We currently live in an extremely electrically connected world, with almost everything that we use also using electricity.

However, what if in a fantasy world, they had only ever invented gas as a means of power.

This would not just be limited to the generation of power, but also about how the generated power would be transmitted (using pipes instead of cables?) and the way that this will change electronics. Also, how close would they be able to get in terms of developing technology similar to ours?

Please think about how :

  • It would affect what would be invented
  • Safety issues
  • How different the world would look
  • Changes in society
  • Power transmission

Thank you.

btw would gas powered computers work, as in with low and high streams of gas controlling transistors?

  • $\begingroup$ not sure how it would look without electricity but i can tell you it would be a smelly world. With this i am aiming at the 'safety issues' part. In modern day smells are added to otherwise odorless (often also dangerous) gasses so in case of a leak you can smell it and run away/get help etc etc. Gaspipes would be larger in size and major pipe bursts would probably be more common. $\endgroup$ – GijsM Sep 26 '16 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ We use the alignment of electrons to represent information and as its size suggests we can squeeze a fuckload of data into the size of a lizard dicky(s). As for your gas the smallest visible changes is... your homework! $\endgroup$ – user6760 Sep 26 '16 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ Related: Water-based computer. To a first order approximation, I don't think a gas-powered computer would be all that different. Of course the construction would be hugely different from how modern computers are constructed. $\endgroup$ – user Sep 26 '16 at 11:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In regards to the computer aspect, I think it would be more probable to have a gas-powered mechanical computer than one whose logic is determined by gas flow. Thinking something like a gas-powered Difference engine. $\endgroup$ – Kys Sep 26 '16 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ related: youtube.com/watch?v=Nn__9hLJKAk. It's a Nissan commercial that aired a few years back, there used to be a website to go with it, but I cannot find it. $\endgroup$ – user23110 Sep 26 '16 at 14:46

If we were to replace electricity with gas it would be possible. Pressure and Flow of gas would replace Current and Voltage in electrics, and in most cases can be used for the same purpose.

As a worked through example (that is also very relevant as would be required as the basis for logic circuits), it should be possible to replicate a transistor by using some kind of normally closed diaphragm such that when a pressure is applied at the gate will allow flow from the source to the drain. This is exactly what a transistor does, though by using other physical effects to prevent/allow flow through the substrate. Transistors nowadays for the basis for logic systems, so now we know we could have valves and basic control systems.

Other fundamentals of electrics could be replicated. Resistors are replaced with orifices, capacitors with accumulators (though there are some differences here). Inductors are more tricky. Transformers can be made by enlarging/shrinking the cross sectional area of the flow.

So what's stopping it from working? Well scale would be the first issue. Transistors are tiny, even supposing we could somehow use pipes as small as carbon nanotubes, we probably still couldn't make something to work on the same scale. Sorry steampunk fans, wearables based on gasses are a little way off at the moment.

The next issue that one fundamental difference between gas and electricity for this sort of stuff is that an open loop in electricity is safe, whereas an open loop in your gas circuit is not safe. At best all that will happen is you'll lose a lot of gas and cripple other systems nearby (can be mitigated by logic to pick up massive pressure drops and shutting off the system). At worst that will meet one of your gas lamps and go boom.

One final issue is that there is a reason we use hydraulics instead of pneumatics for large machinery. Compressible gas doesn't give you nearly as good control as an incompressible liquid. Your rams would be springy, and would move as the load changed. If there was something preventing something in the system moving, the pressure would build up til it could overcome the obstacle, then would suddenly jump. It's not the smooth control you need for a lot of purposes, but just opening closing valves could work.


As the name suggests, there could be no electronics without knowledge of electricity. So, look at the 19th century to see how the world would be.

Sadly, even gas distribution networks would not exist without electricity to control them. You could have gas-powered pumps, but without control circuits, you're manually opening and closing valves, always one mistake away from disaster. Also, using fire to power a gas pump is going to violate ALL of the workplace safety rules.

  • $\begingroup$ But necessity is the mother of all invention, or so some say. Had electricity as a controllable entity not become a thing, I'm sure other methods would've been developed in it's stead. $\endgroup$ – Jesse Williams Sep 26 '16 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe modern gas distribution networks use electricity, and are presumably safer - but gas lighting was around before electricity came in, so they presumably managed without in the past. $\endgroup$ – JerryTheC Sep 26 '16 at 12:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.