From the start of the Harry Potter series, our hero finds himself a stranger in a very strange land. He discovers that the world he grew up in hides a secret wizarding world. This is no Oz or Wonderland that exists separate from the normal world and can only be entered through extraordinary means. No, it exists side by side with present-day England.
Harry quickly discovers that this world has norms and rules different from the world he is familiar with. For example, it is normal for the images in pictures and paintings to move. They even leave to go visit others of their kind. All these new experiences help to sustain sense of wonder throughout the series.
One of the first things that Harry learns in his new world is that much of the Muggle technology he grew up with is not to be found. Everyday items such as telephones and electric lights are unfamiliar to many of the wizard community. The obvious question is why. Why are so many of the artifacts of modern day life unavailable to wizards? That is the question that this essay attempts to address.
Muggle technology seems to fall into three broad groups: those that don’t work in the wizarding world; those that could work, but the wizards have their own devices; and those that fit comfortably in both worlds. We are told by Hermione that there are some Muggle devices that will not work around magic, radios for instance (GF28). Why is that? For the answer, we must take a quick side trip into the nature of magic.
Magic in the Harry Potter world is a power that wizards and witches are able to harness and control by some innate ability. Magical effects are often accompanied by lights, sparks, and sounds. The very first magical effect that Harry performed in his new world was shooting sparks out of his new wand at Ollivander’s.
It seems to imply that magic effects the electro-magnetic spectrum in some way. Some serious energy is being dealt with. A similar thing happens when a nuclear device is exploded. A massive pulse of EM energy is radiated out all over the spectrum. Radios cease to work. Power lines arc. Telephones burn out. It is because of this chaos that nations spend millions installing infrastructure that is immune to this EM interference.
Nuclear devices work by a conversion process. They convert matter into energy. Magic is also a conversion process. It converts matter or energy into other matter or energy. In any real-world process, there is always wasted energy—the second law of thermodynamics. It is reasonable to assume that much of that wasted energy escapes in the EM spectrum. The manifestation of this is light, sparks, and heat.
If this is true, then it becomes obvious why such Muggle devices as telephones, televisions, radio, and electric lights and appliances are unusable. They would burn out, arc out, or pick up so much static and other interference as to render them useless. Just providing power to these would be problematic. Any power grid would act as a huge antenna and short out.
Computers would suffer a similar fate. The author once worked for a computer manufacturer that made a computer that was so sensitive to electro-static-discharge (ESD), they had to withdraw it from the market. If a user had long hair and shook their head, the ESD generated could hang the system. If that can happen in a real-world system, imagine what would happen in the chaotic, super-charged atmosphere of a wizard home, school, or workplace. One Accio spell would hang every computer within 50 meters.
The only Muggle electrical devices that would have a chance of working would be very small, self-contained DC battery systems. It has to be small so that the electrical runs do not act like antennae and pick up the magical interference. It also has to be DC because the interference will cause power ripples. This precludes radios, audio/visual equipment, and digital devices. A flashlight would likely work. So would an electric analog wristwatch.
Mechanical devices seem to fare better in the magical world than their electrical counterparts. Several of the students have wristwatches. Colin’s camera seems to operate without difficulty. These are simple devices that wizards have not developed their own versions. For other functions, they have developed their own solutions. A classic example of this is the moving staircase to Dumbledore’s office. This is far superior to any Muggle escalator, hence Mr. Weasley’s and Hagrid’s unfamiliarity with them.
One question that is asked repeatedly is, why does Harry have to use a quill pen? Why doesn’t he use a ballpoint, or at least a fountain pen? There could be several reasons. A conservative magic world might not want to give up quills—it sets them apart from the Muggles. It could be that writing about magic requires an enchanted writing implement, and no one has come up with a spell to enchant anything other than a quill. Or it could be that Hogwarts makes its pupils do things the old-fashioned hard way before they get out into the real world and can use simpler methods.
Another question is why don’t wizards wear Muggle clothing? Here is a perfectly good Muggle technology that wizards seem to avoid. The question is made more interesting by the fact that wizard children don’t seem to have a problem with them. It could be that magic casting requires robes. The energies involved cannot be properly handled and fully controlled if the spell-caster is in Muggle attire. Since wizard children aren’t allowed to do magic before Hogwarts or during summer break, they can wear the Muggle clothes during these times. Or it could be the conservative wizarding world once again. Harry’s generation may be the one that finally does away with the robes except for formal occasions. A similar thing has happened in Japan.
One question the writer would love to see answered is, what is the nature of a wizard printing press? All those school books and all those Lockhart books and all those wizard magazines and newspapers—they have to be printed somehow. It seems terribly inefficient to have people doing them by hand, especially the illustrations. It has to be painstaking work. Remember Wizard Baruffio! Even banks of enchanted quills would be a logistic nightmare. Since the pressruns are limited from a few hundred up to a few thousand, they likely could get by with just a simple offset press.
Whatever the reasons for the lack of Muggle technology in the wizarding world, one thing is certain. Joanne Rowling has created a truly magical place where adults and children can both relax and enjoy the environment. She is a true sorceress.