It's been a couple of thousand years since humanity bombed itself back to the stone age. Most places are now safe to travel through but there's barely any sign of the old cities, new ones have sprung up in their place. The population is recovering, the forests are being cut for fuel and ship building, people are moving to the cities as the nobility starts claiming common land as their own. Much the same circumstances that drove the original industrial revolution.

There are geological constraints to the industrial revolution, a limited number of places in which it could have taken place. South Wales being one of them as coal and iron ore were found close to each other and close to the surface.

But can it come full circle or have we mined out too many of the accessible resources? If it could happen, where would it happen? Have we as the existing generation left any regions with accessible ore and coal where it was, for example, politically difficult to extract.

Basic Constraints

  • Very near future apocalypse, no future modeling under current consumption required

Time period chosen such that:

  • Any radiation, toxins or other fallout from said apocalypse have dispersed and are not an issue
  • Only simple ruins of our current society remain
  • No (or very basic) technological knowledge has carried over, no shortcuts
  • Forests have regrown, wild animals, fish stocks, whales etc. repopulated
  • No new formations of fossil fuels
  • No major geological movement bringing up new ore deposits
  • $\begingroup$ You may find this interesting "U.S. Coal Reserves" - eia.gov/coal/reserves | "Fossil fuels were formed from plants and animals that lived 300 million years ago in primordial swamps and oceans " - fe.doe.gov/education/energylessons/coal/gen_howformed.html $\endgroup$ May 12, 2017 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ There could be a discovery of solar power, steam was the main generator of power early in the industrial revolution. That requires only heat (charcoal, solar generated by electricity). Water and wind power were big as well. It would be a much longer revolution but in the end your civilization could come out more advanced in terms of clean energy. The big problems are the copper and materials required to carry electricity in the post-industrial era and even for those industrial era experiments. In fact, you may want to rephrase your question. I don't think there was an electrical grid in 1860. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2017 at 17:23

2 Answers 2


The 'Industrial Revolution' preceded widespread coal and steel usage

According to Wikipedia,

The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840.

Coal production didn't really kick off until the 1860s or later. I can't find a suitable time graph for the United Kingdom, but for the US here is a chart of energy consumption over time.

enter image description here

Notice that coal production is close to zero until 1840 or later. However, in the US notice that Robert Fulton's steamboat made its first trip in 1807, and the first common carrier, steam driven railroad opened in 1830 (thought it wasn't very long).

As for steel, here is chart of UK steel production by year.

enter image description here

As you can see the chart goes back only to 1870.

In conclusion, the industries that required heavy mining output developed AFTER the Industrial Revolution.

What did happen during the industrial revolution?

To sum up the 'Important techonlogical developments' bullets from Wikipedia, here are the things that did happen during the industrial revolution, most of which would be unaffected by the lack of accessible minerals.

  • Textile manufacture. Important inventions were made early, included the flying shuttle (1733), spinning jenny (1764), and spinning frame (1769). Factories (as opposed to the medieval putting out system) started in 1733 (donkey powered), water power applications started at least by the 1760s. On the raw materials end, Eli Whitney's cotton gin was patented in 1794. Did not require mining.

  • Metallurgy. Use of coke, distilled from bituminous coal, to power blast furnaces (1709). Requires mining, although we saw from the charts that not so much was made until the 1850s and later. Charcoal and limited coal availability would be able to meet demand up until that point.

  • Steam Power. Newcomen steam engines from 1712, Watt's steam engine in 1778. Does not require mining, although coal made them more efficient.

  • Machine Tools. Boring, planing, and milling machines. Maudslay's metal lathe in 1800; Bramah's planing machine in 1802. Both of these were initially operated by human power, with a treadle. All of these can be driven by waterpower (or windpower). Alternately, steam engines driven by charcoal can be used. Does not require mining.

  • Chemicals. Sulfuric acid by the lead chamber process (1746), sodium carbonate (1791), powdered bleach (1800). Some ingredients like limestone must be mined, though most in relatively small quantities, others like soda ash and potash can either be mined or obtained from brunt plants. Does not require large scale mining.

  • Cement. Invented in 1824, requires clay and limestone. Needs sand and gravel to make concrete. Does require mining, but none of these ingredients is particularly rare. Should be readily available.

  • Gas Lighting. Derived from coal gas. Did required mining.

  • Glass Making. Cylinder blown sheet class, developed before the 1830s. Can be done with charcoal, does not require mining. Volume of glass created is not so large that it would stress charcoal supplies.

  • Paper making. Invented in 1798. Can be water powered, does not require mining.

  • Agriculture. Improved iron plow parts were made available by machine tool technology. Early inventions were machines (like the seed drill, or threshing machine) that were either hand or animal powered. Does not require mining.

  • Mining. Ummm...does require mining.

  • Transporation. Large scale application of railroads would require mining for coal and steel. However, railroad's vanquished competitor, the canal, did not. Canals developed slightly before rail, but lost to them because rails could climb hills that canals could not. Were coal and steel not available, canals are just as effective if not more so than 19th century railroads over flat land. This just serves to concentrate industry on plains.


While development of large scale industry after 1860 would be severely limited by access to coal and steel, many of the developments that made up the industrial revolution would be possible without it. Textiles, canals, chemistry, machine tools, and especially improved agriculture would provide much of the needed developments.

It is important to notice that all the required developments for later electric technologies are there. Concrete, waterwheels, and machine tools are all that is needed to build hydroelectric dams. Once electricity is properly investigated, this post-apocalyptic civilization could proceed directly from the Industrial Revolution to electric powered society, skipping over the heavy iron and steel usage.

  • $\begingroup$ The switch to coal was driven by the shortage of wood and resulting increase in price. You don't think that this shortage of fuel would cause it to grind to a halt and be confined to artisan production rather than full on industrial scaling? $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 12, 2017 at 13:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix In the conclusion, I argue that textiles, canals, chemistry, machine tools, and agriculture are unaffected by the loss of fuel, and that those parts are enough to carry technological advancement forward to electricity. Maybe not as fast as with coal and steel, but I think they'll get there, and with a lot less soot. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    May 12, 2017 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ All these things were powered by static steam engines though, they're far from unaffected. The mines had steam pumps, the textile mills were steam driven, even the farms used traction engines to increase productivity. You're still working by hand, animal and waterwheel without that fuel. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 12, 2017 at 13:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix I tried to show in my bullets that those technologies I listed in my conclusion all were hand, animal, and waterwheel driven, at least until the 1860s. I agree that society has a scale problem without coal for energy, but I don't think that scale problem stops technological development, it just slows it down. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    May 12, 2017 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ Concrete has been used since antiquity. 18th century develops are about a more formalized study of ingredient alternatives to create more effective end product. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cement#History $\endgroup$
    – jaxad0127
    May 12, 2017 at 15:17

looking back at how minining evolved, mankind started from easily accessible mining sites, progressing to more challenging places.

The most accessible places for iron and other metals in your scenario would be, very likely, car dump sites. There it will be possible to fairly easily harvest rusted iron.

Add a surface coal mine or a forest in the surrounding and you can have some sort of metallurgy.

I am however afraid that large scale and not too challenging mining sites are practically exausted, so starting over the positive feedback between techonogly and mining will be more difficult or even impossible.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think it's only the coal/energy source that's going to be the issue. Prospecting for ruined cities will be a major source of "raw" materials. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    May 12, 2017 at 14:49

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