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I know there are some spells/traps/monsters with electrical, shocking effects in Eberron, so there is a concept of electricity. Eberron is known to have magic street lamps in some of its largest cities, so presumably electric current is either too expensive or not well-understood in the world of Eberron.

How well is electricity understood in Eberron? Would anyone understand how to generate it, run current through a wire, or light a light bulb with it? If so, would there be anyone who would understand things like transistors (particularly logic gates)?

Basically I want to know if I can use electrical engineering to solve problems and challenges in-game, maybe by making things like a flashlight, something like an electric-triggered bomb detonator, and maybe even solar-powered things — the list could go on.

Such a technology took a long time for us to develop in the real world, but presumably the progress of Eberron "scientists" (artificers, alchemists, other?) would be drastically sped up with the assistance of magic.

I know magic could totally be used in place of electric current, but electricity wouldn't be affected by Dispel Magic effects.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not voiting to close or anything because addressing idle curiosity is totally okay. However, it's easier for the site to solve problems than provide information. That is, is there something you want to do or build in the game system you're using that you believe can only be accomplished (e.g. illuminate to every home) or built (e.g. a computer) only if mundane, real-world-style electricity is used? (Which, by the way, I still think is magic. I mean, c'mon, sparky bits running through wires that make boxes talk? Sorcery!) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 30 '16 at 22:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ I suspect this will be hard to answer because its hard to prove a negative: Electronics is not a thing in most D&D settings, and I doubt there's any mention of electronic devices in any published Eberron book - but it's always possible there's one I've never heard of. Still, maybe someone has found Hempel's Raven somewhere. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 31 '16 at 0:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan: I was thinking about a flashlight, something like an electric-triggered bomb detonator, and maybe even solar-powered things. The list could go on. I know magic could totally be used, though in terms of mechanics, electricity wouldn't be affected by a Dispel Magic field. \$\endgroup\$ – jvriesem May 31 '16 at 0:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am an electrical engineer by profession. I can promise you that none of the ways of reliably producing large amounts of electricity on demand are obvious or casually discoverable without prior knowledge. I can also promise you that the material science necessary to understand and implement transistors and solar power is essentially a different field of study all together. Giving a serious answer in Eberron (or any setting) would require more detailed knowledge about how magic works than game settings have any reason to provide.... especially since most game designers aren't engineers. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak May 31 '16 at 1:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Instead of thinking transistor logic, think about relay logic. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relay It is electro-mechanical (like a motor or a solioid) rather than semiconductor based. \$\endgroup\$ – Lyndon White May 31 '16 at 5:01
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In a word, no.

I have some expertise in the world of Eberron, and I have a degree in electrical engineering, and I am quite confident in this.

We have no reason to suspect transistors themselves would fail in Eberron

I don’t agree that electricity necessarily behaves differently in D&D/Eberron than it does in real life. Magic electricity, maybe, particularly in the form of discrete spells, but that’s not the same thing. A lightning bolt spell is already directing electricity in a direction it wasn’t going to go on its own; that can include into the person inside a Faraday cage, path of least resistance be damned. After all, the electricity in a lightning bolt spell is already ignoring numerous other paths of lesser resistance to get to the target (e.g. the one through the caster), since air is an excellent insulator and the voltage necessary to cause it to breakdown (producing ozone) to allow electricity to flow at any significant distance is very high.

But in the case of a lightning bolt, as opposed to a lightning bolt, I would expect it to work much like real lightning. After all, one of the broadest and most fundamental rules underlying D&D is that things work like real life except when the game says they don’t.

But we also lack reason to suspect that they would know to make one

Even so, that still doesn’t mean Eberron is up to the challenge of producing a transistor: Eberron uses very little electricity. Many of the things we use electricity for, Eberron has magic to handle more directly—lighting, heating, locomotion. A major one for the development of signal theory that directly incentivizes the creation of a transistor or something like it (cf. vacuum tube) does not exist, since telecommunication is handled magically (and Sivis already runs what are effectively telegraph stations all over Khorvaire without any electricity).

Furthermore, the basic purpose of a transistor is to use one electrical signal to control or influence the flow of another signal. It is a control or decision point. A single transistor can be used to make an amplifier; several transistors can be used to create more complex amplifiers, and then things like logic gates, memory, arithmetic operators, and so on. Many millions of them produces a computer. But on Eberron they can bind legitimately-intelligent elementals to things to handle almost all of those properties.

The only reason any kind of electromagnetic theory is likely is because of the existence of the lightning rail, but the conductor stones are the result of the direct application of electrical magic, and the train itself is largely driven by a bound elemental. These do not suggest that Eberron understands electromagnetics with either depth or breadth.

Based on available evidence, Eberron does not seem to have even a 19th-century understanding of electricity (I would be shocked if they had all of Maxwell’s equations, for instance), and the transistor is very much a 20th-century development. I don’t think anyone on Eberron would be able to imagine that these mundane crystals could behave in the fashions that they do.

And transistors are very complex to produce

Transistors are complex crystalline structures that require an incredible degree of control over its purity and the distribution of the impurities that it does have. Even if we believe that magic could achieve those structures (and maybe it can), the artificer would have to know what he was trying to create. Doping ultra-pure silicon crystals with boron, phosphorous, arsenic, or whatever is not exactly an obvious step to take, and particular construction of a transistor is also not one that would necessarily occur to an Eberronian artificer.

In fact, there is no evidence that Eberron has atomic theory, and thus it has no concept of the elements as chemistry understands them. Without knowing what arsenic, boron, phosphorous, or silicon is, isolating and purifying them seems out of the question. And the elements used in semiconductors are chosen for reasons, and without atomic theory you would never be able to deduce them.

Conclusion

How well is electricity understood in Eberron?

Per the above, there must be some understanding, but almost all of it is probably very specific to conductor stones. Not much more than that.

Would anyone understand how to generate it,

Does “get an elemental to do it” count? If so, then yes. If not, then probably not. Considering the existence of elementals, why would they even look for another way to do it? And considering the existence of elementals, there isn’t impetus for an electric engine, which would be the expected progression (figure out how to use electricity to move something → figure out that if you run it backwards, you can get electricity out).

run current through a wire,

Sure, probably. That’s about as basic as you can get. I imagine that Cannith labs have enough metal lying around that the people working on conductor stones and lightning elementals noticed some reactions.

or light a light bulb with it?

If handed a light bulb, sure. Producing a light bulb? Unlikely. It took years for Edison to produce a light bulb that could last half a day, and the tungsten filaments used in incandescent bulbs today were many years after that. Without a pressing need for light bulbs since magic was already amply available and capable of producing light, there would be no impetus for spending that kind of time on the development of a light bulb.

For that matter, an incandescent or fluorescent light bulb relies a great deal on evacuating the bulb/tube, which is not necessarily something Eberron knows how to do. They probably could do it easily enough with the right elemental, but would they? Nothing we know of would give them cause to try it.

But they probably could do an arc lamp, since that’s pretty basic. Arc lamps are extremely loud, extraordinarily dangerous, and exceptionally expensive to run. Almost certainly written off as a novelty.

If so, would there be anyone who would understand things like transistors (particularly logic gates)?

Definitely not. That is a massive step up in terms of development. It’s not something some conductor-stone-researcher is going to stumble upon while playing with the various things lying around the lab. Eberron’s development in numerous fields is much too basic for them to even see a use for something transistor-like.

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    \$\begingroup\$ RE: "I would be shocked if they had all of Maxwell’s equations, for instance." Really? You went there? [Groans. Sighs. +1s.] \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 31 '16 at 16:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Completely unintentional. Even when you pointed it out, for a moment I thought you were complaining about Maxwell and/or his equations. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 31 '16 at 17:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ With regards to the chemistry, just because the rules don't mention various atomic species by our name doesn't mean they have no knowledge of them. Medieval alchemists, for example, called Mercury "quicksilver". One of the best chemical solvents was called "water". Presumably alchemists (or other learned ppl) in Eberron would have their own names for various substances, whether these substances were elemental or not. It also takes sophisticated knowledge to produce an alloy like bronze--and this bit of material science was done around 3000 BCE. Also, liquors and poisons require distillation. \$\endgroup\$ – jvriesem May 31 '16 at 23:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jvriesem The properties taken advantage of in semiconductors are not apparent from other experimentation. There would be no reason to suspect such an effect from any material, much less those that actually exhibit it. Only a detailed understanding of electrons and charge movement could predict that they would even be possible. In the real world, atomic theory was a necessary development for that understanding; neither Bronze Age metallurgists not medieval alchemists could have derived the necessary information. I do not discount what they were able to do, but I also know this was beyond them. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 31 '16 at 23:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jvriesem My undergrad courses got into some discrete effects, but true enough: the leading no is definitely about transistors. When I wrote this, that was the title question. I’ll edit tomorrow if I get a chance. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 1 '16 at 2:23
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You are operating under a misconception: lightning and electricity in Eberron (and most D&D worlds) does not work like it does in reality. This is to some degree just simplification; it would not be fun to have to pull out Maxwell's equations every time an electrical attack happened. But this simplification does have some rather important side-effects.

A prime example of this would be a character in full plate mail getting struck by lightning. In the real world, the fellow struck by lightning is completely protected thanks to his Faraday-cage / full plate armor. In D&D, the character is damaged (barring electrical resistances, immunities and other such effects).

Another example is the lightning bolt spell itself. In 5e, for example, the spell produces a bolt of lightning five-feet across and 100-ft long. In the real world, if we produced enough voltage to cross a 100-ft long span of air, the bolt would ground itself out because the path of least resistance will be the 5-foot span directly downward. There are reasons stun batons have to basically make skin contact, and tasers have wires to direct the flow of electricity.

Since electricity demonstrably behaves differently in Eberron than in reality, you should not expect electrical engineering solutions to work in Eberron either.

This doesn't mean there aren't solutions in Eberron that would work even when hit by Dispel Magic, however. We had lanterns and torches long before we harnessed electricity, and cannon wicks have been around since the invention of the cannon.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The behavior of the lightning bolt spell can have a plausible explanation. Maybe the magic itself creates a path of less resistance though the air, or it ionizes a 100-ft long and 5-ft wide area of the air in front of the caster, just before the voltage is unleashed. \$\endgroup\$ – vsz May 31 '16 at 6:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ultimately, it's powered by handwavium. :-) It's magic! \$\endgroup\$ – jvriesem May 31 '16 at 6:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ "In the real world, the fellow struck by lightning is completely protected thanks to his Faraday-cage / full plate armor" Uh, ... it's actually pretty complicated (because plate mail is unlikely to form a perfect Faraday cage, and the mail may not even be continuously connected at all times/places, and the metal may be of poor conductivity) and the rules are a fair attempt to approximate how risky/dangerous it really is. \$\endgroup\$ – RBarryYoung May 31 '16 at 17:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer because it's an elegant sidestep to a very thorny problem. There are no rules for building electrical appliances -- how hard is it to invent, how long does it take to create, how much does it cost, what can it or can't it do? (And isn't it sort of weird that the character is doing all these things because of real-world knowledge the player has?) If we declare that it's possible to create electrical appliances in Eberron, we then have to answer all those questions with ad-hoc houserules. This answer lets us avoid the question entirely. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B May 31 '16 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll add to RBarryYoung's response about the Faraday cage: even if the electricity flowed through the armor instead of through the creature inside it, the resistive ("Joule") heating generated by the current would probably severely burn the creature wielding the armor. (See worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/11011/…) Of course D&D isn't that detailed and doesn't take DR/heat vs. DR/shocking into account, but there is some physical basis for getting damage while in a suit of full plate mail. :-) \$\endgroup\$ – jvriesem May 31 '16 at 23:21
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Take a step back amd think what you're trying to do here. In a world where magic is the standard currency of power, you're thinking of adding a new power that cab accomplish what magic can, from a non-magical basis. In essence, you're doing what Eberron does, but in reverse.

Mechanics wise, this is a huge advantage. It's like having a set of spells that can't be resisted by magic resistance, a set of weapons that ignore DR. It could seriously unbalance a campaign. Also, it leads to the classic "if it can be done, why hasn't someone done it already?" question.

However, it could be very cool if integrated into the the story. Say it's a new art, or a long forgotten knowledge. Think of Weis & Hickman's Dark Sword novels, if you've read them, about a magic-saturated world where the ancient and forbidden lore of technology is rediscovered. Think of it as a plot twist.

In Ars Magica, there are four realms of power: Magic, Faerie, the Infernal and the Divine, all opposed to one another. Some earlier editions introducing the True Reason as a fifth one. This introduced the sort of Rationality as one of the poles of power, opposed to the rest, but integrated (badly in that case, but still) into the world and the system. If you want to give your characters this sort of power, consider adding it into the system as an alternative to magic, just like psionics do. Make the engineering a game element.

And most importantly, don't try to translate real world engineering into the game. It won't be fun for anyone not an engineer. It will highlight inconsistencies with other parts of the system (as other answers here show), and will miss the point of a game being a game, not a world simulator.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One thing I appreciate about this answer is that you describe how it could be incorporated into the story and give your thoughts about it. Also, the "if it can be done, why hasn't somebody done it already?" question was gold. \$\endgroup\$ – jvriesem May 31 '16 at 23:46

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