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I imagine a world like Earth, only without easy mineable copper (say, where copper was as rare as gold). That means no brass nor bronze too (they are copper alloys).

I presume prehistoric humans could discover metallurgy using other easily melted metals (tin, lead). So they would pass directly from stone age to iron age.

I don't know if steam engines would be feasible. Do they require any significant amount of copper, brass or bronze?

Electricity could be discovered using batteries based on zinc or lead, but without copper wiring it would remain little more than a scientific curiosity.

Electric motors and generators require large amount of wiring, so they are impossible to build on large scale in this world. Some small units could perhaps be made using silver wiring in place of the copper ones.

Possibly, wiring in internal combustion engines could also be made out of silver. That would make them very expensive, though.

Aluminum, which requires large amount of electricity to be refined from ore, would be a rare metal, therefore airplanes, if ever developed, would be made out of wood.

In sum, that would mean a world fixed at a tech level of the late 1800, gaslit and with very few cars, with very expensive air travel, no telegraphs nor phones, nor radio, with only mechanical computing machines. Edison would be mainly known for the phonograph.

Any other thoughts ?

UPDATE: if there is no economical way to produce and distribute electricity, a lot of conseguences would follow for the organization of society. Instead of huge power plants that serve millions of users located perhaps hundreds of miles away, there would be small plants serving a single building or city block, distributing energy in form of steam or compressed air. There would probably be no "NIMBY" movements, given that there would be no alternative to a plant in each backyard. I wonder if this would lead to a more or a lesser "green" society. Also living "off the grid" would be the norm, not the exception.

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  • $\begingroup$ Given how useful electricity is, I'm sure it'll find a way. For example, Aluminium is a relatively good conductor of electricity and can be drawn out into wires. Once you've started making it, the cost will come down and you'll be able to make greater amounts at lower cost. Once electrical applications become common place, the value of copper will rise and what was initially uneconomical to extract may well become worth while. $\endgroup$ – Steve Bird Sep 11 '15 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveBird Aluminium is also insanely expensive to produce before the invention of Héroult process, which itself requires electric infrastructure. But do not fret, iron is a perfectly good conductor; in fact, the bigger problem is insulating wires than making them. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Sep 11 '15 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ The conductivity of iron is about 1/6 the conductivity of iron. Given that the conductance is proportional to the cross section, an iron wire has to have a diameter larger by a factor of $\sqrt{6}\approx 2.4$. In other words, an 1mm thick copper wire could easily be replaced by a 2.4mm thick iron wire. I think the bigger problem would be that iron tends to rust, while copper, being a relatively noble metal, remains good. And as soon as you discover aluminium, it will surely soon take over (already in our world, high tension lines contain aluminium, not copper). $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 11 '15 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ Err … the first sentence of my comment should of course have read: "The conductivity of iron is about 1/6 the conductivity of copper." $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 11 '15 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ No tech because no people. Copper is an essential micronutrient, and people can't live without it. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Sep 30 '17 at 11:04
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Humans would find a way to compensate. Take your airplanes example - why would airplanes have to be limited to wood? What about composites? Wood can easily lead, through a different technology path to materials like graphite. Pona wood from the Amazon has a cross-section and properties that are practically identical to graphite.

And there are plenty of other metals that are ductile enough to make wire, but even without wiring, I can see technology going down a different path. Rather than transmitting electricity, what about skipping the whole electrical network technology, and going right to self contained devices that require no flexible wiring. Electricity and magnetism are such ubiquitous, useful, and powerful forces/fields/concepts that we'd find a way to make them work.

Now, take iron out of the equation and you may have something. Taking iron out would probably also take Nickel out, at least any significant deposits of it to be mined. Nickel is found, in mines, mixed with iron, likely because of the way stars and worlds form. So that takes out the two most common ferromagnetic materials. Take out the ability of an intelligent race to interact with magnetism, and you've just handed them a very intractable technological hurdle.

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  • $\begingroup$ take iron out of the equation I see there are plenty of questions regarding worlds without metals or without iron in particular, and the answer is that you cannot have an industrial revolution (which needs engines) without metals. I wondered what would take to get to the steam engine, and stop roughtly there. $\endgroup$ – Stefano Cirolini Sep 11 '15 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ Well, without iron you could still have a steam engine - make it out of aluminum bronze or regular (zinc or tin) bronze. But you'd be stuck there for a long time. $\endgroup$ – user11864 Sep 11 '15 at 19:18
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You are not only limiting copper, but are also limiting silver and gold too! This isn't quite fair (I think). In a copper-less world, actually copper could be used for ornamentation and jewellery while gold might be available in much larger lodes and be used for electric wiring. Gold is one of the best metallic conductors of electricity (even better than copper) and if it is available in large quantities on the said planet, it would be cheap enough to be used for electrical wiring. What about silver, tungsten and platinum? On earth they are rare and very expensive, but in a fantasy world, it doesn't have to be that way.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question was not about a fantasy world, but a "what if?" regarding our planet. Usually people wonder what would have happened if there was no iron, since it's the most used metal. In my opinion, copper is even more important, given that a whole branch of technology (electricity) depends on its erady availability. $\endgroup$ – Stefano Cirolini Sep 11 '15 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ I understand your opinion. You used somewhat misleading terminology for your question title. What level of tech is possible in A WORLD without copper ore? So it implies that it is some other planet. If you were mentioning earth specifically, you should have stated => What level of tech would have been possible on earth if copper ores didn't exist? That's all. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Sep 11 '15 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for pointing out the ambiguity. I changed the question title accordingly. $\endgroup$ – Stefano Cirolini Sep 11 '15 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ You are incorrect; gold is less conductive than copper. The order of conductivity in metals from highest to lowest goes silver, copper, gold, aluminum. The only reason gold is used for electrical devices (since it is so expensive) is as electrical contacts; since gold doesn't tarnish or oxidize like the other metals do. Oxidized metals results in lowered conductivity. $\endgroup$ – Mark Ripley Jan 12 '17 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkRipley that viewpoint is volumist. Metals are generally priced by the gram/tonne. Massist people, e.g. them who pay, see it quite differently: aluminum is the best conductor (that isn't violently reactive). Copper and silver are poor performers. By mass Aluminum beats copper by almost 2:1. By price 12:1. Even after wrapping with insulation it's 3.5:1 -- 4/0 aluminum is much cheaper than 2/0 copper at comparable ampacity. $\endgroup$ – Harper Sep 24 at 22:11

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