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Alternate Earth.

Using our own Earth as a baseline, this question opens up altering details of our history or societies to accomplish the intended outcome. The goal, quite simply, is to stagnate technological development to approximately what was discovered by modern nations during World War II.

The quality of the answers will be determined by three vectors:

  1. The degree of stagnation
  2. The duration of the stagnation
  3. The smallest possible alteration of Earth's culture and history as of the late 1940s to accomplish these goals.

For point #3, think of this as alternate-reality golf; you want to get the ball in the hole with the fewest number swings. In our case, you want to accomplish points #1 and #2 with the least variation to how the world emerged from WWII.

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Science never gets around to making a silicon transistor in a timely fashion.

In this timeline, German scientists after the war who, in reality, were wooed by the Americans and others to continue their work for the Feds, are either all killed for their assistance in war crimes or are unmotivated to work due to guilt or hidden sympathies. Key computer scientists in America who were pursuing this path have maybe also been killed, either due to conscription and fighting in the war, or bombing, or espionage.

This means that mechanical sophistication would still continue, and indeed could lead to things like the first space missions (if the German rocket scientists survived and cooperated). The moon lander's computers had their software stored on "rope memory" because commercial silicon transistors were not assured to be rock-solid and reliable when subjected to the rigors of spaceflight. Without a silicon transistor, technology would still arc up for a few decades, but peter out.

As to whether silicon transistors would eventually be invented anyways, that is up to authorial discretion. the opposite of "Great Man theory," the name of which escapes me, basically, that advances in knowledge are products of the social environment, and that someone, inevitably, would invent this thing. A bit of fun can be had with this if you say that marketing and the zeitgeist really latched onto nuclear power and tube computers without ever really looking for better alternatives.

For a working example of this, look at the backstory of the Fallout franchise and its "divergence" from real history, which operates on an almost identical conceit.

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    $\begingroup$ Rope memory ROM is a good choice even with the availability of transitsers. Look at the block 1 and block 2 designs for Apollo just to see how far it advanced during that time. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Sep 23 '16 at 2:00
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The first best way to ensure long term stagnation would be to ensure WWII never happens in the first place. Assassinating Hitler prior to his ascension as Chancellor, having FDR replaced by a more isolationist President, having Imperial Japan win the Battles of Khalkhin Gol and not being inclined to expand into the Pacific, Lord Halifax becoming Prime Minister rather than Churchill or other contrafactual events could either make WWII never happen, or shorten it to a regional conflict involving only a few actors over a short period of time.

The advantage of this contrafactual is the Great Depression is likely to continue into the 1950's or even later, since the root causes were not addressed or even exacerbated by government interventions like "The New Deal" (consider the worst year of the Depression in OTL was 1938, almost a decade after the "Crash"). Massive overhanging debts from the Great War crushed savings and capital formation, and foolish interventions like attempting to keep the British Pound Sterling at its pre war value simply made things worse. Without massive increases in production and productivity demanded by WWII, it seems likely that the global economy could limp along for decades.

The second best contrafactual might be the collapse of the Soviet union in WWII. Germany "wins" that round, but is crushed by the combined forces of the British Empire and the Untied States. Without the threat of a hostile Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain, the United States has no reason to engage Europe with the Marshal Plan or cary out the massive global rebuilding during the 1950's. As well, there is no hostile power spurring the development of new technologies and techniques to counter the adversary. America retreats to comfortable isolationism, demobilizes its military forces to 1930 levels and works on reintegrating people into the civilian economy at home. Without frantic demands to develop long range bombers, miniaturized nuclear warheads, advanced fighter jets, small nuclear reactors for ships and submarines, rockets, spy satellites and so on, there is less demand for R&D and the development of all the supporting industries and techniques needed to make these things happen. Many of the advances of the 1960's won't appear until late into the 1970's, if at all, and the greatest game changer, the development of the ARPANET (forerunner of the Internet) will be stillborn since there is no compelling need to create a robust communications network capable of surviving a nuclear attack.

Eventually, some things will still come to fruition. Spaceflight was written about in the popular press as far back as the 1930's, and things like jet engines and transistors are plausible without the spur of war to speed up development (Jet engines were conceptualized as far back as the 1700's, and the first self sustaining turbojet was built in 1903). Even automatic rifles and Light Machine Guns were conceptualized by the French Army in 1903, although the first truly successful design had to wait until 1959 with the FN Minimi.

The true difference between your world and OTL is really the political, military and economic incentives to develop advanced technology. Without the ongoing threat of war and nuclear attack during the early Cold War, many of the technologies developed during WWII would have been allowed to stagnate, and only gradually be adopted as old machinery wore out and new needs or opportunities presented themselves. (German long range aircraft in WWII were often developments of airliners, making craft like the Fock-Wulf 200 pretty fragile, while American long range aircraft, especially post war jet aircraft were developed from military experience and patterns, like the Boeing 707. In a world where there was no Cold War, there might not be a need to develop a long range plane to replace the Lockheed Super Constellation with a jet, and any bomber developed from the Constellation platform would not be as robust or capable as a B-47 or B-52).

So as long as there are few incentives to develop, then stagnation seems to be a likely outcome.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Great answer! And as you note on space flight, even if it had been developed after the war without a USSR, there's no space race, and a huge reason for supporting the Apollo missions disappears too. Not having the USSR by itself would have had sweeping effects across the world and on the US (no Cuban interventions needed, no Afghanistan), and it's very unclear what effect it would have had in China, where fighting with the USSR may have instigated Mao control and the later cultural revolution, etc. $\endgroup$ – BrianH Sep 22 '16 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure the OP had this in mind, but how much would this impact medical advances? $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 Sep 22 '16 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ One wonders what would happen to the Colonies (i.e. Africa) without WW2... $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica - M. Schröder Sep 23 '16 at 11:26
  • $\begingroup$ Medicine and colonies sound like great follow up questions. I really don't know enough about the history of medicine to speculate, but many of the advances in the post war period would certainly be slowed down because the science and technology will have been slowed down as well. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Sep 23 '16 at 15:31
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Headline: HAVE WE GONE TOO FAR?

The populace of the world was so shocked by the images of devastation and despair in Japan following the dropping of the atomic bomb that discussion of whether we had gone too far becomes commonplace and heavily considered. When America additionally dropped a nuclear weapon on Germany (or maybe just an island somewhere near Europe controlled by Germany) for failing to sign its surrender in time the discussion was intensified in a way that we never saw it. Suddenly it is not just a weapon fired between two very different peoples, it is one that is even used between superficially similar people - and that gives a whole new tone to the discussion.

This image is printed somewhere in every publication for years (usually in grayscale):

Nuclear Explosion

The media whips the situation into a frenzy and in the west public opinion turns against universities and research institutions. Studies are conducted on the negative effects of many of our technical advances and discover just how bad many chemicals and plastics of the time were for people, and the outcry against new materials is extreme. Chemical companies shutter their R&D areas, fearing both public sentiment and the acts of terrorism that were committed against their competitors who did not shut down (R&D centers were bombed!).

People in Africa and Asia denounce the "Western" way, showing videos endlessly to their population showing how consumerism and an "advancement" mindset leads to destruction and a loss of moral center. Traditional values are re-inforced.

As for how long things stay locked down, consider that in the West many countries may well have adopted extremely strict regulations around what can be researched. Legislation would need to pass that would lift those restrictions, but without research to show the benefits of lifting those restrictions it's never done. In practical terms, it's similar to how the US congress restricted the public funding of study of whether firearms cause more harm than good and consequently no high-quality work was done as even private institutions didn't want to get on the wrong side of senators or special interest groups.

In the East and Africa similar things occur, but are aided by a total lack of respect for any Western source of knowledge. So even if they were to advance, they would have to re-discover a lot of information that was already around.

Russia is the big problem. You would probably need to have the USA abandon its nuclear weapons (due to public outrage) so that Russia doesn't HAVE to build their own. Maybe have Russia start decrying the technology race (since they're losing it) so that as the gears stop it seems like it was Russia's idea. As long as they lead the charge that made it happen, they could be more likely to be OK with the stagnation.

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    $\begingroup$ "Have we gone too far" controversies are generally resolved by people losing interest and the people who went too far continuing to go far. We still do cloning and stem cell research, and damn it all, now they went and did this. $\endgroup$ – Devsman Sep 22 '16 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Devsman - As counterpoint, the basic cloning and stem cell research done is only controversial to a specific set of people (who are still opposed to it) and supported by another set of people of about the same size. Rattle the earth with another set of nukes launched by and at Western powers (in the 1940's) and that may change the nuclear warfare support. Using your example, human cloning is actually banned in a number of states and countries that do feel more strongly about it however and is explicitly not performed in those areas. $\endgroup$ – GrinningX Sep 22 '16 at 21:40
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I agree with Thucydides' brilliant analysis and conclusion. Preventing WWII from happening is key, as well as preventing the rise of the Soviet Union. The simplest way to start is to prevent WWI.

The post-WWI economic and political landscape in Germany was such that it was bound to produce a charismatic leader that would unite the Germans and rally them to become a great power once again. Although history decided on Adolf Hitler, I'm sure there were many others that were standing in line ready to play that role. The anti-Semitic sentiment being what it was in Europe at the time would have been used to further gather followers (much as some politicians use popular stance on immigration to further their campaigns). This gradually increasing anti-Semitic attitude drove many of the leading theoretical physicists and scientists of the time, a remarkable number of which are of Jewish descent, to leave Germany to what would be Allied countries during WWII. As WWII broke out, the wartime atmosphere led both the Axis and the Allies to pool the finest scientific minds they could and invest heavily in science and technology. We hear about geniuses such as Einstein, von Neumann, Turing, Oppenheimer, Feynman, Pauli, Teller, and many others being brought together in Allied countries. This facilitated collaboration between these geniuses and as a result, a lot of technologies, prototypes, and theories were developed at an unprecedented rate. The foundation of many different areas of study were laid during WWII. The rise of the USSR only made America double-down on military technology and scientific investment, which created the environment for the development of more modern technologies during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Although scientific advancement can't be entirely prevented, the acceleration of technological development is directly linked to WWII and the Cold War. Since WWI set the stage for WWII, preventing it would slow technological progress significantly. As well, if countries have other things to worry about than war, they won't typically allocate as many resources to scientific achievement as they would otherwise in a state of defense.

As I've studied the state of the world just prior to WWI, it seems conflict was unavoidable. The various political alliances and anti-government sentiments in certain countries make it a rat's nest of causes and effects. However, there are a few small things that may have changed the outcome:

  • Stop Gavrilo Princip from assassinating Archduke Ferdinand. This was the event that led to the July Ultimatum that Serbia rejected, causing Austria-Hungary to declare war. This may not help too much since there were others involved in the plot and possibly more waiting in case this failed.
  • Convince Nicholas II to listen to other war advisors not to enter WWI and give up Serbia completely, hindering the involvement of more countries in the war.
  • Convince Nicholas II to learn from the events leading to the 1905 revolution, stopping the momentum that the Bolsheviks used in 1917 and hindering the creation of the Soviet Union.
  • Convince the rulers of Austria-Hungary to remove Point 6 from their July Ultimatum, which states that Austro-Hungarian troops would suppress "subversive movements". This was the one point that the Serbian government would not accede to.

Admittedly, these events may not prevent the war. It was a volatile time in history and events may have unfolded in a similar fashion with different actors. However, this does seem like a short list of somewhat achievable tasks.

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D-Day Failed, the War Lasted Longer, More than 2 Nukes (But Not Fallout)

The success of the Normandy landings and allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe heavily relied on deception and secrecy. Would would have happened if the Nazi's (such as Rommel) saw through the deceptions of Operation Bodyguard, perhaps because the Enigma code was never broken and the Nazi secret agents in Britain weren't captured? Or if a very highly placed spy evaded detection and could smuggle out the secret?

Uh oh. There is no guarantee that Nazi Germany actually wins with this small change, but it virtually guarantees the war doesn't end swiftly. It's important that the Allies not get wiped out completely, but significant losses and a forced retreat would delay invasion for many months at least - or years.

What happens during that time? Well, it's very possible that the A-Bomb is figured out by more than just the US. You could say this forced a stale-mate, perhaps after much of Europe was liberated (or not), or that the Nazi's still lost but they managed a number of controlled nuclear explosions. If some of these nukes somehow had made it to the US, this may have tremendously changed American sentiment towards war. Suddenly war, and technology itself, seems all like a Pyrrhic Victory. Everything is terrible, what's the point of anything?

This doesn't need to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland or anything, but more than enough to really inflict the horror on everyone world wide in a way that doesn't happen when only your enemies are effected by it and it's "your" invention. Perhaps there are enough nukes for Germany to not completely lose control but give up most of it's holdings (bonus if Hitler is killed in a nuclear explosion and his less extreme generals regain control and drive the Nazis to be less insane). Extra bonus if we end up with a worn down and wounded US, isolated former-Nazi Germany in Europe (still in shambles and all teeth removed), USSR with similar destruction and no allies won from the end of the war, and your choice how Japan goes. Maybe they still lose, maybe the allies are forced to a similar concession and Imperial Japan remains.

The result is no comparatively easy peace. No people remain enthusiastic about the war or the glory of technology, and a worldwide depression may have set in as trade remains isolated and international cooperation remains limited and fragmented into many mutually bitter groups.

In this environment it's very possible that everyone becomes increasing isolationist. There's no real reason to develop international jet liners, and the post-war largesse of the US government (and good ole American Taxpayer) is not available to fund the sciences while Europe rebuilds. No Big Bad Undefeated Buggy Monster exists - everyone is hurt and pulling away from the world scene. No one is enthusiastic for anything that seems even vaguely connected to the horrors they've seen from war, and this sentiment extends to Universities and science as a whole in the view of the public. In this world, "the good old days" really were better back then, before all this supposed "progress" tore things apart. Hard to argue with when a famous city in your country can't be visited anymore because it's an irradiated wasteland.

Then what? Well, whatever you want to happen in your story! If science, technology, central government authority, and capitalism vs communism doesn't play out in 1940-1960, the world would surely be a very, very different place!

And the cost? Probably better German codes (better Enigma), or a few well placed spies that screw up a single military operation - and a lot of guessing what happens next.

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Spanish Flu Part II

A second re-occurrence of the Spanish Flu, or something as deadly, during the height of WWII could easily knock history off course. Just think if the flu hit Germany at the right time in 1945 as the Russians came in from the East leave the US and USSR to clash sooner than expected. Not to mention if all of those German Scientist like Wernher von Braun would have died from a chest infection before they created the V2 instead of years later in Florida working on the Apollo program. Or what would have happened if the flu took off in Los Alamos and killed off all of the Manhattan project scientist before they could build the bomb. World history would have been completely different thanks to a virus or two.

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A lot of technological development since then was motivated by the Cold War. If that could be averted, then you may well avoid or at least severely slow development of space technology, advanced weapons, jet-powered flight, computers, etc.

Perhaps the best way to avoid that would for communism not to have taken hold in Russia, but have Russia still well able to stand up to Germany in WWII. Doing away with the revolution altogether might be required.

Care is needed though - without the revolution, do Russia still withdraw from WWI? If not, then is Germany beaten more decisively and how does that affect Hitler's rise to power?

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Before the start of WWII a simple radioactive generator is invented in Germany. In it a mass of Uranium decays and boils water to turn a turbine in a closed system. The unit is well enough shielded that when it is new it is not radioactive. It becomes a huge commercial success and Germany builds millions of them. This alleviates their economic problems and the nazi party is not elected.

This devise allows people to become more independent, and without the need for electrical infrastructure, production begins to move more and more to the location of the needed resources. Powerful people around the world, heavily invested in the infrastructure of established and developing countries move to discourage this technology.

Here you could involve the church or government ect. In any case new campaigns start claiming that this new technology - and by extension any new technology - is wrong/evil/blasphemous etc.

During a new era of technological revolution in which the WWII technologies are invented more and more people become sick and immunocompromised due to tiny amounts of radioactive steam escaping from these new devices. This weakened population is a perfect breeding ground for disease and we see many people who work or live near these devices die.

Now our smear campaign can take over and show the people that anyone associated with the creation of this new evil technology or indeed anyone who is even close to this new technology is being punished.

We have a return to the "Good old" technology, and since you have a ruling group that set up this situation you it doesn't need to be particularly consistent. if your story wants it you can have automobiles progress but not computers. or everything progress to a fixed "safe" level but a strong social stigma against technological improvements.

your 'ruling group' can be long lasting or just a few old men and who shortly die leaving you space to cast whomever you like as the antagonist.

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You could make a case that WWII did stagnate technological development. For example, color television was actually invented in 1928, but didn't achieve wide market penetration until the late 60's. The Germans were already experimenting with methods for storing video on magnetic tape before the war. So if WWII had never happened, there's a strong possibility that Americans and Europeans would have been enjoying color TV and VCR's as early as the 40's or 50's. Since every technological development builds on previous discoveries and innovations, you could say that WWII pushed back all of our 20th century technologies by 20 years or so.

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  • $\begingroup$ Since this answer easily stagnates development less than all the other answers so far I don't feel like it answers the question well. $\endgroup$ – Ranger Sep 22 '16 at 20:27

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