A Sweeping History Of Energy Transitions That Revolutionized The World


The history of energy challenges over the last four centuries tells the story of humanity itself over that time period.  Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Rhodes tells how wood gave way to coal and coal made room for oil, as coal and oil are now making room for natural gas, renewable energy and nuclear power.  Rhodes looks back at progress through the eyes of such figures as Queen Elizabeth I, James Watt, Benjamin Franklin, Edwin Drake, Henry Ford, Rachel Carson and many others.

He highlights the successes and failures that led to each breakthrough in energy production:  from animal and waterpower to the steam engine, from internal combustion to electricity and the harnessing of wind, sunlight & nuclear fuels.  He reveals how we learned from such trials, mastered their transitions and capitalized on their opportunities.  Rhodes also confronts the challenge of global warming --- the largest transition in history --- finding a dangerous gap between the limited market penetration of renewables and the urgency of the threat.

TheNew York Timesbook review states, “Rhodes’s talent is making the scientifically complex accessible to the proverbial lay reader with clarity and without dumbing down the essentials of his topic.”In the process he details how this half-forgotten knowledge from our past can inform our way in the future.

Weekly Topics

Week 1:

Chap. 1 - No Wood, No Kingdom – The vital role wood played in 17th century England as a heat source in competition with other uses of the material.

Chap. 2 - Raising Water by Fire -The challenges of mining coal as a heat source for industrial use.

Week 2:

Chap. 3 - A Giant with One Idea – Development of the Newcomen engine for industrial use.

Chap. 4 - To Make for All this World – James Watt’s experiments with steam and development of the steam engine.

Week 3:

Chap. 5 - Catch Me Who Can – Application of steam to transportation.

Chap. 6 - Unconquered Steam –Production of wrought iron rails and development of railroads in England.

Week 4:

Chap. 7 - Rushlight to Gaslight – Light for the poor from rushes & hearth light; for the yeoman, smoky tallow candles; for the rich, candelabras of beeswax.  Later, coal gas for wide distribution

Chap. 8 - Pursuing Leviathan - New England whaling struggled to service the political & economic challenges of the late 18th & first half of 19th centuries.

Week 5:

Chap. 9 - Burning Fluids - In the first half of the18th century distilled turpentine for lighting, followed by coal oil from bitumen.  In 1859 drilling the first oil well in Titusville, PA and distillation to determine components & value as an illuminant.

Chap. 10 - Wild Animals –Challenges of transporting oil in barrels from field to refinery, river boat to railroad to pipeline.  Legal issue of ownership of oil in situ, based on an 1805 case over ownership of a hunted fox.

Week 6:

Chap. 11 - Great Forces of Nature – Ben Franklin’s kite experiment, 1752; Alessandro Volta’s battery, 1799; Humphrey Davy’s arc light; Hans Christian Oersted’s discovery of electromagnetism; Michael Faraday’s discovery converting mechanical work to electricity and the reverse.

Chap. 12 - A Cadence of Water – Harnessing the power of Niagara Fall; the “War of the Currents” between Edison’s DC and George Westinghouse’s AC electric power systems.

Week 7:

Chap. 13 - An Enormous Yellow Cheese –Development of the infrastructure to support large numbers of horses as prime movers of goods & people.  Manure valued as a fertilizer until the arrival of guano from Peruvian islands, which appeared as enormous yellow cheeses. Flies bred in manure became a health problem, solved by arrival of the electric streetcar and automobile.

Chap. 14 - Pillars of Black Cloud – Black clouds from burning wood then coal as a heat source; smoke abatement focused on Pittsburgh.

Week 8:

Chap. 15 - A Gift of God – Gasoline won over steam and electricity to power the auto; octane ratings, white gas & engine knock explained.  Addition of tetraethyl lead solved the engine knock problem, considered a “gift of God” by its advocates.

Chap. 16 - One-Armed Men Doing Welding – Standard Oil of California negotiated an exclusive concession to explore for oil in Saudi Arabia. Electric arc welding allowed critical pipelines to be constructed.  Construction of 24-inch pipeline from Texas to New England in early 1940s foiled German U-boat toll on coastal tankers.

Week 9:  

Chap. 17 - Full Power in Fifty-Seven – Enrico Fermi’s experiments in nuclear power.  First commercial nuclear power plant became operational in 1957.  In 1950s Eisenhower oversaw this development while engaged in a massive buildup of nuclear weapons.

Chap. 18 - Affection from the Smog – The October 1948 tragedy in Donora, PA caused the nation to recognize the health risks of air contaminants.  In 1947 California authorized pollution control districts in every county; LA was the first.  In 1970 Nixon created the EPA by executive order; Congress passed the Clean Air Act.

 Week 10:  

Chap. 19 - The Dark Age to Come – Dire predictions from environmentalists from overpopulation.  Advocates argue atomic energy could solve the problem.  Debate between physicians (present health concerns) & geneticists (long-term effects).

Chap. 20 - All Aboard - Risks of nuclear plant accidents.  Two nuclear power challenges:  too costly & no safe method to handle waste.  Rhodes suggests full accounting of all external costs of different energy sources would find nuclear power to be cheaper than coal or natural gas.  All power sources will be needed as we decarbonize our energy supply.


Rhodes, Richard;  Energy – A Human History; Simon & Schuster, 2018.