Speculate: world where refined metals are rare.

Suppose we’d arrived at the bronze age and (for some reason that need not have an explanation, but cannot be overcome) found it generally very hard to scale up the refinement of metals. Let’s say that it turns out to be one thousand times as difficult/costly to produce any metal or alloy. In effect, iron, copper, tin, zinc, etc are all only available in very small quantities (by comparison to their availability in the world we inhabit).

Remember, this is a hypothetical world that you can’t fight. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t affect chemistry or biology in general. The composition of the world is the same - we are just (for an insurmountable reason we need not argue) unable to obtain metals in their uncombined states, except in small amounts.

How might the world be different? Civilisation doesn’t absolutely require abundant metal, but the industrial revolution did.

I don’t wanna live in a world without zinc

Vernor Vinge wrote a story set in such a world: Tatja Grimm’s World.

American civilizations reached iron-age levels of organization with very limited or non-existent metalworking.

An industrial revolution seems pretty much impossible without metalworking, because you can’t build a steam engine without metal. The steam engines that powered mills were directly inspired by watermills and windmills, but pretty soon you’re going to tap all available sources of wind and water power, and you can’t scale up past that. With steam engines you can dig twice as much coal and get twice as much power, but once you’re dammed all available rivers and streams you’re topped out for water power. And without metals you’re not going to have hydroelectric power, but hydromechanical power.

No steam engines means no steamships, so transportation is by sail. No railroads, so expect to see extensive canals and transport by barge instead. Hard to say whether compasses would exist–you’d still have very expensive iron which means they’d be possible, but without extensive ironworking people might never have noticed naturally occuring magnets and never figured out magnets.

Without metals, expect a lot more effort into ceramics and glass and textiles, but without metal tools wood is a lot harder to work. Chemistry doesn’t depend on advanced metallurgy, neither does biology, although surgeons use obsidian scalpels rather than metal ones.

No metals means no cannons and no guns, but you can still have gunpowder rockets and grenades. Expect to see extensive refinements of portable bamboo rocketlaunchers instead. But without cannons and without guns, expect castles and elite warriors to dominate the battlefield rather than peasant armies. The longbow was superior to the musket up until the end of the 18th century, it’s just that it required extensive training. So expect to see a Japanese model of elite bowmen with lacquered leather armor, and macuahuitl style secondary weapons made of wood and mass-produced chipped glass, with secondary troops armed with glass or ceramic tipped pikes, grenades, and rockets. Artillery consists of rockets, mortars, hwachas, and catapults that fling ceramic bombs. Although, without metal armor and weapons the difference in equipment between what a wealthy professional warrior can afford and what a peasant militiaman can afford isn’t so great. So expect a little bit more social equality between upper and lower classes than in our feudal eras.

Could you even build sailing ships without nails? Or saws? Or dig canals without shovels?

You don’t need nails. You can use wooden pegs. Polynesians crossed the Pacific with no metal tools. You don’t need metal to do woodworking, you can use stone. It’s true that stone tools are a pain in the ass, and metal tools increase productivity dramatically, but they aren’t necessary. So designs are going to be different, and ships are going to be smaller, harder to build, more expensive, and less capable with no metal tools or fittings, but ocean-crossing sailing ships are certainly possible.

And shovels don’t have to be metal. How do you think the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan? They didn’t have metal shovels, or metal woodworking tools, or metal stoneworking tools.

Just to clarify - we’d still have metal, just not very much of it - but enough to do anything that was worth the very high cost and effort. Maybe it would be reserved for manufacturing tools - maybe metal tools would be regarded as bling.

Right, your hypothetical was that metals would be about 1000 times as expensive. That means that a metal tool that would take a medieval peasant 1 weeks labor to obtain would instead be worth 1000 weeks of labor.

The way to think of it is that you can still have iron or bronze tools, but those metal tools are as expensive as solid gold tools would be on our world. I can easily imagine applications where a metal part was so useful it would be worth it to make it out of gold, but those applications are going to be few and far between, and certainly doesn’t include nails or shovels. Extremely wealthy nobility might have solid iron macuahuitls and iron reinforcements to their armor. But no peasant is going to have an iron shovel. We might see master craftsmen with sets of iron tools, but to become a master craftsman you’ll be spending your life mastering stone tools, so learning a new toolkit doesn’t make sense.

And without refinement, iron tools are going to be copies of stone tools, just made of iron. Nobody is going to spend time thinking of designs in metal, because that’s just a pipe dream. Instead creative energy will go to designing with stone, bone, ceramic, glass, shell, textile, wood, and eventually fiberglass and carbon fiber.

Even if a solid gold sword worked better than a steel sword very few people would switch to gold swords, even if they could afford it. It’s just too much opportunity cost.

Aztecs and Mayans, IIRC, having not much in the way of useful metals, did a lot with textiles (eg, quilted armour, rope bridges, knotted strings as writing).

Yeah, maybe - although looking back in history, bronze was scarce and was worked more finely than stone, gold was scarce and was worked more finely (OK, for ornate things) than clay or bone etc.
Given that a big advantage of steel over non-metal materials is strength and durability, I could envisage master craftsmen playing to that advantage, in the same sort of way as they played to the advantages of gold (as a material) being pretty and corrosion resistant.

Perhaps, although I’m not sure you can get very easily to glass/carbon fibre composite materials without (metal)machine technology being developed to the level to make them. It’s possible to develop machines made of other stuff, of course, but would we have gone in that direction? And so far?

As with any such alternative reality, you can speculate endlessly to reach any conclusion that you like.

One way of looking at it is that a lack of metal tools makes machinery much more attractive. Without metal tools a lot of work becomes incredibly time consuming, and large projects become incredibly labour intensive. Something like chopping down a reasonable sized tree can take two men an entire day using stone axes. Cutting stone blocks using obsidian drills can takes years. With such simple, unproductive tasks taking up so much human labour, the advanatge of machine power becomes huge. In our world nobody invented a tree chopping or stone cutting machine until we had machine power capable of working much faster than anything human could possible achieve. In a world where so many tasks take so long, as machine become much more viable.

For example, imagine a wind powered machine that could be set up in an hour and adjusted in just 5 minutes every hour and that will chop down a tree in just 6 hours. It’s machine that can theoretically be built using the same technology as a water mill. In our world it would never be built because it only takes a couple of hours to cut down the biggest tree using metal axes. In a world with no metal such machines are highly useful because it allows one man to chop down several trees in a day, something that he otherwise could not do.

Since machines such as the potter’s wheel and millstone seem to have been developed using just stone tools, it seems quite plausible that adaptation of the same principle to other tasks was even more likely. So based on this train of thought our alternative world is likely to be technologically more advanced than our own.

In the old world this never happened because we developed metal working very soon after the potter’s wheel and the millstone, thus removing the incentive for further innovation. In the New World they never invented wheeled machines, thus closing down that avenue.

Raymond Feist Riftworld series. The invading world is one that is short on metal so they develop epoxy composites to take the place of metals in stuff like weapons and armor.

Also remember that you can chip finish obsidian to scalpel sharp, and the Aztecs made clubs with obsidian set in the lengths of wood which were very deadly until they ran into the metal using Europeans.

I could see a sort of blend of intricate stonework, bonework and epoxywork in applications we currently or historically have used metal. Think how effective fibreglass armor would be against blunt weapons and how silk, epoxy and bone lamellar would be against stone or rare metal tipped arrows would be. One form of armor [used at the theoretical Troy for example] was bone. Silk was worn as a sort of protection against penetrating arrow wounds by mongols, apparently the silk strands would help trap the shaft and head of the arrow and make it easier to pull the arrows out. Less debris in a wound makes it easier to treat.

As was pointed out above, there are areas on earth that were metal poor and they managed to find ways to conduct war just like everywhere else =)

Absolutely. The only wrong answers here are those that attempt to fight the hypothetical.

I think it would certainly be rich ground for creativity to take root (or it could just stifle the development of advanced technology for a long time). I think you’re spot on with the alternative machines - something wind-powered and designed to grind through a tree instead of chopping it sounds quite plausible.

Metals are useful because they are, in general, a) cheap, b) strong, c) stiff, d) tough, e) heat resistant, and f) electrically conductive. The hypothetical is removing (a), which just means that other materials will be developed to fill in, depending on what properties are needed. If you need something strong and tough–bridges, say–composites can take the place of metals (see here). Strong and heat resistant? How about ceramics? Both ceramics and composites are reasonably stiff.

There has been a lot of development of metals to optimize them for various applications that, in your alternate universe, would have been done on ceramics and composites instead. Tougher glass. Ceramic composites. Tree breeding programs to improve lumber quality. Things I can’t even think of.

I imagine industrial progress would be slower without metals, because there are few materials that are strong, tough, and heat resistant enough to make engines. I would think you could make a low pressure ceramic steam engine with enough incentive, though, and maybe such a device would be worth expending precious iron to make. The electrical grid would be one thing that I think would be hard to replicate. Generators and transmission lines need conductive materials, and there’s not much out there that can substitute for metal. I suppose you could transmit power using water pressure instead, but that would require a more complicated and difficult-to-manage distribution system, and probably more localized.

Bottom line is I think you’d see industrial progress, but at a slower pace than in the real world.

The problem is that the processes we currently have to develop and manufacture those alternative materials are themselves quite metal intensive. That’s not to say there can’t be such things as industrial manufacture of ceramics and composites in a metal-poor world, but it’s hampered by the same problem it’s trying to solve.

I’m not sure why that’s a problem. The processes we currently have for manufacturing materials are metal-intensive because metals are relatively cheap. If metals weren’t cheap, which is the point of your hypothetical, then other materials would be used in the manufacturing process to the extent that they could be, and metals only where they must be. Advanced manufacturing processes (for anything) are going to be based on years of ceramic and composite development that don’t exist in our world, because in our world there’s no economic reason not to use steel and aluminum and copper when building a manufacturing plant.

That approach obviously makes for a more expensive manufacturing process (and thus, I would guess, slower industrial progress), but if your hypothetical is, “suppose a common item were more expensive” then the logical fallout is that everything that currently depends on that item gets more expensive.

(As a side note, there are manufacturing processes that use things like platinum and diamonds, which are 1000 to 10,000+ times more expensive than steel. So there’s obviously a willingness to use expensive materials when the need arises.)

That’s fair enough, I just didn’t want to push the problem back one stage, then overlook it.

Graphite works just fine. At a pinch pipes filled with salt water also work for transmission.

Once you get to the level of 20th century polymer technology you can make graphite impregnated polymers that are far superior to metals for electrical transmission lines. And of course in a world with no metals, polymer science would be much more advanced much earlier.

Superior-but-expensive materials are still more expensive (that is, require more effort to build). So you won’t find people stringing powerlines everywhere, even if it’s technically possible.

I agree that people could develop alternatives to metals, but they’d still lag way behind Earth in technology, in the same way that if we dump megatonnes of Material X on Earth 2, they’d be ahead of Earth.

The reason we’ve spend millenia developing metallurgy because metals are the best solution for hundreds and thousands of applications. Take away that solution and solutions are still possible, but they’re going to be inferior in some way. And this means that the opportunity costs to develop alternative technologies are greater than the opportunity costs to develop metallurgy, which is another way of saying people are poorer.

Take the metal-poor world, and if aliens or elves give them the gift of megatonnes of steel, copper and aluminum they’re going to be much better off.

The other point is that the industrial revolution wasn’t, in my opinion, something inevitable. Yes we’ve had steadily increasing technology, even during the middle ages. But China or India or the Ottomans weren’t on the verge of an Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. The potential applications for steam engines just weren’t recognized until long after steam engines were built, when people realized that you could convert watermills and windmills to steam power.

Anyway, I imagine without metals we’d have a lot more local power generation, and direct use of mechanical power. Factories would cluster much closer around power sources. So you could build the Grand Coulee Dam, but you’d probably set up factories on site run directly by mechanical energy rather than convert the hydropower to electricity and run powerlines to population centers.

The other problem with this scenario is no railroads, which limits cheap shipping to water transport. Can large cities be supplied efficiently without rail? Obviously coastal cities are fine, but interior cities are at a huge disadvantage.

Railroads would still exist, but they would be much more expensive. Either you build them with rails made of the right kinds of hard tropical woods, or you go inverse and guide the wheels down troughs in stone pavements. And they could be animal-hauled. The advantages of guidance and load-carrying would still be there.