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Background: If we look at the past (especially in countries from the early C.E.), a lot of empires collapsed for many different reasons. These reasons are mainly (not exclusively!) going to be an economic collapse, lack of fast communication, corrupt leaders, and/or rebellions among the common folk. However, in this world, only one of these problems poses an actual threat, that being the lack of fast communication.

Context: As most empires grow larger, their lack of fast communication is one of the main few reasons they will fall. In an empire I'm creating, they do not have access to electrical communication, limiting them to slower forms of communication from one end of the country to the other. Let's say that this empire is going to be about half the size of the modern United States. This empire would need fast communication in order to discuss important matters between two or more leaders, along with spreading the word and enforcing laws/rules that have been put into effect. The technology they would have available that may affect the answers is as follows:

  • Combustion engines as used in the mid-late 1800s America (meaning trains and very early versions of cars)
  • Well-paved roads (flat, smooth, good for travel)
  • A printing press (similar to Gutenberg's press)
  • Train tracks consisting of about 40-50% of the distance needed to cover

Question: What does an empire with this kind of tech (or any others that you may come up with) use to the best of its ability, to keep up fast communications across the country?

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    $\begingroup$ You might want to read about early French telegraph system, designed for quick message transfer, which was about the fastest message delivery system prior to radio. Here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_telegraph as a starting point. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Apr 20, 2023 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ You do realise, I hope, that the phrase "the sun never sets on the British Empire" was coined to describe a literally world-spanning empire which lacked not only electricity but most of the advantages you list for most of its history? (They definitely had the printing press.) Courier-speed communications have been the rule through most of history, including for more geographically dispersed empires that lasted much longer than the United States has been in existence. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2023 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ (1) Every empire fails eventually. Lack of fast communication is only one reason why they do. (2) I can only imagine what kind of empire the Romans would have had, had they access to electrical communication. It might actually have failed faster because fast communication is a two-edged sword. (3) Consequently, empires succeed because of how well they can respond to crisis, not necessarily how quickly they can respond to it. Being forced to raze a rebelling city to the ground because you didn't know soon enough about the problem might be a more efficient solution in the long run. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 20, 2023 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ ...Which suggests this might be a story-based problem (a reason to close the question). I can't imagine a story-independent rule of any world that would guarantee the success of an empire. Yeah... I'm having trouble not voting to close the question. Why wouldn't your empire rely on semaphores, or even flashing mirrors and Morse code? Pigeons? How to make an empire successful is a story problem, not a worldbuilding rule problem. Rats... I talked myself into the VTC. Someone convince me I'm wrong so I can retract. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 20, 2023 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ Also, you seem to vastly overestimate the communications lag of courier communications. Especially with the transportation infrastructure you've listed. Using a mechanized version of the pony express (motorcycles!) or previous relay courier services, you can cover the distance between Washington DC and Denver in... 25 hours (modern speeds, though, so maybe double that). Even if it's not motorized, a bicycle will take 7 days. A road/rail network makes an absolutely enormous difference, which is why the Romans built so many good ones. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2023 at 6:38

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The empire with the described level of technology will prolong its life by becoming decentralised enough to not require faster communication. Laws will not need to be announced in the faraway capital because they will mostly be the matter of individual provinces. Taxes, the military, and perhaps even some international diplomacy can also be delegated in this way. If provinces are themselves large enough to experience communication problems, they could well be split into even smaller units. The emperor in such a system may nominally have immense power, but surprisingly little in the way of actual influence. For a historical example, see the actual USA of the second half XIX century, which was exactly that sort of collection of provinces (they called them 'states'), although the powers of its emperor (the 'president') were unusually restrained.

Yes, this system will occasionally tear itself apart when this or that province governor gets ideas above his station and tries to go for independence, or to usurp the imperial title (and that too has happened in USA in the second half of the XIX century; the emperor prevailed, by the way). But a strong central government that lacks quick communication would be unable to prevent it, while the same communication problems would make it less effective at managing the provinces; if anything, this would provide an even greater incentive to rebel and accelerate the empire's fall.

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  • $\begingroup$ The British empire prior to the age of steam and the telegraph is another good example. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Apr 21, 2023 at 14:00
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If you don't want electricity : Lighthouses or semaphore signals. One lighthouse can see another that is 20+ miles away and repeat the signal. Should get 100 miles in a matter of minutes, and morse code can be used. Fog obviously stops communication. Letters are going to be used extensively.

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  • $\begingroup$ The beacons are lit! $\endgroup$
    – Abion47
    Apr 21, 2023 at 16:28
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To add to IhaveIdeas comments:

Not just Decentralization, but also a sense of identity and a shared vision for the future.

Case in point: Brexit and the EU. I'm using this as an example because you could consider the EU to be an Empire of sorts (it has a Court, a Flag, an Anthem, A Governing body that issues superior law) - and it had instant communication - yet, Britain left.

Why?

Because the shared vision and sense of identity of the EU ran contrary to the Shared vision and the sense of identity of the UK.

Now, I don't want this answer (or the comments) to get into the minutiae of the Brexit debate - however to give the info for the answer, a little context is needed. Britain felt that Brussels wasn't listening. Historically, British Philosophy has been grounded in Pragmatism, whereas Continental philosophy has been grounded in Idealism - this means that on many issues - Europeans say 'This is how it ought to be, so let's do that' and the British go 'This is how it will end up, so let's not do that'

There was neither a shared vision nor a shared sense of identity. Coupled with a sense of being governed by an entity (Brussels) to which the average British person had no genuine sense of recourse drove the separation.

Communication is important, however it's not the speed of communication that matters. If anything, I'd say the larger and more long-lived empires had slower communication which forced such a degree of decentralization that preserved them - it's hard to be angry at an entity that otherwise doesn't impact your day-to-day life.

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Keep the barbarians deterred and compliant, keep the border secure, keep the peasants fed, keep the army paid, prestigious, and far away from the capital. Keep the tribute coming, keep the transfer of power orderly and predictable, keep the dictator competent, internalize or annihilate religions, and keep internal trade working properly so the moneyed classes can enjoy the benefits of empire and squabble among themselves for a bigger piece of the pie with a disincentive against independence beyond the threat of punishment.

Fast communication might be one way these get accomplished, but it doesn't need to be.

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Hot Air Balloons Could be a Quick Means of Travel and Message Delivery

So trains can deliver messages relatively quickly, but hot air balloons could span further distances faster, and could travel over bodies of water or other geographical features that could slow trains or couriers. Considering that hot air balloons existed before trains did, this should be very plausible technology for your civilization to possess. Perhaps they could even use some form of steam-powered propeller to make a design somewhat similar to a blimp that could travel yet faster.

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    $\begingroup$ Balloons are extremely unreliable as a means of travel. They're dependent on the wind, and it does not co-operate with people. A test: has anyone ever run a balloon mail service? A steam-powered dirigible is not impossible, but it will have an awful power-to-weight ratio. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2023 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ You'd need some truly awful geography to make a hot air balloon faster than a train, and the fact that there are already tracks spanning half of this fictional country suggests that's not really the case. Average speeds of 1800s trains was at least 50mph - if you try to land a hot air balloon at that speed, you will likely die. $\endgroup$ Apr 20, 2023 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie counterpoint: balloon-lifted semaphore stations. Very Terry Pratchetty $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Apr 21, 2023 at 10:40
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The Romans and Greeks had signal stations and semaphore. The following link has a short and readable summary.

https://www.roman-britain.co.uk/place-type/signal-stations-and-fortlets/

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    $\begingroup$ They did have signal stations, yes. No, they did not have semaphores, as far as I know. If you have a quotation from an ancient source, any ancient source, saying that they had a workable means of sending written messages faster than hand delivering a letter than please provide a link; it will be very greatly appreciated. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 21, 2023 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ The Polybius method is described in the first half of this link... youtu.be/cKkacTkCjjs The crudeness suggests is was rarely used for complex messages. If you wanted to write a letter, it could go 50 miles a day with a dispatch rider, which was faster than most things. But the Roman signal towers on the Rhine and Danube suggest they could react faster. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2023 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I know about Polybius squares. What I don't know about is any actual use of an actual semaphore in the entire antiquity. So, again, the answer says they had semaphores. Citation needed. What city was linked with what other city by a semaphore chain, in what year? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 21, 2023 at 13:11
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I would say the context is off, yes empires failed for many reasons but fast communication was seldom one. It is more important today, since armies, rebellions etc. can be mobilised and deployed over large distances quickly but in the time period you are looking at, not so much.

Communication was largely overcome by splitting areas up under local governance, this is pretty much the way all countries have been run from the get go.

If you still want to go with that you have various devices, nearly all in the telegraph family optical telegraphs such as semaphores already mentioned, heliographs which is similar but uses sunlight.

Don't want to go for telegraph systems, then your best bet would be carrier pigeons which can fly hundreds of miles a day.

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