In Parts 1-3 of Why 1800’s Technology I laid out the primary, secondary and tertiary effects of an EMP event which would leave the survivors 6-9 months later in a world where the technological and industrial infrastructure upon which they had depended their entire life was inoperable.
The majority of that would be the direct consequences of two things:
1. The loss of the power grid and thus electrical power, the primary power source for the Industrialized world.
2. The damaging or destruction of electronic circuits which are required for the overwhelming majority of transportation, communications, power generation, industrial processes and services such as water treatment
The destruction of the power grid’s transformers alone would require years of manufacturing to replace assuming the factories which manufacture them (and the requisite supply and transportation networks) remained operational which is unlikely in a solar EMP which affects the entire world.
CONDTIONS A YEAR AFTER AN EMP
The production of food which using current technology requires motive power such as tractors (along with their requisite supply chains of parts and fuel), fertilizers which are the product of a sophisticated industrial supply and transportation chain. It relies on electrical power and seed, insecticides, fungicides and a range of chemical products which would no longer be available.
Water sources would be limited to wells and open sources requiring treatment. While mechanical windmills and pumps can be built water treatment on an industrial scale to supply a town or community relies on electrical power and industrial chemicals which would no longer be available.
Manufacturing of almost all goods relies on a worldwide supply and transportation network as well as computer controlled machinery and a virtually unlimited supply of electrical power all of which would be unavailable.
In short the existing industrial and technological infrastructure would be rendered completely inoperable.
REBUILDING THE LOST INFRASTRUCTURE
Without a massive and sustained project to replace all damaged circuits while maintaining vulnerable equipment that is not designed to sit idle for extended periods of time such a generators, steam plants, refineries and machine tools the available window to restart that industrial and technological infrastructure is relatively short, years and in some cases mere months.
The insidious Catch-22 is that replacing millions of damaged circuits and transformers requires a functional industrial infrastructure which would be inoperable. You can build a plow with a furnace, an anvil and hammers. You can’ build computers circuits in a workshop.
It is extremely unlikely that the existing infrastructure can be restarted within the window of opportunity available by the small percentage of the population which survives such an event.
Once the equipment such as generators, electrical equipment and machine tools begin to deteriorate beyond a certain point it is no longer feasible to put them back into operation. They would require replacement.
If the survivors of such an event cannot restart the existing infrastructure what options do they have?
That last viable infrastructure which existed prior to the widespread availability of electrical power was that of the 1800s and early 1900s.
At the time of WWI much of the rural United States and much of rural Europe lived without electricity. Even at the time of WWII in the late 1930s and early 1940s large areas of the US and Europe had very limited access to electrical power.
My grandparents, living in North Carolina did not get their first electrical power until a few years before WWII. That was within an hour’s drive of a major North Carolina city.
DEPENDENCE ON INDUSTRIAL CAPACITY
The other aspect of 1800s technology that is very different from modern technology is that very little of it is totally dependent on industrial production. Almost all 1800s technology can be produced in small workshops by a few individuals. Industrial manufacturing in virtually all cases requires simple machine tools which can, themselves be manufactured by a small number of individuals in workshops.
Keep in mind the first airplane in the United States was built in a bicycle shop, the first automobiles manufactured in the U.S. were built in blacksmith shops, carriage shops and other workshops equipped with simple machine tools familiar to any home mechanic or craftsman. Many early automobiles were powered by steam engines which a number of hobbyists build today using simple machine tools.
Once industrial scale production began for many types of items in the 1800s the facilities were simply scaled up workshops in many cases using either scaled up standard power tools or a large number of standard power tools.
In Birmingham, Al the Bessemer Steel Mill used during the mid 1800s could actually be put back into operation with a supply of willing workers and raw materials according to the curators of the plant which is now a museum. The more modern steel mills in other parts of the same city could not be restarted until a functioning power grid was restored.
SPECIALIZATION OF KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS
Yet another aspect of the 1800s that was vastly different from today is the almost unimaginable specialization of technical knowledge in modern industry and technology.
In the 1800s a craftsman building an item such as a plow had to understand steel, how to form the steel into all of the individual pieces as well as how to assemble the pieces into a plow, how it would be used and how it would be hitched to a horse, mule or oxen for motive power. In essence, a simple blacksmith not much different from the blacksmiths of the 1700s, 1600s or 1500s.
A modern plow requires a tractor, an engineer to design it on a computer CAD system, a sophisticated steel plant to fabricate the parts and a factory to assemble and ship the completed equipment. Modifying the plows they manufacture from ones designed for tractors into ones intended to be horse drawn is not a trivial task. It requires the engineer to completely redesign the plow, the steel fabricator to replace their molds and retool their machining and the assembler to change their procedures. None of which would be possible once the electrical power was gone and all of those parts of the manufacturing system were rendered inoperable.
Modern manufacturing has devolved into a myriad of small extremely specialized tasks that are performed by many individuals few if any of which know any of the other specialized tasks. No one “builds a plow”. They each perform one or a very few limited and highly specialized tasks.
In many cases the people “manufacturing” items know little of nothing about the item itself and are simply machine operators.
Most 1800s technologies are such that a single individual or small group of individuals can master and perform all of the tasks required to produce the necessary final products or service.
Much of the existing technology which could be salvaged by the survivors would be useless. Being designed to make use of electrical power which was no longer available or motive power such as tractors and other internal combustion engine powered machines they would be of limited use.
For a time older tractors and vehicles which did not have computerized parts would be useable. Eventually however they would break down and there would be no more spare parts and no practical way to make them. A few individuals might be able to machine replacements parts, a few resourceful individuals might be able to refine bio diesel, build wood or coal gas generators or distill ethanol but none of those are viable on anything other than a small local scale. Eventually all of the technology would break and require replacements parts which no longer existed and could not easily be made.
Electrical power could and would be generated on a small scale for a while using things such as windmills, solar panels, and other “renewable” sources. However for anything other than small scale, local and temporary use they require large and extensive battery arrays, which themselves are the product of modern industrial technology. Batteries wear out and are not easily manufactured at home.
Solar panels are quite technologically sophisticated and are not an item one makes in their workshop. Both the materials and the manufacturing process require highly sophisticated technology and machine. Mechanical windmills have been used to pump waters for centuries. Their use to produce electrical power relies on industrial wire production and a source of electrical components to build rectifiers and controllers. Like other “renewable” power sources they require extensive battery banks.
While parts for all these systems could be salvaged for some time, just as with salvaged automobiles eventually parts would fail, the supply of spare parts would run out and there is no practical way to manufacture replacements.
Which means that eventually the survivors would have to start building an infrastructure capable of supplying more than an individual or family. Water treatment and distribution plants would be required in order to build even a moderate sized town. Sewage systems would have to be built. Communications systems would have to be reestablished to build commercial networks between communities. Telegraphs systems, for instance, making use of existing poles and wires could be built quickly and relatively easy. Restarting a telephone systems using extensive computer systems and requiring a constant and reliable source of electrical power could not.
Steam engines to use still existing rail networks requires relatively unsophisticated machining and have been around for about two centuries . Even today steam locomotives are still widely used in many parts of the world even some of the advanced industrialized nations due to their sheer raw power unmatched by sophisticated diesel locomotives.
Cargo and passenger ship powered by sail remained in use well into the 1900’s in some parts of the world.
While the modern infrastructure could not realistically be restarted after a solar EMP an infrastructure making use of the NON-ELECTRICAL technology of the 1800s and early 1900s could be much more easily put in place through the use of simple machine tools, hard work and ingenuity.
The men and women who developed much of the technology of the 1800s were not all engineers, scientists and technology experts. In fact very few of them were any of those.
The Wright Brothers had little education and while they were interested in scientific work on flight neither of them was an engineer, a scientists or any “titled” professional as we would think of aircraft designers today. They were simply intelligent, industrious men who dedicated themselves to accomplishing something. They used the technology of the early 1900s to build a successful airplane.
We often think of the manned flights to the moon at one of the pinnacles of modern technology. Yet keep in mind that the Apollo Moon missions took place before the widespread availability of computers. Computers as we think of them today, even pocket calculators, did not exist in the 1960s. The scientists and engineers who designed and built the Saturn 5 and the Apollo vehicles used slide rules.
i.e. wooden sticks with logarithmic scales printed on them provided the mathematical power to fly to the moon and come back.
NON-RELIANCE ON ELECTRICITY
The key aspect of 1800s technology to survivors rebuilding after an EMP is that virtually none of it relies on electrical power as a fundamental necessity.
As long as you can turn a lathe it doesn’t matter whether it is turned by a foot treadle, water power, animal power, steam power or an electric motor. As long as you can heat steel to the point it is malleable it doesn’t matter if you heat it with wood or charcoal or coal of electricity. While a steam powered trip hammer makes blacksmithing a lot less work, the human arm and a hammer did the metal working for most of human history until well into the 1900s.
As long as you can burn limestone to produce lime, shape wood and make leather to fabricate a horse collar, find a blacksmith to make you a plow and other farming tools and collect various animal droppings to use as fertilizer you can farm and produce food. If you’re good at it and with practice you can produce significantly more than your own family needs. Once you do you have goods to trade and there is a surplus available to allow others to work on making shoes, stoves, tools, lumber, steel, printing presses and all of the other fundamental necessities to build and continue to expand an infrastructure such as the one that brought us the modern world in which we live today.
MAINTAINING OLD SKILLS
Fortunately one of the technologies of 1800s was book production. Many, many books detailing the technologies, skills and knowledge of that period either still exist or were saved by scanning them into digital format before the old books deteriorated from age and use. That gives us a unique opportunity to collect that knowledge, store it and distribute it in a form that can be carried in a small box or bag or even a pocket.
A single flash drive or a stack of optical disks can contain thousands of books. Millions of pages of information and keep it safe until the day it is needed.
While digital technology would not be available to most people trying to rebuild after an EMP there would be enough salvageable computers and printers, enough solar panels and wind generators to last for several years. In that environment a community or even a small group of people could access and print out much of the information they needed to begin serious, long term and sustained rebuilding.
The simple 3 volume set of The Book of the Farm printed out and available for a community to read and reference could provide virtually everything a group of survivors needed to know to successfully operate a farm without the use of modern technology.
A farmer specializing in poultry or horses or cattle could find dozens of books on how to successfully operate and manage their farms.
An individual who wanted to develop a smithy would have access to dozens of books on smithing and metal working.
A community interested in refurbishing or building a simple steam locomotive or steamship, building a steam engine to power a mill or a lumberyard would find invaluable information on steam engines, their design, construction and operation in a collection of 1800s books. Having access to those books would save them hundred perhaps thousands of man hours of experimentation.
The technology of the 1800s is the most recent level of technology that can be recreated:
WITHOUT Advanced degrees
USING ONLY simple tools that can themselves be reproduced without either Electricity or Advanced knowledge.
In the end the technology of the 1800s is the best combination of relatively sophisticated technology that can be recreated relatively quickly, does not require a massive industrial and technological infrastructure and which can be mastered by people without advanced education beyond reading and basic mathematics and some mechanical aptitude.
The technology of the 1800’s and early 1900’s gave birth, within a generation, to the technology of WWII, the Space program.
My grandfather remembered the newspaper stories of the Wright Brothers first flight here in North Carolina.
I remember the day in October 1987 when Sputnik went into orbit. We got our first Black and White TV when I was about 5 years old and I remember a decade or so later watching Neill Armstrong set foot on the moon. My children grew up with computers and thought a typewriter (like I used in high school) which I brought home one day was a fascinating and quaint antique.
Within three generations the world went from farming with mules to interplanetary travel, personal computers and instantaneous worldwide communications via smartphones and the internet.
They did it.
The survivors of an EMP event who would be some very resourceful people as proven by the fact they
did survive could do it also.