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Energy: A Human History

Energy journeys through 400 years of history with some of the most interesting and creative people who ever lived. Since they’re scientists and inventors and engineers, their names don’t always attach to their work. But they shaped the world we live in for better and for worse. Mostly for the better, I believe. After you travel with them I think you will too. At least you’ll know more about what they did and why and how they did it. I was surprised and sometimes amazed at how many of their stories have been forgotten.
     Who are these paragons? One writer at least: William Shakespeare, not as playwright but as part-owner of The Theatre, the first in London. He and his partners dismantled it (the landowner claimed they stole it) for the wood in a time when wood had become scarce around London. They carted it across the Thames to build the larger Globe in naughty Southwark, next door to a bear-baiting arena.
     A Frenchman, Denis Papin, concerned with feeding the poor, whose invention of the pressure cooker prepared the way for the steam engine.
     James Watt, of course, the Scotsman who gave us the steam engine itself, but also Thomas Newcomen before him, whose great galumphing atmospheric steam machine preceded Watt’s elegant elaboration.
     Newcomens squatted at the pithead and pumped water out of the mines. They were too inefficient to be made portable. Watt’s more efficient engine could be smaller, small enough to mount on wheels and rails to haul the coal from the pithead to the river to barge it down to London. Then someone realized you could haul people as well as coal and the passenger railroad emerged and quickly branched out all over England. America too, but our engines burned wood through most of the nineteenth century, penetrating the wilderness far from any coal mine and then connecting together the continent.
Among twentieth-century paragons there’s Arie Haagen-Smit, a Dutchman teaching at Caltech, in Pasadena, a specialist in essences. Concerned officials found him one day in a laboratory full of ripe pineapples, condensing their tropical aroma from the air. They asked him to do the same for the ghastly Los Angeles smog. He cleared out the pineapples, opened a window and sucked in thousands of cubic feet of smoggy air, ran it through a filter chilled with liquid nitrogen and scraped up a few drops of brown, smelly gunk. After he’d analyzed the gunk chemically he announced it was automobile exhaust and the exhaust of nearby refineries. Unlike the old and often deadly smoke and fog (smoke + fog = “smog”) that blighted cities where coal was burned, this new stuff compounded in the air like a binary poison gas. Catalyzed by sunlight, it turned the air sepia. Government stepped in then and began the process of cleaning up Los Angeles.
     "Energy" is full of such stories. It’s more than merely stories, however. 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.
     People in the energy business think we take energy for granted. They say we care about it only at the pump or the outlet in the wall. That may have been true once. It certainly isn’t true today. Climate change is a major political issue. Most of us are aware of it—increasingly so—and worried about it. Businesses are challenged by it. It looms over civilization with much the same gloom of doomsday menace as did fear of nuclear annihilation in the long years of the Cold War.
Many feel excluded from the discussion, however. The literature of climate change is mostly technical, the debate esoteric. It’s focused on present conditions, with little reference to the human past, to centuries of hard-won human experience. Yet today’s challenges are the legacies of historic transitions. Wood gave way to coal and coal made room for oil, as coal and oil are now making room for natural gas, nuclear power and renewables. Prime movers (systems that convert energy to motion) transitioned from animal and water power to the steam engine, the internal-combustion engine, the generator and the electric motor. We learned from such challenges, mastered their transitions, capitalized on their opportunities.
     The current debate has hardly explored the rich human history behind today’s energy challenges. I wrote "Energy" partly to fill that void—with people, events, times and places, approaches, examples, parallels, disasters and triumphs, to enliven the debate and clarify choices.
     The record is rich with human stories, a cast of characters across four centuries that includes such historic figures as Elizabeth I, James I, John Evelyn, Abraham Darby, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, George Stephenson, Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday, Herman Melville, Edwin Drake, Ida Tarbell, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Enrico Fermi, Hyman Rickover, the coal barons of old Pennsylvania, the oil barons of California and Saudi Arabia—to name only some of the more obvious.
     Whole oceans of whales enter the story, the oil of their bodies lighting the world. Petroleum seeps from a stream bed and a Yale chemistry professor wonders what uses it might have. Horses foul cities with their redolent manure, an increasing public-health challenge, and when the automobile replaces them, rural populations no longer required to grow their feed fall into permanent decline. The development of arc welding paces the pipeline distribution of natural gas. Nuclear energy announces itself by burning down two Japanese cities, an almost indelible taint.
     Global warming itself, the evidence slowly accumulating across a century of increasingly anxious observation, provokes a Biblical-scale confrontation of ideologies and vested interests. Wind energy, the bountiful energy from sunlight, vast supplies of coal and natural gas compete for dominance in a turbulent world advancing toward a population of ten billion souls by the year 2100. Most of them are residents of China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, just now moving out of subsistence toward prosperity and consuming energy supplies accordingly. The energy is there, but can the earth sustain the waste of its burning?
     You will not find many prescriptions in this book. Every century had its challenges and opportunities, some intended, some unintended, but in any case too complex, too rich in implication, for simple moralizing. What you will find are examples, told as fully as I am able to tell them. Here is how human beings, again and again, confronted the deeply human problem of how to draw life from the raw materials of the world.
     The air is cleaner today, the world more peaceful, and more and more of us are prosperous. But the air is also warmer. In August 2015, for example, northern Iran suffered under a heat index of 165° F. (74° C.).
     May all this curious knowledge from our history help us find our way to tomorrow. I have children and grandchildren. I hope and believe that we will.