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I've become interested in sci-fi / science-fantasy / weird Westerns.

Building upon what I asked here I would like to be more specific and ask if there's scientifically sound ways to explain why a human society's (as in a colony) state of technology might be locked to say 1870s North America.

Background

The sci-fi Westerns that I know are the first book in the "Dark Tower" series by Stephen King and the TV series "Westworld". The former doesn't bother to explain why people use old tech in a world where more advanced societies using more advanced tech have existed beyond that they perished somehow. There's magic present here. The latter takes the approach of a Western styled theme park with androids for NPCs in what is essentially a LARPG and is scientifically accurate with no magic present.

Two possible explanations

I see two ways. One is simpler and presents an easy answer, one more complex because science plays a role. The latter I'm seeking an answer for.

As pointed out in the link above they might simply be forced by another group of people on or off the planet they inhabit to use old tech such as to keep them enslaved. The question that immediately comes to mind would be: Why force them to use 1870s tech and not say 1500s tech? A simple answer might be: For the captor's enjoyment. Same as people in Westworld pay to enter the theme park to experience the Old West (safely), the captors might treat the captive's day-to-day struggles like a reality TV show filmed by advanced drones and such.

The other and the one I'm more interested in would be that the planet's chemical composition prohibits them from evolving beyond America's state of technology of the 1870s. Say due to technological issues they can't use the technology that got them to the planet and that started the colony using frozen embryos and artificial wombs. The knowledge transfer using computers brought on the ship or capsule failed (e.g. due to them breaking) and after a couple hundred years given a colony of a big enough size they arrive at the state of technology of the 1870s. This leads to the

Question

Is there scientific reasons why they might not be able to progress from there? Is a planet scientifically possible that will be habitable and enable 1870s state of technology but which prohibits humans to progress from there due to its chemical composition?

A semi-rational scientific explanation would be just fine. I'm not sure if the Second Industrial Revolution that began in the last third of the 1800s was based on natural resources different from the ones used in the early to mid 1800s. If they are not, a scientific explanation might not exist and I would have to "go back in time" within the 1783-1920 period of the Old West myth.

I like both concepts for my world-building purposes but I'm just curious if there might be a scientific explanation that removes the need for a "prison-theory".

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    $\begingroup$ Is that 1870 U.S.A., 1870 India or 1870 China? They were not the same. Why don't you get over this unworkable idea of a chemical conspiracy and look at historical examples of technological stagnation? For example, how different was the technological level of 1870 China compared with 1570 China? How different was the tech used to build the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom (532-537) compared with the tech used to build the Temple of the Virgin Goddess (447-432 BCE), almost one thousand years earlier? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 3 '17 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "chemical conspiracy"? The notion of a planet being habitable but not fit for the development of modern technology fascinates me. I think it's a sound motive to make a post. If you want to provide an answer based on "technological stagnation" I'd be happy to read it! $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 3 '17 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ Why don't you make a list of minerals newly brought into industrial use between 1870 and 2017 and then see if the idea of a chemical barrier to modern tech holds water? The only interesting example that comes to my mind is petroleum, and a lack of naturally-occurring petroleum would not have precluded the development of modern technology. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 3 '17 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ I need help for that, hence the post! See my edit at the end of the post. $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 3 '17 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ Firefly has a good juxtaposition of high tech and "Western" elements that makes sense. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 3 '17 at 12:52
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I will propose a novel, two-pronged scientific solution. [electrical, biological] Bear with me for the first part, I will explain!

Part 1

Lots of natural chromium, lead and mercury, perhaps titanium; and virtually zero gold, copper, silver or other good conductors. That could be due to previous mining or just the natural result. It does not have to extend to the core: It could just be true of the first few miles of crust, the human-accessible part. You can help this somewhat by not having volcanoes or plate tectonics on the planet.

Reference: Metals That Are Poor Conductors.

The combination of iron and chromium is a conductor but one of the worst metallic conductors. (about 80 times less conductive than copper). Lead and mercury and titanium are also dozens of times less conductive.

So why the focus on conductivity? Naturally conductive metals were crucial in our discovery of electricity, which is far and away the single most important ingredient to getting past the 1870s. Without cheap conductivity, we don't have wires, which means no electric transmission, no electric motors or generators (they need copper windings to create electromagnets), no electric lights or communications. No air conditioning or elevators, no arc welders. No phones. (Likely no telegraph either, an 1870 element that would have to be excised).

This does not prevent them from developing hard carbonized steel (for guns, axles, etc), but carbonized steel (or stainless steel) is an even worse conductor. Conductivity Ranking

Without high natural conductivity, you also have a low incidence of natural magnets (lodestones).

High tech could obviously refine metals and produce better conductors, but if everything conductive on Planet X is more rare there than Gold is on Earth, this is a non-starter. Imagine if the copper-wound motor in your kitchen blender had to be made of solid gold; or if the power lines leading across the city to your home had to be made of solid gold.

To enable the beginning of the modern age, conductivity has to be cheap. You could still have, made from hard metal alloys (with low conductivity) steam engines, guns, farming tools, axles and so forth. Some industrialization could take place.

Part 2

This is not absolutely necessary, but you could introduce a unique biological element that helps this along; a soil bacterium ubiquitous on Planet X that metabolizes conductive metals and forms as waste molecule sized compounds that are less conductive (like iron and chromium), or perhaps oxidized, and diffused in the soil. This is to make it more difficult to refine.

IRL Aluminum was once this way on Earth:

Aluminum is one of the three most common elements found within the Earth’s crust. However, until relatively recently, extracting aluminum from the bauxite ore in which it naturally occurs was a costly and difficult process. And prior to the advent of efficient chemical and electrical processes to separate aluminum from bauxite in the late 1800s [specifically 1886 and the electrolysis process], the shiny, flexible metal was more valuable than gold. [emphasis on electrical and bracketed detail by Amadeus]

It may be a little hand-wavy without further research, but IRL we have bioengineered bacteria to produce and concentrate all sorts of materials. It is reasonably plausible that bacteria could evolve that help to make metals very difficult and expensive to refine even if they are very common atoms within the crust (like aluminum would be still, if not for electrical extraction methods).

The Result

A society with metal but no economic incentives to advance to an electrical society. IRL electricity and magnetism was very much an expensive novelty in the age of Steam. If conductive metals were as costly as gold, it never would have advanced beyond that; and we would not have developed the modern age of electrical communications, broadcasting, computers, refining, HVAC, forging, and so on. We would have older methods of forging metals; and coal (and oil) could still provide heat and fuel. The steam engine would become more refined.

Yet we would be, very much, locked in the pre-lightbulb era, IMO much like 1870 (without the telegraphs).

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  • $\begingroup$ This makes sense in a scary way. This should be a scenario that was quite unworkable and implausible. Yet your two-pronged answer achieves this with beautiful simplicity. I love it! Plus one & wishing I could award more. Well done, sir. $\endgroup$ – a4android Sep 3 '17 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ What an epic answer. Bravo! So much food for thought! The only question I have left is regarding petroleum. The petrol industry in the US was kicked off in the middle of the 19th century. But until the development of the internal combustion engine (the Otto engine having been invented in 1876) and the large scale production later the main use for oil was kerosene for oil lamps. I'm assuming a lack of electricity would've also prevented the large scale use of the Otto engine? No automobiles, fertilizers and plastics? $\endgroup$ – H3R3T1K Sep 3 '17 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ @H3R3T1K Automobiles need an electrical spark to ignite the explosion in the Internal combustion engine; I don't think anything else would do. (engine people feel free to correct me!) It is possible to create sparks from steel and flint, but not with the precision needed: And without a lot of pre-existing electrical research and framework, and with the cost of components on the order of [our] Gold or diamonds, it seems unlikely to me the spark plug and electrical system would be invented out of whole cloth. They seem cheap, but the foundation leading up to them would likely not exist. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Sep 3 '17 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @H3R3T1K Also you wouldn't have any electrical components involved in refining petroleum. So while it might be used as a lamp fuel, or incendiary use (as an accelerant to burn a field, woods, garbage or demolition of storm-damaged or rotting wood structures), or perhaps as a source of heat for a forge, the whole "explosion by controlled spark" wing of usage might never be discovered. Certainly lightning or flint sparks might show them it is possible; but not ever commercially exploited without a basic understanding of controlling and using electricity. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Sep 3 '17 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ Hot tube ignition was a thing, from the 1880s to maybe 1900, to say nothing of compression ignition (diesel) engines. So you can certainly run oil engines without sparks (admittedly, lower revving). That is, if you have oil. Otherwise, if coal and wood are the best you have, steam power is much more practical. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Sep 3 '17 at 16:36
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Insufficient Population or Population Density

Your colony started out with tens of thousands of people. They were fruitful and multiplied, and now there are almost a million of them. Why, the capital city/starport has almost 50,000 inhabitants.

  • There is an university in the capital. They teach agriculture, engineering, medicine, law, and so on. Unfortunately the last x-ray machine in the teaching hospital broke down a couple of years ago, and nobody in the engineering department can jury-rig a suitable replacement.
  • There is this weird guy who claims that he will build a heavier-than-air aircraft one of these days. His latest airframe is almost up to WWI-era technology, but his attempts to come up with a suitable engine all failed. No avgas and very little gasoline, for that matter, since trains and electrical power plants all run on coal.
  • There are two "steel barons" on the planet. Or it might be better to say that there were two steel barons. The Colonial Legislature ordered them to stop their petty feud (72 patent infringement lawsuits in one year!) and to work together. Now there is one project to build an open hearth furnace instead of two separate ones to build smaller Bessemer converters. Needless to say, the furnace is over time and over budget, too.

You might recall the story how two guys in a bicycle workshop invented the aircraft. But they did not have to fabricate all the parts in their little workshop. They could fly because they stood on the shoulders of industrial giants. For many industrial age processes, the best size is very big. Compare Mao's backyard furnaces with the Krupp works.

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There is nothing in Nature that can prevent scientific advancement because "objective" reasons.

There are, however many "subjective" reasons that can lead to that effect, at least for a certain amount (possibly large) of time.

A few examples:

  • Lack of interest: research about alternative energies was (and partially still is) hampered by ready availability of cheaper alternatives (no funds for research).
  • Politics: research about alternative energies was (and partially still is) hampered by groups and individuals who have interest in current technologies (buy technologies and bury them).
  • Religion: in dark ages (especially in first centuries) some scientific hypotheses became "doctrinal", so challenging them could lead to being burned at the stake.

Take your pick.

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Something similar was made in 1984 by George Orwell, even if the society presented there was stuck in the 1950s.

(spoilers)

Basically, 1984 is set in a dystopian dictatorship. The Party (the government) stays in power by continuously monitoring the population's thoughts in varied ways.

One of these methods is by locking their cultural and scientific progress, since The Party believes that cultural and scientific advances would "awake" the population to its state of semi-slavery.

The solution found is to have the country in a constant state of war. Since all of the nation's production is directed to the manufacture of weapons, soldier training, espionage and similar activities, no one has time to think about anything and there are no advances in any technological or sociological field.

This is a viable strategy to lock a society in a state of technological inertia, but there are somethings to consider:

  • It requires a constant, never-ending war
  • It requires that the enemies in such war are also technologically locked, otherwise they would defeat the locked nation purely by technological superiority.
  • In 1984 there is a long and continuing history of the liberty of thought being attacked. The usage of a language called "newspeak", for instance, is also very relevant, as it limits what kinds of thinking are possible. The state of technological inertia is caused by many factors working together.

One solution I can think for your setting if you don't want a war is to simply fake it. Maybe all of the ammunition made is dumped into space and the soldiers are killed as soon as they finish training.

Edit:

I remembered that 1984 itself says that war was not the only way to achieve a complete stop in technological and cultural development. Any other excuse could be used, as long as it directed all of the nation's productive power into something else. However, war was the most viable solution, since it placed the population in a position of mass hysteria, making them easier to control.

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The colony exists only to produce raw materials for the empire. The empire doesn't want them producing more advanced manufactured goods, because it'd threaten the home world's monopoly on those goods, and because colonists might want to work in better-paying and less dangerous factory jobs when the empire needs them in the mines. The empire doesn't want them having advanced weapons, in case they want to secede. Technologies like film or telephones are also banned because anti-imperial forces might use them for propaganda or organizing. Education is very limited, and travel outside the planet is prohibited, so nobody gets any bright ideas like "democracy" or "revolution" or "independence", which also has the side effect that people know little about scientific advancements on other worlds.

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The two things that powered the Second Industrial Revolution were electricity and fossil fuels (petroleum in particular).

Fossil fuels are easy to get rid of. The desert planet never had enough biomass to turn into fossil fuels in the first place. There doesn't need to be no fossil fuels at all, mind you, only too few that are easily accessible to power mass industry.

How did it get its oxygen, then? Maybe there was some biomass, mostly bacteria, but not enough and not the right type to create significant fossil fuel deposits. Maybe oxygen was created by the initial colonisation effort, for example by implanting an ecosystem well in advance and/or with atmosphere processing stations. The stations may have fallen to disrepair since, the atmosphere has been transformed now. There are also a few abiotic reactions that can produce an oxygen-rich atmosphere, though any natural atmosphere would probably require some tweaking to be human-compatible anyway.

Things like heating and steam engines can be powered by organic sources like wood. It will not be enough to power a full industrial revolution, because that would require more forest than can fit on the map (which is even worse for a desert planet, though human density is probably lower as well), but you can still power a few systems like steam trains with it.

What about electricity?

Amadeus answer is pretty good there, and there is another possibility: geomagnetic storms. In 1859, there was solar storm big enough to fry telegraph systems. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_storm_of_1859. It is speculated that a few thousand years ago, an even worse solar storm hit. (As an aside, if you need background for a post-apocalyptic story, one of those could hit tomorrow and fry pretty much every single non-shielded electrical system on Earth. The only warning would be giant aurora as visible as far as the Caribbean about 24 h before, as the dangerous particles have a lower velocity and thus arrive later.)

If the planet is around a star that is more unstable than our Sun, then the planet could be regularly hit by giant solar storms. Aurora would happen often and be spectacular, and the star itself would probably have more variation than the Sun, which may be why turned the planet into a desert in the first place.

Maybe the planet was a lush world some distant time in the past hundred million or even billion years, before the star became unstable, producing the atmospheric oxygen. The fossil fuel deposits could have disappeared of become inaccessible due to tectonic activity since them. Note that tectonic activity require oceans, though, but the continents may be desert even in the presence of oceans.

Beyond that, geomagnetic storms probably have negligible effect on life, apart from the rare Earth-based lifeforms that use magnetic fields for orientation.

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