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Energy

A Human History

By Richard Rhodes
15-minute read
Audio available
Energy by Richard Rhodes

Energy (2018) looks back at over 500 years of human progress, examining the scientific, financial, and social forces behind the development of artificial energy. From wood to coal to oil and beyond, each new invention was informed by those that came before it. But while these technologies ushered in new promise, they also brought with them new challenges that were not always anticipated, including environmental impact.

  • Science buffs interested in the development of world-changing ideas
  • People curious about the origins of modern technology
  • Environmental activists who want to learn about the struggle between innovation, capitalism, and environmental protection

Richard Rhodes is the author of 26 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making Of The Atomic Bomb. He has been awarded grants for research and writing from, among others, the MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation and has been featured on television programs, such as Frontline and American Experience.

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Energy

A Human History

By Richard Rhodes
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Energy by Richard Rhodes
Synopsis

Energy (2018) looks back at over 500 years of human progress, examining the scientific, financial, and social forces behind the development of artificial energy. From wood to coal to oil and beyond, each new invention was informed by those that came before it. But while these technologies ushered in new promise, they also brought with them new challenges that were not always anticipated, including environmental impact.

Key idea 1 of 9

England's wood shortage led to the widespread use of coal.

England in the 1500s was a country that ran on wood.

Wood was used to construct buildings and homes. It was used as fuel for cooking and heating. It built the great ships of the Royal Navy. But, unfortunately for the English state, it wasn’t an endlessly available resource.

As the English population increased, so did the demand for wood. As supplies close to the towns and cities ran out, wood had to be carted in from farther and farther away. Prices rocketed.

Fears of a looming wood shortage grew stronger. A new, more affordable fuel source was needed. But what could it be? 

The solution finally arrived in the form of coal.

The key message here: England's wood shortage led to the widespread use of coal.

Coal was not a new discovery. It had been used industrially for centuries. But use of the fuel remained limited. Burning coal produced a foul, thick smoke that many believed was poisonous. Also, because of its stench and the fact that it was dug from the ground, some people thought coal was demonic.

Things began to change in 1603, when the Scottish King, James VI, took the throne of England. Scotland had had a different experience with coal. Their wood supply was already scarce, and so they had converted to coal much earlier. And unlike England's soft sea coal, Scottish coal was harder and burned cleaner and brighter. When James took up residence at Westminster, he imported Scottish coal to heat his palace. Before long, the aristocracy began to do the same – followed by everyone else. The London skyline was soon dotted with chimneys.

While coal was a much cheaper fuel than wood, the rapid conversion to burning coal introduced new problems. Pollution increased dramatically throughout the 1600s. The London air became full of soot and smoke.

Despite the pollution, coal quickly became the primary fuel source for household use. Yet this brought another problem: supplies of easily-mineable coal quickly dwindled.

To meet demand, mines had to be dug deeper. This was an extremely dangerous process, and flooding was common. Once a mine flooded, it would have to be abandoned. 

A new technology was needed to pump flooded mines. And, as we’ll discover in the next blink, this new technology would do more than just pump water from mines: it would change the nature of society, forever.

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