1. Ms. DiAnonyma
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    Ms. DiAnonyma Active Member

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    Trains but no gunpowder?

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Ms. DiAnonyma, Apr 16, 2016.

    Like a lot of other young writers, I'm working with a fantasy setting. But, I should qualify that statement- there's no magic, and a moderate amount of technology seems more natural than the the typical medievalist simplicity in this world I'm using for a setting. Also, technically, I'm not using the whole "world"- only one continent, isolated (so far) and comprised of six different countries/empires.

    What I'd like to know is:

    Would the development and use of steam-powered trains before the discovery (and development) of gunpowder sound plausible enough to you? (A character does discover it in one story, but that's the idea- its a discovery and not just an innovation).

    Why or why not?

    Thanks!
     
  2. SadStories
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    SadStories Member

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    Unless I'm mistaken steam-powered engines is about cooking water so that bubbling/steam moves stuff on its own. Gunpowder, on the other hand, is about finding combinations of chemical elements which explode when you give them a spark so that small pieces of metal nearby are propelled at whatever you want to harm. In other words, they are discoveries/inventions very different in nature. It's definitely not implausible that one thing might be discovered by a civilization and not the other, I think.

    In fact I remember hearing that the old Greeks (who never had gunpowder, I think) did discover steam-engines at some point. Since slaves did all the work for them though, none of them bothered to do anything useful with it, so instead of an industrial revolution the engines were just used to open the doors of certain temples in impressive ways.

    Even if it was implausible though, it would be implausible in such a knowledge-reliant and complicated way I don't think it matters. World-building isn't about making something that adds up 100%, but about having enough cool details to convince your reader your world exists (I think). Since you can't explain every little thing anyway, as long as you explain a few things well, your readers are just going to trust you on the rest. The exception is if you're writing some kind of incredibly research-heavy alternative history fantasy thing, parallel to hard sci-fi. In that case I have no idea what I'm talking about, lol!
     
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2016
  3. doggiedude
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    doggiedude Contributing Member

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    According to Wikipedia - first steam engine 1st century AD
    - gunpowder 9th century
    I think you're good
     
  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Not a problem.
     
  5. Greenwood
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    Greenwood Active Member

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    Like others have said, no problem at all. Steam-powered machines, or at least the concept of steam being able to power some sort of mechanical device, was discovered long before that of gunpowder.

    And it makes sense, because the two inventions are vastly different from each other.
    Gunpowder is a mixture of several chemical components brought to spark. To discover this, his requires either coincidence or a vast knowledge of chemical ingredients and the science behind them. When one sees a river's current move fast, though, simple logic will dictate that when you make some sort of device, the power of the current will make it move.

    Water-powered machines have been around for ages, and water was one of the first things used to power anything (Think of watermills for example). So when the "base" of your knowledge to power things is water, it only makes sense that any further research into the powering of devices is also based on using water. Steam, which is brought about by boiling water, is a logical next step in this research, while gunpowder is a whole different world altogether.

    So while steam-powered trains came around much later than gunpowder, the use of steam to power machines, or at least the concept of it being possible, is way older than gunpowder.

    So, you're fine :)
     
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  6. tonguetied
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    tonguetied Contributing Member Contributor

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    While I generally agree with the others I think it depends a bit on what you are calling gun powder, do you mean no explosives were every created before or specifically gun powder? The ability to manufacture a steam locomotive is very complex and in the process of developing metallurgy to do that I would think that explosives would have also been developed. However it is a fantasy so you can create your world to your specifications. I am thinking train tracks without tunnels might be more difficult to accept than lack of guns unless your world is relatively mountain free. Life without Butch Cassidy and Sundance is less colorful. :(
     
  7. LostThePlot
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    I disagree a bit here with the consensus.

    I agree that steam power and gunpowder are in the abstract very separate forms of technology but they are more related than you might think.

    Firstly trains require straight, flat stretches of rail to run on. Creating straight, flat stretches of rail is incredibly hard to do by manual labor alone. Explosives were the tool of choice for mass-landscaping projects. That's exactly what Alfred Nobel (of Nobel Prize fame) was developing in dynamite. A safer explosive for quarrying and mining. It's not impossible but you need an answer here for how your civilization has decapitated mountains and cut huge tunnels through granite without gunpowder to help them out.

    Secondly; while steam power can exist without gun powder as such, in a world with no gun powder or explosives steam power essentially becomes gun powder. The skills involved are the same. Ask yourself this; how does a gun actually work? Pressure. Explosions are more exciting to think about but the bang pushes the bullet out at high speed by creating a lot of pressure behind it in the barrel. It forces it out like a spitball out of a straw. Steam generates extremely high pressures too and it would seem obvious to someone to make a cannon or gun or even explosive out of a pressure vessel. All that energy is compressed as steam, then released when a hole appears and channels the energy in one (or many) directions. This may not be the worlds greatest form of weaponry but Steam Cannons for sieges or on ships that already use steam power? Sure. Compared to pre-blackpowder weapons these would be hugely more effective against targets like buildings and ships made of stone and metal.

    Perhaps thats ok in your setting, but I find it hard to imagine a world where people wouldn't very quickly see the potential and work out the flaw in steam weapons - they're big and bulky because they add an unnecessary stage. When all you have is coal then a boiler and pressure vessel is a good way to get all the energy out and release it at one time, but it'd become clear almost immediately that any kind of fuel that will burn more rapidly will be a massive step forward. Gun powder itself might elude you but there's all kinds of crap that might suffice.

    So; yes you can create a world with steam but not gunpowder, but be careful about how you show it. Steam is just as dangerous as gunpowder and requires the same science and metallurgy to make it work. It's potential as a weapon is obvious and would certainly point you towards guns as an idea. If it were me writing it then I'd make it such that gunpowder itself hasn't been discovered but that there are prototypes and developmental things out there being actively worked on using various principals (maybe liquid propellants or trying to distribute finely powdered fuels like sugar the right amount inside a gun) that are impractical but not impossible. It'll also set out an interesting potential future thing when gun powder does appear.
     
  8. IlaridaArch
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    IlaridaArch Active Member

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    Well since I am working on a dark fantasy world that is strongly based on renaissance era, guess I should hop on to this discussion. I struggled with similiar kind of issue, when my work began. I knew for sure that I wanted massive battles between fantasy armies who fire "cannons" and carry muskets, but for some odd reason, soldiers had shields that could stop the musket shot (Luckily on my case, there are studies from 14th century that proof metal breastplate could stop a shot from early musket design called "arquebus").

    New invention isn't "just a snap" that changes everything rightaway. That mentality started in modern era and our current information era is heavily reliant on this mentality. It wasn't like that in ancient, medieval or even renaissance. Remember this.

    Even in ancient rome they knew this; boiling water causes hot steam (they said hot air) and this hot steam is capable of moving things. After glorious Rome fell, a lot of information was gone. But suddenly (and conveniently), this same information on steam carried on to greeks. I would put my money on that even though first known steam engine seems to be written for greeks, it is highly based on the information and studies that romans might have had on it. It has taken a lot of time that humans actually grasped on steam, and created something very useful out of it (As after some reading, real proper steam engines show up at late 1600 and early 1700).

    Creating something comes from a need, and clear boost on practicality. This is the main catch that affects the decision of replacing something. That is why I don't agree with @LostThePlot with steam cannons. With medieval/renaissance like world, yeah they could have tried it, but would it be effective enough for them to actually put them into battles? Are there battles enough? How advanced are your ships? Can they even carry these steam cannons? Is the steam power so primitive that they are way too complex and hard to use?

    When first muskets arrived, it was clear that it is a better weapon. But no, it wasn't because it is "more lethal" in the actual battle. Well-made crossbow was still more effective at penetrating an armor. The first and foremost reason was the ease of use. It took few days to train someone how to use and maintain a musket. But it took months and even years to train soldier to be amazing marksman with a bow. And this is why musket replaced bows so fast. Not all armies were sold on musket rightaway, because they didn't see this huge advantage that lied outside of the actual battling. Suddenly, the enemy had bunch of good shooters at same range, while their own kept missing with bows. So essentially, the actual invention wasn't that overpowered to the previous one rightaway, but it was the relationship of the item and human skill.

    Partly, some armies did not get new weapons because they didn't feel the need.

    So no gunpowder, but trains? Yes, even though the knowledge of gunpowder lead to more sophisticated chemistry, and metallurgy.

    You say it's isolated continent with 6-7 empires habiting it. If they have lived in "peace and prosperity" next to each other, most likely they have invented more peaceful stuff than weaponry. But like you said, one character finds out the gunpowder somewhere. That could well be one of the empires that is planning on something not-that-peaceful. People in this world would know the blackpowder, but not all had thought about making it into a weapon. It's all about the nature of the society.

    It's tricky stuff, but there are no rock-hard obstacles to prevent your world-building this way. It's all about how you approach it, and what you want to achieve. You just have to be consistent with your world-building. If your story is about fighting and wars, then I would not buy the fact that there are trains but no more advanced weapons than swords and shields. And that's the bottom line is it plausible or not.

    Hopefully this helps. :)
     
  9. LostThePlot
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    To quickly address your point aimed at me:

    There's no way you can build an actual steam engine that's industrially useful without being advanced enough to weaponize it. If you can't do the fine machining and complex engineering to make automated valves and cams to make a reciprocating steam engine then your civilization doesn't have steam power at all. That's why the Romans and Greeks really didn't have 'steam power'. They had some toys and some ideas but they weren't steam powering anything. Once you've got high pressure steam values you can build a steam cannon. It's the exact same principal as an air-gun or potato cannon; build up pressure then open the valve and let the pressure push the projectile. If you can build a steam engine with a safety valve that allows dangerously high pressure to escape then you've built a steam cannon you just don't know it yet.

    Again; I'm not saying that steam weapons are the most practical thing on the battle field; but then cannons weren't for a very long time either. Cannons were for sieges and warships. But when you are fighting with these things then Steam is plausible as a weapon. Remember; steam can move a 100ton train a hundred miles an hour. It'll move a cannon ball fast enough to eventually batter down stone and it'll do so from a far enough range that you need fear no retaliation.
     
  10. IlaridaArch
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    IlaridaArch Active Member

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    And that is exactly what I meant.
     
  11. Ms. DiAnonyma
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    Ms. DiAnonyma Active Member

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    Thanks for all the responses @:SadStories, doggiedude, Steerpike, Greenwood, tongue-tied, LostThePlot, and IlaridaArch!

    Yeah, my main concern is the height of development required to actually make trains. As SadStories and others(on Quora, I think) have pointed out, having slave labor kinda snuffed the ancient Roman interest in really developing steam engines- I could see that making some sense (the guy in my story who "discovers" and then works on developing gunpowder is from a smaller 'freer-minded' country threatened by a fast-growing empire, that does mainly operate on a slavery system).

    Would the fact that the trains aren't much of a universal phenomenon in my world make more sense? Because they are still very much nascent technology; not everyone quite thinks they're really worth the effort, (not everyone has the technology yet either) and there are still plenty of obstacles (like land that needs efficient clearing, more efficient engines, etc).

    In the search for a better way to clear things (most people are thinking along the lines of those steam cannons, and just using those), my character J approaches it from a chemical angle. He spends years (with some others) working with the black powder he's found, realizing it's potential for smaller weapons. Hence, their gun development moves along a lot faster on account of:

    a) the growing need for their smaller country to defend itself (expanding empire swallowing up their neighbors).
    b) some of the development that went into trains and such gives them a helpful headstart
    c) they're already conveniently gathered to share ideas and collaborate (in what we'd probably call a think-tank now, but emerged from a school there).

    Spoiler: he and the others die (/get killed) to keep it a secret. (They realize that their weapon would provide more advantage to the other (larger) side. When some other people figure this out, the researchers' collisions with enemy agents all come to pretty much the same conclusion.

    Nice to know, though, that some people won't hardly bat an eyelash at this, whether it technically makes sense or not ;-)
     
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2016
  12. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Discussion on Reddit: Steampunk without gunpowder has some interesting insights about steam powered cannons and air rifles that work without gunpowder. So if the goal was to limit weaponry to bows and swords, that might catch a few readers eyes.

    I'm not a gamer but looking for steampunk without gunpowder this game came up in the search:
    BattleCry revealed: Bethesda's stylish World War I game without gunpowder

    It looks like people disagree a bit about the game but I think it shows people accept any combination of technology in fantasy worlds.

    The reason I searched for steampunk instead of steam is because it gives results related to fiction novels rather than history.

    While steam power might have been discovered before gunpowder, @LostThePlot has a good point that there is more to a steam train than just steam power. And it was mentioned that you have the additional problem of building the tracks and tunnels without explosions. But I think you could work around that with other fantasy steam powered machines.

    You might get some engineering ideas from pre-columbian peoples in the Americas: List of pre-Columbian engineering projects in the Americas
     
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  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Steam-power without gunpowder? No problem.

    Steam railways without gunpowder to build a level track? No problem. In the UK, the land would be levelled by digging a cutting out of the side of a mountain (you'd go around it if you could) by using hundreds of "navvies" - the name comes from navigator, the term applied to the manual labourers who dug our canal system. You'd use the soil you dug out to create an embankment, where the railway ran at a higher level than the surrounding countryside. OK, if you're trying to go through solid rock, gunpowder is certainly useful - maybe even essential - but if you haven't got it you've got to improvise, and improvisation is something that we, as a species, are very good at.

    @LostThePlot is actually underselling the steam train; the GWR ran expresses of over 500 tons (and I think that's ignoring the engine, which weighed another 135 tons) at timings of 60 mph average during the 1930s. The problem with a steam cannon is delivering the power to accelerate a ball rapidly enough for it to fly; if you've ever seen a steam train moving away from rest, there's a lot of effort required to overcome the inertia of the train; it's not a dragster, and takes a perceptible length of time to gather speed.
     
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  14. Greenwood
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    Greenwood Active Member

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    Exactly. It's the same as having 50 men push a giant stone ball around. It takes a hell of a push to get the thing moving, but once it's rolling, it really doesn't take that much of an effort. I think, although this is just speculation on my part, that if one would build up enough steam pressure inside a cannon to make the ball fly out at tremendous speed, that steam pressure would be so huge that the cannon had better be very thick steel. Not that that's impossible, but I wouldn't want to be near that thing if it's just the standard cannon's 5 inches in thickness. It would be more dangerous for the firers than for its targets :D
     
  15. Sack-a-Doo!
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    This sounds more like alternate history than fantasy to me. When you play by those rules, getting technological developments out of order (to our norm, anyway) is a matter of working it out in your mind how that might have happened and then presenting it that way in prose.

    If you Google alternate history novels, you'll get a lot of examples you can read to get a feel for the genre.
     
  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Depends. If it is set in an entirely made up world it would still be fantasy (and one might vote alternative history as a subgenre of fantasy - some of it certainly is).
     
  17. Ms. DiAnonyma
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    Ms. DiAnonyma Active Member

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    Yeah, I was speculating on just what category my story would fall into earlier... http://www.writingforums.org/threads/help-my-fantasy-story-might-be-transmogrifying-or-am-i-still-writing-fantasy.143463/

    ...and I did get one suggestion about alternate history.

    My first problem with that is: geography (I suppose I could be posing an alternative geographical history, but that just sounds more complicated). The main reasons I thought of fantasy in the first place, also, were the political (and cultural) factors that I got to basically invent...

    Also, I'm not particularly aiming to portray how history 'might have been'- which seems to be the main idea in using alternative history as a setting.

    So... I've just got a slightly atypical fantasy setting, I guess? Not exactly urban, not traditional medievalistic, not really sci-fi or alternate history...
     
  18. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think alternate history necessarily portrays how history might have been. After all, virtually every story is an alternate history by that token; none of Agatha Christie's murders ever took place, and were thus never solved; all of Douglas Reeman's WWII battles never happened; etc.

    And Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, while taking place in a universe that looks remarkably like a post-Victorian England, doesn't really suggest that this is how things might have panned out if, e.g., the revolutions of 1848 had actually changed things across Europe. Its focus is on a universe in which physics is materially different to that of our own. And characters.
     
  19. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Okay, so with that assumption in there, too, now we're talking multi-verse theory and that means pretty much anything goes... since we have no evidence to the contrary.
     
  20. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    So, assume it takes place on a different planet and the doors of imagination are wide open.
     
  21. Martin515
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    You're certainly right about a longbow been difficult to use and taking a lifetime to train in, but that is exactly why the crossbow came along. A soldier could be trained to use a crossbow in a day. Load, point, shoot - maybe even slightly easier than the musket, which took a good 30 seconds to load. Add to that the fact that muskets were woefully inaccurate, even as late as the 1800's when rifled weapons started replace them for this very reason. Musketmen were rarely (if ever) trained to hit targets. They were trained to load and fire en-mass volleys , and even then it was only effective at about 100m distance.

    Sorry if that's a bit off-topic, but I think the point strengthens your argument for having pre-gunpower weapons alongside steam technology. Even if your people have discovered gunpowder, they would likely continue to use bows and shields etc. As others have said, it is the advances in metallurgy that allowed both steam and gunpowder to become effective.
     
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  22. IlaridaArch
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    More about muskets, if @Ms. DiAnonyma wants to read;

    Yeah I'm aware of the inaccuracy and firing in volleys. Both crossbow and musket were used to fire in volleys, that's proven by texts from General Ben Franklin who still wanted bows over muskets, but he was turned down. If I recall right, the army valued the fear factor that musket gave. Smoke, roaring sounds etc. Not to mention that muskets actually were proper close combat weapons too, when bows were completely inferior at that.

    Muskets really were "in-development" weapons until ~1500, where they started to improve and clearly overcome bows. In Asia, arquebus I mentioned is told to be the "bow-killer". It's range was effective up to 200 meters. Even though that specific weapon arrived 1540, in 1580 only 30% of japanese soldiers wielded muskets. So the change happened extremely slowly, but combat results speak the truth. I would throw in a guess that producing muskets was lot more complex than bows is one reason, though actual musket rounds were easier than arrows.

    It is worth noting that until rifled muskets arrived, cavalries were 100% capable of sweeping full group of musketmen. Napoleonic Wars are told to be first times, where generals started to question the use of cavalries against muskets (though this applies to Europe only; Oda Nobunaga exterminated Takeda's cavalries with arquebus in 1575).
    - but once again, european bows were much better than japanese bows. And japanese muskets were so much better than first european ones for a long time.

    These changes don't happen fast. There are many factors that need to be understood. One reason why crossbow guys lost to muskets was that you can't reload crossbow while you prone. That alone is shitty weakness. :/

    Good luck to @Ms. DiAnonyma - you really can go either way and make it work.
     
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  23. Ms. DiAnonyma
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    Ms. DiAnonyma Active Member

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    Thanks for all the insightful replies, guys! Plenty helpful
     
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