Exactly what it says on the tin. How far ahead of the rest of the world could a civilization be before others catch on and start using the newer tech for themselves?

For instance: is it feasible for a country to be at a 1890-1912 tech level, whilst the rest of the world is more near 1750-1820?

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    $\begingroup$ A country and a civilisation are very different entities. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 20, 2017 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Not necessarily. Two neighboring countries with sufficiently differing cultures could be considered different civilizations. Especially if those nations are large and have severe geologic barriers between them. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2017 at 2:30
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    $\begingroup$ I think it really depends on how much communication there is between the advanced people and the behind people... $\endgroup$
    – Tin Wizard
    Jun 21, 2017 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ I can think of a few examples for your 1890-1912 level vs near 1750-1820. Short answer's yes, to get a more precise one you'll want to tell us more about conditions around your particular situation, geography, politics, whatnot $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2017 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ Are you willing to consider other species? The most any non-Homo species has developed is early Stone Age at best (bbc.com/earth/story/20150818-chimps-living-in-the-stone-age). $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2017 at 15:08

8 Answers 8


When the English began settling in Australia they were at late 18th or early 19th century level whereas the Australian aborigines didn't even have Stone Age technology. A difference of some tens of millennia. (As a commenter observes, not all Australian aborigine tribes had lost stone age technology; some did use stone tools.)

When Cortés arrived in Mexico the Spanish had 16th century tech whereas the Aztecs were in the Late Stone Age. Some 6 or 7 millennia of technological difference.

In the First Opium War the English had bleeding edge mid-19th century tech whereas the Chinese had roughly mid-16th century tech. A difference of some three centuries. (This is a gross simplification; the history of China was particularly divergent from the history of Europe from the 13th to the 19th century. But the basic idea is true enough -- they were two or three centuries behind Europe, technologically.)

When Commodore Perry's Black Ships arrived in the Edo Bay in 1853, the U.S.A. was about 200 years more advanced technologically than Japan.

And don't forget that social, political and commercial know-how is technology too. The Romans did not have much better weapons than the barbarians, but had much better juridical, political and social systems. Closer to our days, from the 17th to the 19th century a private English company become ruler of India.

In the right context a civilisation can be much more advanced than the rest of the world; for example, in the 19th century the European civilisation was decisively more advanced technologically than the rest of the world; about two centuries more advanced than Asia, about five centuries more advanced than Africa. (At that time, the Americas and Australia no longer had functional indigenous civilisations.) This resulted in the vast European colonial empires, of which the collapse left us with the complicated world we have today.

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    $\begingroup$ @nijineko Wow! Please explain what they are. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jun 21, 2017 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android For starters, the caveat for China (hard to compare because of different development) also applies to the Aztecs/Maya (and I'm guessing also for the other examples). In case of the Maya, see their calendar, math and astronomy, iirc they had leap days, the zero and surprisingly accurate predictions for Venus, Mars and eclipses, and their ability to make elastic rubber balls wasn't reinvented in Europe until the mid 19th century. Sure, they didn't have the wheel yet, but it would have been of little use anyway in the tropical rain forests. So late stone age is at best inaccurate. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2017 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ "some hundreds of millennia." ? Given the aborigines arrived in Australia less than a hundred thousand years ago, this is excessive. Tens of millennia would be a defensible position. I think "didn't have stone age technology" is a stretch as well. Their 'stone' technology was advanced. australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/… $\endgroup$
    – Gary Myers
    Jun 21, 2017 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Sumyrda: The reason Mesoamericans were able to make rubber balls was not technological. It was for the same reason they were able to make chocolate, corn meal, and chile peppers: the plants from which these things are derived are native to the region, and weren't found in Europe. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 21, 2017 at 6:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Sumyrda: Did the mesoamericans have iron or bronze? No. But they did have gold. Then by definition they were in the Late Stone Age. Their astronomy was broadly similar to what the Babilonians had in the 3rd millennium before the common era. Great achievement, but hardly technology. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 21, 2017 at 7:01

For the specific time period you cite, yes. But as you get later and later, it gets harder and harder for that to be true. This is because technology advances on an exponential scale--which means what time period you chose is crucially important. It's called the Law of Accelerating Returns. In later tech where computers are more of a factor, technology has and will increase exponentially. This doesn't mean that another country won't ever catch up (because, at least while we are on earth, it's difficult to isolate a country completely), but it does mean that tech advances a lot faster, and while a 20 year difference in, say 1650 wasn't that big of a deal, it is today.

In modern times what actually happens is a mix.

For example you might have cell phone towers in a country with barely any flush toilets.

To have a country, utterly and completely be approx. 100 years more advanced than everywhere else would mean:

  • They have no contact or trade with anywhere else.

In real world examples, nearly everywhere was more advanced than say, the Americas when it was being discovered by Europeans. In this case, it was by thousands of years. That's not possible today.

As time wears on, and communication networks expand, it gets harder and harder for a country to have that much of a gap--and advancements happen very, very quickly these days. A third world country for instance, wouldn't have to go through all the stages of development for a technology (cell phones are my example here) they just benefit from the more end-stage convenient version, going from no cell phones at all to everyone having one.

For your country to be this advanced and the rest of the world not, they would, for sure, have to be isolationists, and somehow have booming economy with no exports or imports beyond a very specific level of tech. And they could not allow anyone in the country from outside.

But, it's unlikely for this to happen wholesale. As given in the 3rd world example, other countries might benefit unevenly from their tech while lacking in other areas.

In our own history, imperialism, which was rife at the time, succeeded in spreading technologies to less advanced places and gathering wealth to the most scientifically and technologically advanced countries.

Actually, as a model country, I would be looking at England from say 1760-1870 and compare that to the US. The exchange of ideas like the cotton gin from the U.S. and various technologies from England to the U'S. and other countries pushed them forward. I can't imagine how that would have been possible for any of the countries without the exchange of ideas.

Unfortunately the rule on this planet has mostly been: Advancement spreads, stagnation isolates.

And you are looking to the opposite of that in a realistic way--but it's only possible if you build your world in a way that separates countries from each other. That's why the gap between the rest of the world and the Americas existed at the time of their discovery, otherwise it would not have been possible.

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    $\begingroup$ Western imperialism undermined industry and the economies of India and China. India had a thriving shipbuilding prior to its annexation into the British Empire. This declined into effective non-existence. The technologies brought to the colonized world was there to benefit the imperialists not the local populace. Technology transfer between the UK and USA was advantageous to both parties, because they were economic equals. Of course 19th century USA was the home of great intellectual property piracy. Itself a leveler of technological difference. We were all naughty back then. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jun 21, 2017 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ Note that having cell phone towers is not equivalent to being technologically advanced enough to create cell phone towers nor even phones. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2017 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ We have cell phones and even nuclear plants in my country. Still, the country functions just as one would expect from a nineteenth century democracy. $\endgroup$
    – user9981
    Jun 21, 2017 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ @user2338816 Thus the uneven benefit. One piece of tech is available to everyone, but it comes from elsewhere. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2017 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ This is true, though ideally, we will soon have the technology level to expand through the solar system, and then the technology difference between locations will start to expand again. The base level of technology to just live on mars might place them well in front, or possibly the greater population will make Earth leave Mars in the dust. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2017 at 15:47

Tech level is a nebulous, reductive, and ill defined concept. There are currently subsistence hunters like the San in southern Africa who still practice a traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle. They hunt using the same basic methods that humans have used for hundreds of thousands of years. At the same time if they have access to such modern inventions as the plastic bag, water bottle or sneaker they will readily use them during these traditional hunts. There is no easy way to apply tech level to such a group.

It's theoretical that a country could have a 100 year lead on the rest of the world but you can assume that simultaneously every foreign power is going to be engaging in espionage to reduce that gap as soon as it becomes apparent. An example of this is the westernization of Japan during the Meiji period.


I think there is no limit. Beyond a certain point, your visiting tech will simply be unapproachable to the primitive neighbors. If you left your tablet among a group of primitive hunters who lived off the land, they could not even keep it working once the charge was down.

There can be trade of individual useful items, like cloth and finished blades. But who cares if it requires 21st century metalergy and fab techniques to make that blade? It might be somewhat better than plain steel but it's not a game changer; it’s still a knife. Likewise synthetic fibers and dyes.

There can be various attempts to bring infrastructure in, like the most recent episode of Nova where they expended great effort to bring electric lights to a remote location. But doing so is an effort and there is no reason why that must happen.


For instance: is it feasible for a country to be at a 1890-1912 tech level, whilst the rest of the world is more near 1750-1820?

In a world of humans who undertake rational economic behaviours, I would say no, at least in the long-run. For this question, I will also be interpreting 'tech' on the lines of productivity, economic production, and military technologies.

Any technologically advanced nation will require large amounts of economic output to support that technology, that society, and the consumption which made that technology possible. In a world where there are lots of people everywhere, i.e. the technologically advanced nation does not have a monopoly on the world population, there are two major mechanisms, which I feel, would be rational to pursue, and which would lead to the diffusion of technology.

Colonialism and imperialism

The first would certainly fit into a 1890-1912 period. Colonialism and imperialism are results not out of evil persons and character, but rather, the technological, economic, and military domination of a certain society over another. I would argue that something like European imperialism was not caused by Europeans being horrible people, but rather, by the fact that Europeans had a massive technological advantage over their neighbours. Colonisation would lead to the diffusion of productive technologies as the primary purpose of empire is economic and political. Empires cost money to maintain, thus, the metropole will want to extract economic value out of it. Or, they will do so due to political concerns (e.g. British invasion of the Sudan in the 1890s to check French expansion into the same area).

This means that railroads and other pieces of infrastructure will be built. This will necessarily diffuse technology, because railroads have to be maintained. Military or political networks require logistics. All of these will require employ of the native population, which will require that they assimilate technological advances from the metropole.

Furthermore, as colonialism and imperialism will also be resisted by indigenous populations, those populations will also likely assimilate technologies necessary to strengthen their societies, expanding their economic production and war-making powers. This means that such technologies would also diffuse to nations willing to reform.

Foreign investment

The second major mechanism would be foreign direct investment. Today, the surplus of labour in developing countries and low productivity means that wages are low. This gives strong incentives for corporations or organisations from the metropole to invest in foreign nations, and therefore, spread production technologies, which would allow for massive expansions in economic production, as we see in places like China and south-east Asia today.

Even if there is no foreign direct investment, entrepreneurs from one nation will almost certainly steal or copy technologies from abroad. The production of silk was heavily regulated in China. It travelled to India anyway. The technology of water and steam-powered looms was heavily regulated in Britain. It travelled to the United States anyway. This is simply because a market opportunity exists, and it will be filled in time.

Real-world examples

The real-world examples of massive technological gaps, like Britain and Afghanistan circa 1912, have to do with the fact that places like Afghanistan are effectively unconquerable and unable to support Industrial age technologies (for various reasons). It would probably break the wilful suspension of disbelief for the rest of the world to basically be such a place.

  • $\begingroup$ United States vs. The Man of Hole, circa 2017 $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2017 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ A society of one man would certainly not support a modern society. But for the entire world of the OP's setting, excepting the advanced society, to be made up of such lone men seems implausible. $\endgroup$
    – ifly6
    Jun 20, 2017 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ He was part of a tribe of natives, which would be a society. $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2017 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ I haven't claimed that this Man of Hole is not a society, nor have I claimed that tribes like those in the Amazon are not societies. The more relevant question is: why is it impossible for such tribes of natives to assimilate modern technologies over the medium run? $\endgroup$
    – ifly6
    Jun 20, 2017 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ "I would argue that something like European imperialism was not caused by Europeans being horrible people" I would beg to differ, but not on any anti-European basis. Historically, pretty much everybody is horrible, especially when acting as a group. $\endgroup$ Jun 20, 2017 at 22:00

Yes, it is possible to be so far ahead the other culture cannot catch up, but your example span is likely not in that category.

Just suppose I take my solar-powered hand calculator with an LCD display, the one that can solve differential equations, back to the time of Newton's birth. Not only is the technology beyond their grasp, the entire theory of operation is beyond their grasp, because it will be 30 years before anybody on Earth has any idea of what a differential equation even is.

If you are dealing with things easy to learn and clearly analogous to something else, then the natives will catch on and catch up. If your technology looks like magic and is impossible to figure out just by looking at it (with the tools they've got), they cannot catch up. An integrated circuit is one thing that falls into that category: Nothing in Newton's world could have shown him the patterns on an integrated circuit, and even then nothing in his experience was like a transistor, capacitor, binary logic, or electricity.

It would be too much, it is too many layers of invention to comprehend without a guide and teachers explaining each one. Seventy years of innovation is one lifetime, and possible to learn by the best and brightest. Three or four lifetimes of innovation, discovery and found applications? That is just too much, at least since the Renaissance and embrace of science, it has been.

  • $\begingroup$ Having seen a half-added built out of ten thousand dominos I actually wonder if I could explain integrated circuits to Newton. "So, imagine lots of these dominos, only really really small, very fast, and self-resetting..." $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2017 at 20:03

The Amish and Mennonites maintain a lifestyle and culture far from the technological. They do not drive cars or use electricity for the most part abhor most modern tools. They continue a lifestyle that while it works for them, most would find backwards at worst, or quaint at best. They have neighbors who embrace a far higher technology than they do. So it is quite possible. And apparently in some cases preferable.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding DCook! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Jun 21, 2017 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ But this is quite the opposite - staying behind everyone willingly is different than moving forward and not letting anyone to use your doscoveries. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Jun 21, 2017 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Molot no, no it's not, the answer addresses the OP whilst the OP changes the question past the title. $\endgroup$
    – Giu Piete
    Mar 5, 2019 at 11:05
  1. This is a question of communication. If earth is more advanced than a planet 20 light years away, then the only way the creatures on the distant planet will know about earth's technology is if they communicate with earth creatures. Other posts describe similar contact between physically remote groups on earth hundreds of years ago and yet no one on earth does not have a cell phone today.
  2. This is also a question of ability. Dogs have watched while humans hunted with spears, knives, arrows, guns and yet they have not adopted any of those tools.
  3. If you just want to consider humans, then you also have to say this is a question of philosophy or religion. The Amish refuse to adopt all but the most basic advancements of modern American civilization.
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! Interesting answer, but the question asks about countries in the range of 17<sup>th</sup> to 20<sup>th</sup> century, so the first part of your answer looks a bit odd. You might want to focus on the examples given and then extrapolate from there. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Jun 21, 2017 at 5:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Secespitus he says it's about communication, the OP doesn't indicate humans. The first paragraph clearly indicates that in a world in which people strive for advantage and dominance and to maintain those, technology has still spread to provide theoretical equivalency(if not practical capacity) $\endgroup$
    – Giu Piete
    Mar 5, 2019 at 11:10

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