, it's not necessarily needed, all you really need is a large distillation column. However due to the alcohol industry in Medieval times, this might not really count as looking like magic to everyone, but would still be fantastic to a lot of people who haven't made distilled spirits before.

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    $\begingroup$ Jet engines, too. The Soviet test pilots who flew the very first jets described the experience to be "fast and scary, like a devil on a broom". The absence of a propeller raised some superstition too. $\endgroup$
    – Cheetah
    Mar 30, 2023 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need crude oil or refining. A diesel engine will run well on vegetable oil. (Though of course it's more expensive and burning potential food that way). $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Mar 31, 2023 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ Is the machining available in Medieval times though? Because even though diesel engines are the "roughest" gasoline engines they still require rather precise machining $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 31, 2023 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok no, but machining doesn't give precision, it gives repeatable precision. Anything you can do with machining can be done with hand tools, it just takes longer. The most precise things in the world are optics polished by hand, e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Achim_Leistner $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2023 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ "diesel engines did not require electricity to run". What heated the glow plugs, and spun the starter motor? (I'd hate to be the one who had to had crank a diesel engine... $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Apr 1, 2023 at 3:21
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  • X-rays
  • Radium (heat and light production indefinitely)
  • Nuclear fission (even in its nuclear “damp squib” form and killing rays)
  • Chemical Photography and pictures from the deep sea vents etc,
  • Liquid oxygen (conventionally would require electricity but unconventionally could almost certainly be produced using the pressurisation provided by a steam engine)
  • Dry ice (similarly)
  • An aqualung and scuba kit
  • A submarine
  • Pneumatic cannons
  • Many explosive chemicals apart from gunpowder (if allowed)
  • A range of other peculiar chemical reactions like the iodine clock reaction (I’m not sure all of the reagents would meet your full requirements – it's complicated) but there are plenty of strange reactions...
  • Large High resolution microscopes
  • Large High resolution telescopes
  • Steam propelled helium filled airships
  • Antibiotics
  • Tin cans of food
  • Popping candy
  • Parachutes
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    $\begingroup$ Throw in chemical rebreathers. They can be done with medieval technology, but require at least 18th century knowledge of chemistry (tartar-based scrubbers go back to 1726). $\endgroup$
    – Cheetah
    Mar 30, 2023 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ np, There are plenty more. Anesthetics like ether and nitrous oxide and loads of relatively minor surgical procedures and a vast range of modern medication, snow making, medical oxygen, $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Mar 30, 2023 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ Electricity is required to produce x-rays etc $\endgroup$
    – SeanJ
    Mar 31, 2023 at 6:15
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @SeanJ that some of those require electricity in some form, but it's still a good list. As a specific example I'd throw in references to phosphorus in Stevenson's Baroque Cycle. $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2023 at 6:40
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    $\begingroup$ @SeanJ x-rays are photons, they don't react to electric fields. You'd use either a mask to create a pointlike source or a collimator. Both are just x-ray opaque mechanical parts. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2023 at 16:22
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Anything predictive

Basing things on real world examples, anything that allowed a person to predict advents in advance. It wouldn't even need to be a physical technology, simply knowledge might be enough.

For example, weather forecasting can be done using things like a thermometer, barometer and anemometer, all of which were invented before electricity was invented in real life. The knowledge of how to use these could enable someone to set themselves up as an oracle for a society that was dependant on farming, because someone who could forecast storms could save a harvest.

A star chart, or astrological compass could be used to calculate eclipses, or when planets that seemed to be stars to a primitive people could be deemed magical, these things were seen as magical in some cultures in real life and also predated electricity.

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    $\begingroup$ Ptolemy first learned how to calculate planetary retrograde in ~300AD, and his methods were used up through the mediaeval period until the Heliocentric Model of the solar system was proposed. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 31, 2023 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, Ptolemy was the first to use planetary retrograde to 'prove' that Earth was at the center of the solar system, but retrograde calculations were already well understood. The Antikythera mechanism was made somewhere around 205-87 BC and did exactly what you are suggesting... but you may be at least in part right. Automatons similar to the Antikythera mechanism were often used by priests as magic tricks... so you could maybe fool the masses, but plenty of ancient scholars and clergymen would also know better. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 1, 2023 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ it turns out that weather forecasting depends on radio to actually work, so no. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Apr 3, 2023 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ @AaarghZombies weather forecasting before radio was pretty bad though. "If the sparrows flie low it's gonna rain" level of forecasting was available to peasants since ever and that's roughly the level of detail you're getting as well $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 4, 2023 at 7:26
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    $\begingroup$ @AaarghZombies: Your people were simply accepting too-low accuracy rates. I personally have seen an over-the-horizon storm come in overnight. At 10pm there was no sign at all of an approaching storm, the night was clear and the stars were sharp. At 5am we were being rained out. And yes, I took note of winds and other factors. I discarded the now four-day-old five day forecast in favor of local observations thinking I could predict the weather out to 8 hours and the storm was late. Nope! $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Apr 6, 2023 at 14:41
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Hydraulics

A quite simple hydraulic press can develop immense force, a single person lifting up ships, crushing stones, printing coins from metal and the like by simply trading distance for force (a hand control can be moved up/down or rotated while the crushing plate advances only one way). It is a mechanical device, should be quite precisely made but nothing electric. It can amplify much more than just a mechanical lever.

The machine below allows a single human to move 30 tons (image credit). It was made in circa 1910.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Corrected the phrasing $\endgroup$
    – Nightrider
    Mar 31, 2023 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ Hydraulics and the principles behind them have been around for thousands of years. While there are many uses for hydraulics that were not discovered until more recently, plenty of Medieval people will have a basic familiarity with them, or at least enough other mechanical advantage devices like pullies and levers that hydraulics alone would not be out of place from the mundane. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 31, 2023 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention using Bernouli principles. For example-- take two buckets. Place one bucket higher up, and place the other bucket lower down, then run a hose between the two. Suck water through the hose until there's water all the way through, then place between the two containers-- water will migrate from one to the other until the heights of the fluids are equal or the upper bucket is empty! Seems like magic, even when you understand the science! $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2023 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think force multiplication, even by a factor large enough to allow one man to move 30 tons, would have been considered supernatural by ancient people. Archimedes understood leverage, and is supposed to have said: "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth." The story that Archimedes was able to move a whole ship and its crew, using a lever or pulleys by himself, is probably not accurate - but it certainly seems like people back then believed he could have done it. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Mar 31, 2023 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ I have some doubts if Archimedes would be able to move the Earth with the lever constructed from usual materials, even if given place to stand. $\endgroup$
    – Nightrider
    Apr 1, 2023 at 19:37
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If even primitive people are exposed to it in circumstances where they aren't so shocked/disgusted/awestruck that they can reason about to their level of ability, they will undoubtedly consider that it is just some really clever method/device.

People 5000 years ago were not stupid, and you're not particularly smart because you live in 2023.

People from any age, including this one, will stoop to witchcraft/supernatural/ungodliness as an explanation if they are presented the technology such that:

  • It undermines their perspective of society
  • It undermines their livlihood
  • The people presenting the technology are offensive, dismissive, or potential rivals
  • Above, amplified... the people presenting it are hostile and attacking

Etc. The full list is probably a PhD thesis with 30 or 40 categories.

It may also be the case that their level of reasoning would surprise people today if we were to witness it. The basic tools (levers, wheels, pulleys, ramps) have been known for thousands of years... constructing a skyscraper wouldn't shock them (though the materials might, or might not).

The one exception (perhaps outside the constraints of your question) I might make is a tool that hasn't been known for thousands of years. The logic gate. Not very impressive on its own, of course. Silly, and even sort of pointless in single quantities. But ganged together in the hundreds or thousands, and strange things begin to happen. And, being (sometimes) so tiny that you can't even see them, would even the great mathematicians of antiquity have guessed? If those are mysterious, then the recent innovations in NNs and the like are that a thousandfold.

But, at least with our own tech these are very electrical and outside the scope.

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    $\begingroup$ Counterpoint: If you are living in a developed country you are likely objectively smarter than 99.999% of medieval people. Intelligence is massively impacted by food availability/ quality and early education. The fact that we all had to sit down in school, aka an actively thinking-enhancing environment for up to 12 years in our childhood did massive things for our cognitive abilities. Same goes for modern food security (which isn't as universal as we like to believe but still better than medieval times). Plus most people stick to what they're raised with. Which back then was superstition. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 31, 2023 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok Just because medieval children did not (typically) attend schools, does not mean they were not exposed to just as much information. A farmer had to spend years learning about crop rotation, irrigation and drainage, fertility, animal psychology, reading the whether, identifying different plant species, learning about different blights, trapping, carpentry, basic math and literacy (yes, most peasants knew how read and write in thier vernacular languages). The difference is that they learned purely by apprenticeship which is arguably a better learning environment than a classroom. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 31, 2023 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ This made "class sizes" very small which is also proven to improve learning performance. All lessons were visual, verbal, and kinesthetic which significantly improves retention over a lecture environment. While you might think a Medieval man is dumb for not knowing how to turn on a TV, he'd likely think you are far more dumb for not being able to tell a horse nettle berry from a cherry tomatoe. His ignorance might be inconvenient in our world, but your ignorance would literally kill you in his. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Mar 31, 2023 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I'd go even farther. Give that medieval man the remote control and lock him in the room with the tv for 12 hours, and he'll know that some buttons do some things, and others do other things. If he's allowed to leave, and others are allowed to enter, the group will be even smarter collectively. They'll have it mapped out in a week. If they speak the language of the videos being played, then they'll realize that the people in the videos cannot hear them. If the videos repeat, they'll start to wonder if they aren't "live", but some kind of less animate repetition. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Apr 3, 2023 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ Literacy was also much higher than once presumed because most "literacy" statistics were based on ones ability to read Latin. While only 2-10% of people could read Latin, vernacular literacy is estimated at closer to 25-50% in most of Europe. You also vastly underestimate how many skills the average peasant had because labor was less specialized. A farmer generally had what we would describe today as many jobs. The human brain of today is the same as the human brain back then, and the kinds of problems we face are different, but we do it with the same processing power. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 18, 2023 at 18:04
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Anything computational would be decidedly magical. While we consider computation basic to our reality, it is a relatively new construct. The mathematics behind it would be truly alien to anyone who had not worked through them. Even what we would now consider "basic physics" was several hundred years away from being developed. The work of folk like Newton and Descartes revolutionized how we view things.

Even a mere Jacquard Loom would be incredible to someone with a medieval mind. And a more powerful Turing Complete engine would be astounding. And yes, Turing complete machines have been built to operate in a complete mechanical manner.

Modern cryptography is designed to be magical until you look at its implementation with modern mathematics. As such, even a flawed encryption like Solitaire would perplex all who face it.

All of these have a common thread: they depend on an understanding of the world steeper in a kind of mathematics that did not exist until several hundred years after the medieval era. This shift is a gigantic one. If you remember learning algebra in school, you remember how alien the ability to manipulate symbols in this way was. The fundamental basis for such manipulations was not well fleshed out until the 1700s. And much of what we see today stacks another 300 years onto the mathematics. One of the funniest things I've found in mathematics is how alien Newton's physics is to me because I learned it using modern notation and theory. Even his original work was fundamentally different (getting into how would probably warrant a question on History and Science of Mathematics SE). Teach Newton's work using modern approaches and it would truly be magical.

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Yes, medical technology looks like your best bet. You don't even have to think about anything fancy or extra complex. A simple device will do if the wielders jazz it up with some mystical misdirection and keep schtum.

In fact the Chamberlen family did exactly this with the obstetric forceps.

It was a massive help with difficult births, but they carried around the forceps in a large, and ornate box, and wouldn't take it out until everyone left the room and the mother-to-be was blindfolded. They did this across several generations without anyone finding out that it's a device an experienced village blacksmith could probably replicate.

And of course what bigger magic than bringing life where previously only death existed?

Alternatively, slide rules

We no longer use slide rules, so it's difficult to appreciate how powerful and magical they'd appear to anyone before John Napier invented logarithms in the 17th century.

A medieval society still needed a lot of calculations done, especially when building large structures and it's no coincidence that the most famous secret society on our Earth is the Freemasons. These calculations would be notoriously hard, especially before the widespread adoption of positional numerals (a.k.a. "Arabic numerals").

The great thing about slide rules in this setting is that it's dead easy to make one, almost anyone can do it. And it's fairly easy to use it too, anyone with a good level of late-medieval numeracy could use it, if instructed on it first.

Figuring out how to use it without being told the secret though...well, that's why it'd be seen as magic.

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    $\begingroup$ I know how slide rules work: they magically transform multiplication into addition $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Apr 2, 2023 at 18:05
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Penicillin

I love questions like this because it tends to bring out a lot of bias and misinformation about how technologically advanced medieval society really was.

First we need to rule out a lot of technologies and concepts that were invented/discovered or already known by our medieval ancestors and wouldn't evoke a sense of wonder to the level of "magical". Examples are:

  1. Metalworking - A 2,000 year old industry by this point
  2. Mechanical engineering - Clocks, trebuchets, mangonels, water wheels. All intricate uses of kinetic energy.
  3. Simple medicine - Glasses, syringes, quarantine, anaesthesia, cleaning wounds.
  4. Structural engineering - No need to list the stunning achievements here.
  5. Gunpowder - Important to note that with their knowledge of mixing chemicals to form explosive materials, combined with mechanical engineering, they could readily deduce how a diesel engine was functioning.

And many more...

Without the use of electricity and limited by what was available during the middle ages and the intelligent scrutiny of medieval minds I think Penicillin is your best bet. It's effects were discovered in 1928, which is VERY modern, and being mold I think your informed society can find it. Also it can be marketed as a potion formed with spells rather than a chemical, although I think with the already established practices of alchemy you might be met with cynicism.

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  • $\begingroup$ The use of molds to combat infection was already well known... so not awe inspiring or overly mysterious, but like alchemy and blacksmithing, penicillin would fall into the category of "every day magic" since most medieval civilizations believed that magic was real. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 1, 2023 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ Alchemy seems to have been steeped in magical ideas so looking like alchemy might not constitute not looking like magic. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Apr 1, 2023 at 11:47
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Any Steam Engine.

Add a drive shaft and gear box etc and you have a 'magical' fire and smoke breathing dragon. Enclose it in a vessel or vehicle like a ship or tractor etc and that vessel or vehicle becomes a magical beast that eats wood or rocks (coal) and 'spits' out fire and steam.

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LSD. Even in modern times, plenty of people have believed it has supernatural properties.

Some naturally occurring substances might have similar effects, but people thought those were magic, too.

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Yours is a challenge

Granted, you don't define when during the Medieval Era your people exist. The Medieval period was from 476ce to about 1450ce. There were advances in hydraulics and mechanics by the 1450s that would appear like magic to the people of 476ce.

But there might be a few things that could apply anywhere in that period.

Magnetism

While magnets have been used since at least 600bc, the manufacture of small, powerful magnets certainly does not. A small neodymium magnet mounted in a ring would easily move bits of ferrous materials around — and that would appear like telekinesis. or use it to move a ferrous rod in a lock, a lock that can only be opened by the magnet! We have such "locks" in retail stores today. They're a common effort to avoid shoplifting. We dont' even really think about them. but hundreds of years ago... magic.

Electromagnetism

And that brings us to electromagnetism. The first wire mill was created in England in 1568, 100 years after the end of the medieval era, which means that, if shown how, people in the 1300s-1400s could manufacture it. Extrude the wire, coat it with laquer, wind it around a ferrous core, and you have an electromagnet. Imagine holding a door closed with one, only to open upon the owner's command! A strong enough magnet could cause something to appear like it could fly through the air.

Flash paper (specific uses of chemistry)

Chemistry has been around since the first person discoverd mixing a tart fruit with the right kind of beet made it taste better. So, by itself, chemistry isn't enough. But there are specific applications of chemistry that weren't understood during the medieval period. Such an application is flash paper.

Flash paper is used today to add drama to a good magic act — but we all know today that it's just part of the act, not real magic. A paper that someone can write on... use... and yet burns away to nothing would be magical.

Similar uses would be the chemistry of batteries, water purification tablets, Bleach (which was invented in 1787 to whiten textiles). Search for specific applications of chemistry invented at least after 1600 and you'll have a good candidate for magic before 1400 that could be replicated.

Springs

While a non-coiled spring was used as an archery bow 64,000 years ago, coiled springs were invented in 1763. Combined with an advancement in metalurgy that wouldn't come around until the mid-1800s and you get something that's easily hidden that has many magical uses in the medieval era. Similar to a magnet, springs would allow someone to move large, heavy objects (perhaps combined with leverage).

But, why were people actually accused of witchcraft?

While many (if not most) accusations of witchcraft over the last 2,000 years were likely emotionally (read: revenge) motivated, the practice of herbology (already mentioned by so many in other answers) caused many to be accused. The knowledge not only allowed them to do things people didn't yet generally understand — but often to do things that in some cases were philisophically or religiously assumed to be a power that belonged only to God.

And so I mention it to point out that any invocation of science that was perceived to be the province of diety was often considered magic. Saving life and repairing bodies is only one such way of expressing this idea. A use of mirrors (common in today's Las Vegas magic shows!) to let someone "disappear" would also fall into this category, as would the use of a chemical fertilizer to make plants grow remarkably better or the use of acoustic waveguides to hear secrets.

Use the idea of religion to identify behaviors, practices, and "miracles" that, if not performed by diety or the initiates of the faith, are automatically identified as magic — whether the average person otherwise would realize it's not magical or miraculous... or not.

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    $\begingroup$ The magnetic lock idea reminds me of the time I baffled my daughter by typing in the wrong code to unlock my phone, but used face unlock to open it. She watched me over and over put in the same code and open it every time, and when she would try, nothing. To her it was nothing short of magic, and the deception survived scrutiny because she saw me typing in the code assuming that was the key; so, if you pair a magnet with a real key, lockpickers may take a long time trying to solve your your magic lock even if they know what a magnet is. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 1, 2023 at 0:47
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None.

There is this common misunderstanding of magic as a generic name for "technologies not yet understood in the past". In fact, it operated on completely different principles. Your goal with using magic was to change somebody's consciousness in a way which made achieving your goals more likely. That somebody might have been another person, a spirit or a god, or even your own self, and you basically made them more inclined to help your plans along. Technology instead seeks to change the material world directly, without ever stopping to think what the others' opinion of that might be.

Now sure, you could then use these modern technologies to perform magical acts - which doesn't make them magic, but merely tools for magic. Just like say a car is not travel, but rather a tool for travel.

I bet you did not expect that answer... ;)

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    $\begingroup$ Well, that might have been how the magicians saw it, but what about the people who weren't magicians and didn't know how magic worked either? What might they be prepared to believe was magic? $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Apr 1, 2023 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ @A.B. , thank you. They would have no problem recognising technology when they see it; they were, after all, both a magic-practicing society and a technology-practicing society, and were familiar with the advantages and limitations of both. If anything, the common understanding of magic would have allowed them to recognise technologies likely to cause harm to wider society, and might make them able to avoid adopting such technologies. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Apr 1, 2023 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ What are you referring to here? It seems, from the surviving records, like in mediaeval Europe (which the OP seems to be thinking of basing this post-apocalyptic society on) magic was an alarming mystery to most people, other than vague ideas that it involved calling on the Devil and bits of folklore such as that it could be disrupted by iron or running water. A witch or an alchemist might be able to look at the alleged "magic" and say "No, that's not how that works", but an ordinary farmer? If everyone was "magic-practicing", how were there witch hunts? $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Apr 2, 2023 at 6:54
  • $\begingroup$ @A.B. , thank you. However, witch hunts were an early modern phenomenon, not a medieval one; linking magic to Devil by default is also an early modern thing. As for magic being an 'alarming mystery', it wasn't; this bit about 'disrupting it with iron or running water' gives you a hint about a few of the available methods of protecting oneself. It only looks inadequate to us because we start with an assumption that magic cannot possibly work, and generally avoid ever testing that assumption. $\endgroup$
    – ihaveideas
    Apr 2, 2023 at 8:44
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The line is about sufficiently advanced technology. With your restrictions you've left a few centuries at best. There are some things you can think of that would seem magical, but are also useless much like a card trick. All the most useful things won't really be magic, but rather marvels which quickly reveal their secrets once scrutinized by experts. For this to work you will need a way to restrict access to the technology. In some cases where manpower is required, you will probably need some kind of cult to keep the assistants from spreading the knowledge.

  • Various types of advanced mathematics. In particular probability and statistics. The "magic" of this will not be apparent to ordinary people, but it might impress administrators, merchants and rulers.
  • Cryptography. This is an interesting one because people have been trying to invent secret codes and ciphers since time immemorial, and yet the work of amateurs in this field is usually trivial to defeat, whereas professionals can produce do some truly incredible things.
  • Navigation and precise clocks, depending on the geography of your planet.
  • Chemistry is basically the alchemists' dream come true. Explosives, poisons, drugs, fertilizers, fuels, metalworking and processing. However, it won't take long for people to catch on that you can't make the philosopher's stone, you can't turn lead to gold (it's hard to even plate metal without electricity) and the rules for what you do are not that complicated. So something you'd have to be pretty secretive about.
  • Steam power and other heat engines. Obviously these will be quite simple to reverse engineer, especially because not having modern materials will restrict their intricacies. But they can produce great gains in agriculture, extraction, transportation. You would probably have things like magical ships that move without wind, but no non-cultist is allowed to see what's in the hold. Huge military advantage as well.
  • Mechanical computers, powered by water or mechanical energy. Again hardly magical once you take a close look, but can do incredible things.
  • Modern geology, in combination with chemistry and steam power, would be similar to dowsing in that you'd find a lot more mineral deposits.
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Plumbing

In medieval times, people threw waste out of their windows, so the streets were covered in waste. To medieval people, it would seem magical if there was a way to get rid of their waste without it being thrown on the streets. It would be much cleaner too.

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It's not technology per se, but I think you should consider using modern dietology, fitness practices, hygiene, dental medicine and martial arts.

Don't get the wrong idea, medieval people could very well be very fit and very much capable of kicking someone's ass in a fight. But they did not know a lot of things about human bodies that we know today. And therefore a lot of their performance and longevity depended on chance and genes. We today though have ways to reliably get people quite fit, physically capable and attractive.

So consider this scenario. In a mostly-medieval society there exists a group that basically has been practicing modern fitness and wellness for a while, keeping the methods mostly secret. They also have time and resources to get good food and lots of exercise.

So we suddenly have a bunch of people, every single one of them is fit, beatiful, looks half their age, has those weird white pristine teeth, can fight really well, seems immune to most diseases, lives on average 1.5-2 times longer... They also follow some weird taboos (like won't touch specific food or eat at certain hours). To people around them they would look positively uncanny. Superhuman. Arcane. Magical.

Sprincle in some basic math education (statistics come to mind), psychology, maybe some more advanced medicine (anitibiotics would work very well as a magical "cure the uncurable" pill) and those guys will also suddenly posess subtle, but noticable powers of prediction, mind-bending and healing, making them even more impressive/creepy.

Most of this does not require any kind of high level tech or even any deep understanding of medicine or chemistry. They just could have found an archive of fitness magazines and basically follow those like a recepie/ritual without understanding why this works. Questionable content in the magazines that does not really work would even add to the mistique and drama.

And yes, some of the practices can and will be reverse engineered by their peers outside of the initiated. But figuring out everything our Order of Fitness guys do is going to be a very tedious and confusing endeavor.

Another fun thought is that actually leading a healthy life, even if you know how to do it, is time-consuming, relatively expensive and involves some almost monk-like self-limitations. So only the rich have the capacity to follow the Order's rules... if they are willing to change their lifestyle. And in the medieval period opulent lifestyle is not only a matter of pleasure for the rich and powerful, but also a matter of status. You MUST throw banquets and entertain your vassals, lest they decide that their sovereign grew weak in mind and/or purse. Not a great backdrop for the proliferation of modern notions of health an well-being.

Still some people will pay attention to the Order. And would seek to either gain the secrets or purge the witches. And in return, the Order may either brutally hunt down those who know too much... or instead seek to educate the unwilling masses to make their lives easier, fighting against the norms of the medieval society. Or even both! There may be factions!

Enter politics, drama and intrigue.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a great, unique answer! $\endgroup$
    – DMacc1917
    Apr 2, 2023 at 13:10
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Photography

Making exact images of people is likely to have a lot of perceived magic for its technological buck. The larger the images, the better.

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  • Steam Power — Maybe this one wouldn't count because technically, the technology existed 2000 years ago, but the Industrial Revolution provided lots of practical applications for the steam engine that the ancients would consider amazing.
  • Printing press — Perhaps too simple in its operation to count as “magic”, but it would be a marvel to a society used to tediously copying books by hand.
  • Hot air balloons — The first technology to allow human flight.
  • Telescope
  • Mechanical clocks — Especially the marine chronometer which allowed “magically” accurate navigation.
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    $\begingroup$ Mechanical clocks (in one form or another) have been about for a long time and simply knowing the time of day more specifically than dawn, etc. is of limited use if nobody else knows. However the marine chronometer & sextant combination would result in a "magical" navigator. Also a sub-society with movable type would have a wider range of skills each than one without. $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2023 at 5:40
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Hang-gliders, paragliders, light pipes/optical fibers (replicable as a tube with water).

Compass.

Greenhouse, fertilizers, hydroponics, drip irrigation.

Dyeing clothes, hair dyeing, eyeglasses. The very color of modern clothes could be seen as magic in the past, not to mention printed color images or text. BTW, printed text, printed books.

Precise weather forecasts for more than 10 days :)

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Mechanical mass manufacturing

A mechanized factory can be run with water wheels, and the individual machines are relatively simple. Skilled craftspeople can manufacture the parts, and individually there is nothing very special about them.

Combine them together and make it manufacture something laborious, and it seems like magic by being so revolutionary and by the scale of the factory. Fabric is a classic example, but tools, buckets, wheels are just as suitable.

With medieval technology, the factory would still require a large number of workers to operate. The owners of the factory would have a strong incentive to keep their monopoly by keeping the technology secret. Each worker would probably be taught only a small part of the whole process, and there would be an air of secrecy surrounding the factory. A worker might say "My job is to put these yarns in place and the fabric starts appearing on them without anyone weaving it!"

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A magic lantern Or a camera obscura or what you would call it. Essentially a picture projector which only needs a box, some picture and some brightly burning fuel. Then you project an image up on a wall or on smoke. The concept is so basic that variations of it was probably used in antiquity and the middle ages. With a couple of lenses (you could use some from glasses for shortsighted and far sighted individuals) and a bit of knowledge of optics a person might actually be able to get pretty clear and precise pictures, even without any electricity. People did so in the late renaissance.

The question is of course if a 'primitive' person really would be terrified by this. In reality they might quickly find out that you were just using some gadget that they didn't understand. If you met a person on the street today with a thing you couldn't explain, but which didn't seem dangerous in itself (let's say a box that could suppress sounds for example) you would of course be amazed but its not likely that you would worship him as some god or grand magician.

Oh, and I should just add: Whispering Gallery Waves: Buildings where the acoustics means that a voice can be made to sound as if it were coming from somewhere else. These were probably also used by magicians in antiquity to make statues speak.

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Dragons, werewolves, and similar critters

12k years ago, your colonists were masters of genetic engineering. Some were, say, furries, and made themselves into all kinds of wondrous forms.

Your catastrophe happens, the technology is lost, but those who became fire-breathing winged lizards, remained so; while those whose skin was laced with silk (making it tougher than Kevlar, and thus bullet resistant) and which had been engineered to grow lush fur, and whose skull was structured to somewhat resemble a wolf, they too remained in such forms, generation after generation.

Not sure if the "orcs" and the "elves" were secret Star Trek fans, cosplaying as Klingons and Vulcans, but same sort of ideas apply there.

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  • $\begingroup$ My immediate reaction was to (also) downvote, but I think looking at the /products/ of technology (in this case human subtypes) rather than the technology itself is a valid approach to OP's question. $\endgroup$ Mar 31, 2023 at 6:50
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Clockwork. Which must be magical, since it's too short to be acceptable as a valid comment.

However that does introduce the entire field of automata, undoubtedly seen as magical by commoners, as well as things like the Mechanical Turk which inhabited a realm of quasi-magical Extreme Cleverness.

But Extreme Cleverness does carry its own risks: if Newton had been discovered to be doing calculations with a slide rule and writing his notes with a ballpoint pen he would almost certainly have been shunned- or worse- for communing with the Devil using arcane items of divination.

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Modern beauty products such as

  • hair dye / bleach
  • coloured contact lenses
  • makeup
  • glitter
  • spray-on tans
  • tattooing

These, especially used together, can make a person appear to "transform" into a completely different one.

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    $\begingroup$ Medieval Europeans and their equivalents across the world either had these already or would very easily understand the mechanisms with the exception of maybe contact lenses, although I'm not sure how you would manufacture those with pre-modern tech. $\endgroup$
    – DMacc1917
    Apr 1, 2023 at 16:34

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