Go back to article: Energy/Culture: a reading guide for historical literature

Energy and its historical development

As Vaclav Smil (2017) wrote in Energy and Civilization, ‘both prehistoric human evolution and the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them’ (p 1). The long history of human society and its energy use is usually divided into different eras according to each era’s primary energy source, punctuated by shifts from one dominant energy source to another through energy transitions (Melosi, 2006; Smil, 2010). For the creation of the modern world, according to E A Wrigley (1988, 2010), the most significant change was the transition from the organic economy to the mineral economy. Indeed, the harnessing of coal in the ‘subterranean forest’ was the major contributor to Britain’s Industrial Revolution and subsequent industrialisation of other nations (Sieferle, 2001). Global historian Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) raised the same point when he attributed the diverging paths of modern economic development in the East and the West largely to different nations’ geographic proximity to coal reserves and ability to exploit energy resources. The potential of energy resources was best realised when energy availability was accompanied by relevant technology to convert energy to serve human purposes. Such ‘development blocks’ of energy and other technologies could be seen in the close links between coal, the steam engine and the metallurgical process of iron-making during the Industrial Revolution, or, the linkage between oil and the internal combustion engine in the twentieth century (Kander, Malanima and Warde, 2013). These long-term perspectives are essential for understanding how energy and culture are connected. However, in works of energy history written from the macro perspective, culture is usually seen as secondary to other factors of economy, technology and resource availability. For this reason, the following survey takes a narrower historical perspective, focusing chiefly on the historical literature covering the long twentieth century.

In terms of the energy history of the twentieth century, the most widely discussed topic has been the energy development of America, reflecting the nation’s leading role in technical advances and the diffusion of modern energy, notably electricity and oil. John Hammond’s (1941) Men and Volts and Arthur Bright’s (1949) The Electric-Lamp Industry were among the pioneering works investigating the origin and progress of electric technology. Historical research on energy saw significant strides in the 1980s, when several urban historians began to systematically analyse energy development in major cities, chiefly from the perspective of the competition between electricity and gas. Mark Rose (1988, 1995) studied the growth of the electricity and gas industries in Kansas, Denver and Detroit, and Harold Platt (1988, 1991) investigated Chicago, one of the heartlands of early twentieth-century electrification. In the systematic investigation of historical energy development, Thomas Hughes’ (1983) Networks of Power has had a profound impact on subsequent studies. Hughes’ work shifted the historical narrative of energy away from specific inventions, inventors or corporations and toward the assemblage of innovative technology, expertise and business operations. Together, these formed what he called large technological systems, the prime example of which was the electricity supply system (Hughes, 1989). In Networks of Power, Hughes illustrated how the socio-technical assemblage – through the work of system builders (e.g. inventors, engineers, business managers and financiers) – gradually gained ‘technological momentum’ in his selective case studies on major cities in the United States, Germany and England.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of an electricity pylon with a large energy facility in the background surrounded by fields and a lake

Longannet Power Station and Power Lines, Kincardineshire, Scotland

Hughes’ work paved the way for writing the history of the expansion of electricity supply well beyond the United States, as his comparative analysis rested on the recognition of variations (in his words, ‘styles’) in how networks were built in different parts of the world. This approach made technological transfer a legitimate starting point for narrating the development of a nation’s power network, a theme taken up by Edmund Todd’s (1989) article on the German region of the Ruhr, Armstrong and Nelles’ (1986) book on Canada, and Timo Myllyntaus’ (1991) book on the electrification of Finland. The development of the power network in Europe has become a well-researched field that covers a wide range of topics, such as the electrification of inter-war Central European nations (Hallon, 2001) and the transnational aspects of Europe-wide grid development (Lagendijk, 2008; Van der Vleuten and Kaijser, 2006). One key factor in the development of national and regional variations was politics. Jonathan Coopersmith (1992) expanded the scope of Hughes’ original discussion, which drew exclusively from cases of capitalist countries, by turning to 1920s Russia, where the Communist Party’s political agenda and the technical visions of engineers were two wheels of electrification. Ronan Shamir (2013) examined 1920s Palestine and found that the country’s power network during the period was not just an embodiment of colonialist economic interests, but that the electrical grid was also a socio-technical infrastructure that helped to create and consolidate the ethno-national division between the Jewish and Arab populations. In a similar vein, Rao and Lourdusamy (2010) and Sunila Kale (2014) discussed the formative influence of colonialism and regional politics in fostering distinctive variations within India’s electrification. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180912/001