• It is impossible for human beings to use electricity for non-biological functions

  • Any chemical reaction that would be utilized specifically to cause the rapid expansion of particles is undiscovered, and no such effect can occur outside of nature

My Question is: How advanced in comparison to historical technological advance could a civilization get without the ability to utilize Electricity and Explosives?

Pointless Backstory: Some 180,000 years after Aramo'irat, the great hunter, created Mankind, the Nature goddess Gahinfofogehey had a terrible nightmare in her halls of wood. She dreamed that a Creation of Aramo'irat would use fire (his gift to them) to extract metals from the Earth. They would use their mastery of metal to become the dominant species, then they would use their metals to extract lighting from heaven and explosives from earth. Using these his creations would bring daylight in the night, wage war on each other, then the earth itself, wiping out half of all life. After conquering the mortal world, they would sail into heaven on fish that flew with fire, and overthrow the gods.

After having the dream she told the Heavenly gods and petitioned them to destroy Aramo'irat's creations, but Aramo'irat threatened that if they tried he would gather all the earthly spirits and wage war on heaven. So, Gahinfofogehey devised a plan. She filled Aramo'irats drinking springs with opium and when he had succumbed to the drug Gahinfofogehey went to Ojotopakitahey, god of storms, and knelt before him, explaining her dream and crying. He was so moved that he removed all lightning from the world, save for his own. Then she went to T'obabiorigehey, god of knowledge, and gave him gifts of Glass wrought into tubes, spheres and shapes that could magnify images. He accepted her gifts and removed all knowledge of explosives from the world. But as she went to Edabi'inogehey, god of fire, Aramo'irat woke from his opium induced slumber and when he realized what was going on he sped to Edabi'inogehey's residence. He reminded him of the blood debt and made him swear that he would not take fire from the world. When she came, she brought him a volcano spirit for a wife (since he was made of fire, no woman would marry him), but when he explained that he could not take fire from the world she left with the volcano spirit. After she left he cursed Mankind, the favorite of Arimo'irat's creations, that fire would thereafter burn and disfigure them whenever they tried to hold it to use it. Then he cursed Gahinfofogehey's creations that fire will eat their flesh and burn their homes whenever thunder struck.

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    $\begingroup$ Love the narrative... to clarify, are you saying that nothing can undergo rapid oxidation? And that there is no means to generate electricity (no electromagnetic, photoelectric, thermoelectric, piezoelectric, static electric effects)? That's basically a lot of biological processes ruled out... $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2017 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ See Lesson 3. If it's pointless, why does it come first in the post? Finally, no space before comma, please. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 4, 2017 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ I seriously doubt you will get properly hard-science answers to a sociology question. To would-be answerers, please read this first! $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jun 4, 2017 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ Due to several issues like @IsaacKotlicky identifies; I fail to see how to give a hard-science question that fits into this magical scheme. Our hearts depend upon electrical impulses, as do our nerves and brain. Without electricity, our civilization makes very little progress once our brains, hearts and muscles all cease operation. What in this story prohibits Electricity? Did you mean "Lightning" or "Lighting"? Does removal of all knowledge of explosives prohibit its rediscovery? Why can't I have electricity without lightning? We don't depend on it IRL. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jun 4, 2017 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ Please take the time to extract the most important things from your narrative and list them in a short paragraph or even better a list. While it may be entertaining to read, if is ultimately more of a hindrance for understanding the question.. $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Jun 5, 2017 at 9:13

3 Answers 3


Notes about the question:

I am going to assume that physics works as normal, but humanity has a huge mental block when it comes to electricity and explosions. This seems like the most hard science change to a world that gets what you want. This also means that you can fool around with technology that allows you to inadvertently create explosives. Ammonia fertilizer falls nicely into this category, as do a surprising number of other technologies.

Your question leaves a lot of ambiguity about what counts as an explosive. Burning ethanol is very similar to burning gasoline. It definitely is a "chemical reaction that [can] be utilized specifically to cause the rapid expansion of particles." It is also the active ingredient in beer, which I am drinking right now. I can make an explosive device that requires no chemical reactions out of a pressurized container. A nuclear bomb is another example of an explosive device that requires no chemical reactions. Your definition leaves a lot of ambiguity about what is allowed.

Explosives saw the first widespread use in warfare around 1000 AD. I generally assume that an advance in weapons benefits the people who invented it until the people on the other side figure it out. At that point you are back to where you started. Explosives in warfare don't really help our societies advance.

In modern times explosions are widely used in construction, mining, and demolition. In all three of those applications, they could be replaced by manual laborers. Explosives save a lot of labor, but are not crucial during peacetime.

The real world progressed to 1800s or so before electricity had any practical uses. The first world changing electrical invention was possibly the telegraph, which saw commercial deployment starting in the 1850s. Electricity came to have greater industrial influence around 1900. Electricity helped to usher in a second industrial revolution.

Paraphrased from Wikipedia:

The Second Industrial Revolution was a phase of rapid industrialization between 1870 and 1914. The First Industrial Revolution, which ended in the early to mid 1800s, was punctuated by a slowdown in macroinventions before the Second Industrial Revolution in 1870. Its characteristic events include the establishment of a machine tool industry, the development of methods for manufacturing interchangeable parts and the invention of the Bessemer Process (a process for making industrial quantities of steel).

Advancements in manufacturing and production technology enabled the widespread adoption of preexisting technological systems such as telegraph and railroad networks, gas and water supply, and sewage systems. The enormous expansion of rail and telegraph lines after 1870 allowed unprecedented movement of people and ideas, which culminated in a new wave of globalization. In the same time period, new technological systems were introduced, most significantly electrical power and telephones. The Second Industrial Revolution continued into the 20th century with early factory electrification and the production line, and ended at the start of World War I.

The second industrial revolution was due to a bunch of technological innovations. Only a couple of those actually depended on electricity. Without telegraphs and electrical factories, we would have had a harder, less successful time in the second industrial revolution.

Around this time the internal combustion engine became widespread. This definitely counts as a "chemical reaction that would cause the rapid expansion of particles." By contrast, steam probably doesn't fall into this category. Society has to stick with steam powered cars. Heavier than air flight is going to be very difficult. In real history, steam power was mostly replaced by internal combustion engines because it is not very efficient.

As we move into the Second World War, we diverge heavily from actual history. Anything I can tell you from here on is speculation. Electricity was used heavily for lighting, communication, refrigeration, powering almost every factory, and so many other things.

There are non-electrical solutions to all of these problems. Factories could be powered by steam plants which operate on site. Compressed air power would get a lot more use. Refrigeration doesn't require electricity, just a reliable power source. In real life, we don't use any of these solutions because electricity is better, cheaper, and more convenient. Taking it away is putting a ball and chain on your society's progress, but it is not a complete roadblock.

If we go forward to the computer age we run into real problems. Mechanical computers exist, but electrical ones are way better. I cannot imagine a mechanical desktop PC.

Summary: Electricity In real history we used electricity rather than other solutions because it was cheap and effective. In your alternate history, society is going to have to be very clever and inventive. I speculate that they can achieve technology comparable to World War II.

  • $\begingroup$ Yep. I guess you can progress up to early XXth century civilization without electricity or explosives. Imagine a steampunk society, with smog-filled cities and everybody choking on its fumes. If we use electricity is not because is more efficient or cheaper, but because it's easy to transport long distance without significant loss, so we can have our polluting thermal generators away from the places we live in. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 5, 2017 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ Most explosives in mining could also be replaced by mechanical, steam driven wedges; they can deliver huge amounts of directed fracturing force, which is all the explosion is doing. It is convenient to drill a hole and put a stick of dynamite in it; but a steam driven machine can hammer chisel a deep pocket into the rock, insert a hard steel wedge, and then hammer that in with more shock force than the stick of dynamite can deliver. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jun 5, 2017 at 19:14

If we are allowing steam power, I'd like to direct your attention to this Youtube channel. The channel belongs to a machinist who restored and set up a 1920s-era machine shop, where all of the machine tools (lathes, shapers, drills, etc.) are powered by a steam-driven line shaft. It's a fully-functioning shop; many of the same machines are still being used in modern shops, except powered by electric motors instead of the line shaft.

Also, something which absolutely would not exist in any sort of useful quantity in your setting would be aluminum metal. Basically all aluminum is refined from aluminum oxide using the Hall–Héroult process, which involves electrolysing molten alumina. Native aluminum is basically non-existent, and chemical processes to reduce it from ore are complicated and require expensive reagents. Before the Hall-Héroult process, aluminum metal was worth more than gold due to its scarcity and the difficulty of extracting it.


This has already happened in the real world

Summary: There was a time when men know not electricity and explosives. And then somebody invented gunpowder. And then, much later, somebody else invented the electric battery. And somebody else discovered electromagnetic induction. Man was not born with all knowledge preformed in their head, it had to be gained, and lost, and gained again by toil and tribulation.

The Romans did not know much about electricity, and what little they knew was both useless and mostly wrong; and they had no explosives. This gets you to the Late Antiquity. Early Middle Ages too, but that's not a progress.

And then in the 13th century Europeans acquired gunpowder; whether they got the knowledge from the Mongols, or they reinvented it themselves, it's not known and it's unimportant, because what one man discovered another can discover too. Anyway, in the 13th century the recipe for making gunpowder appears in books by Roger "Doctor Mirabilis" Bacon, Marcus Graecus and Albertus Magnus; and from this point forward the knowledge of gunpowder could no longer be lost, because, as the Devil himself testifies, manuscripts don't burn.

Very much later, in 1800, Alessandro Volta invented the copper-zinc battery; some say that the knowledge of making primary cells had been held by the Persians in the 3rd century before the common era, and had been lost; but anyway, what one man discovers another can discover too, and Volta put his discovery in a book, and once written in a book in cannot be forgotten again.

In short, our real world progressed to the Late Antiquity or Early Middle Ages with no knowledge of explosives, and to the Early Modern age with very little and most impractical knowledge of electricity.


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