Energy: A Human History

By Richard Rhodes, Energy: A Human History (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2018). xiv + 465 pp. $30.00. ISBN 978-1-5011-0535-7.

Because my first year of teaching at The Calhoun School was the year of the Iran Oil Embargo, my students and colleagues wanted me to enlighten them on what was then known as the “energy crisis.” The first book I saw on the Calhoun library shelf to turn to was George Russell Harrison’s The Conquest of Energy. Harrison broke the history of human energy sources into four “f’s”: food (during the food gathering stage, going back two million years), feed (for animals, during the agricultural stage, going back twenty thousand years), fuel (for the Industrial Revolution, going back two hundred years), and fission (for the nuclear age, at that time going back about two dozen years).

In his preface, Rhodes writes “The current debate [about energy issues] has hardly explored the rich human history behind today’s energy challenge. I wrote Energy partly to fill that void – with people, events, times, places, approaches, examples, parallels, disasters, and triumphs, to enliven the debate and clarify choices.” He writes that he “was surprised and sometimes amazed at how many of [these] stories have been forgotten” and that some of the resources he uses are “histories and biographies that date back two hundred years or more.” But he adds that his book is “more than merely stories” and that “its serious purpose is to explore the history of energy, to cast light on the choices we’re confronting today because of the challenge of global climate change.” He calls global warming “the great challenge of the twenty-first century” and describes the problem as “limiting global warming while simultaneously providing energy for a world population not only advancing in number but also advancing from subsistence to prosperity.”

Rhodes wrote his human history of energy with a focus on what Harrison would call the “fuel” and “fission” stages. He draw his inspiration for the book from a “narrative extension” of a World Primary Energy graph by Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti showing successive peaks of different energy sources from 1850 through 2100, beginning with coal peaking in 1920 as wood declines, followed by oil peaking in 1980, natural gas in 2030, and nuclear in 2085.

Energy is divided into three parts. The first, titled “Power,” tells the stories constituting the Industrial Revolution in England. He begins with the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign, characterized by a wood shortage around London resulting from deforestation to erect buildings and build ships. Mainmasts 120 feet tall required trees that had been growing almost that many years, and 300,000 more trees per year were needed to heat buildings and provide charcoal for 300 iron smelters.

With wood in short supply, people started burning coal to provide heat. After using all the accessible coal from the ground, chisels attached to rods driven with a levered system by a man with his foot in a stirrup was used to find underground coal seams. Mines below the water table needed to be pumped, initially by systems powered by horses moving in circles. Later, the cyclic motion of a piston with differential gas pressures was preferred. Denis Papin invented the pressure cooker and showed he could use superheated steam to raise water up to 70 feet, but he did not have funding to develop his idea. Meanwhile, Thomas Savery was patenting a new invention for raising of water in 1698.

Unfortunately the steam engine designs of both Savery and Papin required a manual operator. By 1734 Thomas Newcomen overcame this problem, but even his design required external application of water to condense steam, a step he subsequently automated. But since Savery’s patent “covered all engines that raised water by fire,” the only way Newcomen could proceed with his design was in partnership with Savery. Moreover, the limited efficiency of Newcomen’s steam engine limited its use to raising water, but it did so at one sixth the cost of horses.

With the problem of raising water from mines solved, the next problem was transporting coal to market. Roads, being the responsibility of local property owners, were notoriously bad, so the first mines were established near rivers on which the mined coal could be barged. When these mines were exhausted, carts transported coal to rivers. They operated most efficiently on rails, initially made of wood which needed replacement every one to two years. Iron rails could solve this problem, but wood, still in short supply, was needed to make the charcoal to smelt the iron. Rhodes does not say where, given this wood shortage, the wood to make the carts and rails was obtained. Abraham Darby solved this problem by anaerobically heating coal to make coke, which worked as well as charcoal.

As the maker and maintainer of instruments for the then College of Glasgow, James Watt encountered Newcomen’s steam engine and was struck by its inefficiency, some of which he attributed to the energy loss coming from condensing the steam in the cylinder. He circumvented this problem by condensing the steam in a separate condenser, for which he was awarded a patent in 1769 for “Methods of Lessening the Consumption of Steam, and, consequently, of Fuel, in Fire Engines.” Even then, though, the efficiency was only 2%. After Watt partnered with Matthew Boulton in 1775 to mass produce these engines, Boulton persuaded parliament to extend Watt’s patent another ten years, to 1800. By this time steam engines had found an increasing number of uses. Exacerbating England’s air pollution problem, 50% of the country’s energy was provided by coal, a figure that would increase to 75% a century later.

To skirt the Boulton and Watt patent, Richard Trevithick, Jr., in 1795 built a different kind of steam engine. Whereas Boulton and Watt’s design was based on the pressure difference between Earth’s atmosphere and the vacuum produced by condensing steam, Trevithick used the higher pressure of “strong steam” against that of Earth’s atmosphere and filed for a patent in 1802. With horses needed by the military during the Napoleonic War, Trevithick applied his steam engine to pull the carts of coal (now with iron wheels on iron rails) to make the first railroad locomotive in 1801. Two years later he made a steam-driven horseless carriage, but it lacked effective means of control and elicited no interest. Trevithick’s mantle as a builder of locomotives and promoter of steam-powered transportation fell to the self-taught George Stephenson. He partnered with his engineer-trained son Robert to build the first steam-powered public railway, between Stockton and Darlington. It opened 27 September 1825, a year before Trevithick’s death (in poverty).

More challenging–in terms of both the political and physical environment–was establishing the railway between Liverpool and Manchester. Stephensons’ Rocket, which placed first in a public competition, ran on it. Thus the need to replace wood by pumping water from mines to extract coal gave rise to machines that burned that coal not only to pump water but also to do other types of work.

The second part of Energy, titled “Light,” details stories of the various fuels burned to produce light, among them coal gas, whale oil, kerosene (then called “coal oil”), as well as the primary source of light today, electrical energy, and our means of generating it. While these stories are interesting, they form a less tightly-knit unit than the stories in the first part. The two most interesting stories are: (1) drilling the first oil well in Titusville, PA, in 1859, which is absolutely riveting; (2) the victory of George Westinghouse’s AC over Thomas Edison’s DC. The latter was really due to William Stanley, Jr., not Nikola Tesla, whose “only contribution to the ‘war’ [of electric currents] was the alternating current electric motor.”

The third part, titled “New Fires,” is also not as tightly-knit as the first part. It begins with the automobile and ends with nuclear energy, and emphasizes Hyman Rickover’s role in designing American reactors. Rhodes observes that the first American automobiles, made in the last decade of the nineteenth century, used three types of propulsion: electricity, steam, and gasoline. Of these, the last dominated automotive transportation in the twentieth century, and in fact fossil fuels have been our primary source of energy. Mindful that fossil fuels are now threatening Earth with climate change, Rhodes concludes part three by surveying our options for the future.

He begins his last chapter by discussing wind and solar energies but then notes their low capacity factor, in contrast to 92.1% for nuclear in 2016. Along with renewables, he sees nuclear as the only source able to meet the 21st century challenge of limiting global warming. He acknowledges the high cost of nuclear energy and the problem of disposing of its wastes and conducts post-mortems of the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi. Yet he feels that nuclear is “easily the most promising single energy source available to cope” with this challenge.

John Roeder
The Calhoun School
New York City

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.