Book review – Energy: A Human History

The story of human progress is intimately entwined with that of energy. Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Rhodes here takes the reader on a 400-year tour of energy generation, shining a light on the many forgotten figures whose ingenuity and inventions were instrumental in the many energy transitions.


Energy: A Human History“, written by Richard Rhodes, published by Simon & Schuster in June 2018 (hardback, 465 pages)

Starting in Tudor-era England that was running low on wood, Rhodes gives a detailed history of the discovery and use of coal. This, in turn, required new inventions once surface deposits started to run out, leading to stationary steam engines to pump water out of mine shafts, leading in turn to mobile steam engines that gave us trains to haul first freight and later people. This first section is rich in historical detail, revealing the many hurdles that needed to be cleared before steam power and steam engines became reliable enough to be adopted widely.

A second section looks at energy generation to provide lighting, covering natural gas (long ignored or seen as a fairly useless novelty), a brief history of industrial whaling, the drilling for oil, and the discovery of electricity. Rhodes explores the first experiments in hydropower at Niagara Falls in 1895 and gives a brief nod to horse power before the invention of combustion engines paved the way for cars. There are interesting period illustrations included here, though the quality and resolution of some of the source material are very poor, resulting in pixelated pictures and visual artefacts that obscure details.

These first two sections are undoubtedly the strongest in the book. Rhodes excels at telling the human stories of the forgotten inventors who revolutionised the world, such as the Englishman Richard Trevithick who started tinkering with high-pressure steam in an era when metalworking skills could not yet produce boilers capable of withstanding the pressure. Or the Scotsman Archibald Cochrane who discovered the inflammable nature of coal gas, but dismissed it as a curiosity. Or the exchanges between the Italians Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta about the nature of electricity in living and non-living matter, which led to the invention of batteries (see also The Ambiguous Frog: The Galvani-Volta Controversy on Animal Electricity and Shocking Frogs: Galvani, Volta, and the Electric Origins of Neuroscience). Equally interesting were contemporary conundrums such as the question whether engines with metal wheels on metal rails would simply slip and spin in place or actually be able to haul loads. Rhodes gently reminds us that the story of technological progress is rarely straightforward and linear as witnessed by the many different designs for steam engines and later combustion engines that existed side by side for a while.

“Rhodes gently reminds us that the story of technological progress is rarely straightforward and linear”

Given the large range of topics, many subjects are understandably not treated in-depth or exhaustively. I’m not too familiar with the literature on the history of, say, the discovery of electricity, but topics such as industrial whaling and the overlooked role of horses have been the subject of book-length treatments elsewhere (see Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems and A Savage History: Whaling in the Pacific and Southern Oceans; and The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, and Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship).

Even so, in the final third of the book it feels as if Rhodes runs out of steam. He gives a brief history of the first steps towards nuclear energy, but only pays lip service to wind and solar energy in the final chapter. Similarly, what happened to energy production in the decades since the 1950s as the world population ballooned is barely spoken of – to the point that there is little overlap with Pirani’s recent book Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (the two complement each other nicely as a consequence).

More pronounced in this last part is his pro-nuclear energy stance. I will happily agree with Rhodes on the disconnect between perceived and actual risk of nuclear power generation, as well as its potential to deliver clean(er) energy than fossil fuels. Simultaneously, Rhodes is irked by the opposition to nuclear energy by the environmental movement, which he considers contradictory (understandably so, in my opinion – see also my review of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise). But he somehow manages to tie this into a larger critique (which I am less sympathetic to) of what he sees as the antihumanist ideology of neo-Malthusians such as the Club of Rome and their concerns about human overpopulation. He infers that this ideology has shaped the opposition to nuclear energy. Although I will acknowledge the misanthropic streak running through much of contemporary environmental thought, in my opinion that does not mean we can discount their concerns regarding overpopulation out of hand.

All this distracts a bit from what is otherwise a gracefully written book that provides an interesting overview of the sometimes circuitous routes by which human ingenuity has effected breakthroughs in energy production. Especially its coverage of earlier time periods – when discussing steam technology, coal, gas, and oil – is fascinating. Does Energy: A Human History qualify as the definitive big history on the topic? I would be very interested in seeing how it compares to Vaclav Smil’s recent Energy and Civilization: A History. Until I have had a chance to read that, I dare not quite make that bold a statement yet.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:






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