Go back to article: Getting to grips with energy: fuel, materiality and daily life

Material cultures of energy: making energy visible again

There is a fundamental tension between the so-called natural and human sciences in their treatment of energy. In Newtonian physics, the conservation of energy is a universal law. Energy does not go up or down. It merely changes form: from performing work to generating heat, for example. The laws of thermodynamics teach us that energy cannot be created or lost but also that in the process of transformation some of it always disperses in waste heat or other less useful forms – entropy is always on the rise. Human culture, of course, operates within this natural setting and not outside it. But, in culture, by contrast, energy is of interest for its relative and evolving properties. Across time and space, the role of energy in human societies has varied enormously. It has done so with regard not only to the overall quantity measured in joules or BTUs (British Thermal Units) but also the quality of energy use and its particular functions and meanings.

The same number of joules can appear precious to one group but barely register with another. Take heat: what feels cosy and comfortable to some, can appear as too hot or too cold to others. Anthropologists have observed striking differences between cultures in their energy use and sensitivities. Norwegians, for example, heat and light the whole house as a sign of welcome and comfort, whereas the Japanese direct their energy on a particular room.[2] While, of course, we would want to know how much energy is needed to heat a home to a certain temperature and how insulation and radiators might do so more efficiently – the job of physicists and engineers – we surely also should want to know how and why ideas of comfort were changing in ways that made people today demand more heating or more cooling than in previous generations. Similar questions arise in relation to visual cultures and aesthetics and our changing relationships to fire, light and smoke.

We must therefore be careful and not treat energy culture as the product of nature. Energy cultures have a life of their own and generate dynamics that also exert pressure on nature, for example, by making societies want to generate more power to satisfy rising norms of thermal comfort. The moment we shift our attention to the demand for energy and ask what people do in their daily lives that creates this demand, how they think and feel about the energy they use become central topics of inquiry. In short, we need to complement thermodynamics with material culture.

An important first step in getting to grips with energy today is to make it visible again. In part, this is an act of recovery. Before the triumph of large technical networks, it was a common trope to think of energy, nature and culture together. To take just one example, energy played a central role in historical materialism and in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ view of evolution. Engels appropriated Lewis Henry Morgan’s study of ancient society (1877) to produce an evolutionary account of private property and social change. For Engels, the appropriation of energy from nature (and the technologies needed to extract it, both as food and heat) proceeded in tandem with the evolution of human consciousness and social organisation. Later anthropologists raised an obvious and damaging objection to this grand story: societies did not all follow the same line of material-cultural evolution, but showed surprising variations (Tilley et al, 2006).

In many museums today, energy continues to perform a gradual disappearing act as the artefacts of human civilisation from pre-industrial times give way to industrial and post-industrial society. The fascinating National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik illustrates the point. From the ninth century CE to the nineteenth century, energy occupies a central aspect in the galleries: as fuel it occupies a prime place in displays of hearth and home and the lives of the Icelandic population. Once the visitor moves to the section on consumerism since the 1960s, a radically different arrangement takes their place. Radios, fridges, record players, hair-dryers, television sets and many other consumer durables and appliances compete for attention. The energy needed to power these items, however, is now assumed. Displays of modern consumption take energy for granted in ways inconceivable in exhibits of the early modern home. In the corridor on contemporary culture, a single pylon stands lonely opposite the hall, but there is no invitation for the visitor to think about possible connections between consumer goods in an electrified home, new lifestyles and the new kinds of demand they create for the energy systems needed to feed them.

Energy is likewise hidden in most academic studies of consumption and material culture. With its long-established focus on ostentatious or conspicuous consumption, luxury and affluence, most studies have ignored what sociologists have called ‘ordinary consumption’ and the demands it makes on power and networks. Resources and material are left to environmental studies, even though shortages and affluence have been twins of consumer society.[3] Even an excellent compendium such as the Handbook of Material Culture (2006), edited by the archaeologist and anthropologist Christopher Tilley and colleagues, only offers three page references to energy – and none at all to coal, gas or electricity (Tilley et al, 2006).  Yet, when read closely, forms of energy come in and out of several entries, especially in discussions of the architecture, design and organisation of the home, such as the need for cooling in different types of buildings.

The silencing and disappearance of energy can, partly, be pinned on the advance of gas, electricity and modern networks in the twentieth century and the story they told of ever greater ease, efficiency and comfort. The pioneers of electricity, in particular, promised clean, effortless energy and convenience that liberated the female grate-slave and her husband from the dirty shackles of the coal fire. The fuel itself would disappear, and with it the labour and dirt involved in operating it. Wiring would be hidden away. To access power, all that was needed now was the flick of a switch. There are some elements of truth in this story: the switch from an open fire to an electric heater banished the dirty fuel to a distant power station; wiring standards put loose cables behind plaster walls; once AC replaced DC and grids and networks took over, users no longer knew where their power came from; by the 1960s, meters moved from visible spaces inside the home to basements or external boxes.

But, ultimately, this rosy technological story is also an idealised one that obscures a much messier process. In reality, power was never completely removed from the human touch and mind. Transitions from one fuel to another were rarely linear and involved people mixing and matching fuels and technologies. Tellingly, the Frankfurt kitchen of 1926, the very icon of modern living, included a stove that combined coal and electricity.

Figure 2

Leaflet showing a cartoon depiction of gas ovens walking their way through a town

‘Gas for every Home’ (Gas in jedes Haus), with gas cookers marching down the street, from an Austrian advertisement in April 1938; the gas cookers followed in the footsteps of German soldiers who were cheered by Austrian crowds one month earlier, when Hitler annexed Austria

In addition to celebrating modern science, early gas and electricity adverts also borrowed from classical myths and romantic folklore. Prometheus and goblins brought light and fire.

Figure 3

Poster showing a painting of Prometheus carrying a shining electric lightbulb

‘Prometheus, the bringer of fire!’ (Prometheus, der Feuerbringer), advertisement for a lightbulb with tungsten wire, c. 1910–14. Other manufacturers, too, tried to cash in on the ancient hero, such as Prometheus Fabrik, a factory in Frankfurt a. M. producing electric cookers and heaters

The advance of gas and electricity was slow and uneven and, in Europe, took over three generations to reach rural communities and the urban poor. People needed convincing and new fuels had to be domesticated (Gooday, 2008). Coal was not only cheap. People’s habits, visual sensations and bodily experiences of warmth were also attached to the open fire. In mid-twentieth century London, urban planners and local authorities found in their investigations that their constituents had a much lower demand for gas and electricity than the utility providers would have liked. On housing estates, some tenants were demanding more sockets and better wiring, but simultaneously many disliked new fuels and resisted the promise of ‘better’ technologies. In Britain, there were principled debates into the 1950s about whether it was morally right or even financially possible to deprive the working classes and the poor of their coal fire and to aspire to have the same shared norms of heating and lighting for all (Trentmann & Carlsson-Hyslop, 2018).

Nor should we overestimate the superiority of the new clean fuels. We tend to associate energy shortages with the poorer developing world. But the spectre of scarcity has haunted expanding consumer societies for centuries, from the wood crisis of the seventeenth century, across Britain’s anxieties about a coal famine in the nineteenth century to the oil crises of the 1970s. In advanced industrial societies, black-outs and shortages were widespread experiences into the 1950s – and then returned with a vengeance with the first oil crisis in 1973 (Nye, 2010; Shin and Trentmann, in press). Not surprisingly, fears of running out of fuel made people look sceptically at big networks and turn to other fuels and systems of provision for back-up. Ideas and habits of self-reliance and architectural visions of self-sufficiency were the natural counterparts of such shortages.

Putting material culture into the study of energy also means widening the traditional cast of characters and practices. The rise of modern networks tends to be visualised as a vast technical system of power stations, substations, transformers, peak operating schedules and grid operators. Such a point of view tends to be supply-oriented. When we instead turn our eye to what energy is used for, different actors are allowed onto the stage: housewives, children, the elderly, lighting designers and appliance salesmen and women, as well as office workers relying on energy-hungry equipment at their workplace. In the course of the twentieth century, official energy forecasts tended to legitimate a certain kind of statistical expertise and scientific expert – first scientists who estimated fuel reserves, then economists who measured GDP. However, many other types of expertise continued to circulate in home economics, energy exhibitions, film and literature peopled by experts and especially among women who knew a lot about the ‘ordinary’ use of fuel in everyday life (Wright and Trentmann, in press).

Thinking about the material culture of energy should not mean turning our back on technological networks. These worlds – the large scale technical-system and the quotidian culture of energy use – do not so much co-exist as they are symbiotic. They are entwined through the social practices that are powered by energy: cooking, heating, washing and moving from one place to another. Demand and supply need each other and mutually determine each other. Looking at the dynamic flow between the two opens up new ways of representing and analysing our cultures of energy. They can take a reader or museum visitor from a domestic object, such as a refrigerator, and daily practices such as the preparation and use of a stove all the way to the distribution and generation of energy.

The essays that follow explore the rich, multi-layered dimensions of the material cultures of energy. For analytical purposes, it is helpful to distinguish between the main layers of the subject: materiality; material representations; materials in use; infrastructures and practices; and material politics.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180901/001