Magic and tech: travel

Let’s start our look into the intersection of magic and technology by focusing on travel. It’s an important part of life, communication, government, and far more; indeed, it encompasses much of what makes a civilization possible. So how would it change in the presence of magic?


In our mundane world, in the timeframe we’re discussing, you had a few possible modes of travel. Foot travel (walking or running) is, of course, the oldest and most reliable. It’s also one of the slowest. On foot, you’re lucky to cover a few miles an hour (2-3 is common for walking; running can get as high as 15 or more, but only for relatively short distances), which translates to a rough maximum of 15-20 miles per day. And your feet are going to be awfully sore.

Riding, usually on horseback, is another possibility. (It wasn’t an option in the New World, but we’re making a decidedly Eurocentric culture here, so that’s okay.) This is a bit faster, with less physical exertion on the part of the traveler, but it comes at a cost: animals are expensive, they need their own care, and there are places they can’t go. None of these problems is solved by the other forms of animal-powered travel, ranging from carts to sleds. All in all, animals might get you double the travel, maybe averaging 30-40 miles per day.

Boats are another good option, if the terrain allows them. You need rivers, and they need to be able to support craft. That means no rapids or waterfalls, no dams, no seasonal drying, and so forth. But where it works, it’s worth it. Going downriver is easy, and you can cover vast distances quickly. Sixty miles in a day? Not that hard, especially since the current will keep you moving while you take a break from the oars. The downside, though, is obvious: you can only go where the rivers go.

All this is a far cry from what we’re used to today. In modern times, it’s easier to measure distance covered per hour, not per day. We have cars (about 30-60 mph, depending on speed limits), bicycles (anywhere from 10 mph up), and airplanes (200 mph is on the low end). All of these contribute to a cultural cohesion that didn’t—couldn’t—exist 600 years ago. People tended to stay close to home back then, and one of the reasons was because it was just so hard to go anywhere else. We think nothing of a fifteen-hour flight to another continent or three days of driving on a road trip, but earlier societies were much more limited in their mobility. The next town over might be a couple hours’ ride; going from your farmstead to the big city might be a weekend’s journey. And you’d only go far if it was worth it.

Just add magic

In our magical society, however, things are much more familiar, because magic helps alleviate some of the worst restrictions. Our wizards don’t have haste spells—not for lack of trying—but they have plenty of ways of increasing physical stamina, removing exhaustion, and healing general aches and pains. All of these can be used by foot and animal traffic, and they have a huge effect. Sure, you still need to eat, and so do the horses, but you don’t have to stop to do it. That already adds maybe 50% or more to your total coverage for a day, taking that 15 miles of walking and turning it to as much as 25.

But we (rather, our wizards) can do better. A recent invention in our fantasy kingdom involves something like the magical equivalent of a perpetual motion machine: a stored “pool” of magical energy is slowly released to turn a wheel or gear at a relatively constant speed, much like a flywheel. Once started, inertia keeps the wheel spinning, with small losses for friction countered by the stored magical power. (Flywheels, in principle, may date back almost a thousand years, so it’s reasonable to suggest that our magical culture might be playing with them in its later Middle Ages.)

Where this gets interesting is when one industrious mage connected this fairly well-known device to a cart by a system of gears, shafts, and the like. The resulting contraption moved forward, accelerating to a walking pace. After a decade or so of refinement, thanks to generous grants from interested nobility, the wizards of our budding nation have a self-propelled vehicle that can run for about 24 hours, with a top speed of 10 mph on flat, level ground. Rougher terrain drops this by up to half, and “refueling” the storage pool is expensive (it’s easiest to retain the services of a mage to ride with you), but the upsides are obvious.

Put simply, it’s a car. It doesn’t have much range, its speed isn’t great, it’s exorbitantly priced, but it compares well with some of the earliest attempts at automobiles. Going up against traditional modes of transit, it’s a no-brainer. Even with only the nobility being able to use them, these magic-mobiles radically alter the nature of society. The king’s decrees, courts, justice, benevolence, all of it can be delivered much faster than any other way. Soldiers can’t be transported, and only small amounts of goods can, but information transport is much more efficient in our magical world.

Such vehicles would also create the need for infrastructure to accommodate them. High-quality roads are a priority, to maximize the magic-mobiles’ power output; the ultimate goal is to connect every city with them. This causes a demand for great amounts of low-skilled laborers, with the knock-on effect of low unemployment in the traditionally slow summer and winter seasons. Rest stops have begun to spring up on the roads, mostly in the form of inns and taverns founded by enterprising merchants. And novice mages have both an extra income source and a way to practice one of the more complex spells: the storing of magical energy in an artificial vessel.

In addition to our magical cars, the wizards have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Human flight, they have found, is essentially impossible even for the greatest mages. But something like it can be approximated. A simple jumping spell can be augmented by more experienced magic users so that it flings them up to 500 feet into the air. An equally easy slow-fall spell keeps the mage from descending too fast (and getting hurt). Given a running start, each bound can cover about the same distance horizontally as vertically, and the whole process from one jump to the next takes about a minute. It’s not much faster than walking (6 mph, give or take), but it also brings the advantage of aerial scouting. Problem is, it’s individual; only a mage can work the spells, and he can only cast them on himself and maybe a person he’s carrying.

Movement in the water benefits from the magical motor above, and in exactly the same way, but some parts of the kingdom have another option. Weather control is beyond the best archmage, but most adepts can summon a concentrated jet of air or water. The former makes sails usable even in the calmest conditions, and at smaller sizes than otherwise needed. Water jets, on the other hand, help all watercraft, from the smallest raft to the biggest galleon. By Newton’s Third Law—the wizards don’t know it as such, but they’ve figured out the important part—the vessel is moved as a reaction to the propulsive force of the jet. It’s not that much of a force, but it adds up over time, which makes it worth it for longer journeys. (The same reasoning applies to the ion engines of modern spacecraft.)

Where do you want to go?

With their magical cars, Superman-like leaping wizards, and jet-powered boats, the high people of our kingdom have easy ways to move around. Even the poorer folk can benefit from the endurance spells. Together, the magical additions at the ends of the class spectrum combine to create a more cohesive society than any in Europe’s 14th century. Knowledge of current events diffuses throughout the realm at a much faster pace. Authority is much closer to hand.

Cargo transport, unfortunately, doesn’t yet have a magical panacea. River travel is still the best option, at least where it is an option. The increased speeds, however, mean that fresh foods are more commonly found in cities, among other luxuries. (On a more martial note, naval warfare is completely different, though we’ll look at that later on.) Travel upriver is far easier, too, if you have a mage on your craft.

Our magical kingdom won’t be completely modern, but it will have reached a kind of transitional stage of travel. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of the early railroad days, when people were first exposed to the idea of higher-speed transit. Indeed, given time, something like a railroad may develop. All it would take is more incremental progress in the magic motor, allowing it to provide more force. That would enable higher speeds, larger carrying capacities, or both. Once it gets to the point where even poorer peasants can afford a ride to the next town, they’ll soon stop being peasants at all. But that’s a tale for a different day.

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