I’m not sure the industrial revolution would have been possible without steel. And I’m not even talking about things like steam engines… even mechanical clocks (which were first being made in the 12th century out of metal cogs) might not be portable or affordable for average folks without steel. It’s possible that the age of sail would have been impossible without steel.
Even sanitation would be different… replacing lead pipes or even making those big cast iron sewer pipes wouldn’t be feasible. Sure we could use copper, but the price and durability might not be so great. For a while they did use wood pipes for the job… but there are clear disadvantages regarding both water quality and loss that might render the system impractical on the large scale.
I’m not sure we could even have used and harvested petroleum without iron and steel. Internal combustion engines? Not sure they are possible without steel. I know diesel would be a serious challenge. Certainly our means of self-defense would be different, as guns require the hardness, lightness and flexibility that only steel can offer.
I know that tin and aluminum, only created by advanced industrial processes, is likely to be impossible without steel. Thus, it is unlikely that we could have invented airplanes. Zeppelins or hot air balloons, may have been more popular, but for the stability of a zeppelin might still require steel to manufacture the gases required for such a device. Not to mention the struts for support would probably have to be made from something like steel. While lots of steel objects seem heavy, it’s actually quite light relative to it’s strength.
Would we have been able to find different ways to make this stuff work? Possibly some of it. Though steel has such unique characteristics for tensile strength torsion strength, pressure and heat tolerance that finding replacements really boggles the mind. I’d have to know more about the production of modern industrial ceramics to tell you if any of those are even possible. Please note that I’m not talking about the ceramics your coffee mug is made out of, but those used in the space program, for example, for heat shielding and pressure resistance.
I’m not sure we’d even have come up with pasturization or sanitary medical practice without the use of steel.
Steel is as pervasive in Western Civilization as salt is in food preperation.
YOu can tell what things might not be possible wihtout it, but it is hard to say positively what we could have come up with in it’s place. In fact, it’s easier to replace salt in our diets than it would be to replace iron and most importantly, steel.
If you want a more thorough idea of what this would be like, check out
“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.