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We always think of some technology as being more advanced than others, e.g. (space rocket) > (aeroplane) > (car). To what extent is such a scale absolute, and to what extent does it just come from the order of development in our history?

A specific example I'm thinking of is nuclear vs. conventional explosives. Wouldn't it be possible to have a society which has developed nukes without ever having gunpowder? I want to have a world that has the threat of devastating nuclear war, but in which all the fighting is with medieval weapons like swords and bows (no guns).

Edit after reading answers and comments: let's say the available minerals and chemicals in that world are such that gunpowder, dynamite, etc. can't be made. Nuclear bombs can be made using two pieces of uranium which are brought together by (say) powerful springs rather than conventional explosives. And I've changed the title so that I can ask later about other examples of technology developing in a different order without having to edit this question!

Thanks in advance for any answers!

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  • $\begingroup$ "I may edit this question as I come up with more examples I'd like to air..." No, questions shouldn't be moving targets. $\endgroup$ – T.J. Crowder Oct 19 '14 at 11:28
  • $\begingroup$ @T.J.Crowder - But if I ask a separate question that's also about technology developing in a different order but not specifically about nukes and gunpowder, isn't someone going to say it's too similar to this question and try to close it? (I'm still getting used to the rules of this site!) $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Oct 19 '14 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ Not if it's sufficiently distinct. And of course, if it isn't, then you already have your answer here. :-) $\endgroup$ – T.J. Crowder Oct 19 '14 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ This sounds like it's related to Sid Meier's Civilization... $\endgroup$ – Beta Decay Oct 19 '14 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ @BetaDecay - It wasn't, since I hadn't heard of that, but it sounds interesting! $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Oct 19 '14 at 15:24
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There is a trivial sense in which two technologies could develop in a different order - namely, if they were entirely independent of one another. Beyond that $\cdots$ we have to deal with three different questions :

  • the question of technological independence,
  • the question of technological completeness,
  • the question of what defines a technology (yes, it's inescapable!).

Any technology that depends on another cannot precede that technology. Therefore, independence is necessary in the event of any order change. Some technologies are ubiquitous. For example you cannot have a single modern technology without agricultural technologies. Materials technologies and energy technologies are also ubiquitous, along with many others.

Completeness. Is it possible the aggregate of all our technologies is not complete. Is there something missing? Something we should have seen given our current state of technological knowledge. If so, then our technology could have developed in a different order.

Finally, define technology. Well this is a real hornet's nest. Take the technology of fire - surely one of our very first technologies by any definition. Its first application was probably as a weapon or defence. Is the application of fire to burning wood or coal for human needs a new technology, or is it just fire. What about burning fossil fuels, is that a new technology or is it just fire. Sure it depends on many other technologies such as materials, agriculture etc. but ultimately it is just fire.

I find it hard to think of any independent technologies except maybe fire and materials. We harness fire and we smashed rocks together to make weapons. Either one could have been done independently of the other. So if we can imagine our technologies as forming a tree of interconnecting branches, then it has at least two different trunks, maybe more. But are there entirely independent trees or just one monolithic tree of human technologies.

Independent branches of the tree can grow faster or slower, allowing for the possibility of different aggregate orders.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for the visualisation of technological development. But given a certain platform of basic technology to start from, there must be some discoveries/inventions that are independent of others but both depend on that platform? $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Oct 19 '14 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ @randal'thor ya, that's what I tried to get into the last sentence. Squeezing in the main point at the end is always a problem. You don't want to make an answer too long because no one will read it all. Re-reading the final sentence, it does appear rather cryptic. It was late, I'd had a few drinks... you know! $\endgroup$ – Epsilon Oct 19 '14 at 16:16
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There is a complex web of interactions between technologies, with a lot of dependencies from one to another.

While some areas could advance independently (for example genetics and astronomy) even in those examples they both benefit from advances in other areas such as advanced optics (for microscopes and telescopes) and computer power.

So you can certainly tweak the development of certain areas but there are limitations of how far you can do that.

In this specific example nukes (as HDE 226868 already said) require conventional explosives to function so would not be viable. You also have the problem of delivering the nuke to the target, airplanes might be viable but missiles require explosives. There are other ways to get the outcome you desire though.

For example if there was a lot of volatile gasses in the atmosphere then firing a gun might have a high chance to ignite a local patch of it and kill the person firing it. In this sort of scenario guns would not be investigated as a serious firearm but explosives might still be used and developed for mining and similar purposes. Those could then lead into nuclear devices.

You should consider other consequences of this sort of world change though. For example how would a normal house or campfire interact with the gas? Where does the gas come from? Can anyone tell where patches of it are?

There was a similar discussion recently about space flight:

Could a civilization achieve spaceflight without inventing advanced weaponry along the way?

A lot of the answers there will apply to your question too.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking more along the lines of some of the ingredients of gunpowder just not being present in that world (saltpetre, say), rather than your flammable-gas idea. Also as Mark commented below, conventional explosives aren't strictly necessary for nukes. Thanks for the link! $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Oct 19 '14 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that would work for a while. It doesn't take very advanced chemistry to start creating alternatives though (for example dynamite is a stabilized form of nitroglycerin) . $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 19 '14 at 11:37
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You could in principle have a nuclear weapon with out chemical explosive.

The built but never deployed "cannon" bomb was just two slugs of uranium-235 (235U) at either end of a cannon barrel shaped and fired at each other to meet in the middle and boom.

You could do the same with steam with significant more bulk.

But the real problem would be not making the final weapons but in creating the vast industrial base needed to create a 235U slug of exactly the right composition of isotopes. That's hard even today. Fortunately, because once created it's easy to set of.

There is no way a medieval society could have enough metal and man power to mine, transport, and refine uranium, build reactors, extract the right elements, shape them to precision etc.

The amount of metal we have today is staggering. On midsize costal freighter has more steel in it than the whole of Europe circa 1500. The energy all this would take would denude every forest. They have no analytical chemistry, no precision instruments.

I would suggest a found technology in place of nukes, some kind of low bioweapon or perhaps discovery of an airborne toxin of some kinds.

Nukes, and technology in general exist not such much in sequence as in an ecosystem. It's not the actually components of a piece of tech you need as all the tech that makes all those components, and the tech that makes all that tech and so on.

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  • $\begingroup$ How were the slugs fired? Gunpowder? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 19 '14 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ Standard cordite charges. It was literally an off the shelf WWII cannon. A much bulkier steam system, probably with a longer barrel would work. It's jest necessary to get the movable element going fast enough. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 19 '14 at 0:08
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    $\begingroup$ So it's an explosive? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 19 '14 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ Well, no then. There's no way to create a plausible tech base that is capable of producing weapons grade uranium but still cannot product guns of any size or description. 1) There are thousands of types of chemical explosives, we just use a few hundred of the most convenient. 2) There are a lot of alternatives to make gun like weapons without explosives: flamethrowers, powered springs, steam. Plus toxins, poison gas and biological weapons. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Oct 19 '14 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ "The built but never deployed "cannon" bomb was just two slugs of uranium-235 (235U) at either end of a cannon barrel shaped and fired at each other to meet in the middle and boom." Actually the bomb over Hiroshima was of the "Gun" type. And no, the two sub-critical masses were not fired against each other; one was fired into the other. The Gun design was used in some fielded weapons, but it was so inefficient and wasteful compared to the Implosion design that the Gun design was abandoned. Springs cannot work in this context because they cannot exceed the speed of sound, which is too slow. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Mar 31 '16 at 8:30
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I only have time for a very short answer here, but I'll update it later if I can.

The answer to the nuclear bomb example is no, and it's because nuclear weapons require conventional explosives. Wikipedia gives a good overview. A fission bomb either uses the "gun method" (using explosives to shoot one bit of nuclear material at another) or the "implosion method" (using explosives to compress the nuclear fuel. Either one uses normal explosives.

Fusion bombs are worse. They require fission bombs inside them to trigger the fusion part of the bomb, and thus need normal explosives.

So no, the scenario is impossible (or at least very implausible).

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    $\begingroup$ The gun-type bomb can be made without explosives. A sufficiently strong spring can slam the two halves of the core together fast enough that you have a relatively low (<10%) chance of a premature detonation. $\endgroup$ – Mark Oct 19 '14 at 1:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Ingenious. That hadn't occurred to me. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Oct 19 '14 at 1:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark - This is what I thought. So in a world which has uranium but not saltpetre ... $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Oct 19 '14 at 9:32
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Yes. Imagine a world with an extremely dense atmosphere. Explosives won't be of a lot of use. You can still detonate a U-235 nuke with electromagnets moving the core into a donut.

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    $\begingroup$ More details please? Why wouldn't explosives be much use if the atmosphere was extremely dense? $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Oct 20 '14 at 11:37
  • $\begingroup$ @randal'thor The denser the atmosphere the faster the energy is dissipated and the smaller the blast wave in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Oct 20 '14 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel, The effect is quite the opposite: the denser the atmosphere, the better the shockwave carries, and the more devastating the explosion. $\endgroup$ – Mark Oct 20 '14 at 23:32
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In a world where gunpowder reacts differently, there would be no use for gun powder, however this doesn't mean they'll move straight to nukes. Instead maybe their atmosphere allows another explosive reaction to exist. And then moving to nukes

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Well I'm assuming that this couldn't happen because most nukes use conventioal explosives to initiate the reaction.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi Mark. One line answers are generally discouraged as they provide no context. Would you care to add more detail about how conventional explosives initiate these reactions? $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Mar 6 '18 at 1:18

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