As a tangent to How "advanced" can a stone age society get?, is there a way that simple electronics could be created by filling channels cut into rock with some form of conductive material? An organic substance derived from a plant, for instance, or a rare-earth element extracted from seawater.


  • Metal and metal-working are unknown or prohibitively rare
  • The society itself is quite advanced, and has been able to develop and produce simple computers using purely mechanical means.
  • Earth's plant and animal life. (No new hypothetical kinds of plants and animals, but more extreme species of earth organisms could be postulated)
  • The society knows how to selectively breed desired traits into plants and animals easily, allowing for more extremely specialized versions of current earth organisms.
  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious where you generate electricity from if metal is (mostly) out of the question. I can think of organic sources for electricity but they tend to be more of the "high burst" variety. (i.e. electric eels) $\endgroup$
    – Culyx
    Oct 21, 2014 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Culyx That sounds like an excellent followup question to this one. For now, let us assume that we have electricity from (handwave) somewhere. $\endgroup$ Oct 21, 2014 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ You don't technically need electricity, which makes the metal requirement less onerous. This reminds me of the computer built in Dwarf Fortress or some of the stuff done in minecraft. $\endgroup$
    – Telastyn
    Oct 21, 2014 at 16:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't know about Dwarf Fortress but the stuff done in Minecraft is deeply representative of electrical engineering; and certain objects supply a steady (but unexplained) power to the redstone system: redstone torches, switches, etc. Redstone itself is basically analogous to copper (give or take) $\endgroup$
    – Culyx
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Seawater itself is quite conductive. This would limit your circuits to a horizontal plane. However, if you are already using water, you may as well just use moving water as your "electricity". You could create water based logic gates. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2016 at 13:58

3 Answers 3


I would suspect that they would go down the path of Organic electronics. While metals are the easiest way to create circuits there are other ways available. It is also possible they could produce biological circuits but unless they get lucky I think the organic based ones would be more likely, at least for starting. If they are really good at breeding micro-organisms they might come up with something that could be used in a circuit somehow. I think Star Trek had one episode centered around that.

Almost forgot about crystal circuits, which currently are used in primarily in time keeping devices, but I think it could be interesting to try and use them in a bigger role. Might get your glowing pillars that way! ;)

  • $\begingroup$ These are indeed fascinating ideas. Although they do lack the cinematic quality of the mighty glowing stone pillars I was thinking of. $\endgroup$ Oct 21, 2014 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @DannyReagan Well you just reminded me about crystal circuits too! I'll add that in. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Oct 21, 2014 at 16:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @bowlturner What you call "crystal circuits" are actually crystal oscillators -- the crystals themselves aren't actually conducting anything, merely oscillating ("wobbling") at a predictable rate; it's left to the variety of metallic components to make the oscillators actually work. Crystals might work for light-based circuitry, but there's no such thing as an electrical "crystal circuit" to my knowledge. $\endgroup$
    – Kromey
    Oct 21, 2014 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Yes they vibrate at specific frequencies, I was thinking they might come in handy though when trying to design a computer with very little metal. Though I suppose by themselves they would be mostly worthless. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Oct 21, 2014 at 20:30

One of the epilogue MacGyver movies featured an ancient ruin that had primitive, steam powered computer. It used what were basically large stone punch cards, the different holes in the cards directing the steam to different conduits, with different effects. In theory, over time the technology could be improved and shrunken down, just like modern computers (though probably not quite as small).

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Punch cards made of thin wood is what Jacquard loom cards were made from. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Nov 18, 2022 at 0:06

Saltwater is a perfectly fine conductive material, for as long as you can keep it from drying out. Fill the stone channels with seawater, and refill every day or so. There's your circuit.

(generation is a much harder problem, but OP clarified in a comment that it's out of scope)


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .