“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
The quotation above was coined by Arthur C. Clarke as his Third Law, in Report on Planet Three (1972). This essay compares the different technologies available to the magical and muggle worlds.
Artifacts with magical properties are quite common in the magical world described in the books of J.K. Rowling. Some of them are similar to their muggle analogues in both form and basic function, but have some additional, magical, behaviour. Examples include the Knight Bus, the Weasley’s car, the Hogwarts Express, and the boat used by Hagrid and Harry to leave the Hut-on-the-Rock, all of which are forms of transport that would be visually recognised as such by a muggle. There are also the omnioculars used by Harry at the Quidditch World Cup (GF8), and cauldrons such as the one bought for Ginny in CS4, which is just a container, but, like the car, seems to have much more space on the inside than the outside dimensions would suggest—it is used to carry all their other purchases, but is still easily carried by the 11-year-old Ginny.
Other magical objects have the form of muggle artifacts but quite different functions from those of their muggle analogues—the broomstick and the Time Turner are good examples. There are also magical artifacts that bear no close resemblance to any muggle artifact, either in form or function—Remembralls, Pensieves, and Sneakoscopes are examples.
The manufacture of magical artifacts is not explained in detail in the books, but the advertisement for the Firebolt broomstick in PA4 gives some explanation, and we are told that the Weasleys’ car was a muggle artifact that had been enchanted to give it the ability to fly. Other magical artifacts might be produced by enchantment in the same way—for example Hagrid appears to have enchanted the boat in PS5 to make it self-propelled. This self-propelling enchantment must be very easy, as even Hagrid—who completed less than three years of the Hogwarts course—can do it. This makes it rather puzzling as to why the carriages used by students to travel from Hogsmeade railway station to Hogwarts School are not similarly self-propelled, as most students believe (PA5, GF11), but have to be drawn by Thestrals, as revealed in OP10.
Another possibility for the creation of magical artifacts is Transfiguration, but this process clearly has its limitations: if Transfiguration could be used to make anything and everything, there would be no poor wizards like the Weasleys—they could simply transform something cheap into something more valuable. Is it possible, perhaps, that Transfiguration has only a temporary effect?
Just as muggles do not understand magic, much of modern technology is a mystery to the wizarding world, and would indeed appear, to a wizard, to operate by some unknown agency—witness Arthur Weasley’s fascination with the mysteries of how muggles manage without magic, for example his comments during his visit to the Dursleys in GF4 and on the London Underground in OP7.
However, the wizarding world is not as technologically primitive as, say, the Stone Age. The descriptions of life in the magical world seem to suggest that much muggle technology, even that developed relatively recently, is nevertheless familiar to wizards. Wizards have fire (although not necessarily generated in the way muggles do), agriculture (although the animals and plants they cultivate are rather unusual by muggle standards): even railways—in Gringotts, and lifts (elevators)—in the Ministry of Magic.
Wizards also use clothes, although fashions are rather different from those worn by muggles. In the films the children are shown as wearing academic-style robes over typical British school uniform during lessons, and ordinary muggle clothes at other times (see e.g. the Time-Turner sequence in PA/f); however, the books indicate that wizard clothes are very different from muggle clothes. They need to change into their robes as the Hogwarts Express approaches journey’s end (PS6, GF11) and the children’s muggle clothes have to be sent after them to Grimmauld Place so they can use the London Underground to visit Mr. Weasley in St. Mungo’s (OP22). That wizard clothes differ significantly from muggle fashions is also evident from “old Archie’s” objection to wearing trousers at the Quidditch World Cup: “I like a healthy breeze round my privates”, and the exposure of Snape’s grey underpants when James Potter inverted him (OP28): from these events we can conclude that WIZARDS DON’T WEAR TROUSERS!—(although mercifully Snape, unlike Archie, wore underpants!)
Technology Not Used by Wizards
The key advance used by muggles that wizards seem not to have mastered is electricity, which is a total mystery to wizards (Arthur Weasley is so unfamiliar with it he doesn’t even get the name right (“they run off eckeltrricity, do they?” GF4). Electromagnetism was discovered by Oersted in 1821, and electromagnetic induction (the principle behind the electric generator and electric motor) by Faraday ten years later. Heavy industry and electricity were to transform the muggle world, but the wizards had no need of them—they already had magic to achieve the same ends.
Consider the following everyday experiences:
- speaking to people anywhere in the world
- creating the sound of a huge orchestra from a tiny box
- seeing what is happening anywhere on the planet, or even on other planets
- seeing people who died over a century ago living and moving
- seeing, and moving around in, worlds which have no real existence
- flooding a room with light by touching a small panel on the wall
- entering a small room, seeing the doors close by an unseen hand, experiencing a strange sensation in legs and stomach, and then seeing the doors re-open to reveal the room outside to have been utterly transformed!
- travelling in a vehicle not drawn by any visible agency, and at speeds faster than any animal can achieve
- as I am doing as I write this, obtaining information from a source on the other side of the world, writing up the results of this research, and sending the results to another person in another country, all the time sitting in a chair at home.
Modern muggles can do everything on the list above despite having, supposedly, no magical capability. We have telephones, iPods, television, movies, virtual reality, electric light, lifts (elevators), motor cars, aeroplanes, the Internet. The principles on which some of these devices work might be comprehensible to scientists from earlier eras—Leonardo designed a helicopter, and the principle of the steam engine was known to the ancient Greeks—but none of them were able to make such a thing practical, and to anyone from the 18th century or earlier, most of these experiences would seem indeed, as Arthur C. Clarke says, to be magic. Even the Philosopher’s Stone, which can turn base metal into gold, has a muggle analogue—the reactions taking place in nuclear power stations change one chemical element into another.
We see from the Harry Potter books that most of the tricks listed above can also be achieved by magic, such as the Lumos spell, Floo powder, Pensieves, moving photographs and paintings, the moving staircase that leads to Dumbledore’s office, self-propelled vehicles (broomsticks, and Hagrid’s boat in PS5, though seemingly not the carriages used to convey students to Hogwarts (PA5, GF11, which turn out later to use semi-visible thestrals (OP10))
In ancient times magic was a strong influence in ordinary life, and witchcraft and its practitioners, although feared, were respected. It would appear that around the time of the age of scientific discovery and the industrial revolution, the muggles began to find many things possible which had previously been the preserve of the magical community. As the muggles gained more power and no longer had any need of magic, there was a period of fear and distrust, and eventually the magical community passed the International Statute of Secrecy of 1689 (DH16) and went into hiding. The Salem Witchcraft trials in Massachussets three years later show the levels of persecution that witchcraft had to contend with.