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

Public and popular cultures

The incorporation of local cultures into accounts of energy history highlights the diverse ways through which modern energy has been integrated into different societies and individual lives. This does not mean that energy cultures have been entirely fragmented. Indeed, historical studies show that local cultures have generally co-evolved with or operated in relation to wider public and popular cultures. The history of energy exhibitions is a good example of how an aspect of the co-evolution process unfolded in cultural media. Well before it was introduced to the domestic energy market, electricity appeared in expert and popular scientific demonstrations, such as those performed by Francis Watkins and Michael Faraday in early nineteenth-century Britain (Beauchamp, 1997; Morus, 1998). Toward the end of the same century, supported by commercial and state sponsorship, electricity became a recurrent feature in such high-profile exhibitions as the 1881 Paris International Exhibition of Electricity (Caron and Berthet, 1984) and the 1889 Chicago World’s Fair (Platt, 1991). Electricity was as much an object of wonder as it was a constitutive part of exhibition machinery: the special effects created by floodlighting and other electrical illumination added glamour and a sense of spectacle to exhibitions. By the early twentieth century, electricity was still featured in major exhibitions, but the emphasis had shifted from illumination to more comprehensive visions of an electrical future (Nye 1990, 1994). From the 1930s, as Nina Möllers (2012) argued, exhibitions began to focus on the consumptive aspects of electricity, embedding electrical technology in the context of modern consumer society. We know much less about the gas industry’s involvement in exhibitions. Möllers’ (2013) short survey depicted the German gas industry as a major player in early energy exhibitions, but its presence was obscured by electricity’s strong progress in the domestic market following the First World War. Similarly, Anne Clendinning (2004) described Britain’s early gas industry as a major sponsor and organiser of exhibitions, noting that the industry employed the format of exhibition (on both large and small scales) as a chief tool for marketing their services and products.

Figure 8

Black and white illustration of a grand hall of illusions

La Salle des Illusions, Paris, France, September 1900

Advances in electrical technology in the early twentieth century entailed the encroachment of electrified cultural media into the strongholds of the conventional mass media consisting of print matters and exhibitions. Film, radio and television were all built on electrical technology and electricity supply, and they proved extremely powerful in informing public culture. The potential force of new media was clearly illustrated by its use in nationalistic and militaristic propaganda during the Second World War in countries like Russia, Germany and Japan (Taylor, 1983). To exploit new media to influence consumers, electricity, gas and oil corporations sponsored and created films (Brassley, Burchardt and Sayer, 2016; Bouvier, 2012; Clendinning, 2004; Russell, 2011; Swann, 1989). There is a significant volume of literature on radio and television and their cultural impacts as new communication media, but their impact on twentieth century energy development has yet to be fully gauged. On this topic, Bowden and Offer (1994) suggested that ‘time-using’ appliances, such as radio and television, saw faster diffusion than time-saving appliances, indicating that the cultural desire kindled by these new appliances may have precipitated electrification. This phenomenon may be more familiar to anthropologists and historians of recent electrification, such as the electrification movement in Bali, Indonesia, where the major factor that drove villagers to electrify their communities in the 1980s was the desire to have a television in the home (Mohsin, 2017).

Past exhibitions also offered historians a proving ground to examine how the seemingly dominant progressive culture of energy – of which electrical modernity was a prominent example – was often counterbalanced or contested by the public’s doubts, anxieties and fears about energy technology. This was especially true for nuclear energy, a popular scientific feature of international exhibitions after the Second World War. In the 1947–1948 Atom Train exhibitions and the 1951 Festival of Britain, the British public was encouraged to see nuclear power as a technology that would launch the nation’s industrial revival (Forgan, 2003; Jolivette, 2014; Laucht, 2012). One of the major exhibitions in the late 1950s was the 1958 Brussels World Expo, which promoted the idea of the peaceful use of atomic power – ‘atoms for peace’ – informed the public presentation of nuclear technology (Schroeder-Gudehus and Cloutier, 1994). However, despite attempts by technocrats, engineers and business leaders to impart nuclear technology with a peaceful, positive and beneficial image, they failed to overcome the popular association of atomic power with military weapons and destruction. National contexts affected the degree of popular anxiety about nuclear power, as shown in the collection of essays in Nuclear Age in Popular Media, which examined situations in the US, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, India and Soviet Russia (Van Lente, 2012. For a more comprehensive European-wide research project, see Butler’s article in this volume). In France, nuclear technology was incorporated into the national identity, as it addressed widely-held public concerns about national decline (Hecht, 1998). A similar belief in nuclear power as a driving force of social progress in the context of Soviet Russia was discussed by Sonja Schmid (2014). In Japan, state and private corporations vigorously promoted nuclear power through exhibitions to turn the public’s attention away from wartime memories of atomic bombs toward a vision of a prosperous future built upon the nearly unlimited supply of energy derived from the peaceful atom (Low, 2003). In the Netherlands, visitors to the kitchen display at the 1957 Atom Exhibition were encouraged to imagine how their domestic life would be improved by the development of nuclear energy (Cieraad, 2009). Such a cultural evocation of positive nuclear futures – what Paul Boyer (1985) called the ‘Techno-atomic utopia’ in his discussion of early American nuclear development – was only one aspect of the multifaceted nuclear culture. As Jonathan Hogg (2016) demonstrated in the context of Britain, in order to understand a nation’s response to the nuclear age, with its ‘constantly evolving set of understandings of knowledges’, examining the unofficial nuclear narratives is as crucial as analysing the official narratives.

Figure 9

Black and white leaflet showing a nucleus a human hand and a skeletal hand with the message atomic energy for good or evil

‘Atomic Energy for Good or Evil’, Atom Train Exhibition, 1946

Anxieties about energy in public and popular culture existed well before the nuclear age: an important aspect of energy history shown in both past (and present) public concerns about coal smoke pollution. Although it is now considered a self-evident truth that burning fossil fuel creates harmful gas, it is worth remembering that this was hardly a common view in the early nineteenth century. As Peter Thorsheim wrote in his Invention of Pollution (2006), the emergence of the general consensus that coal use degrades air quality and human health was a protracted process involving changes in political, social, cultural and medical discourses. Even after coal smoke was identified as the main cause of some serious respiratory diseases (e.g. bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia) in late nineteenth-century Britain, it took another half century for legislation to begin to regulate coal pollution. The process was slowed by popular beliefs and attitudes, as the British population generally believed that an open fire was hygienic and were emotionally attached to fireplaces as the centrepieces of the home (Mosley, 2001, 2007). As shown by Lynda Nead (in this volume), culture was a potent factor that significantly prolonged the shelf life of coal as the primary household fuel in Britain after the Second World War. Modern energy created new sources of pollution. As Thorsheim (2006) noted, the gas industry in nineteenth-century Britain, which manufactured relatively clean but ‘far from pristine’ fuel, exploited the pollution issue to gain an upper hand in its competition with the coal industry. Around the same period, in the USA, neither gas nor coke manufacturers gave much regard to their own part in contaminating air and soil, and the industry’s attitude remained unchanged until well into the twentieth century (Tarr, 2014).

Figure 10

Black and white night time photograph of a street food stall outside a chinese restaurant

‘A foggy Piccadilly partially lit by the light from a fruit seller’s stall’, London, 1952

Figure 11

Black and white photograph of a husband and wife sat in front of their living room fire

Man and woman reading by the fireplace, Photographic Advertising Limited, 1951

Electricity, despite being touted as a ‘clean’ energy by its early promoters, has hardly been without problems. Bill Luckin’s (1990) Questions of Power traced cases of local resistance to the extension of the national grid in 1920s to 1930s Britain. In the South Downs, the Lake District and other parts of the country, locals tried to protect natural landscapes from the intrusion of high tension wires and pylons. Around the 1990s, academic studies on energy history and environmental history saw signs of convergence, and an increasing number of historians started to reconsider past energy development in terms of its environmental consequences. In particular, the history of hydropower has attracted historians’ renewed attention because historical projects to construct large dams and hydroplants have typically been accompanied by grand-scale remakings (or destructions) of the natural environment. In both of the pioneering works for this approach – Richard White’s (1995) book on the Columbia River and Patrick McCully’s (1996) work on large dams – the environment and hydropower technology were seen not as isolated entities, but, rather, constituted parts of a larger system: what White called ‘organic machines’. More recently, Sara Prichard (2011) expanded this idea by proposing the notion of an ‘envirotechnical system’ in her book on the Rhône River. The research field continues to grow, as shown by recent additions by Vincent Lagendijk’s research article (2016) on the River Rhine, Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted’s (2014) comparative study of the Volga and Mississippi and Matthew Evenden’s (2015) monograph on Canada’s hydropower development during the Second World War.

The resurgence of research on hydropower’s past has also led historians to re-examine the historical creation of technical modernity and its variety of forms. Erik Swyngedouw’s (2015) critical investigation of ‘liquid modernity’ in Franco’s Spain revealed the political and cultural process through which hydropower development became the symbol of the nation’s modernisation project. His findings confirmed Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller’s (2008) claim in the edited volume Rivers in History that river dams were iconic structures that not only boosted electricity supply capacity, but also glorified the nation and assisted economic progress and nation building at the expense of forests and wildlife habitats. In Africa, as discussed by Heather Hoag (2013), the legacy of colonialism cast a long shadow on post-colonial hydropower development. African utility companies’ and political leaders’ continued belief in economic development via the expansion of hydropower was at odds with their condemnation of their colonial past because this policy virtually followed the blueprint created by administrators and entrepreneurs in the colonial era. Extending the time-frame of enquiry, Christopher Jones (2014) situated hydropower development within the American mid-Atlantic region’s transition to a mineral energy regime of coal, oil and electricity. This transition, which took place between the 1820s and the 1930s, was driven by the construction of a transport infrastructure of roads, waterways, railways, pipelines and transmission lines. The expansion of these infrastructures helped American society gradually overcome the geographically situated nature of energy systems. However, the enhanced infrastructure for moving energy from one place to another with relative ease created a ‘landscape of intensification’, in which people were encouraged to consume ever greater volumes of energy in the face of a diminishing sense of place and environment. Some recent publications by the Rachel Carson Center show how strengthened scholarly commitment to environmental perspectives has enriched our understanding of past energy transitions (Unger, 2013; Mavhunga and Trischler, 2014).

Reflecting today’s climate of environmental concerns, oil looms large in the recent literature on energy history. Although the social impact of oil use – a prime example being the American automobile culture – has long been recognised by both academics and non-academics, current historical research digs much deeper into oil culture’s meanings and manifestations (Black, 2014). Literary scholars have been particularly active in examining oil culture, taking their initial cue from Amitav Ghosh’s (1992) essay on ‘petrofiction’. As Bob Johnson (2014) argued, American society has suppressed, mainly through cultural means, the trauma of ‘the collateral human and environmental damage’ created by fossil energy dependencies. This cultural suppression of energy trauma, once recognised by scholars as such, exploded into a flourishing research field that covers not only American culture but practically every culture in the modern world (Barrett and Worden, 2012, 2014; Macdonald, 2012; Walonen, 2012). Studies on petroculture, initially a branch of literary history, now investigate the multitude of ways in which oil has shaped popular imagination (Hitchcock, 2010). Stephanie LeMenager (2014), a leading scholar on petroculture, stated in Living Oil that the aesthetics of oil permeated through society and manifested in such diverse forms as ‘[f]ilms, books, cars, foods, museums, even towns’. In other words, ‘compelling oil media are everywhere’.

Figure 12

Colour photograph of a sunrise over an oilfield in Texas North America

Oil Rigs Silhouetted Against a Texas Sunrise

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180912/003