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Background Information

In my world, there is one spherical world that is 2,000,000 miles in diameter and has the same land-to-sea ratio as the earth. On this world , there is a civilization of elves possessing 19th century maritime technology, though they do not possess steam power. Their fastest vessels can go about 40 knots , and they possess submarine technology , powered by clockwork motors.

Over the course of a millennium , this civilization has made hundreds of thousands of city-state settlements in an area of 4.7 billion miles² ( 752,000 to be exact ) All of these colonies border a body of water in some way and are , on average , 90 miles away from each other. ( i.e. one populated city state for every 6250 square miles of world [ on average ])

Question: Given a spread this large , is it possible for such an "Empire" to have any sort of effective administration, or is the spread too large to allow any meaningful communication from one end of the empire to the other?

Extra Unnecessary information

None of these sea elves live outside of the city states

All area outside of the settlements is either open ocean , uninhabited land, or inhabited to varying degrees by foreign peoples

Assume such a civilization has detailed maps of the entire 4.7 billion square miles

EDIT: In a previous instance of the question, the size of the planet was several thousand light years in diameter. It has been edited to 2,000,000 miles

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    $\begingroup$ 40 knots is over twice the speed of the fastest ship of that period, that's really really fast for sailing vessels. Modern racing multihulls can just about do it. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 9 '16 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ Note: see Author Isaac’s videos about megastructures, including those that allow for extended “walking” connectivity of enormous areas. The revised figures of 2 million miles are within the parameters of a shellworld. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Sep 9 '16 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ Man, how many quadrillions of stars would need to be orbiting this thing just so that any given point on the surface would occasionally have enough light hitting it to be considered "daylight"?? $\endgroup$ – Shufflepants Sep 9 '16 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ You can use semaphores or send pigeons, but you can't send an army to quell a rebellion through a semaphore or a pigeon. The speed of communication doesn't matter as much as logistics for an empire. $\endgroup$ – sashoalm Sep 10 '16 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ Back up a sec. Is this planet even possible? What is the core made out of? People need a magnetosphere and proper gravity (and a moon for nominal tilt... and a Jupiter to act as a meteor shepherd, and...). What would happen to the atmosphere (and the weather) with a planet that big and yet its density is only a small fraction of the Earth's? $\endgroup$ – Mazura Sep 11 '16 at 1:21

12 Answers 12

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Optical telegraphs would work. At the most primitive, signal flags, though these would not work at night. A more robust system would consist of shutters using light/dark colours to send something like morse code. At night, you might use something similar to a lighthouse, using shutters to block off/show light. Have towers with men stationed in it in shifts with food and water, and you'd have signals technology that's essentially light speed, and while manpower intensive, would be significantly faster than anything else.

Apologies to the late, great Terry Pratchett, whose ideas I have reappropriated here. After all, when you care enough to steal from the very best ;p

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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of LOTR, I forget which of the series but when Gondar called for help, they lit fires which signaled neighboring allies to light theirs as well creating a domino effect. A very effective way of communicating. $\endgroup$ – NuWin Sep 9 '16 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ @NuWin: that sort of simple beacon system was used by many countries in history, e.g. the Byzantine empire in the 9th century. However, a proper telegraph that can send not just a few simple pre-arranged messages, but arbitrary texts at a reasonable bandwidth, needs significant conceptual advances compared to that (basically, the idea of something like semaphore or Morse code). $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Sep 9 '16 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ At "night"??? What star could possibly provide a day/night cycle for a planet big enough to fill the space between the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies? $\endgroup$ – user2338816 Sep 9 '16 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @user2338816 ...well, obviously the planet is in orbit around a 218.000.000 light years diameter star.... duh. Now let's calculate its rotation (day) and translation (year) period! That should be fun! :D $\endgroup$ – xDaizu Sep 9 '16 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ France did just this in the Napoleonic period (perhaps even a bit earlier). Flag signalling by day got arbitrary messages from Lille to Paris in 32 minutes From Wiki: Credit for the first successful optical telegraph goes to the French engineer Claude Chappe and his brothers in 1792, who succeeded in covering France with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 4,800 kilometres (3,000 mi). $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Sep 9 '16 at 13:56
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I started my initial response with 'Barring magic...', but a planet that has Any dimensions you need to measure in light years needs to be magical so it doesn't collapse in on itself.

'Large' empires on earth kept in touch before electricity; indeed, large empires far predate electricity. For a maritime empire, you might try looking at the French and Spanish colonial efforts in the New World for pointers. However, those are empires in the '5-7k kilometer' scale. Light years presents a whole new set of problems.

Assuming you don't have magical communication, the fastest that information can be transmitted is the speed of light. This statement may be getting rolled back by advanced science in the coming years, but for now its true, and its definitely true for your empire's tech level. If you have a large empire and must communicate quickly, you might get away with semaphore towers, like on Discworld. On earth they're impractical because the horizon cuts things off more than a few miles away, but on a planet measured in light years, a person on the ground could be forgiven for thinking their planet was flat.

But, as many other answers have suggested, I think your planet may be a bit too big. It is, after all, a sizable portion of the Observable Universe.

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    $\begingroup$ "a sizable portion of the Observable Universe" -- well, it's 1/13000 the radius of the observable universe, so proportionally the equivalent of a 500m radius sphere compared to Earth, or a grain of pollen to a soccer ball. Not small :-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Sep 9 '16 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ While the planet itself is cosmologically large, the civilization is not. 4.7 billion miles² would be a square that is about 70000 miles on a side. Very large, but only an order of magnitude bigger than Earth colonial empires. On this scale, the size of the world doesn't really matter, because it is effectively flat. $\endgroup$ – Eldritch Cheese Sep 9 '16 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that the question has been edited; the planet is now 200,000 miles in diameter. $\endgroup$ – recognizer Sep 9 '16 at 16:22
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Think outside the box. electricity is required for human in real-world modern communication such as telephone, internet. However, electricity is never a hard condition for our communication. We can sent hand mail, send messenger (who remember the content of the email and will speak the content to the receiver). As we invent electricity, we adapt our communication to take advantage of our wonderful invention. It does apply to your world, electricity is never a requirement for communication.

So, here are some of my propose for your world:

  • A elves species have their biology channel of communication the gain through evolution. It may be their telekinesis power. If you know the Protoss in Starcraft, they use telepath to speak to each other. The Protoss also have Khalai which similar to our Internet.

  • The alternative power which have same function as electricity in our world. Remember that electricity is human intention in our Real-world. The elves may invent something. Perharp magic can replace electricity. Elves + magic is a good combination anyways.

  • Traditional communication system similar to our world, through mail and messenger, but with better logistic. They still send paper work around, but better logistic mean better ways to move mail around, and get the paper work done fast. If they have submarine, is it fast ?. The island may have sub-terran network for submarine to move around in the kingdom. Let take a look at Pneumatic tube. The mail are carry very fast via a automatic mail network. If you can implement that network use submarine technology. For inter-islands mail, one rich citizen can have their privated mail-carrier sub. Very small submarine that move extremely fast (think of Harry Potter Owl Postal Service)

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The obvious comparison to make is with the actual earth of the 19th century. The first trans-oceanic cable was 1866, India was connected to England in 1870. So without long-distance electrical communication the British Empire seemed to communicate well enough to co-ordinate administration up to a point. As soon as electrical communication became a possibility they absolutely wanted as much as they could have, as quick as they could have it, so it does make a difference.

I'm not sure what the total area was of the British Empire (in terms of land and intervening sea), but since you allow the areas between your city-states to be "inhabited to varying degrees by foreign peoples" I think a fair comparison is that the British Empire discontinuously extended across roughly 1/4 the surface of Earth. 50 million square miles. More if you draw a bounding box that includes far-flung islands like Fiji.

Your Elven civilization is 100 times this area, or about 10 times as big in each direction.

I think you could stipulate that politically it would be extremely difficult to administer an empire of this size, but that technologically, maintaining a correspondence across it isn't completely out of the question. Especially if Elves live longer than humans, and don't mind exchanging letters over decades in order to have a thorough discussion. Your ships aren't going to sustain top speed of course, but it's "only" a matter of many months to get from the edge of the empire to the centre, not many years.

The further colonies will be quite isolated from the centre and therefore (unless Elven psychology is very different from ours) quite diverse. Colonists might well take liberties, if they know it's a year before the nearest Imperial fleet can reach them. But once that year is up they've still got an Imperial fleet to deal with. The American revolution notwithstanding, "stay in line or we'll eventually get around to sending a gunboat" was an effective way for a powerful empire to discipline individual outposts.

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Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of floppies, or in this case a boat full of books.

Communication over this empire would vary based on urgency. A tall tower on a world of that size could be seen as far as atmospheric conditions allow and the brightness of the signal flame permits.

So start with a set of towers. These towers have lights on them. They'll have to be fire based: mirror based will be washed out by ambient light (assuming this planet has a night and day cycle somehow), possibly with lenses and shutters. A signal would be sent to the nearest cities, and relayed along.

Extra tall/bright towers could skip over more than one city in some cases.

The level of haze will matter. On hazy days, signals are going to fail. On extremely clear days, you might be able to do something fancy like send different messages in different light frequencies (where the other side has filters to extract the the two channels).

These messages require an economic system that crosses from one city to another and clears payments. They are also going to be reasonably expensive.

Other messages will be sent by messenger bird or boat. Sometimes complex messages will be sent by boat and "saved" to be referenced by light or bird-based messages (contingency plans and the like).

Security of these messages can be maintained by use of one-time pads. So the crown could send messages security to a general through multiple paths and not worry about it being intercepted, because the general has a key (transported physically) that ensures the message package is noise without it.

Having modern information technology could be useful. Routing of messages (around damages caused by clouds, rain or hostile forces), compression, and other techniques would all make their communication network better.

Mountain ranges and other similar stuff could cause problems. With the elves living near the coast, overland messages are difficult. Either building towers on the mountains, or hiring non-elves to do so, would permit short cuts. Use of slow-delivery one-time pads or other encryption could prevent the towers from corrupting or intercepting messages.

The bandwidth you'll get from boats will far exceed the bandwidth from the light towers, so passing huge pairwise common one-time pads around shouldn't be all that expensive compared to maintaining and using the towers.

The transparency of air increases the farther you are away from the ground generally. So making balloons that float above the cities that relay messages to other cities might even be practical, and would match the steampunk sensibilities of clockwork submarines. You could even imagine large ground-based lights shining up at the balloons, who have huge mirrors and shutters to beam the message to the target. Spotter balloons in the destination city with large telescopes would then record the message, and use mirrors to send it down to the city below.

Said balloons could also send messages to predetermined locations for fleets. A fleet might have a few balloons and some extremely bright flares it can use to communicate limited information back to the nearest city state.

Using data for death rays, light in completely clear air at sea level loses about half its intensity every 30 km. In more realistic situations it is more like every 1.5 km. So height (and lower air density) is very important.

At a 6 km altitude air is half as dense. And it might be far dryer and have less particulate in it. However WW2 barriage balloons (tethered) only managed 1.5 km. Still, 1.5 km might result in far less moisture, particles, and a decent reduction in air density (20% ish) and ability to see over smaller mountains. (6 km is too high for tethered, and unless you want airship elves isn't practical).

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A planet with THAT radius would also mean you could potentially see VEEERY far, depending on how the atmosphere is. In that case, a signal flag system on a very high mountain might be visible in the whole empire... and the other way round. That would allow long distance communication.

Edit: oh, i see, that answer was already there before. Damn, i didn't see that. Well, I'll leave it here, because the mountain idea might contribute something new.

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Why does this world need to have a centralized administration system?

Whether or not communication is effective, each city-state could have an appointed regent and operate as a sort of almost independent power of it's own, in a decentralized administration system.

Now this could obviously lead to mutiny and 'almost independent' becoming just independent; but this is where the other cities come in. Think feudal lords, their king couldn't keep track of them all the time, but they were so busy vying for power and his favor they stayed loyal

It would take too long for the emperor/whatever to hear of any misdeeds against him and send forces for cities on the other side of the planet, so instead, city regents could form 'councils' on a sort of node-based system. Choose 'central' cities, and the surrounding city rulers then convene there once every few months or so.

The rulers of 'central' cities obviously would garner more power, so they keep each other in check. once every year (as an example), they convene with the central cities in a council with the actual ruler.

administrative communication would be kind of a trickle down system, so yes, slow, but the ruler of your empire wouldn't need to do much, because his regents would have guidelines etc. to follow.

Effective administration doesn't have to be fast, it just needs to be predictable.

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  • $\begingroup$ To be precise, if someone "on the other side of the planet" did something foul, the regent would need to live roughly another 3.140.000 years until the information could have potentially reached him, if the elf carrying the message was moving at the speed of light... $\endgroup$ – Andreas Heese Sep 12 '16 at 6:22
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There were networks of semaphores at 10 km intervals before 1800, used by Napoleon. Also Heliographs. I read somewhere that there was a network of these across Europe, but I can't find a reference.

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Looking at the possibility of an optical telegraph: The tallest building in the 19th century was about 150' tall. This gives us a distance to the horizon of about 15 miles. If we take your question literally, this is not possible as all of the elves live in cities that are about 90 miles apart. However, assuming they're willing to build and man signal stations to relay telegraphs, they could set up a network.

How long would it take to send a signal from the centre of the empire to the outer reaches (which is where I'll assume your capital is)? Assuming that the empire is a rough circle gives us an approximate radius of 40000 miles. A line of telegraph stations would have 2,667 stations to reach the outer edges of the empire. Assuming it takes a single second for an operator to read and retransmit a signal, it takes about 45 minutes for that signal to reach from the centre to the edge of the empire.

Gaps of open ocean of greater than 15 miles would necessitate either anchoring a floating station or routing around them, which could increase the isolation of other continents.

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  • $\begingroup$ On a planet of such unimaginable size, for all practical purposes there is no horizon to speak of - line of sight is as far as the atmosphere will allow. Any tower high enough to see over an intervening tree or hill would allow direct view between cities on a clear day - the only issue is dust or haze or other weather effects blocking sight. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Sep 9 '16 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi: even on a clear day, visibility through air is something like 200 miles or so. Call it haze if you like, air isn't completely transparent. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Sep 9 '16 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ This is wrong in multiple ways. First, the page you link says the world's tallest building since the 12th century has been 140+ metres, not feet (i.e., 460+ ft). That gives a distance to the horizon on earth of around 25mi. Second, the distance to the horizon is determined by the curvature of the planet and the planet in the question is much les curved than the earth: the horizon will be much farther away. Third, it's not the distance to the horizon that counts, because we're talking about 140m-tall signal towers, not elves standing on the ground, so you can almost double the distance. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Sep 10 '16 at 10:09
  • $\begingroup$ Fourth, you're assuming that everything is at sea level, which isn't likely to be true, even for coastal cities. Signal towers on top of hills or mountains would give greater range; mountains between cities would get in the way. Fifth, you're assuming that a telegraph would be readable at these extreme distances. Atmospheric haze and distortion would make a mechanican telegraph impossible to read, and you're not going to have a bright enough lamp without electricity. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Sep 10 '16 at 10:13
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I assume that the empire looks like a square of around 68557 miles on every side.

Peregrine falcons' horizontal flight is about 40-56 mph according to Wikipedia, which means faster in average that your best boats. Make that every city has a lot of them having been breed in the cities around (birds only carry messages to the place they have been breed in).

When you want to send a letter from A to C, you take a falcon from B and attach the message to him; when the bird arrives to B, they take the message and put it on a falcon form C.

You may say that light-signals are faster, but if you want to send a complex law-style message assuring that the receiver (an elf looking at the horizon) doesn't mess it up, you need to take a lot of time, maybe hours. And this is only to send it to the nearest city. In the meanwhile, the hawk has carried a letter with thousands of words.

By this, you could send a letter from one side of the empire to the opposite in around 57 days. Assuming hat communication would be mostly between center and periphery, this time would be less than a month. Putting everyone in that kind of empire on the same page in that time is something huge.

Backside: you need to keep moving the falcons by boat from the place they were breed to the near cities so you don't run out of birds. Therefor, you may prefer to use them for official comm and let the boat-mail to the citizens.

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Without invoking magic you will find a terrestrial empire utterly impossible. Your planet has a surface gravity something like 250 times that of earth. Your atmosphere is super dense and it's hard to say what it's made of but it is likely that O2 does not stay anywhere near the surface. No terrestrial bipeds for you for both of these reasons. The question now becomse can a pre-electricity aquatic empire with something over 10,000 mile sides. I was unable to determine the range of whale song by internet search but assuming a 20 mile range (and I think this is low) we can do at least as good as semaphore towers, which is not so bad.

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Water - it is a good conductor of sound. Elves can use this fact is not invent radio. (At the beginning of the 20th century, some ships communicated by underwater bells, the system being competitive with the primitive Maritime radionavigation service of the time). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underwater_acoustic_communication)

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