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Here's the quote:

The teaching of Sauron has led to the invention of ships of metal that traverse the seas without sails, but which are hideous in the eyes of those who have not abandoned or forgotten Tol-eressea. — The Lost Road

This appears to be an indirect quote. I don't know whether the original is available. Did Christopher further commented on this anywhere else? Like, what did he think it's implying?

It's mentioned in later texts that Númenóreans devised engines, but it's likely they were only cunning mechanical devices/weapons, as in "siege engines".

For with the aid of Zigûr they multiplied their wealth and they devised many engines, and they built ever greater ships. — Sauron Defeated, DA II

The same narrative doesn't mention self-propelled ships at all when they are needed.

Then Ar-Pharazôn hardened his heart, and he went aboard his mighty ship, Aglarrâma, Castle of the Sea. Many-oared it was and many-masted... there was little wind, but they had many oars and many strong slaves to row beneath the lash. — ibid.

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    Worth noting that "engine" was historically used for any large construct -- siege towers, for instance, or trebuchets -- which had nothing we'd call an "engine" in modern usage. "Ships of metal" "without sails" OTOH does seem to imply some sort of power source other than oars powered by living creatures...
    – Zeiss Ikon
    May 5 at 11:10
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    "In the end, it seems like Tolkien dropped the idea of Númenor being a steam-powered high-tech state, and instead made it a pre-modern society. But it must have been the most advanced pre-industrial realm possible, since the author tells us that the natives of Middle-earth often mistook them for gods, and we know they created some pretty awe-inspiring architectural works (Isengard, Minas Tirith, Argonath, etc) in Middle-Earth even after their downfall. - numenoreanpower.blogspot.com/2015/04/technology-of-numenor.html
    – Valorum
    May 5 at 17:18
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    I would argue that a steam engine is a cunning mechanical device. Also, it wouldn't necessarily be surprising for the Númenóreans to have steam engines. Historically, the Romans knew about steam engines; they just had no need for them (plenty of slave labor) and not enough fuel to power them even if they did see a need. I've seen it argued that coal production (necessary in Britain given the lack of abundant alternate fuels) and steam engines (used to power pumps to drain coal mines) developed hand in hand. Without one, there was little need for the other. (1/2)
    – chepner
    May 6 at 15:27
  • There is an implication that the Númenoréans could have faced a similar fuel problem. There is direct textual support in Unfinshed Tales (don't have book handy for citations) for the main reason to colonize Middle Earth was to obtain the timber necessary to build more ships; Númenór was deforested, and they were directly responsible for deforesting large portions of Eriador. (2/2)
    – chepner
    May 6 at 15:29
  • Don't forget the Numenorean flying machines! Yet it is said that even of those Numenoreans of old who had the straight vision there were some who did not comprehend this, and they were busy to contrive ships that should rise above the waters of the world and hold to the imagined seas. But they achieved only ships that would sail in the air of breath. And these ships, flying, came also to the lands of the new world, and to the East of the old world; and they reported that the world was round. Therefore many abandoned the gods and put them out of their legends. (cont.) May 7 at 1:34

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The most straightforward reading of that passage does appear to be that it is indeed a description of ironclad steamships. In support of this idea, I can refer to another passage, from chapter four of The Hobbit. Whether Tolkien eventually decided that the fleet assembled in Westernese included mechanical warships or not, he was apparently willing to entertain the possibility of more modern, industrial devices existing in the fantasy world he created. In fact, he refers specifically to the the possibility that orcs may have invented what sounds like battle tanks:

It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.

Of course, Tolkien knew that tanks, and artillery, and such had not actually been invented by goblins, so if the theory expounded in the above passage is correct, it must refer to a separate period of military technological development on the part of the orcs.

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  • Tolkien often compared men to orcs in real life. I guess his words here aren't entirely non-allegorical.
    – Eugene
    May 6 at 3:16

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