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No matter how stable your society is, eventually new ideas will arise and science will progress--especially if your neighbors, who you've historically been rivals with at times, are doing it too and you don't want to end up at a disadvantage. So eventually the elves are going to have to start picking up modern technology, if for no other reason than to keep up with the humans and the dwarves.

There's just one problem. Steel is nearly as essential to human-style technology as electricity, and elves, being fey-blooded creatures, are harmed by the touch of iron, including ferrous alloys, similar in severity to a human with potentially-life-threatening allergies.

How would a stereotypical forest-dwelling, nature-magic-wielding Elven society develop modern technology if they can't use iron and steel? Other structural metals, including bronze, aluminum, and titanium, are perfectly safe. Magical metals (such as mithril) are mythical and generally believed to not actually exist.

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    $\begingroup$ In Mercedes Lackey's SERRAted edge series, elves return to the world of man only after aluminum and other non-ferrous alloys replace most cold iron in day to day life. Her writing on elves in the current world driving race cards and fighting evil is a fabulous primer on how to bring elves forward to modern times. I wish there were many more of these wonderful books. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Sep 2 '16 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ ARGGGGH... race cards!!!!! I hate the 5 minute edit limit in comments! The elves drive race cars... ...sometimes... and sometimes they ride magical horses under an illusion that make them look and sound like race cars. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Sep 2 '16 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ Gloves. They would wear protective clothing and gloves. If there is some technology that is absolutely dependent on 'cold iron' they could work around it by wearing gloves when manufacturering and then coating everything in elf friendly materials. Expect a lot of gold and silver covered microwaves and stoves. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Sep 2 '16 at 7:58
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor so delete the old comment and repost it, rather than “editing” it. Same difference. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Sep 2 '16 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianDrummond What are you Tolkein about? Our Elves Are Different! $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Sep 2 '16 at 17:33

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Elves could just isolate iron with layers of fabric, leather or polish in order to don't have to touch iron.

If this solution can't work due to temperature or mechanical constrain, a layer of harmless metal can be added by electroplating.

Alternatively, protective gloves can also be used when handling iron.

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    $\begingroup$ We use dangerous materials all the time too. Just think about Li-ion batteries. While not "ooh, so awesome" it is a very realistic solution. $\endgroup$ – akaltar Sep 2 '16 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ anecdote: yesterday i measured my son's fever using a device containing poisonous mercury. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Sep 2 '16 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ Poisionous is not a binary thing. Metallic mercury is not good for you but it's not immediately life threatening either. $\endgroup$ – Peter Green Sep 2 '16 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ The difference between poison and medicine is: how much. $\endgroup$ – candied_orange Sep 3 '16 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ A thermometer that uses mercury is not dangerous until you break it and drink it. $\endgroup$ – beppe9000 Sep 3 '16 at 11:57
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West of Eden trilogy ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_of_Eden ) has a species that progresses quite nicely with heavy biology tech instead of physics tech. Everything they do is based on controlled breeding and gene splicing. Every tool, every structure, is a living thing. From the Wikipedia entry: "Their boats were originally squids, their submarines are enhanced ichthyosaurs (here called uruketos), while their guns are modified monitor lizards which eject projectiles using pressurised gas."

This seems very elven in nature. Now, there are limits to biology, but I bet with elven magic you can start to circumvent. Take zombies, for example. They never die, they just want to eat your brains. So you pluck out their eyes, unravel their nervous system and, voila, you have a remote camera system. Their hearts provide a perpetual motion device. And so on.

If you bring in dragons and other mythological beings as being under the domain of elvish biology, you might even get spacefaring elves, without developing anything electronic.

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    $\begingroup$ You just answered a question tagged reality-check with an example of zombies and dragons. I'm not sure whether that works. $\endgroup$ – Mast Sep 2 '16 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ I have to say that the West of Eden technology always seemed wildly implausible and it was never explained how exactly they devolved the technology to do this. Our, far more primitive, biology is heavily reliant on wider technology to function. How do you bootstrap gene modification without any of the technology to let you study biological organisms? $\endgroup$ – Jack Aidley Sep 2 '16 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Mast By definition, the tag reality-check is "For questions asking whether or not a particular concept is realistic in a given context." So if the question's context includes elves, magic, etc. , answering it with dragons and magic is perfectly acceptable. If the question didn't mention magic and elves, this answer would be incorrect. $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Sep 2 '16 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ @SpaceLizard Given that context, I'll give him dragons. Where do zombies come into play? Elves and zombies are not close to each other. I'm pretty sure elves don't want to come even close to zombies. $\endgroup$ – Mast Sep 2 '16 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ I started with regular biology as the reality check basis, then I threw in some ideas for how that biology line of research can be augmented. I don't know the author's world. He's moving elves into some sort of futuristic environment. I provided some examples of how exotic biology can be leveraged, leaving it to the author to figure out what he/she actually has available. $\endgroup$ – SRM Sep 2 '16 at 13:41
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When "industrial revolution" starts, the Elves would integrate themselves with other races that don't have such problems with iron and steel. They would live in small groups in park-like environments within or close to big cities. Using labor and skills of other races. If only problem is touch of metals, then they will have humans or goblins build houses with metal/brick/concrete structure but wooden surfaces. Most of daily items will be made either from wood or non-structural metals.

This would be considered a "Dark Age" for Elves, because they would be reliant on others and have to withstand destruction of forests and nature in general.

It will be only when technology progresses enough for things like plastic, glass or aluminum to be used on big scale when Elves start to form their own nation-states. I would guess Elves would be perfect fine with our current technology, considering our focus on environmental impact and protection of nature.

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    $\begingroup$ So maybe the Amish enclaves are really… $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Sep 2 '16 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ That sounds like the Shadowrun approach to the problem. Worked well there. I like this line of thought. $\endgroup$ – SRM Sep 2 '16 at 13:43
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They make up the difference with magic. The only technology they would feel compelled to develop would be that with which magic, combined with primitive tech, can't measure up.

A similar dynamic is at play in the first book of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Death Gate Cycle. Humans could work with dragons and so used them for transportation and combat. Elves could not, and so constructed ships and enchanted them with the ability to fly.

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The simplest answer is : they don't. When the iron age arrives, the elves run off and hide in their forests, living in ever smaller and more remote areas. Then, eventually, after the humans have developed these tools and technologies, they rediscover the elves in much the same way as humans discovered Aboriginal and Amazonian tribes and, possibly after much bloodshed and general unpleasantness, come to terms with them.

so elves in a modern world will be using and preferring traditional materials, but acquiring and slowing becoming used to using modern non-ferrous material from the humans, possibly in a conflict between elder elves who might think contact with the humans is a bad thing, and young ones who want the benefits of not living in a tree.

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What is the problem with aluminum? Aluminum can be used to construct most objects. Their buildings either have to be short or should be constructed by other races. Steel + concrete allows these tall buildings to stand upright.

Electronics wouldn't a problem as they are mostly made out of copper and silicon. Iron core is used for inductors but maybe another material can take its place.

For weapons, if the elves are of classical tropes, an elven guy with a staff could train so long (100s of years) that a knight squad in shining armor and lifelong training will have absolutely no chance against a single elven warrior. We are not even including magic in here. In modern times, they would have distinct disadvantage for warfare. But you can balance the field here to give them ability to create carbon fiber or carbon nanotubes using their magic. This will allow them not to need steel as both materials are much more durable than steel. Imagine donning carbon fiber armor, good luck other races!

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    $\begingroup$ Aluminum is very hard to produce in big quantities. Even today it is one of the more power hungry metallurgies. $\endgroup$ – Nick Dzink Oct 13 '17 at 23:04
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Humans have the same problem with another metal: lead. We found ways around it once we knew enough to care.

Elves just need to start the next green movement. Then we'll have iron free zones the same way we have smoke free zones. Then elves can eat gluten free muffins on an iron free bridge with a plastic spork.

They just need to defeat the rust belt lobby. Maybe a class action suit?

Going to miss my stainless steel flatware.

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  • $\begingroup$ While lead is not good for you it's nowhere near as bad as the question implies iron is for elves. $\endgroup$ – Peter Green Sep 2 '16 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ Oh I disagree. Iron very politely lets an elf know damage is occurring. Lead doesn't say a thing until masses of permanently injured children end up on the news. Iron is to elves what dry ice is to humans. Elves have it easy. $\endgroup$ – candied_orange Sep 3 '16 at 0:08
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When the Bronze age transitions into the Iron Age, around 1200 BC in the near-east or other times in other places, then elves suddenly are at a disadvantage. [Or, see Mason's comment below, this may not happen at the very onset of the iron age but in fact at a later point. Steel comes to be, if not exactly commonplace, then widely available. About the limit of my knowledge is that classical Greece didn't really use steel weapons, whereas imperial Rome did. So in the Med you have around 500 years of my ignorance. The elves hit trouble by the end of that at the very latest]. They can't directly touch the best tools known to humanity.

As against that, handles and gloves have both already been invented. Want to use a sword or a hoe? Put a wooden handle on it. Or wrap the blunt end in leather and then copper or bronze wire and away you go. Minor daily handicap, major tactical weakness that can be exploited by those who attack them with iron weapons. I should think they probably won't wear ferrous armour, it's too difficult to ensure you never touch it. So for a couple of thousand years or so they might be a total liability on the battlefield since (a) they're poorly-armoured, (b) a bag of iron filings becomes the first ever successful use of "poison gas" on the battlefield, some time around 1199BC. But they can keep a few tools that they're careful with, and maybe develop a niche as light cavalry or whatever. Perhaps go the Japanese route with lacquered wooden armour?

Note that when you work iron or steel, the bit you're working is too hot to touch anyway. So there's no reason in principle you can't have elven blacksmiths etc, they'll just take the same precautions with cold objects that human blacksmiths take with hot. That said, if a human makes a mistake they get a scar. Supposing that if an elf makes a mistake they drop dead instantly then this might not be the right career for them, and they should aim to import iron and steel goods. Lack of their own production could be a serious problem in war, unless they have other means of fighting. Perhaps they would seek to head-hunt humans or dwarves and integrate them into their society over generations, with social standing as craftsmen and a good reason not to defect to "their own kind" when trouble comes, in order to have home-grown iron working.

I think this gets them into the industrial revolution, which is the point where your iron and steel tools cease to be special items you can worry about individually, and start to be ubiquitous. Now you can't pick up someone else's hat without risking putting your finger on their mass-produced steel hatpins. Doorknobs aren't usually iron, but are you going to risk it? I don't know exactly when the last time I touched an iron or steel object was, but it was definitely today. Then again, I don't know when the last time I touched a peanut was either, because I don't have a potentially-fatal peanut allergy. People who do, find ways to keep track of such things.

And, on the plus side, with the industrial revolution come mass-produced enamel paints. Elves are going to be very much in favour of painting iron railings, and indeed any iron or steel that doesn't have to hold an edge. Ideally, someone else paints it for them.

Provided that society is broadly sympathetic to elves (that is, they're foreigners but not evil demons, or even better they're exotic aristocrats) then I don't see why they shouldn't be able to get by with gloves and care. An itchy feeling when iron starts to get near them would be a distinct advantage in avoiding accidents. But they're going to be a bit behind humans when it comes to iron and steel use simply because they find it harder (not impossible) to do anything with it.

Then once modern consumerism starts to kick in, they have good options to avoid external steel altogether. Perhaps they'd have been instrumental in researching and developing aluminium or other alternatives. Perhaps they're smart enough that they've already cracked cheap and/or easily-worked titanium, and are rolling around in an enormous heap of money.

Cornflakes or other iron-fortified breakfast cereals are poison to them ;-) I presume that they can handle some trace iron and/or that they use an alternative to haemoglobin (I'd say that's a reason to be vegetarian, but vegetables have trace iron too of course. Maybe there's a threshold, and meat makes them ill, but you'd have to decide whether beans do too since the amount of iron is similar). Seriously though cornflakes just have fine iron dust thrown in there. True fact.

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    $\begingroup$ "So, when the Bronze age transitions into the Iron Age, around 1200 BC in the near-east or other times in other places, then elves suddenly are at a disadvantage. They can't directly touch the best tools known to humanity." This is actually a misconception. Iron was a big step back from bronze; it's inferior in almost every way that matters to the ancient world, except for one: scarcity. People transitioned from bronze to iron because it was easier to get ahold of workable iron than tin to alloy with your copper. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Sep 2 '16 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ Steel is another matter entirely, but you don't get steel in non-scarce quantities until the Industrial Revolution. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Sep 2 '16 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ Well fair enough, push 1200BC up to whenever steel was common enough to be militarily and economically significant. Since the Roman gladius wasn't bronze I suppose that ferrous metals were practically advantageous as of "ages ago", if not specifically the early iron age. When does the "steel age" start in this sense? Certainly BC. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Sep 2 '16 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ The comment about cornflakes is awesome bit of brainstorming. It means elves must be vegetarians -- blood has iron. Lot of implications there. Good thinking! $\endgroup$ – SRM Sep 2 '16 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM Probably the best explanation is that they're harmed by metallic iron. This makes sense, biologically; humans count stuff like sodium and potassium as essential nutrients, but if we tried to ingest these elements in pure form it would do a lot of harm. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Sep 2 '16 at 14:07
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Elves could work with biotechnology (that's said before but just let me give some more examples).

Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Children of Time" shows how to make a bio-engineering tradition happen if iron is not available. Granted, it's about spiders instead of elves so it's not directly applicable but that's a job for your own imagination.

Cixin Liu's "The Three Body Problem" gives a great example of a biological computer.

It is well-established in popular culture that elves are magic beings so let's explore that for a moment.

Magic can replace technology to a certain extent. You can go the Harry Potter route and claim that large quantities of magic disrupt the working of technology (which is why Hogwarts has no wifi). Of course, you could just find a way to integrate magic with technology: are there any limits to what a magical smartphone can do?

Brandon Sanderson (author of the Mistborn trilogy) has devised "laws" to keep magic believable as a plot device. In short: place limitations on it and do not use it as a cure-all. His essays on the use of magic in fiction are very entertaining. See http://brandonsanderson.com/sandersons-first-law/

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  • $\begingroup$ Also there's the Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld $\endgroup$ – Darcinon Sep 2 '16 at 16:46
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One major factor that is particularly out of place, here: "The Modern Age". Typically, elves are depicted as an ancient race. One that has been around a lot longer than we humans; sometimes since the dawn of creation. While they are not traditionally seen as a race that would live through to the modern ages 1, this does put a particularly interesting spin on things: they have been around to endure and overcome their potential weaknesses long enough to permit the inclusion of great time-spanning solutions.

I can think of several ways they may evolve into the modern age, to adapt to the increased proximity to corrosive metals. I can think of many ways these would adapt into their own paths, telling the story of how the elves overcome this natural weakness. Ultimately, my solutions boil down to three things:

  1. How far have the elves evolved, from their early "folk-lore" days to the modern age?
  2. How have they developed, magically? Elves are commonly seen as magically gifted - but this usually correlates with their great age in comparison to the other races. As greater time moves on, has their magic dwindled, or grown stronger?
  3. How are their relations with the other races? Do they still live more isolated communities, or are they more likely to go for a walk and run into a human driving a car? Likewise, do these relations offer economic advantage? This seems like an important issue that would effect trade values and such.

Evolution

Following a Darwinism approach, it is entirely possible that the elves may evolve to adapt to their great weakness. Especially as the world around them changes so dramatically. Traditionally, elves would live in the forests, and often be seen as a nomadic race. However, as time goes on, many other races would rise, and perhaps fall. As other races advanced in technology, it is entirely plausible that the elves would have much greater interaction with iron, though not to the extend where they would have dangerous interaction with it.

As more structures are erected around the world, of steel and iron, the elves would have far greater interaction with the metals without coming into physical contact with them. That is, they might walk past an iron statue every day, without actually touching it and risking harm.

Greater resistance

As years turn into decades turn into centuries turn into millennia, the elves might find that the greater increase in "close proximity" has led to them evolving away from their natural weakness. This might not necessarily be a matter of being able to work with said materials as commonly as other, but it is plausible that they could have far greater interaction before succumbing to the harm that was often suffered by their ancestors.

Greater natural protection

An option that provides greater creative license in your physical depiction of these elves is that of evolving natural protection. Perhaps their skin grows hard and course to limit the effects of physical interaction with the metals. Perhaps they move in the opposite direction, and develop glands that secrete lubrication over the key areas (hands if they particularly craft with the metal, full body if they rely on body armor) that acts as an extra barrier.

"Caste" Evolution

It is plausible that through having to adapt to the use of such metals, particular families have evolved towards greater resistance, while others have not. This could potentially lead to a 'caste' system of sorts. The elves that develop resistance might be 'pushed' towards career in smithing, or other jobs that require greater interaction with the metal. Elves that fail to develop the resistance would be more suited for other occupation, such as general farming, or mage work.

Medical Advancement

With all the advancements we have made in medicine, it is not a far stretch to suggest that elf-kin would reach far greater advancement. A natural affinity for nature mixed with the greatly extended life span makes for excellent medical study.

Over time, their advancements could allow them to develop remedies to their weakness. This might be something as simple as a common salve they could rub into their skin to provide resistance against harm, or even a remedy for those that are around the material so much as to develop serious condition.

If you think about all the seemingly insignificant ailments we suffer that would have been an easy death sentence hundreds of years ago, its not hard to reach the conclusion that the "iron weakness" could be the elfish equivalent of smallpox, or scurvy. Both of these ailments were once considered fatal to humans. Smallpox was effectively wiped out through the spread of a less fatal 'little sister virus' (cowpox) that prepared our immune systems, while scurvy was eventually correlated to the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in ones diet. It does not seem completely unreasonable that the elves may come upon a similar solution to their own problem.

Magical developments

Just as humans have extended our reaches through advancements in technology, it is entirely expected that elves would make advancements throughout their many years, magically. This gives you all sorts of possibilities.

Magical barriers

With greater developments in magic, elves could learn to harness nature to create far greater barriers. You might go for the "runic ward" approach, where more powerful runes can be inscribed into iron garments to nullify the effect (by blocking it, or even by providing a healing effect strong enough to cancel out the harmful effect). You might even consider the use of delicate magical barriers to physically prevent the elves from touching the metal, while still having enough motor capability to interact with it. Think something a long the lines of capturing wind into a fine glove, that provides enough barrier to allow you to pick up things without actually touching them.

Greater reinforcement of safe material

With the use of powerful nature magic, you could allow your elves to develop knowledge for reinforcing natural materials to compete against our modern metals. Magically infused wood or glass could theoretically compete with steel or iron, depending on the manner in which they do so. It might be more feasible to suggest the discovery of more advanced variations of said material. Perhaps they discover a particular tree that is so strong that only the will of nature magic itself can allow them to fell it, and use it in craft.

Greater advancements in refining safe material

If the elves have to use metal, ultimately they are going to use metal that is safe to touch (in most cases). As mentioned, they can touch titanium. Titanium is somewhat uncommon, when compared to steel, but this partially boils down to the fact that it is still very difficult to actually make titanium. From what little I could find at 2 o'clock in the morning, this is mostly due to the fact that the creation process requires great amounts of heat and pressure. Surely if the elf's pushed for advancements in their magical abilities that greatly accelerated their ability to create titanium, this would easily be a more suitable alternative to steel or iron - even without the weakness.

Building on another answer, this might make them particularly useful to the dwarfs. The dwarfs might have their great machines, but they are not known for their magical ability. With the elves providing them a steady source of "magically-developed titanium", they would surely be inclined to offer the services mentioned in other answers that would make these metals less dangerous to the elves - whether that be diluting the dangerous metal down into less dangerous sub metals, providing other metals that might be out of reach to the elves but otherwise safe, or even through providing the required electroplating needed to make general steel or iron completely safe for elf-kin to interact with.

1 Not including science-fiction re-imaginings of the race, of course.

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  • Telepathically control minds of humans to forge iron for them.
  • You also assume Elves society is separated from humans which may be not, they can In example co-operate with humans into realizing technology: while an Elf cannot touch directly iron, he can touch it by using rubber gloves.
  • Elves would be damn good at research and counselling, an Elf can live years that means (unless brain is limited in someway) they can study hundreds of years stuff like Math, Science and Programming, and they can become really good at those tasks thanks to all those years of experience
  • However I think since they live long they would just create a slow-pace technology elite where they do amazing things but at the speed of turtles.
  • However you say elves can still touch all metals (but the ones that contain Iron) so they can even do almost whatever humans do.
  • They will have 1 weak side however: living so long leaves more vulnerable to cancer and to disease (micro-organisms evolves much faster)
  • So I guess elves would actually prefer to live just into isolated places where no human can bring disease.
  • I could actually guess Elves could raise funds simply by podcasting on YouTube their technological advices
  • Given they are weaker to pollution and diseases they would likely to research only in fields to prevent pollution and diseases contributing in general to a greener world.
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How The elves developed their technology depends own how their magic's works.

For example if they can use magic to alter live things on a biological level then we could see them developing biological tools.

Or if there magic evolves telekinesis then we could see them have some Iron tools that they can interact with by using Telekinesis.

Also remember that elves can touch gold, silver, and other none Iron based metals, perhaps they could develop technologies that use these metals in place of Iron.

I wish I could give more but without know how the elves power works I can't. If you add more info I can edit my answer to be more helpful.

Side note: If the elves can magic to mind control humans then they might be able to have human assemble and use Iron base machines for them.

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  • $\begingroup$ «their magic's » ? That doesn’t scan. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Sep 2 '16 at 12:09
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I like the idea of them adopting 'wet-ware' instead of our metal based hardware. It feels like them developing their own technology tree based on life and biology would fit well with the general mythology surrounding elves. They could 'grow' compounds which would replace many of our metals, and produce biological computing substrates if that's a path you wanted to go down. It seems like this would keep them nicely distinct from humanity and dwarves, with them going for sustainability and minimal impact on their environment rather than mining, extraction, smelting etc.

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