Built on Facts

Technology & Middle Earth

Chad Orzel’s got a great post up about the physics of Lord of the Rings. It’s about Legolas the elf and his excellent eyesight. His eyes are so good that in fact they’re probably operating well beyond the physical diffraction limits of any optical device with a human-sized pupil. Some speculation was discussed about how his eyes might plausibly be so good without magic: maybe he can see in the short-wavelength UV, maybe he can do interferometry(!), maybe elf pupils are bigger than we think, maybe the Middle Earth “league” is shorter than our identically-named unit of distance, along with a few other interesting suggestions. “It’s magic” is probably the right answer, but then we miss the fun of a physics discussion.

I have another thought. Why doesn’t anyone just use a telescope or binoculars? Ok sure, it’s ancient middle earth and presumably a Galileo hasn’t been born yet. But I see no reason that this ought to stop them. Middle Earth is not a completely pre-technological environment, there’s science of some sophistication. Let’s see:

Glassworking: Good enough to produce Palantir, which are crystal spheres used for communication and surveillance. There’s also very considerable skill in gem cutting, which is important in The Hobbit.

Metallurgy: At least to the medieval level given all the sword-reforging and such, and probably much better since they can work with the practically indestructible Mithril. We’re leaving aside the whole ring-forging thing since that seems to be closer to magic than science.

Chemistry: It’s unclear how much theory they actually understand, but as a practical matter they’ve at least got gunpowder figured out. Nobody uses it but Saruman, which is a shame. Mining the Pelanor Fields might have saved our heroes a lot of trouble. I don’t remember if the metal of the swords is mentioned specifically, but if it’s steel as opposed to iron then that probably adds to the sophistication of the people of Middle Earth with respect to both chemistry and metallurgy.

Biology: Given that the flora and fauna of Middle Earth is so far removed from our experience it’s hard to be definitive about this. The orcs and Uruk-Hai are both arguably bioengineered, but this seems to have been done with magic rather than purely genetic means.

So despite the fantasy setting I’d say the characters have access to an early and little-developed but still considerable quantity of scientific knowledge. If Gondor had spent some of its money on an ancient Los Alamos the whole thing might have been a lot easier.


  1. #1 tbell
    June 24, 2009

    surely Gandalf uses a little gunpowder in his fireworks?!

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    June 24, 2009

    It isn’t clear how the Palantirs are constructed. And we don’t know if they can make glass that is reasonably clear. If you can’t make glass that isn’t very colored then telescopes and binoculars are more or less out. And making transparent glass is actually really difficult.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    June 24, 2009

    Tolkien was a virulent Luddite and a Christian fanatic. He despised intrumentality in all its forms. He despised the Industrial Revolution and its remaking of agricultural Britain – and its class elevation of the uncouth. He was definitely robed in the silver-masked wrestler/savior school of hind gut fermentation.

    Tolkien was an expert on the history and etymology of English words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. He evinced other peccadilloes stemming from his being ground between the gears of WWI wherein the British were much more accomplished at dying than at killing, aided by remarkably inept and ineducable REMFs who abided Napoleon rather than the US Civil War. He would have enjoyed Vietnam for its initial outcome.

    Tolkien did have a wonderful ear for northern languages. His fantasies are linguistically exceptionally well wrought. As for the good guys winning… bet on artillery not flesh.

  4. #4 andy.s
    June 24, 2009

    You could argue that Middle Earthicans just didn’t think of telescopes. In our history, clear glass dates back to the 9th century, about 700 years before it occurred to any one to make telescopes out of it.

  5. #5 Douglas
    June 25, 2009

    I’ve always read the palantiri and rings and such as products of a ‘science’, myself. The elves learned from the Valar, who knew how the world was put together reasonably well. By analogy: lead into gold isn’t magic, if you understand nuclear physics.

  6. #6 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 25, 2009

    The people of Middle-Earth didn’t have the technology to make the Palantiri. They were made by Feanor in Valinor. Actually, there isn’t much glassworking going on anywhere. Feanor seems to have been the only guy to experiment in the area, and he stopped after making the Silmarils.

    BTW, the ‘league’ of Middle-Earth was 5000 Numenorean steps. Since the Numenoreans were tall people, their steps were about 38 inches, and the league was about 5278 yards. See Unfinished Tales.

  7. #7 Jérôme ^
    June 29, 2009

    There is actually a book on this subject, The science of Middle-Earth. The main points:

    – Silmarils (and elven vials such as that Galadriel gave to Frodo) have a veeeeeery large refraction index, so that light keeps coming out of them a long time after they are created;

    – Mallorn trees are bio-engineered using traditional herding techniques (the point being: humans live longer than cattle, so they can farm cattle; elves live longer than elm trees, so they can farm elm trees)

    There is also a part about the density of cells on Legolas’ retin.

    By the way, gunpowder would have saved the First Age’s ass also: they could have either (a) blown the gates to Thangorodrim (or, why not, the whole mountain – they had 400 years to do that!) or (b) dug a big moat in front of it and fortify right outside the mountain to protect Ard-Galen (the fire attack, knowing a bit about Morgoth, was not totally unexpected; plus he’s known to be afraid of water).

  8. #8 Lauren
    March 26, 2011

    According to Weathercast Forecaster & Biology: Given that the flora and fauna of Middle Earth is so far removed from our experience it’s hard to be definitive about this. The orcs and Uruk-Hai are both arguably bioengineered, but this seems to have been done with magic rather than purely genetic means.

  9. #9 William R. Cousert
    February 27, 2012

    Humans have been around for at least 200,000 years. Why did it take so long to develop technology? The usual answer is that slaves were plentiful and did most of the work so technology wasn’t necessary. I don’t buy it. There must have been a few people over the eons who thought we could do better.

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