I am considering whether a pre-Industrial civilisation could carry on for millennia on an Earth-like planet without entering the Industrial Age.

Of course, regularly destroying everything with plagues, earthquakes, etc and sending people back to the Bronze Age might do the trick, but I am looking for something more subtle.

For example, would a lack of readily-accessible iron ore prevent steam combustion engines from being practical? And is it believable on an Earth-like planet that iron ore would be that inaccessible?

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    $\begingroup$ Without iron you wouldn't even reach the iron age of civilization, you would need to redevelop a lot of history. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Nov 16 '16 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant, possible duplicate: Cultural reasons to prevent... $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Nov 16 '16 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have a source (which is why this is a comment, not an answer), but I feel strongly that once you have enough population pressure, you'll have an industrial revolution. Necessity is the mother of invention, so people (human or otherwise) will find a way around barriers. It may not look like our industrial revolution, but it will be there. $\endgroup$ – Ghotir Nov 16 '16 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ Niven did this in Ringworld. Many of the Ringworld species never advanced past medieval technology because the structure of the Ringworld prohibits the formation of fossil fuels. The only species which did advance technologically was the Machine People who developed ethanol based engines. It's never really explained how the City Builders advanced, nor the amount of time it took for them to get to the interstellar level. $\endgroup$ – Necoras Nov 16 '16 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ You could take the Australian path, if you're willing to go that far. A society without written language, with a population below a certain threshold, can remain in the Stone Age indefinitely. $\endgroup$ – Beta Nov 18 '16 at 0:58

14 Answers 14


An early Industrial Revolution needs cheap energy. Fossil fuels and coal were essential to it.

Just make fossil energy hard to find, or too expensive to extract, and all economic incentives to start changing all the technology and all the society will vanish. First steam engines were placed in coal mines to extract water from them and avoid flooding. They were made just because it was cheaper to use coal powered machines than using animal or human powered devices.

Societies before the Industrial Revolution were dependent on the annual cycle of plant photosynthesis for both heat and mechanical energy. The quantity of energy available each year was therefore limited, and economic growth was necessarily constrained. In the Industrial Revolution, energy usage increased massively and output rose accordingly. The energy source continued to be plant photosynthesis, but accumulated over a geological age in the form of coal. This poses a problem for the future. Fossil fuels are a depleting stock, whereas in pre-industrial time the energy source, though limited, was renewed each year.

Energy and the English Industrial Revolution E. A Wrigley Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 2013.

From these first uses, steam engines were developed into sea and land vehicles. Other kind of engines, like internal combustion ones, were developed only after fossil fuel powered vehicles became relevant.

If there were not any cheap coal or petrol, engineers still could develop engines powered by olive oil or alcohol, but they would not be economical enough to substitute horses, oxen or wind. Society would not change abruptly so there would not be any "revolution". Greeks and romans knew some sort of steam engines but their slave powered economy didn't need any development of these machines.

Ways to make fossil fuels impractical:

Centuries before the revolution you could seed coal and oil deposits with genetically engineered bacteria that would metabolize that energy and turn it into useless carbon dioxide and carbohydrates. Manna mines could be created but not fuels.

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    $\begingroup$ You can build factories on rivers using the water dam to power your operations instead of coal. $\endgroup$ – alamar Nov 16 '16 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ We, in the real world, have already used up virtually all the easily accessible fossil fuels. If our descendants needed to recreate the Industrial Revolution, they'd have a hard time finding the fuel to do so. The OP doesn't need to regularly destroy civilization, but just destroy one sufficiently advanced one. $\endgroup$ – chepner Nov 16 '16 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ On this Earth the industrial revolution began with hydraulic power. Steam engines came more than one century after the beginning of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution stimulated the invention of the steam engine, not vice-versa. On this Earth we have vast deposits of coal, of which we have consumed only a small fraction. And there is no way to stop the industrial revolution after the discovery of electromagnetic induction by Faraday. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 16 '16 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ @chepner "easily accessible" is a transient term. 100 years ago, extracting hydrocarbons from 5km below the surface was impossible, but here we are, doing it regularly. There is plenty left and we will never use it all. Demand for solar will overtake demand for fossil. $\endgroup$ – Gusdor Nov 16 '16 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham I was replying to a comment referencing the real world. I was not reasoning with the word 'effort'. Leave the goalposts alone $\endgroup$ – Gusdor Nov 16 '16 at 16:03

The Industrial Revolution wouldn't have occurred as it did without philosophical and political changes having occurred a few centuries earlier. Before those changes, Europe was much more decentralized politically and industry was in general controlled by the Guilds. The point of the guilds was to ensure adequate skilled work for all craftsmen of a given trade. This resulted in a basic degree of prosperity, more equitably divided across the society. The guild system did allow for new techniques and ideas, but they spread more slowly because the understood purpose of labor and craft was not to acquire wealth for oneself nor to advance technology, but rather the purpose was to provide for material needs, some degree of self-fulfillment and cultural support.

The abolition of the guilds allowed powerful people to gain wealth and control over industry and politics. It's noteworthy that the level of prosperity of the working man in 1545 wasn't reached again until 1945 with the post-war prosperity boom.

So for your story, if you have a deeply-rooted cultural philosophy which emphasizes other ideas above advancing technology or gaining wealth, ideas such as cooperation, mutual support, environmental concern, individual liberty, etc, it could make industrialization unlikely because it would require massive philosophical changes to be accepted.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Nov 17 '16 at 18:29

An interesting thought might be to eradicate tea from your world. Some historians think that tea had a pivotal role in making industrial revolution possible. Factories had long and demanding working hours and so after tea became available to everyone, the caffeine in it helped workers to get through a shift. Another - more important - aspect of a high percentage of the population drinking tea was its role in preventing mass pandemic. Since people boiled water for their tea, they killed most bacteria in the water, and it was the only way to stop a quickly spreading epidemic in a densely populated area.

I don't think you can prevent the start of an industrial revolution without meddling with the world and its rules a lot, but there certainly are ways to stop the continuation of it, mainly health and social reasons.

Link to a source from Alan Macfarlane (Cambridge University) as suggested: www.alanmacfarlane.com/savage/tea.html

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    $\begingroup$ I think references to historians or texts(who said tea was important) will make this a better answer. $\endgroup$ – DroidDev Nov 16 '16 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ @DroidDev ... definitealy! $\endgroup$ – xDaizu Nov 16 '16 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ I'd postulate that cigarettes (and the nicotine in them) is what gave rise to the cubicle desk job being a viable way to do business. Take away the cigarettes and folks are going crazy working an office job :P $\endgroup$ – Jason K Nov 16 '16 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonK how does that make sense, with the current situation where people can’t smoke at work? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 16 '16 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz My theory is that cubicle offices developed when folks COULD smoke easily, and near constantly, at work. Now they can't, and we see a rising dissatisfaction and inefficiency in cubicle life. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Nov 17 '16 at 19:56

Labor is cheap enough; new machines are expensive

Something to think about... records from the Great Library in Alexandria, Egypt, show that "industrial" devices such as steam engines were not only theorized, but constructed. However, because the cost of labor was very cheap in Egypt (which was mostly due to the Nile being an amazing food source and transportation network), there was never really any need to supplant human labor with machine labor. Although we can't know this for sure, since most of the records from the Great Library were burned down, we can speculate for the purpose of your story that the elites of this pre-industrial society foresaw the social and economic upheavals inherent in such a new system and sought to prevent any change that could potentially harm their social status.

Which could potentially lead to an ideology that believes...

Only things built with human hands matter

Ruins of the ancient Mayans are all the more impressive when considering that the Americas had NO draft animals. That meant everything had to be done with human hands and feet. No oxen to till the soil, no horses to ride from A to B. Although they did understand basic innovations like the wheel, the Mayans believed that human effort created real value, and it was integral to their religion and way of life. They believed that the gift of Creation from the Gods was accompanied by a "Blood Debt," which had to be repaid throughout all their lives (and often through death by conquest or sacrifice). They were able to create fantastically accurate mathematical models (including the use of zero! ZERO! The number that eluded even the smartest of the Greek and Roman philosophers!), but they still chose to build their impressive cities and towers by hand.

Really makes you think what human beings are truly capable of.

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    $\begingroup$ I came to make the first point; In China the same thing happened. $\endgroup$ – John_H Nov 16 '16 at 23:52

Considering that the world history did see destruction through earth-quakes, plagues, wars and so on and the industrial revolution still happened, that is probably not the way to go.

If you look at the preconditions, the revolution was the end of a long list of mechanical improvements over many centuries. You could certainly delay it considerably, and slow it down so much that it won't appear as a revolution in history books by taking away coal, steel and other essential parts of early machinery. But burning wood in iron steam engines works as well. It will just be less efficient, making the whole process a lot longer.

So you can change history so that there was never an industrial revolution, just a slow, constant process eventually leading to an industrialised world. I doubt you can keep a world in a pre-industrial development forever without some serious interventions.


Let's define what we mean by Industrial Revolution. I'm going to say this is a period of time where there was a massive shift from hand production of goods to mechanized production of goods (so things like the steam engine and spinning jenny never being invented).

Do I believe this could be prevented forever? Absolutely not, it would happen unless civilization kept getting reset. Could we delay it for a few centuries? Now, that's possible.

There were a lot of driving forces for the Revolution, and I'm not going to argue over them (because I'm not a historian, I'm a software engineer), but the ones that look the most important to me are an available workforce (population), spread of knowledge, and an increase in social freedoms and economic standing.


As was true in the Renaissance, the spread of knowledge empowers social change. If you have a society or system that tamps down on knowledge sharing (an autocratic regime or strict religion might work) you can reduce the likelihood that enough people create enough machines to make the revolution happen.

Maybe there's a guild or trade group that restricts such knowledge, to protect their manufacturing. Maybe inventors aren't incentivized to create new things, because any time they do their ideas are stolen and make someone else rich.

Available Workforce

Revolutions in agriculture and a population boom assisted the Industrial Revolution by providing a workforce for new factories. If most of your population is drawn off for agriculture or military service (or if there's just not a lot of population growth because of disease or a society that restricts how many children you can have) you won't have the labor force to do anything if those industrial processes are created.

Social Freedoms and Economics

In medieval times, serfs remained on the land of their lord. They were largely not permitted travel without permission, and were tied to the land. This limited the spread of ideas, and also limited the wealth of the lower classes. Why does this matter? Machines are expensive. If there's no captialist draw to owning a machine and making profits from it, there's less chance of it happening. Do you think a comfortable noble, who makes money doing absolutely nothing, will give that money to someone else so they can build a fanciful machine to make goods others? Not when it's cheaper to hire a seamstress or cobbler to make the handful of goods he needs himself (which would probably be higher quality than the machined ones). A rich man might want to become richer, but before the Industrial Revolution, there were other ways of doing it that were more familiar and comfortable.

The Solution?

My solution would be to have the majority of the story take place inside an Empire with a theocratic and oligarchic elements in the government, such as composing something like the houses of a legislature (e.g. the theocratic side could be something like the House of Lords, while the Trade Guilds could form a House of Commons).. While the Emperor is not directly tied to the religious sect or the trade guilds, his actions are heavily influenced by them. The religious sect has a tight control over the printing of books and manuscripts, and any found without their mark are considered illegal and immoral. The owner is considered a heretic. Religion should be very important to the people, to help prevent revolution.

The Trade Guilds control specialized knowledge over their domains, and tamp down tightly on any inventions or ideas that would hurt this control. They actively hunt for inventors, bringing them into the guilds or removing them as a problem. They pride the quality of their wares (as most of their profit comes from the nobility), so unless an invention improves the quality of the goods, it will likely not be put into production. These Trade Guilds also crack down on people selling finished goods without their approval (but do allow production of "home use" goods, just don't try selling them). Parents should relish the opportunity to send their children into apprenticeship programs, and such programs should be highly selective. Most of the people should be simple farmers.

The final key is preventing revolution. This Empire is heavily xenophobic, and is surrounded by weaker kingdoms of different cultures. Every few years, the Empire will attack one of these kingdoms (or be attacked by it). Depending on your technology scale, these could be anything from long, drawn-out medieval sieges, where thousands die from disease and starvation, to gun-powder era battles where thousands die from grape shot and the like (a lack of an industrial manufacturing base would mean capturing enemy equipment might be very lucrative. If you can't mass produce cannon, capturing your enemy's might be a good thing).

Finally, the Emperor should be very kind and generous to his people to prevent revolution. Host festivals and games, help the poor, have a pension plan for the military veterans, etc. The xenophobic part should help a lot too, because social revolution is less likely when there are enemies at the gates.


I don't think that the industrial revolution - or some version of it - can be delayed infinitely.

The problem you are facing is something i saw descried as "steam-engine time", which describes the time in the progress of mankind (or a sizeable subset thereof) where every knowledge you need to invent a steamengine was readily available.

I don't think it was feasible to prevent progress completely, and while you may remove mineral oil and coal (simply have bacteria breaking down trees a lot earlier and oil nor coalhappen, more or less), but there are other forms of energy. You could still burn charcoal in your steam engines, and bioethanol in your internal combustion engine. You might remove iron, but steam engines can be made from brass or other metals, too.
Granted, that will slow down your industrial revolution, but it won't prevent it.

Electricity was discovered at some point (you may remove amber and cats from your world to slow this discovery down, but it will be discovered eventually, although what would be the point of having a world without cats?), and after that someone will eventually come up with the idea of hooking up a generator to a windmill.

If steam engines for some reason were not feasible, you would get a much cleaner industrial revolution, but it would happen nonetheless.

So, unless you change your setup beyond recognition, i think the answer is



Id say that the ignorance of people can put off any development in any age.

As Ginasius said: An early Industrial Revolution needs cheap energy.

In order to remove this, ignorance of it's importance is enough for people to ignore it's importance or willing fully deplete the resource before they learn to harness it properly.

Easter Island

A good example of how ignorance stopped a society from developing is the history of the Easter island. When the Polynesian natives first arrived there, the island was covered in trees, and the eco system could easily support the them. For religious purposes, they harvested the trees for transporting the big heads to the coast. The extreme deforestation caused by the people devastated the ecosystem. At some point they must have had a single tree left on the island. And they cut it down anyway. Their civilization never really recovered from it. It went as far as reducing the people to cannibalism in some instances.

Chinese civilization

When comparing the European development to Chines development, you'll notice that China fell behind in the industrial revolution. The reasons why this happened are because of very complex things, that are best explained in this article: Chinese industrial revolution. One of the points that is being made in this article is that China did not have access to colonies the way that the European countries did. You could argue that when Europe started colonizing the world, China was very capable of doing this as well, but for some reason never did.

  • $\begingroup$ Your example of the failure of China to have an Industrial Revolution is the best part of your answer. The Easter island example seems irrelevant. This answer can be improved by editing it to give a fuller account of the reasons why China missed having an Industrial Revolution. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 17 '16 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ the ignorance of the Polynesians allowed them to cut down all the trees on their island, thereby crippling their own society. I think it's a very relevant example of how cultural and religious influences mixed with ignorance work together in hampering the growth of their society. $\endgroup$ – martijn Nov 17 '16 at 12:24

A few ways to slow the arrival of the industrial revolution:

  1. Keep the population low. Technological advancement is accelerated by scale. This could be done by cultural or physical means, for example the edible vegetation could inhibit reproduction.
  2. Keep the population dispersed. Small groups of people will advance much more slowly. This could be motivated by contagious diseases or scarcity of food.
  3. Increase the difficulty of organization, and decrease the motivation. For example, disease is very common making social organization difficult, but food is plentiful making it unnecessary.
  4. Lack of good choices for domesticated animals. This was the first step in organized production. In "Guns, Germs, and Steel" Jared Diamond makes this argument for why European industrialization was ahead of Native American. That's a worthwhile read on this topic in general.

Running some of these together, perhaps this is the second time around. An advanced civilization consumed all the easily accessible coal, oil, and other resources and then collapsed. Possibly they made the best choices for animal domestication extinct during their collapse.


If your world is governed by a religious regime which keeps the folk dumb and dismisses any technical progress and science as witchcraft, which gets destroyed and the creators are silenced.

Something similar Christianity did(on purpose or not) in the Middle Ages in Europe which is known as "the dark age of christianity". Some critics say, it delayed the technical progress of humanity for a few decades and as technical progress is growing exponentially, we would be now way more developed.

The Problem with this approach is that one day(eventually some millennia but most likley not) the people will succsessfully rise against the regime/religion and smash it what causes the end of your delay.

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    $\begingroup$ The "dark age" as applied to the entirety of the period from the Fall of Rome until some more recent point (like the Renaissance) is entirely a myth. The first few centuries were called the dark age because it wrote very little about itself, but that ended by the 9th century at the latest. Furthermore, it's entirely flawed that scientific understanding was delayed due to Christianity. In fact, the Enlightenment many times rediscovered ideas that Christians uncovered centuries earlier because they were insistent on not using the Christian philosophy. $\endgroup$ – eques Nov 16 '16 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @inappropriateCode " the "dark ages" is the convention we use because history was written by the Romans and their sympathisers" That's wrong because the Dark Ages as a term is much later in origination. It has to do more with a paucity of records post-Late Antiquity. $\endgroup$ – eques Nov 16 '16 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ This answer sounds more like anti-Christian bigotry than anything else. The fact is that scientific inquiry, as a discipline, arose because of a predominantly Christian worldview. That is, the belief that the universe was an orderly place that followed rational rules which could be investigated and discovered. Most of the early scientists saw their work as an extension of their worship of God - that they could become closer to Him by learning about His creation. $\endgroup$ – Charles Burge Nov 16 '16 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with Charles. I recall hearing that the very idea of the universe operating according to laws was heretical if not un-imagined. The details of what religion did varied by time and place. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 16 '16 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ It's not just Christians, either. Neil Degrasse Tyson has an essay (I think it was used in Cosmos how a change of policy in Islam made a 180 degree turn in their relation to scientic discovery. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 17 '16 at 0:01

I do not think so unless there was some major things lacking in the world.

These are some points for why:

You could technically make a steam engine out of "precision" pottery and a good glaze the piston, wrist pin, connecting rod, and crank could all work like this using that glaze and some good lubricant to keep it all spinning happily. The piston would use a leather wrap to seal against the glazed cylinder walls. This is possible if you went to the extreme and said there were no hard metals on this earthlike planet.

Unless there was a complete lack of competition someone would want to get an edge on producing more of x cheaper than their competitors. This drives innovation which maybe were out clay steam engine is invented from. Would the people living in the information age on this planet call throwbacks to this era clay punk, pottery punk, ceramic punk, or glazed punk?

In a earthlike world any species that does not try to get a leg up will become evolutionarily irrelevant and eventually succumb to other individuals who compete for resources. Unfortunately this is why we can't have a proper star trek society yet.

conceivably the world could simply reject it as a taboo or religion but someone will eventually eat the apple and have a leg up on all the believers leading to more people peeling off from the herd and it will snowball from there.

you could have the intelligent species be unable to build or use tools as in no hands still could conceivably use mouths but you could always pull a page from the star control universe and make them similar to the slylandro.


Logistical barriers could prevent it.

You can power a factory with a waterwheel, and make some product by the millions, but if you cannot sell it by the millions you will not recoup your investment. You need either a huge nearby city or the ability to send your goods significant distances and still be cheaper than hand-made produce. And you won't see many huge cities that aren't trade hubs.

Rough seas can put a pretty hard damper on trade. If there aren't any large, fertile areas supporting enough people to justify a canal network, it might never be feasible to build a factory.


Iron is quite common because it is common byproduct of star development. Making iron scarce will mean your planet is lacking inner iron core, which creates magnetic field which prevent radiation to kill life on Earth. So on a planet with no magnetic core, life might not be possible. Or life would have be different (like: underwater only).

So if your intelligent life has to life under water, they would have hard time to get fire! Water surface would be outer edge of their world, and bigger obstacle for expansion than is stratosphere for us.


The industrial revolution was not a given, there were several philosophical and geographical circumstances that made it possible. If any one of them were absent, we might still be working on the family farm and in bed after sunset.

  • Enlightenment, leading to a humanistic reinterpretation of religion and individualism
  • individualism, which lets you try something new
  • History of herding and wheat farming (promoting individual thought and action) instead of more cooperative and conforming rice farming cultures
  • Rule of law
  • Large nation states
  • capitalism, making money available to borrowers at interest and risky ventures highly rewarding to the inventor
  • Coal (cheap energy source)
  • Iron ore
  • Intelligent, educated, wealthy people with free time

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