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It is the early 1800s. Some guy has just figured out a way to burn coal to heat water and produce power. His cohorts are beginning to ask the "what if" questions that will lead to trains, automated saw mills, and paddle-wheel river boats.

However, all of this is happening in a Europe-Asia-Africa that remains blissfully unaware that there are these whole other continents just the around the planet. Despite having plenty high-quality sailing ships designed for long-distance commerce and military might, despite all the astronomical evidence regarding the size and shape of the Earth, despite ample opportunity to do so, no one has yet been bothered to make the effort.

Can history happen in this order? Why? What kept these alt-Europeans from crossing the Atlantic?

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  • $\begingroup$ The way the question is worded right now it seems to me to be idea generation. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Nov 24 '15 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ No need to sail west if it's cheap and easy to travel east by land. $\endgroup$ – chepner Nov 24 '15 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ Seems like a plausible idea to me. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Nov 24 '15 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ Does moving the Red Sea rift several million years into the past count as alternative history? You'll have Mediterranean and Indian ocean connected if so. No need for ocean ships, just hop along the shoreline. $\endgroup$ – Dallaylaen Nov 24 '15 at 21:46
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    $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck I'm a lazy person, sir. I know how efficient taking away motivation may be ^____^ $\endgroup$ – Dallaylaen Nov 25 '15 at 14:43
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No, not really. It would require major changes of geography and if you go that way, you might as well remove the Americas. If you used a relatively large island remote from other land as the replacement, you might be able to salvage the discovery part. It would essentially be something like taking Australia at its latitude in the south (not en route between Europe and Asia) and moving it east so that it is remote from other lands. The longitude of the Americas would be good enough.

Obviously you would be free to change everything except general size and location. The continent would probably be uninhabited or inhabited by descendant of some Polynesians with really bad luck, followed by some incredibly good luck enabling survival.

In the interest of giving a proper answer, there are three major issues:

Trade between Mediterranean and India.

Both the route around Africa and through the Middle East would at times be unavailable to some European nation due to political reasons. That is what IIRC along with some bad math motivated the Columbus Expedition.

And even if you assume the route around Africa remains always open, Brazil is simply too close for nobody to find it by accident if lots of traffic went between Europe and Cape of Good Hope. And industrialization doesn't really make sense without expanding trade. What else could use the volume production it supplies?

As noted in comments, creating open straits of Suez would help. As would simply expanding the distance between Africa and South America.

Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, Fish!

The gaps that need to be crossed are too close up north not to be discovered by competent navigators, if they have reasons to sail around. Industrialization, creates an expansion of economy and population, which creates vastly expanded demand for fish. Which means lots of ships with crews of solid seamanship sailing around the Northern Atlantic looking for new places to fish. Discovery would be inevitable. In fact I think the consensus is that North America was discovered several times by various peoples of the North-Western Europe. They just didn't really do anything with that discovery except some fishing and hunting.

Even if they assumed no land exists to the west they would still be looking for new fisheries in the Atlantic. And study the sea currents to find them too. It would be fairly obvious that something is affecting the flow of currents. And that whatever that was would come with lots of rich fisheries.

You might be able to argue that before the demand for fish expanded they wouldn't really care enough to do anything about reports of land to the West. Especially if you remove Iceland and Greenland so the gap to navigate becomes wider. Then you could justify an expedition to find new Atlantic fisheries based on the odd paths of the ocean currents in roughly the time frame you want.

The Bering straits

AFAIK you can still cross from Asia to America without leaving the sight of land. Any major expeditions by Europeans or the advanced Asian nations to map the coasts of North-Eastern Asia would find America for sure. You might explain this by noting that none of the Asian nations was really trade oriented enough to look within the correct time frame. You would also need to explain away the Russians. That would require a major rewrite of the history of Eastern Europe so Russians do not expand to Siberia.

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  • $\begingroup$ Who would care about Bering strait in projected 1728? Make them pass it on a foggy and/or stormy day, and it would remain "Bering cape" for another 20 or 30 years. Then our supposed Suez civilization would spend another 20 years building a base on Alaska shore for they only know how to sail from port to port. And another 20 years drinking vodka right there because Czar's minion in charge of exploration got out of favor. And it's right 1800 when they finally get to California. $\endgroup$ – Dallaylaen Nov 25 '15 at 1:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Dallaylaen True enough. It is not like it would be instantly obvious it is a significant discovery and more resources should be sent to the far east to expand and exploit it. Russians actually sold Alaska in the real world, after all. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 25 '15 at 2:36
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Yes as the ancient Greeks invented a type of steam engine but they never figured out that it could be put to practical use. Had the ancient Greeks figured out the practical use for the steam engine then the industrial revolution could have started in the former Macedonian Empire.

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We pretty much already had steam power in our world by 1800, and the initial age of discovery was mostly done. You'd have to go a bit farther back and explain why they didn't go looking for alternate routes, once the overland routes to the east were blocked in the mid 1400's. Kill off the Ottomans, no plagues, maybe they got roughed up too bad by the mongols.

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Change the geography

The original question basically asks "what motivated the alt people to stay home?" Let's turn that on its head and instead ask "what motivated the real people to wander, and how can we take away that motivation?"

As an example, does moving the Red Sea rift several million years into the past count as alternative history? You'll have Mediterranean and Indian ocean connected if so. No need for ocean ships, just hop along the shoreline.

If you shift this to an near-earth but not real-earth, just arrange your continents in such a way that the traders are close together with little to no obstacles between.

Note: This answer just serves to document some ideas generated in comments, mostly by Dallaylaen. I'm putting them in the CW answer just to preserve those thoughts in case the comments get deleted.

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