Man, I really have to find a way to stop getting into logic dead-ends.

So, in the story I’m writing, there’s this country that developed big bad war machines that run on steam engines. The way they work or if they make sense or not is irrelevant.

These war machines brought military superiority to the said country and made them conquer pretty much every other country except one because this one has magic (specifically, this kind of magic).

Now, I need for the sake of logic that the aforementioned big bad war machine bearing country still uses sword, shield and pike infantry and heavy cavalry. Or to be clearer, I need a country that has steam engine technology to not have discovered gunpowder yet.

Obs.: By "gunpowder" I mean "projectile propulsion system that would effectively (including cost-wise) replace swords, shields, pikes and heavy cavalry".

I did my research. According to source, gunpowder was first used in the military by China in 1126, while the first steam engine used to actually move a big vehicle (locomotive) was only applied in 1804 (source). That’s 678 years. Is that plausible that a civilization based on our own would not discover something that important for more than 500 years? Can I have a plausible excuse?

Please assume:

  • This country is cold, harsh, and very military based. The same can be said about its people;
  • They can’t use magic because reasons. Even if they have the fuel mentioned in the linked question, it just doesn’t work;
  • Steam engines are the only advanced technology they have. No electricity or the likes.

Also, note that they having discovered gunpowder but being unable to apply it in the military is also a solution (obviously with a plausible enough explanation).


Lack of interest in chemistry is out of question. There is no way a military force that big is not actively and extensively researching chemistry. Also, little edit in the body of the question.

UPDATE: Thanks for all the answers. I'll go with a mix of @Jeutnarg and @PaulTIKI's answers, as those were the ones that gave the most useful solutions to my specific world, and @Graham's comment.

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    $\begingroup$ Gunpowder and Steam are two different paths in technology. First is a chemical reaction, second is a physical reaction. So, if your people have never been that much interested in chemistry, feel free to do so. $\endgroup$ – Alexander von Wernherr Jan 20 '17 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ Simple - lack of Niter in your world. $\endgroup$ – Daniel M. Jan 20 '17 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ Watch out, though. High pressure steam systems can easily explode if not properly monitored, and it would not take much ingenuity for someone to think "Wow, if we stuck a ball bearing in a tube and opened this steam valve we could launch that sucker fast enough to kill someone!" $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Jan 20 '17 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ This story is giving me some crazy Avatar: The Last Airbender (or the Legend of Aang) vibes, especially with the magic system. $\endgroup$ – ell Jan 20 '17 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ @MozerShmozer And then you have steampunk. $\endgroup$ – JAB Jan 20 '17 at 19:04

15 Answers 15


Yes, and you can do it even in a world where people create gunpowder and recognize its usefulness.

In fact, your world should naturally evolve that way. The existence of your type of magic gives military technology reason to prioritize projectile defense over melee defense, and this would only increase the more prevalent and powerful magic is, since your magic lends itself towards projectile attacks. Why would you wear expensive, bulky plate armor when your enemy can just shoot a metal spike through you from a mile away? No, you need something that conceals or can deflect projectiles, not something that makes you highly visible and slower.

How does anti-projectile armor make it so people don't use gunpowder in war? You may already have guessed, but let's examine why Europe adopted guns to find out more.

Guns started really showing up in Europe in the late 15th century. Here's what armor looked like scroll down to look at cavalry at that time. You may notice that these heavy knights look almost invincible. That's because they darn near were invincible, only succumbing to specialized weaponry or after being knocked to the ground, and trying to do that was a good way to get yourself killed. That armor is the reason that guns were adopted. Guns were the only weapon that could take down these heavy knights reliably and at a distance (period crossbows were not sufficient to penetrate quality plate). The single, crucial advantage of armor penetration compensated for the slow rate of fire, cumbersome nature, and expense of gunpowder weaponry.

Without that initial advantage, guns will never be adopted at all and so will not advance to become useful - at least, not for thousands of years.

And now you're about to say something about cannons - cannons are fine. OP explicitly stated that their goal is to keep "swords, shields, pikes and heavy cavalry" as viable options on the battlefield. Cannons don't replace those things, so we're in the clear.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow, you actually gave a lot of thought about my proposed world rather than only the question. Awesome. $\endgroup$ – rschpdr Jan 23 '17 at 14:21


You're in luck, the first steam engine was actually invented in the 1st Century AD a good 1000 years ahead of gunpowder.

The Aeolipile is technically a steam engine, what's required is for the people of the time to see its potential rather than dismiss it as a toy.

Heron (c. 10–70 AD) takes a more practical approach, in that he gives instructions how to make one:

№ 50. The Steam-Engine. By Hero of Alexandria - http://www.history.rochester.edu/steam/hero/section50.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7200322

PLACE a cauldron over a fire: a ball shall revolve on a pivot. A fire is lighted under a cauldron, A B, (fig. 50), containing water, and covered at the mouth by the lid C D; with this the bent tube E F G communicates, the extremity of the tube being fitted into a hollow ball, H K. Opposite to the extremity G place a pivot, L M, resting on the lid C D; and let the ball contain two bent pipes, communicating with it at the opposite extremities of a diameter, and bent in opposite directions, the bends being at right angles and across the lines F G, L M. As the cauldron gets hot it will be found that the steam, entering the ball through E F G, passes out through the bent tubes towards the lid, and causes the ball to revolve, as in the case of the dancing figures.

How could this be viable?

Luckily most of the required technologies were already in use. The water wheel has been in use for several hundred years. Gears were known to the man who first described the Aeolipile, Hero of Alexandria, who also described a wind wheel operating an organ. It's not unreasonable to suggest that he could have invented a steam engine based on a combination of these technologies, if only to do something basic like running an Archimedes' screw.

Consider reading Hero's Pneumatica, especially his descriptions of machines for Temple Doors opened by Fire on an Altar. He may not have invented the steam engine but he was most of the way there. If his interests had leaned that way, I'm sure he could have done it.

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    $\begingroup$ @resch, it's simply a question of who sees it and whether it's someone who says, "that's a good demonstration of principle" or someone who says "I can use that". Water wheels were already in use, a rotating fan crops up in China only 100 years later. If the right person had seen it then you could plausibly have had static steam engines 1700 years early. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jan 20 '17 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @resch The reason the Greeks didn't actually do anything with the steam engine was a function of economics and their other existing technologies. Basically, it was cheaper for them to use their slaves to apply physical force to objects (move things) than it was for them to build and fuel steam engines for the same purpose. If hadn't had an abundance of slaves, or had construction projects where human labor was insufficient, they may have adopted the technology and made use of it for more than a curiosity. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Jan 20 '17 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ Although the Greeks had complex machinery, the specifics sorts of machinery needed to make effective use of steam power wasn't around until the 1500's or 1600's. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Jan 20 '17 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix: The works fine for water, which has high surface tension. But until the invention of the gasket-lined pump in the 1600s, nothing suitable for a gas like steam was available. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Jan 20 '17 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ The aeolipile is a toy: it produces essentially no torque, and is horribly inefficient. Fortunately, neither the steam piston nor the steam turbine requires gunpowder to develop. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 20 '17 at 21:41

Absolutely. The exact chemicals required for gunpowder and the ratios in which to put them, not to mention the various other advances in gunpowder technology that made it so fearsome, can easily be not discovered. Gunpowder is the combination of seemingly unrelated elements, where steam power is the natural evolution of the thought 'gases take up more room when they're hotter'.

A scarcity of any of the key components would certainly lead to people not putting sulphur and potassium nitrate together before the advent of steam power, and similarly anything that would lead to steam power being more popular earlier (the success of the aeolipile, for example) would lead to more people focusing on steam power as the means to military success over trying to further refine various chemicals into a destructive force.

The thing you will have to watch out for is sufficiently clever people deciding to use compressed steam or a steam gun as a weapons system in it's own right. Or maybe that would be good for you. Who knows?

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    $\begingroup$ actually all three elements were used to preserve food, They also had medical uses so mixing them was pretty much inevitable. But it could easily have taken much longer. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 20 '17 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Mixing, possibly, mixing in the right ratio, grinding and igniting? I often wonder exactly who came up with gunpowder in the first place and what the heck they were thinking at the time. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jan 20 '17 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ They were trying to invent a better medicine, so they were mixing know medical compounds. Igniting it could have easily happened during an attempt to cook it. you can get a reaction from quite a variety of ratios. The early usage was as an incendiary and explosive by changing the the ratio. It was recorded in the text Wujing Zongyao from China. It also contained quite a few unnessisary additives, like pitch and wax. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 20 '17 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ Another possibility is the invention of gunpowder, which then gets forgotten again and potentially rediscovered in the future. This could easily happen if someone DID see the military potential of gunpowder. A very related example is the "Greek Fire" used by the Byzantines to destroy enemy ships. It worked like napalm, but we don't know exactly how they made it. We can only theorize. Why? Because they knew EXACTLY how effective it was and made it a state secret! The mixture was basically Top Secret and eventually the formula was lost to history. $\endgroup$ – JBiggs Jan 20 '17 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Joe Question is what any inventor were thinking when they made a discovery, seeing that a vast majority of all discoveries were the result of lucky accidents. It is not "eureka" one exclaims when one discovers something new, but rather "hmmmm, that's funny, I wonder why that happened"... $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Jan 20 '17 at 19:01


The answer to your title question is "yes", there is nothing about black powder specifically that makes it inevitable that it would be discovered before steam power.

But your full question is a very different one, with a different answer. It isn't really feasible feasible for steam engines to be developed without gun-like weapons also being developed. The simple reason is that the same principles used in a steam engine can be used in a projectile weapon: a steam cannon. In fact, such a weapon is considerably simpler than a steam engine and designs of such weapons predate any usable steam engine.

Steam guns were never used in warfare because by the time the technology was made to manufacture them in usable numbers and quality, easier-to-use gunpowder was available. But if gunpowder were not available, steam guns would have been a natural outgrowth of the much more complicated steam engine development.

It is true that Heron made a very early steam-powered device long before gunpowder or steam guns existed. However, this device wan not a practical way to use steam to power machinery. It produced far too little power to do anything useful for a feasible amount of water and fuel. The machinery to get useful work out of steam is much, much, much more complicated.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually steam cannons are welcome to what I need in my story, as long as they are so expensive and/or hard to manufacture they wouldn't replace melee infantry. $\endgroup$ – rschpdr Jan 20 '17 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ @resch: If you look at the designs in the link, they cannon is pretty simple and small. It probably wouldn't have had to be any larger, more cumbersome, or much more expensive than the earliest guns, and would have been considerably more accurate. In particular, it wouldn't have had the problems that made early rifles ineffective. Especially considering the version in the link was a single-use home-made weapon rather than something designed for widespread deployment and refined over decades or centuries of use. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Jan 20 '17 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ @resch In our world, it took roughly a thousand years between the discovery of gunpowder and firearms making cavalry charges impossible. For most of that time, military tactics were a complicated dance between the relative strengths of cavalry, infantry, ranged fire (archers or musketeers) and cannons. Your steam-powered cannon will fit right in, no problems. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jan 20 '17 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ With gunpowder, it's possible to make an infantry weapon by just making the smallest possible cannon. Then from crude hand-cannons you start to invent more refined firearms. But steam cannons wouldn't scale so well... having to carry around a boiler and a pressure vessel would be a problem. We can imagine a push-cart with a somewhat small steam cannon and it would still be unwieldy. I think it's reasonable to imagine that your hypothetical steam superpower would standardize on self-propelled vehicles that have steam cannons on them, and otherwise use swords/pikes/cavalry as you want. $\endgroup$ – steveha Jan 21 '17 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham: The reason that steam engine inventors had to start from scratch was because Heron's "steam engine" was totally impractical. Essentially none of the principles it used (other than the fact that steam exerts pressure, which was known long before) were helpful for practical steam engines. Even if the inventors of steam power had known about it, it wouldn't have helped them. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Jan 23 '17 at 16:26

Well, simple gunpowder could be delayed by making elemental sulfur (sometimes called flowers of sulfur) hard to find. Also, keep in mind that it was a pretty long time from when gunpowder was developed to when it was used to propel a lump of metal down a tube with the intent of killing something. Steam power exceeding chemical propellant is very possible. In addition, Melee weapons were in wide scale use all the way up until the Late 1800s so that preference could keep on.

Steam Cannon aren't very hard to envision. The same with steam machine guns and so on. They would, out of necessity, be at the very least cart mounted weapons. The advantage of gunpowder as a propellant is that it carries a lot of energy for a very small amount of mass and volume. To get similar results from steam would require a very bulky, dangerous, and above all, slooooowwww machinery. For anything less than a cannon, you'd be better off with crossbowmen (cheaper and faster to engage and reload)

Your end result would be Steam powered cannon replacing weapons like catapults and trebuchets, but with the bulk of the fighting being carried out by melee weapons. Archers would still be in demand. You could, in theory, even have gunpowder weapons at this time, but with sulfur being so hard to find they would be prohibitively expensive. Pistols would be the purview of kings.

In this world you could even up the Steampunk ante by adding a Nicola Tesla type genius to the mix and have prototype electrical weapons.

I like the idea behind this world. Keep it up!

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Steam-powered machine guns sounds interesting. Any idea on how would they work? $\endgroup$ – rschpdr Jan 20 '17 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ Steam-powered full-auto weapon: I imagine a hopper full of round pellets, sitting on top of a mechanism that dispenses one pellet into a chamber, injects a pulse of high-pressure steam to blow the pellet out the end of the barrel, and repeat. In the real world it was hundreds of years between cannons being invented and rifling being invented, so I am imagining a smoothbore weapon that isn't super accurate but sprays a lot of pellets. So, a short-range weapon that might not be able to defeat heavy armor (while big projectiles from a steam cannon would be lethal despite armor). $\endgroup$ – steveha Jan 21 '17 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ A steam cannon wouldn't necessarily be slow. See e.g. steam hammers, which aren't all that different, and can repeat at several hundred cycles per minute. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 21 '17 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ Potassium nitrate is often much harder to come by than sulfur. Sweden used a very tedious procedure requiring urine from horses to produce potassium nitrate as they did not have colonies with caves where potassium nitrate had accumulated from animal droppings. Not discovering potassium nitrate or sources of potassium nitrate can easily be explained up until chemistry in modern times. $\endgroup$ – BentNielsen Jan 23 '17 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ I thnk of slow as in being cold and getting up to operational temperature. Once up though, look out! Did not know that Gunpowder would work without sulfur, but the lack would probably slow development down. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Jan 24 '17 at 14:21

Basic steam engines are ancient.

Making good steam engines was blocked by metallurgy and manufacturing tolerances. Engineering was also important, but nothing could be done without the materials and manufacturing tolerances required.

Once you have viable machines, incentive to make better metals and tighter tolerance machining is made, together with the power to make the machines that permit those very things. In effect, this is the core of an industrial revolution; a feedback loop of technology making technology better, and incentives to follow the loop upwards.

Gunpowder was also ancient, but it wasn't very practical. The problem is that a good cannon or gun requires strong metals and exact machining tolerances.

These two requirements may seem similar.

The very things that let you make a strong boiler an pistons is the thing that lets you make a cannon or rifle.

Whichever version of gunpowder isn't that important. You just need to make a reasonably stable yet reasonably high energy self-combusting mixture of stuff, and a way to light it on fire.

Similarly, boiling water is easy.

The hard part is turning that into something useful.

Barring trees that grow steam engines, the technological underpinnings of steam technology and guns are too similar for them reasonably diverge too much.


They might not have gunpowder but they definitely want stem-powered trebuchet to hurl rock long-distance (when they are beyond reach of pikes of their opponents).


Development is often driven by need and opportunity.

if your country had an abundance of steam power everywhere (like at Yellowstone) then people might start figuring out how to use it before fire (Heck, it might delay fire's invention since you could cook and be kept warm by steam). I could see picking a particular vent and jamming rocks into it so that pressure would build until the rock came flying out at speed. Weaponizing that wouldn't be a stretch if such holes were abundant.

At that point you might use wood/fire and even coal just to make your steam-ballistics portable because you are so familiar with the way the steam engines and weapons of war work--you might ignore other technology paths altogether for a time.

Currently our power generation--from coal to nuclear--all rely heavily on steam technology, it's still THE primary method to convert heat to movement (Wind is the other big one I can think of right now). It might just turn out that there are undiscovered steam solutions to some of our existing problem that are better than our current solutions but we never found them because a portable heat source was harder to deal with than electricity/explosive force.

If you could dig a hole anywhere and pour water in and have it turn to steam I'm pretty sure that would be the core of nearly all the machines in the world.

Another way this could happen--suppose your civilization evolved on a highly radioactive world and was therefore immune to it. If you could find rocks hot enough to make water boil for an extended period of time, why would you ever need another power source? But as far as I know you'd need steam to convert that heat into movement (There is probably a way to convert it straight to electricity though, but that might be considered more of a gimmick or toy--just like we'd consider a small steam engine a toy)


Of course. Steam energy requires fossil fuel and water . Gunpowder is made with sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Steam energy was technically used as soon as steam could be used to rotate something (in wood for example). Sources of steam can be natural.

  • $\begingroup$ Steam energy requires fossil fuel and water — any fuel/energy source will do, like energy of molten ball of magma beneath us combined with water will provide steam. $\endgroup$ – user28434 Jan 23 '17 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ and where does the magma get its energy from ? Nuclear fusion ? $\endgroup$ – mat Jan 23 '17 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ omg, no, it burns organic fossils, ofc. $\endgroup$ – user28434 Jan 24 '17 at 8:05

In elaboration to Separatrix's answer, the development of Steam engines would come with some careful consideration of the Aeolipile. Instead of answering how would it be done, I would like to discuss why someone would want to develop steam-powered machines instead of gunpowder.


While not all steam machines were fast or on rails, there have been innovations in steam power that gave steam vehicles such as the Double steam car which boasted 1500 mile range without refuel and 0 to 60 in 15 seconds. If I were a military tactician, such as the Huns, I would like to arrive to arrive with a large force for a surprise attack.


To carry your fancy war machines by horse would mean to struggle at every point whenever you have to carry them over a hill and arriving late to the party every time. Steam powered machines would solve the issue of running low in supplies as a single steam vehicle(4) would carry more than several horses.


While OP has not provided many details about the time era where his empire is located, I am assuming that it is between the Medieval era and the early Renaissance era. Most people of the time would be promptly frightened by an incoming iron beasts and the heavy clanging of metal.

I would avoid ancient tanks of war(3) though.


As mentioned by Separatrix, basic steam engine was discovered quite some time before black powder. There is commonly accepted opinion among historians, that it's further development was stymied by wide availability and chipnes of slave labour. Make it unavailable or very expensive, and you've got incentive to develop steam technology, and it is worth mentioning that antiquety possessed very advanced theoretical and practical knowledge in mechanics, as evident https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism

Compared to Greeks and romans, your country would need better knowledge of metallurgy, though.

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    $\begingroup$ That's a bit of an over-simplification, and making slave labor more expensive probably wouldn't lead to widespread steam-engine adoption in ancient Greece. Even if you abolish slave labor, it probably would have been cheaper for the Greeks to pay unskilled laborers than to have steam engines replace them. It's worth considering when steam engines were developed and what the were used for - broadly speaking, they filled a role that no amount of human labor could. That's what would have lead to widespread adoption of steam engines in ancient Greece, not simply eliminating slave labor. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Jan 20 '17 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @HopelessN00b "broadly speaking, they filled a role that no amount of human labor could" THIS. THANK YOU. $\endgroup$ – rschpdr Jan 20 '17 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ The issue wasn't that slaves were cheap, as cheap labor lowered the cost of building machinery too. It was iron/steel being expensive. The invention of puddling and the Bessemer process gave quite a kick to the industrial revolution, and conversely the ancient Greeks did not find it cost effective because iron/steel was very expensive for them $\endgroup$ – James Hollis Jan 20 '17 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ Slaves worked in the mines. After that it was up to skilled labor: Historian David Landes writes: “The puddling furnace remained the bottleneck of the industry. Only men of remarkable strength and endurance could stand up to the heat for hours, turn and stir the thick porridge of liquescent metal, and draw off the blobs of pasty wrought iron. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 21 '17 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ "The puddlers were the aristocracy of the proletariat, proud, clannish, set apart by sweat and blood. Few of them lived past forty. Numerous efforts were made to mechanize the puddling furnace – in vain. Machines could be made to stir the bath, but only the human eye and touch could separate out the solidifying decarburized metal. The size of the furnace and productivity gains were limited accordingly” –anselm.edu $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 21 '17 at 2:02

Depending on how you are developing your world, you can make small tweaks to chemistry and nerf gunpowder. (For example, in Zelazny's The Guns of Avalon, the protagonist, knowing of Earth gunpowder, finds with great effort an obscure substance that functions the same way in Amber. If he had not been exposed to gunpowder weapons on Earth he would not have seen the practical use of the explosive substance.)


Actually it is possible that most planets in our universe invented gunpowder after steam engines(or at least some of them). :)

Without chemical industry humans would not be able to obtain nitrate if not for a quirk of biochemistry. First our organisms produce some urea, then microorganisms oxidise it to nitrid acid, then it reacts with potassium carbonate and we get potassium nitrate.

Energy is produced while urea is oxidized (that's why microorganisms do it). If vertebrates learned how to oxidize it by themselves, saving a little energy, then producing potassium nitrate would be impossible until chemistry gets at least to the level of 19th century(most likely middle-end of 19th century).


Yes, steam engines could be invented before gunpowder but it doesn't matter much because steam guns would be invented, too.

When you have steam engines you have boilers, cylinders and pistons, it's straightforward to take a long cylinder, leave it open at one end let steam throw the piston to the enemy.

The only reason steam guns saw only little use in our timeline was that gunpowder and other explosives are more efficient for most purposes, but in a world without explosives steam tanks and steam war boats wouldn't lack steam guns.

The steam-powered trebuchet proposed by Peter Masiar are likely adaptations of early steam machines - like the Newcomen engine - therefore you could expect steam-powered artillery even with the most primitive steam engines.


The question if wrong. We know that people had steam engines long before gunpowder. Apart from mentioned Aeolipile Hero created steam engine that could open doors.

The question you should ask is: WHY?

Why would they need to use steam engine in warmachines? To build steam powered tank? The amount of resources needed to build such thing would equal hundreds if not thousands of armour and weapons for soldiers.
Not to mention the time needed to construct one tank versus time needed to build war chariot.

Think that using steam engine in mines, agriculture or to strengthen the economy would bring better fruits for the country.

Better mining means more resources and faster creation of standard weapons.

So easy calculation would tell anyone that using steam engines as a weapon would be useless.


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