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Energy: A Human History

Energy: A Human History

Richard Rhodes
Simon & Schuster
464 pp
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Motivated by the climate change crisis, Richard Rhodes’s Energy: A Human History sets out on a historical tour of how humans have manipulated nature to lift, transport, heat, and illuminate things over the past four centuries. Rhodes brings the same storytelling finesse to this work that he brought to his 1986 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, as well as the conviction that nuclear power is the solution for moving humankind away from fossil fuels. Accordingly, Energy is both a work of history and a passionately written moral tale.

Rhodes excels at exploring lesser-known tales, technologies, and cultural connections that do not often find places in traditional stories about energy, the environment, and climate change. He starts the book’s first section, “Power,” for example, by explaining that a great shortage of wood in late-16th-century England compelled Shakespeare and his colleagues to steal the materials used to build the Globe Theatre.

From the Bard, Rhodes moves to industrious English landowners who began to exploit exposed coal faces for energy in the early 17th century. Soon, wagonways with wooden rails sprang up to transport the bulky fuel. As miners followed coal seams deep underground, inventors experimented with coal-fired engines to pump water out of flooded shafts. Rhodes spends time with major figures like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt but also considers key tinkerers, such as Richard Trevithick, who helped make steam engines useful for transportation.

In the book’s second section, “Light,” Rhodes considers an array of 19th-century fuels and technologies that banished nighttime darkness. He turns to William “Uncle Billy” Smith, who engineered the first purpose-drilled oil well in the United States at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1859. Like coal before it, oil required new techniques for transport. Barrels from breweries and distilleries loaded aboard barges did the job.

Oil took its place alongside coal and, eventually, so did electricity. Westinghouse’s station at Niagara Falls began generating hydroelectric power in 1895. Although water produced clean energy, Rhodes concludes his discussion of the 19th century with a dark turn, describing the smoke and caustic pollution that fouled the era’s cities.

In the final section, “New fires,” Rhodes introduces newer technologies, such as the internal combustion engine. Here, he describes how Thomas Midgley Jr. first added lead to gasoline in 1921. The additive improved engine performance but proved deadly to workers who synthesized it at Standard Oil and DuPont. Another energy source, another pollutant.

Rhodes closes the section with new problems (e.g., photochemical smog and greenhouse gases) and new potential paths forward (e.g., nuclear, wind, and solar technologies). Only nuclear energy, he argues, can provide a workable and sustainable replacement for fossil fuels. Wind and solar energy aren’t practical because they simply won’t produce enough energy for the increasingly large and wealthy global population. But his cavalier treatment of nuclear disasters and the radioactive waste problem fails to commend the atom as a green energy.

Nevertheless, Rhodes’s hope that a critical look at past energy technologies will benefit those of the future is heartening. May this come to pass.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.