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Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Richard Rhodes reveals the fascinating history behind energy transitions over time—wood to coal to oil to electricity and beyond. People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges t Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Richard Rhodes reveals the fascinating history behind energy transitions over time—wood to coal to oil to electricity and beyond. People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges tells the story of humanity itself. Through an unforgettable cast of characters, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes explains how wood gave way to coal and coal made room for oil, as we now turn to natural gas, nuclear power, and renewable energy. Rhodes looks back on five centuries of progress, through such influential figures as Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, Benjamin Franklin, Herman Melville, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. In Energy, Rhodes highlights the successes and failures that led to each breakthrough in energy production; from animal and waterpower to the steam engine, from internal-combustion to the electric motor. He addresses how we learned from such challenges, mastered their transitions, and capitalized on their opportunities. Rhodes also looks at the current energy landscape, with a focus on how wind energy is competing for dominance with cast supplies of coal and natural gas. He also addresses the specter of global warming, and a population hurtling towards ten billion by 2100. Human beings have confronted the problem of how to draw life from raw material since the beginning of time. Each invention, each discovery, each adaptation brought further challenges, and through such transformations, we arrived at where we are today. In Rhodes’s singular style, Energy details how this knowledge of our history can inform our way tomorrow.


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Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Richard Rhodes reveals the fascinating history behind energy transitions over time—wood to coal to oil to electricity and beyond. People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges t Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Richard Rhodes reveals the fascinating history behind energy transitions over time—wood to coal to oil to electricity and beyond. People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges tells the story of humanity itself. Through an unforgettable cast of characters, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes explains how wood gave way to coal and coal made room for oil, as we now turn to natural gas, nuclear power, and renewable energy. Rhodes looks back on five centuries of progress, through such influential figures as Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, Benjamin Franklin, Herman Melville, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. In Energy, Rhodes highlights the successes and failures that led to each breakthrough in energy production; from animal and waterpower to the steam engine, from internal-combustion to the electric motor. He addresses how we learned from such challenges, mastered their transitions, and capitalized on their opportunities. Rhodes also looks at the current energy landscape, with a focus on how wind energy is competing for dominance with cast supplies of coal and natural gas. He also addresses the specter of global warming, and a population hurtling towards ten billion by 2100. Human beings have confronted the problem of how to draw life from raw material since the beginning of time. Each invention, each discovery, each adaptation brought further challenges, and through such transformations, we arrived at where we are today. In Rhodes’s singular style, Energy details how this knowledge of our history can inform our way tomorrow.

30 review for Energy: A Human History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Simon Eskildsen

    I couldn't put this down. A fantastic account of our transition from organic energy sources (horses, mules, oxes, ..) to fossil fuels to electricity. Taking detours at each level into lighting (which takes you into whaling, and the Canadian invention of kerocene), a deep account on the steam engine (and the insidious effects of patents), why we ended up with combustion engines when steam and electrical engines seemed just as likely at the time (it's hard to imagine that the technologies weren't I couldn't put this down. A fantastic account of our transition from organic energy sources (horses, mules, oxes, ..) to fossil fuels to electricity. Taking detours at each level into lighting (which takes you into whaling, and the Canadian invention of kerocene), a deep account on the steam engine (and the insidious effects of patents), why we ended up with combustion engines when steam and electrical engines seemed just as likely at the time (it's hard to imagine that the technologies weren't far from each other at the time, because after 100-years of innovation, of course the combustion engine is far ahead). The last few chapters on the energy crisis we have today as a function of climate change. A book that appealed to me with the right mix of biographical content of innovators, inventions, science, and using history as context to talk about the present and future.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin

    Richard Rhodes has been writing since the early 1980s and I have read most of his books. He always has a good sense of historical narrative and he is a good science popularizer. He combines both these talents in many of his works and this book is no exception. He covers what many including myself consider the key to modernity our energy systems. He starts in Elizabethan England which was highly dependent on a dwindling supply of lumber for nearly everything from ships to baking bread. He covers Richard Rhodes has been writing since the early 1980s and I have read most of his books. He always has a good sense of historical narrative and he is a good science popularizer. He combines both these talents in many of his works and this book is no exception. He covers what many including myself consider the key to modernity our energy systems. He starts in Elizabethan England which was highly dependent on a dwindling supply of lumber for nearly everything from ships to baking bread. He covers the introduction of coal and energy revolution that centered around it with the rise of steam-powered machinery that powered the first industrial revolution. he then talks about illumination for homes and shops with candles, reeds the switch over to whale oil, then to kerosene and finally electric light of the second industrial revolution centered on electricity and industrial chemistry. We go to the automobile as the world we know comes into focus. Finally, we come to sources that our current transition is starting, nuclear, gas and renewables. These transitions take about 100 years or at least they did in the past and we are in need of a change with the climate crisis breathing down our necks. Good and realistic picture of our changing energy economy over time.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Dax

    A little bit of a dry read at times, but very informative. Rhodes devotes a chapter or two to each of the major sources of energy humans have used over the last several hundred years. Wood, steam, coal, hydrocarbons, nuclear fission, renewables; all are covered in detail. Rhodes also discusses the history of several environmental movements which is much more interesting than it sounds.Part III, which covers hydrocarbons, nuclear power, renewables, and our path forward is the most noteworthy for A little bit of a dry read at times, but very informative. Rhodes devotes a chapter or two to each of the major sources of energy humans have used over the last several hundred years. Wood, steam, coal, hydrocarbons, nuclear fission, renewables; all are covered in detail. Rhodes also discusses the history of several environmental movements which is much more interesting than it sounds.Part III, which covers hydrocarbons, nuclear power, renewables, and our path forward is the most noteworthy for our current situation. Very good stuff, but I can't call it excellent. A high three stars.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    2 stars might be a little harsh, but this was a disappointing book. The early chapters rehashed stuff I already know, the nuclear energy chapter, well, rehashed old stuff too. The windup was a little better, and it's all well-written. But not much substance, if you know a bit about the topic. Better to read Daniel Yergin's great "The Prize." WSJ featured review, which led me to read it: https://www.wsj.com/articles/energy-r... "Splendid .... A riveting account .... Humanity’s bottomless ingenuity i 2 stars might be a little harsh, but this was a disappointing book. The early chapters rehashed stuff I already know, the nuclear energy chapter, well, rehashed old stuff too. The windup was a little better, and it's all well-written. But not much substance, if you know a bit about the topic. Better to read Daniel Yergin's great "The Prize." WSJ featured review, which led me to read it: https://www.wsj.com/articles/energy-r... "Splendid .... A riveting account .... Humanity’s bottomless ingenuity is on full display in a fine history of the harnessing of the natural world’s potential, from charcoal to ‘rock oil’ to nuclear, wind and solar sources."

  5. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Rhodes applies his talent for explaining science and technology to a popular audience to the modern history of energy--the deforestation of Europe and the coming of coal of increasing efficiency and quality, rushlight, steam engines, whale oil, kerosene and turpentine, oil, nuclear and wind. Along the way, there are vivid portraits of the people who made the technological leaps, often at high cost to themselves and their families, and the political and cultural oddities (the attempt to lure Nant Rhodes applies his talent for explaining science and technology to a popular audience to the modern history of energy--the deforestation of Europe and the coming of coal of increasing efficiency and quality, rushlight, steam engines, whale oil, kerosene and turpentine, oil, nuclear and wind. Along the way, there are vivid portraits of the people who made the technological leaps, often at high cost to themselves and their families, and the political and cultural oddities (the attempt to lure Nantucket's whaling families to live in the UK, for one) which shape the implementation. I was also surprised to learn the connection between the brewing industry, which needed kilns to dry the malt, and blast furnaces.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Lubinka Dimitrova

    Very informative, but too dry for my taste and my mind was wandering off. Still, plenty of interesting facts.

  7. 4 out of 5

    David Montgomery

    A good overview of the changes in human energy use from the Elizabethan period through to the present. Rhodes surveys the rise and fall of muscle, water, steam and electricity, of wood, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar in turn. Each gets capsule histories of varying lengths, summarizing the circumstances of their rise and the major figures and events involved in the major inventions. I enjoyed the first half of the book, focused on pre-20th Century energy, more than the second hal A good overview of the changes in human energy use from the Elizabethan period through to the present. Rhodes surveys the rise and fall of muscle, water, steam and electricity, of wood, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar in turn. Each gets capsule histories of varying lengths, summarizing the circumstances of their rise and the major figures and events involved in the major inventions. I enjoyed the first half of the book, focused on pre-20th Century energy, more than the second half, which felt briefer and more polemic. At the end, Rhodes makes his aim clear: he is a champion of human ingenuity when it comes to energy, contra the neo-Malthusians who want to cut back. I'm sympathetic to this view, and get how the book's treatment of how humans invented new energy sources to overcome the drawbacks of the older sources (over and over again, but always ending up a little better off) supports this argument. But I feel the book would have been stronger if it had been less polemical, letting readers draw their own conclusion from Rhodes' presentation of the facts. Perhaps this freed-up space could have been used to go into more detail about more modern energy sources, of which only nuclear gets a full treatment, or to make it a true history of energy and cover the pre-modern energy sources (human and animal muscle, mechanical channeling of wind and water) with the same rigor. His anti-Malthusian conclusion only made me want to read Charles Mann's book-length take of that debate, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World . Still, Energy was an enjoyable and fairly brisk read. His histories of the rise of steam engines, oil drilling and electrical power were all thoroughly enlightening; his other chapters all had interesting nuggets. I just feel the book could have been more.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Charlene

    I read this book at the same time as Smil's Energy and Civilization. It proved to be a good compliment to Smil's book but left me feeling pretty disappointed at the same time. I wanted more from this book than it had to offer. Maybe I would have favored it more if I had not read at the same time as Smil's masterpiece. This book started out more interesting than it ended. Rhodes asked thought provoking questions, such as how did humans figure out how to best harvest energy from nature. For exampl I read this book at the same time as Smil's Energy and Civilization. It proved to be a good compliment to Smil's book but left me feeling pretty disappointed at the same time. I wanted more from this book than it had to offer. Maybe I would have favored it more if I had not read at the same time as Smil's masterpiece. This book started out more interesting than it ended. Rhodes asked thought provoking questions, such as how did humans figure out how to best harvest energy from nature. For example, should they use a plot of land as a crop for food? Should they use their horsepower to cultivate the land to grow oak trees? Planting oak trees was extremely important for the building of civilization. Great warships relied on the old, tall trees to construct the many masts required for these ships to defend their own land and conquer other lands. Warships were extremely valuable to national security back then, like aircraft are now. It took 2500 large oak trees to build a warship. However, it took 80-120 years for these oak trees to grow, a very long term investment. A farmer could make more money immediately growing food. So how many farmers would make the choice to grow the trees that paved the way not only for their country's victory in war but that built the railroads that allowed for easier trade, when they could make more money in a shorter time period for growing crops? It was a really great problem to think about. When Rhodes asked, and attempted to answer, questions such as the one above, the book felt exciting. I wanted to think about the complexities of harvesting energy from wood, mining iron, and the other ways humans found to extract energy to build their civilizations. As the book traveled through time, to the industrial revolution, I felt bored and was not too disappointed when the book was done.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Franco Pasqualini

    The book was excellent, well researched and well explained. It may not be for everyone, but I loved it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Larry Bassett

    I want to note 1st that this book includes an extensive bibliography at the end of the Kindle edition. I also wanted to note that this author is a promoter of nuclear power which is in contrast to my personal anti-nuclear position. I thought several times as I was listening to this audible book that it would be a delight for a person who wants to learn about inventors and engineers over the last several hundred years. I found it less interesting until it moved into the current time.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Thom

    Dry overview of energy discovery and use through western history. Touches on wood, coal, oils, gasses, and newer sources without getting technical; names the principal inventors without going into much of their biography. The early chapters do a good job of showing the various fuels burned to provide light, comparing costs and effectiveness. Over time, the market pressures changed due to various influences, and that story was pretty interesting. Later in the book, that format is dropped for a much Dry overview of energy discovery and use through western history. Touches on wood, coal, oils, gasses, and newer sources without getting technical; names the principal inventors without going into much of their biography. The early chapters do a good job of showing the various fuels burned to provide light, comparing costs and effectiveness. Over time, the market pressures changed due to various influences, and that story was pretty interesting. Later in the book, that format is dropped for a much drier survey of electricity generation, which ultimately carries us to the present day. I wonder if the WSJ reviewer who described this book as "A riveting account" failed to read past the first few chapters.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Meredith

    Audiobook. I cannot say enough about this. It is completely outstanding. When I saw that it was by Richard Rhodes, I couldn’t wait to read it. This is a comprehensive, well thought out and researched book on the history of energy conversion across the last 400 years and its overwhelming and undeniable benefit to the quality of human life and longevity. It is full of interesting anecdotes and asides that add enormous flavour to the stories. It is written in a manner that would be entertaining to Audiobook. I cannot say enough about this. It is completely outstanding. When I saw that it was by Richard Rhodes, I couldn’t wait to read it. This is a comprehensive, well thought out and researched book on the history of energy conversion across the last 400 years and its overwhelming and undeniable benefit to the quality of human life and longevity. It is full of interesting anecdotes and asides that add enormous flavour to the stories. It is written in a manner that would be entertaining to a layperson as well as an engineer or scientist. I am familiar with the principles through my professional life, but still I learned so much. I had to keep “rewinding” it to hear the numerous gems again. The final chapter contains a stunningly accurate picture of where energy conversion should be headed, and it deserves to be read by all thinking people who care about both the environment and humanity - which are one and the same. Credit must be given to the narrator Jacques Guy, who has a wonderful voice and an astounding ability to relate the direct quotes with convincing accents to represent the original speaker’s voices. (He even captures the nuances between different English and Scots speakers.) An absolutely recommended read...you won’t be disappointed.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lee Woodruff

    If you love books that cover epic transformations in history this is your next non fiction read about the evolution of energy from wood to nuclear - four centuries of change and all the implications - an in-depth good read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Travis Tucker

    A good history of the progression of the history of the development of energy sources and machines to use them. My only issues were: 1) that is was bit America/Western Europe-centric. I understand that this is where the invention took place, but it would have been interesting to know how quickly ideas / adoption spread to other parts of the world. 2) the discussion on wind / solar renewables was a bit brief.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nooilforpacifists

    It’s hard to imagine a more light-weight read. From the same author who who wrote the awe-inspiring “Making of the Atomic Bomb”. If you want to understand the industry and ideas, stick with Daniel Yeargin. Most of the book is nothing new. Only at the end does Rhodes provide some useful stats. Such as nuclear power has caused the least number of deaths of any energy production technology. And in 1996, half of Americans were alive only because of technological improvements. But, there’s no energy i It’s hard to imagine a more light-weight read. From the same author who who wrote the awe-inspiring “Making of the Atomic Bomb”. If you want to understand the industry and ideas, stick with Daniel Yeargin. Most of the book is nothing new. Only at the end does Rhodes provide some useful stats. Such as nuclear power has caused the least number of deaths of any energy production technology. And in 1996, half of Americans were alive only because of technological improvements. But, there’s no energy in “Energy”.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    Review title: Energy to burn Rhodes, best known for his histories of the atomic bomb, here turns his attention to the history of energy sources and how humans have developed and transitioned between them. Beginning with wood, Rhodes documents the development and transition to coal, steam, whale oil and other "burning fluids", electricity, oil, nuclear energy, and renewable sources. While he outlines the technology behind the energy sources, he focuses on the social, commercial, and political respo Review title: Energy to burn Rhodes, best known for his histories of the atomic bomb, here turns his attention to the history of energy sources and how humans have developed and transitioned between them. Beginning with wood, Rhodes documents the development and transition to coal, steam, whale oil and other "burning fluids", electricity, oil, nuclear energy, and renewable sources. While he outlines the technology behind the energy sources, he focuses on the social, commercial, and political responses to the development, maturation, and adoption of each new energy source as it first is resisted by, augments, and then takes its place alongside or displaces the previous accepted sources. Rhodes looks for the spark of the unique and interesting characters and events that make the history engaging and enlightening. For example, the wood economy in England was threatened by the depletion of forests, the costs of transportation from increasingly distant forests, and the loss of timber needed to build and maintain the tall ship naval fleet that guarded fortress Britain. Adoption or displacement owed at least as much to these human issues than to the technical advantages or limitations of each energy source. He also documents the unintended consequences of each source that drove innovation on the alternatives. Whale oil harvesting depleted the whale population worldwide, driving up costs as fleets had to range further in search of diminishing returns. Coal fouled the air and cost lives as mines were extended deeper underground. Petroleum refining, shipping, and usage released dangerous chemical pollutants into the atmosphere. Clean burning and seemingly limitless nuclear power was in fact limited by the political costs of three very high profile accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the 2017 Japanese typhoon disaster. In discussing the modern preoccupation with clean and renewable energy sources, particularly in response to environmental impacts in the developed nations, Rhodes is pessimistic about the ability of these sources to augment and supplant existing dependency on coal, oil, and natural gas. Perhaps due to his past research and writing on atomic weaponry and its civilian application, he believes political and environmentalist objections to nuclear power are either honestly misguided or intentionally dishonest. Nuclear power's public health record more than compensates for its few occupational accidents. Its limited air pollution combined with its extremely low greenhouse emissions and its 24/7 availability more than 90 percent of the time make it easily the most promising single energy source available to cope with twenty-first-century energy challenges. Antinuclear activists, whose agendas originated in a misinformed neo-Malthusian foreboding of overpopulation (and a willingness at the margin to condemn millions of their fellow human beings to death from disease and starvation), may fairly be accused of disingenuousness in their successive against the safest, least polluting, least warming, and most reliable energy source humanity has yet devised. (p. 336) As Rhodes writes for a layman audience, he does a good job of simplifying the scientific and technical reasoning behind these strong words, as he does throughout the book. He provides footnotes and bibliographic citations for followup for those who want to dig deeper. Because he writes to the unique and interesting characters and events, even as it keeps the reader interested, the result is more episodic than comprehensive. But that's a minor knock; this is enjoyable and educational reading.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Brendan Holly

    Energy is incredibly informative, although it didn't necessarily grab my attention as much as I had hoped. Still I learned an incredibly amount, but I was, perhaps naively, surprised by the end of the book. The final section quickly became almost exclusively devoted to nuclear energy apologetics. While I am not particularly committed to an anti-nuclear position like some of my fellow environmentalists, the book ended with a rhetorical flourish propping up the Promethean spirit of human innovat Energy is incredibly informative, although it didn't necessarily grab my attention as much as I had hoped. Still I learned an incredibly amount, but I was, perhaps naively, surprised by the end of the book. The final section quickly became almost exclusively devoted to nuclear energy apologetics. While I am not particularly committed to an anti-nuclear position like some of my fellow environmentalists, the book ended with a rhetorical flourish propping up the Promethean spirit of human innovation as we attenuate our suffering. Little consideration is given to the impacts of energy besides 1. Human health (a thing of the past) and 2. Climate change (don't worry its effects will be limited due to human innovation). Of course, I also don't want to read an anti-energy, damn those humans of the past screed. I just don't think Rhodes gives environmentalists and those concerned about limits, environmental impact, etc a fair shake. Rhodes seems to willfully misrepresent the UN projection on population to fit his political purpose, repeatedly citing 10 billion people at 2100. The 2017 revision's median projection , which he claims to reference, projects 9.8 billion people by 2050 (hitting 10 around 2055) and 11.2 billion people by 2100. 10 billion people in 2100 is outside of the 80% two-tailed confidence interval (thus their prediction presents a less than 10% chance of 10 billion people, the number Rhodes bandies about ad nauseum. Of course, I'm not claiming we should approach population from a Malthusian perspective; indeed, the ecological concerns that I care deeply about are better dealt with by adjusting for environmental footprint rather than raw population data. But we cannot pretend that population is immaterial or that an increasingly developed world will not increase environmental degradation. Setting aside the climate impacts of energy use, energy drives our human prerogatives which are overwhelmingly not ecologically benign. Of course energy development and technological innovation will continue full steam ahead by charcoal, sea coal, gasoline, or fission, but I don't think we can come to terms with the history of energy ensconced in Rhodes' anthropocentric lens, bereft of an understanding of the non-human actors we have impressed into the service of progress over the centuries.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Abhi Gupte

    So.....zzzzzz....booooooring......soooo....zzzz.....random...zzzz... I'm surprised this is a book by a Pulitzer Prize winner - the writing is so uninteresting, the narrative so random. The "book" feels more like a compendium of essays poorly stitched together. The chapters make no coherent sense because one minute there author will be talking about oil drilling, then pipes, then steel-making, then war, then back to oil markets, pipes, women, all in the course of one "chapter".. Stick to a storyli So.....zzzzzz....booooooring......soooo....zzzz.....random...zzzz... I'm surprised this is a book by a Pulitzer Prize winner - the writing is so uninteresting, the narrative so random. The "book" feels more like a compendium of essays poorly stitched together. The chapters make no coherent sense because one minute there author will be talking about oil drilling, then pipes, then steel-making, then war, then back to oil markets, pipes, women, all in the course of one "chapter".. Stick to a storyline, man! Also, the author has attempted to describe the energy history of only the modern Anglo-American world. Don't call the book "A Human History" then.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Richard Powers

    This is a terrific book, my first read of Richard Rhodes, and I am going to carry-on. He starts with vacuum powered steam engines and closes with a surprising and credible pitch for nuclear power. He writes like a dream. For the science-curious, it is a great read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Randall Wallace

    A local in Titusville, PA (site of Drake’s first successful oil well in the U.S.) said back then (probably with Cletus’s accent), “We knew there was oil there, but that didn’t count for much with us because the oil didn’t seem good for much.” Sperm oil was used until the 1960’s to lubricate machine guns. He reminds us that it is amperage and not voltage that kills you; an electric fence packs 8,000 volts powered by a single 9-volt but the amperage is 0.1 amp. We were a country of horses before a A local in Titusville, PA (site of Drake’s first successful oil well in the U.S.) said back then (probably with Cletus’s accent), “We knew there was oil there, but that didn’t count for much with us because the oil didn’t seem good for much.” Sperm oil was used until the 1960’s to lubricate machine guns. He reminds us that it is amperage and not voltage that kills you; an electric fence packs 8,000 volts powered by a single 9-volt but the amperage is 0.1 amp. We were a country of horses before a country of cars. One city horse required four acres of land to create the feed needed (three tons of hay and 1 ton of oats). To feed them all, did you know that over half the land in New England was devoted to hay before the car took hold. Each horse creates a gallon of urine daily and a whopping 30 to 50 pounds of manure. Richard rightfully mentions the importance of “The Tragedy of the Commons”. U.S. wood use peaked in 1870. Lest we think the internal combustion engine was a foregone conclusion there is this: In 1900, there were 1,681 steamers, and 1,575 electric cars against only 936 internal combustion vehicles. The Model T ran with gasoline as well as alcohol. Benzene got added to gas because it allows alcohol to mix with gasoline so that the mixture makes engines “purr.” Bakelite was the world’s first synthetic plastic (carbolic acid plus formaldehyde) arriving in 1909. Most of today’s sulfur comes as a byproduct of oil and gas manufacture. “Natural gas – methane – is about thirty times more effective than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.” It was vented in a massive waste for most of the last century by ignorant US technicians rather than be captured and used productively and thus contributed to today’s global warming. Los Angeles smog is actually “oxidized hydrocarbons”. Did you know that Paul Ehrlich, author of the Population Bomb, actually recommended that India “should receive no more food” – that is should be left to starve, and outcome he considered inevitable? What a charming man. At the end of this book, Richard gets to his real agenda and begins to shill for nuclear power. The Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island disasters were all merely mistakes, which for some reason will never happen again and so nuclear is all happiness and sunshine. He reminds us that opponents fought the zipper when it arrived because it sinfully allowed people to disrobe faster. Richard’s sterling logic is that if you even question nuclear, you look like you are basically questioning the zipper. Not one sentence inside this huge book about needing to use less energy in future, shifting from an economy of consumption to an economy of sufficiency, moving to either a no-growth economy or a steady state economy. This book is about continuing full speed ahead with both capitalism and nuclear in the driver’s seat, and zero lifestyle changes for a passive nation of consumers. In Richard’s fantasy, complete economic collapse, marine collapse, and human extinction are unthinkable, because moving forward with mostly natural gas and nuclear will solve all our problems, including all future problems caused the continuation of neoliberalism and a permanent war economy. Good luck with that.

  21. 4 out of 5

    JQAdams

    Rhodes, perhaps best known for his works about nuclear weapons, turns here to a history of how people have generated power and light over the past 400 or so years. It starts with wood-burning, moves through the development of the steam engine and the rise of coal, oil, and nuclear fuels; there are major parallel strands about the burning of gas for illumination and the refining of petrochemicals for transportation, too. That's an ambitious agenda, even if it doesn't include much about hydropower Rhodes, perhaps best known for his works about nuclear weapons, turns here to a history of how people have generated power and light over the past 400 or so years. It starts with wood-burning, moves through the development of the steam engine and the rise of coal, oil, and nuclear fuels; there are major parallel strands about the burning of gas for illumination and the refining of petrochemicals for transportation, too. That's an ambitious agenda, even if it doesn't include much about hydropower in particular, or about such major energy sources as animal power (horses are mentioned mostly as something that got replaced by the automobile). Fortunately, Rhodes mostly keeps things moving in going from one key development to the next. But, Rhodes emphasizes in his introduction, he thinks the key to being engaging is to tell stories, human stories, and so a lot of the exposition comes through accounts of particular people struggling to solve some energy-related problem. That's often reasonably effective, but at other times it seems like unnecessary wheel-spinning: the book's opening anecdote has nothing much to do with energy, but it does involve wood as well as William Shakespeare, which is apparently good enough for Rhodes to pretend it relates to wood-burning energy. Or: you'll get pages and pages about the use of tetraethyl lead as an additive to gasoline, which while useful information seems wildly out of proportion to its importance in the larger narrative. The biggest slog is Rhodes's bizarre polemic when he gets to nuclear energy, which he adores with the bloom of first love. That's fine, but for no obvious reason he decides to set up opposition to nuclear energy with a whole chapter saying that environmentalists are all loathsome eugenicists because some of them fifty years ago were worried about overpopulation, then spends the rest of his account snidely referring to any opposition to nuclear fuel as mindless "neo-Malthusianism," apparently hoping that cross-breeding straw man and ad hominem fallacies will produce a satisfying argument. Alas, it does not. Before those last few chapters, I thought of the book as a fairly typical three stars, but that whole discussion pulled it towards the lower end of the three-star range, flirting with two stars.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    * Wood to coal to oil to nuclear to natural gas to renewables * How did humans confront how to draw energy from the world and then deal with consequences of how they did so Part 1 No Wood, No Kingdom * 1599 The Globe Theater was opened after being dismantled and moved by Shakespeare and his fellow theater owners taking the precious wood material away from the absentee landlord. * Between charcoal, ship and building construction, England may have been running out of wood. * Chimney sweeps got scrotum * Wood to coal to oil to nuclear to natural gas to renewables * How did humans confront how to draw energy from the world and then deal with consequences of how they did so Part 1 No Wood, No Kingdom * 1599 The Globe Theater was opened after being dismantled and moved by Shakespeare and his fellow theater owners taking the precious wood material away from the absentee landlord. * Between charcoal, ship and building construction, England may have been running out of wood. * Chimney sweeps got scrotum cancer... they worked naked and sweat collected there * Boyle could create vaccuums * Watt creates the steam engine with care to its efficiency because coal was money * Pressure cooker with self regulating safety valve made the steam engine possible * Steam good for engine because it took up so much more space than water * Cold water injection could cycle more often * Canals in late 18th early 19th century England were mostly made to move coal * Steel would cut down the steam engine explosions in the late 19th century. Better than cast iron. * Malthus and other great minds of the time didn't realize they were in the midst of the Industrial "Revolution" * "Raising water with fire" pumping out flooded mines (digging deeper for coal) with steam power Part 2: Light * Rotting fish give off a slight iridescence and were used for faint light to walk by * Gas lighting could be turned up and down unlike with candle light and barely possible with oil * Kerosene was created in tar pits such as in Alberta. It burned brighter than whale oil and turpentine. * Titusville PA had oil naturally seeping to the surface. McClintock farm was place where oil was searched for. 1854, PA Rock Oil Company of New York was founded. They nearly quit one investor sending a letter to quit, but mail was slow, and Uncle Billy (hired to drill the hole hit oil nearly 50 feet down) * Tough to transport the oil in wagons. Fresheted the Oil Creek by damming and flooding it to send flat boats down the creek to the Allegheny River. * Kerosene came to market under a government subsidy * Whale bones and bristles filled in for the whale industry after kerosene supplanted oil for lighting yet whale oil was preferred for machine guns through both world wars * Rule of Capture - land is easier to determine owner, even coal which doesn't move, but water and oil is trickier. Only guiding principle for people was to get everything they could and the common good wasn't considered. Tragedy of the Commons was the common receiving the waste of the private enterprise ie pollution. 11 - Great Forces of Nature * Ben Franklin had an electric dinner party with drinks with electric charge, turkey killed with electricity etc. * Galvani figured out electricity could contract muscles of frog legs, Volta figured out more about it but was kind in not tearing Galvani's principles down * Steam required early and contact stoking, was only used locally like in the engine using it and was hard to transit elsewhere, and was dirty... but with electricity it could generate and transmit energy * Advantage AC had over DC could be cut and increased so smaller wires could be used * Electric light would flicker while gas wouldn't leading to hesitancy in adopting it, inventor William Stanley had idea of creating alternating current * amperage kills, not volts * Stanley fell ill in Pittsburgh most likely to pollution * Edison liked DC and Westinghouse liked AC in battle of the currents; AC would win out 13 * Guano islands off Peru probably caused blight in Ireland with ships traveling between them carrying diseased potatoes. Guano was used as fertilizer. 14 * Anthracite hard coal burned cleaner than bituminous. Pittsburgh was the smokiest city of any. * America in early 20th century similar to China in Olympics 2008 when coal firing was limited to lower pollution * Worst survival rate in world is in Swaziland and America's was worse in early 20th century, industrial processes lengthened life expectancy by 30 years * Stanley Steamer was an early car which was steam powered * Women preferred electric cars because internal combustion engines required cranking (before Kettering designed the electric start). Also engines and their high idling rpms required gearing to contain rotations sent to the wheels. * In late 1800s, a Philly engineer predicted electric to be superior to internal combustion engines due to their lack of exhaust and relative simplicity. * Model T was a flex car, could run on gas or alcohol but alcohol couldn't compete with gas' delivery due to Standard Oil. Pure alcohol has an octane of 105 but gas of the era (white gas) was only 50. * Lead as an additive helped eliminate knocking although toxic properties of lead were known and gas painted red as a warning. Called ethel gasoline somewhat confusing with ethelene. * Severe lead exposure could lead to delerium and temperatures up to 110F. Happened to workers in refinery. * Lead removed from gas only because it clogged catalytic converters which cut down smog 16 * SoCal began working with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia wasn't particularly promising due to its underdevelopment so they ended up working with smaller player SoCal. Also, it wasn't apparent how much oil Saudi Arabia was sitting on then. * Hole #7 for Saudi Arabia delivered vast amounts of oil just in time as SoCal deliberated shutting down oil exploration there. * Electric arc welding made long distance pipelines possible * BTU (British Thermal Unit) raises one pound of water one degree * Pittsburgh went to natural gas for about 5 years but the pipeline proved faulty and it went back to coal * Lots of waste gas compared to consume gas in the early years of natural gas drilling in the 30's * Mid Atlantic and New England states still ran on coal in the 30's * Nazi subs attack oil tankers off Atlantic coast so land pipelines were created (Big Inch and Little Big Inch). These lines were converted to carrying natural gas after WWII. Before then, New England only had "town gas" in limited supply. * Miners leader John Lewis called numerous strikes further incentivizing switch to natural gas 17 * First nuclear reaction conducted by Enrico Fermi at University of Chicago * U235 became plutonium in nuclear reactor. Limited amount of uranium available naturally kept initial views of nuclear energy dim. But, uranium could be condensed for poorer graded ores. * Murray Hill Project would seek all uranium in world. Also run by General Leslie Groves who also ran the Manhattan Project. Wanted to focus on domestic uranium and incentivized private uranium miners with awards. Ads in National Georgraphic, Life etc and gieger counter sales went up. * Rickover encourages creations of nuclear subs against Navy's significant hesitance * Eisenhower balanced budget by cutting normal military expenditures and stock piling nuclear weapons * Atoms for Peace program meant as counterweight to seeing US as warmonger with nuclear weapons. * Soviets first to connect reactor to electric grid. Graphite water set up which could "run away." Chernobyl was a graphite water reactor. * First nuclear reactor placed outside Pittsburgh to help with pollution * Midget welders helped fix pipes normal men couldn't 18 Affection from the Smog * Donora PA 10/31/48 had event with pollution which sickened 6K and killed 20 people. Sat in bowl ringed by Monongahela River. Showed air pollutants affect health which was questioned before. US Steel's plants put out flourine pollution. Investigators said US Steel executives should have been charged with murder. * London also had killer fogs up into the 60's and LA started having smog problems due to its natural basin. It took time for people to realize the smog came from cars and not various other guesses. * Dupont fought FDA limiting sale of vegetables grown near its flourine plant. Would clean up but not admit flourine was harmful. * Dutch chemist Arie Jan Haagen-Smit working with pineapples with equipment also sensitive to smog was able to conduct experiments showing where smog came from (oxidized hydro carbons) * This helped start up Clean Air Act and deleading gas (mainly for catalytic converters to work) * Kuznets curve shows pollution initially and then lowering but doesn't really account for dirty water or global warming 19 The Dark Age to Come * Rachel Carson was dying of cancer as she wrote "Silent Spring" * Harrison Brown who worked on the Manhattan Project wrote "The Challenge of of Man's Future" signaling the harm man caused the world. Brown worried the mental harm from WWII not dealt with proactively lead to people drinking, overworking, and acting in a short sighted manner. Brown also was interested in "pruning" humankind to only desirable people reproducing. * Paul Ehrlich wrote "Population Bomb" warning of over population with very negative views of the developing world * Birth rate drops with affluence and some population estimates didn't take this in account as they came up with large estimations for future population * Chalk River Laboratories cleanup showed radiation when well heeded didn't kill. The clean up crew proved to live as long or longer than general population. Jimmy Carter participated as a volunteer. * Castle Bravo Bomb 3/1/54 forced Pacific Islanders to evacuate fallout and sickened crew of a Japanese fishing ship killing one of them * Nuclear risks could be perceived larger than the benefits 20 All Aboard * Jacobs Wind Company sold wind generators since mid 1920s * Chernobyl had awful dual purpose design some waste could be bomb material and poorly trained operators, Fukishima was designed poorly with auxiliary cooling equipment and power generators built where they flooded during tsunami. Nuclear power actually quite safe. * Club of Rome was group concerned with overpopulation in the 1960s. * Takes up to 50 years for an energy system to reach 10% of production but nuclear went faster and then dropped. * The human endeavor is lessening human suffering and just in America more people are alive because of advancements than all the deaths in war combined. Science learns from its mistakes unlike most any other professional field.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gabbi Levy

    My interview with Richard Rhodes: ENERGY IS ALL AROUND us. It lights homes, fuels cars, cooks food and connects people to their world, yet most spend little time thinking about where it comes from and how it gets to their lamps, televisions and cellphones. But the world is at a turning point. Scientific consensus has concluded that humans – especially through a reliance on the fossil fuels used to produce energy – have contributed to the warming of the planet and that time is running out to avoid My interview with Richard Rhodes: ENERGY IS ALL AROUND us. It lights homes, fuels cars, cooks food and connects people to their world, yet most spend little time thinking about where it comes from and how it gets to their lamps, televisions and cellphones. But the world is at a turning point. Scientific consensus has concluded that humans – especially through a reliance on the fossil fuels used to produce energy – have contributed to the warming of the planet and that time is running out to avoid catastrophic effects. In his new book, "Energy: A Human History," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes explores the technological developments that drove the Industrial Revolution and created modern society – and that now may put it at risk. In a recent interview with U.S. News, Rhodes discussed the choices ahead and the lessons from the past in order to power the future. Excerpts: Why are we having so much trouble letting go of carbon-based energy sources? The most striking thing of all is how much more total, world-scale our situation is today than it ever has been in the past. All of the major transitions that I write about from wood coal and the development of various kinds of power sources were all regional or even local within a country at first. The other is how long it has taken to move from one major source of energy to another major source of energy. We tend to think that once we know how to build a solar panel or put up a wind turbine, that's it. We'll just do that and then things will change. But the lesson of the last 400 years, to the contrary, is that it's a much more complicated business than that because it involves social learning, and that tends to proceed very slowly with all of the various kinds of commitments and resistances and all of the technological development issues. Existing producers of materials don't want to see the change that's taking place because they're invested in it. It's where their money is. I think we see that today with the resistance of the petroleum industries, hydrocarbon industries, to the idea that we need to decarbonize the energy supply. What are they going to do with all the investments they've made? They don't see that as a happy outcome and have been resisting it fiercely, even to the point of denying that global warming is actually taking place. Natural gas is the largest single source of energy in the United States and is touted as better for the environment. But does it improve enough on other fossil fuels? It has one great advantage, which is that it doesn't seriously pollute the air. By switching to natural gas to power our power stations, you reduce the amount of air pollution – and that's good. But on the other hand, it's about 50 percent as productive of carbon dioxide as coal. So in terms of global warming, it's not a happy solution to the problem. That's why I emphasize the development of nuclear power, because once nuclear plants are built, they basically produce no carbon at all. The only carbon that gets into the air from the development of nuclear power is the cement and steel and so forth that goes into the physical structure, so it ends up having about the same carbon footprint as solar, which is pretty small. In the United States, the nuclear power systems operate better than 90 percent of the time. Compare around 30 percent for the renewables and you realize that it is obviously a great solution for generating the basic energy we need to make electricity to power the country. Renewables are intermittent. Because they turn on and off with the wind and the sun, they need backup. They need a load-following system, and nuclear's not very good at turning it up and turning it down rapidly. With natural gas, you can do that in a matter of almost seconds. Since electricity is something that at present times we aren't able to store when it's made – it goes straight to the electric outlets to our homes – you need something you can almost instantaneously plug in when the cloud covers the sun. And natural gas is good for that. The truth is, given the time span that's available before global warming really does cause some disastrous changes to the environment, and the long, long timespan involved in developing a new major energy source, we really are going to need everything we can get. We're going to need all the renewables – where they fit, where they're appropriate, where there's plenty of sunlight and plenty of wind, and we're going to need natural gas at least for load following. And I think we're going to need nuclear power to supply the immense amount of energy that is going to be demanded, particularly in India and China. Those countries are just beginning to move their immense populations into the middle-class life, and the middle-class life can almost be defined by how much electricity is available. Why has nuclear taken off in other parts of the world, but remained basically flat in the U.S.? I think it's largely prejudicial. Many people who are concerned about global warming are hostile to nuclear power, going back to a time when there was a very strong belief about and a lot of talking and writing about the idea that we were rapidly overpopulating the Earth. That was all shown to be nonsense – the peaking of the increased growth rate as more people in India and China and other places moved into better conditions and stopped having so many children. The counterargument came from the early enthusiasts for nuclear power, who said nuclear is the way we can get past this problem – even if there are 40 billion people on Earth. With clean, safe, wonderful nuclear power, we can produce the energy they all need. The people who were opposed to the increasing population said, "We don't want nuclear to come along because it will encourage greater population growth. It will just make the world worse." And from that it got shifted over to a concern for the environment, and thus the emphasis by anti-nuclear people about things like nuclear accidents, what are you going to do with the waste and so on. It had a strange origin and it drifted over to concern for the environment, and it became an automatic response for many people that somehow there's something wrong with nuclear if you're thinking in environmental terms. Read the rest of the interview here.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Borislav Boev

    Great book, written in historical context. The author points out the discovery and development of different kinds of fuels and how important were they for the development of our civilization. Rhodes made a strong connection between science and practice, with real examples. I recommend the book to everyone who wants to understand the history of energy and its importance for today's economy.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Krell

    Mr. Rhodes demonstrated the results of his legendary research skills, and provided great amounts of science, personal and political history that rewarded my continued reading through most of the book. I was not as happy, however, with the latter part of the book because of several issues. The book was about energy, and opining about science’s capacity to give us a benign future was an unnecessary and distracting tangent. The easy dismissal of the concerns about population control discussions, in Mr. Rhodes demonstrated the results of his legendary research skills, and provided great amounts of science, personal and political history that rewarded my continued reading through most of the book. I was not as happy, however, with the latter part of the book because of several issues. The book was about energy, and opining about science’s capacity to give us a benign future was an unnecessary and distracting tangent. The easy dismissal of the concerns about population control discussions, in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and conflation of those concerns with Malthusian and eugenic motives, was disappointing. As a sentient adult during those years, I do not recall any awareness of the purported eugenic interests in the population control movement; yes, there were descriptions of dystopian cities in developing countries inhabited by too many people, the majority of whom were poor. But I do not recall any comments that implied these people were of lesser humanity and value than people in developed countries. Rather than concern about the poor in underdeveloped countries, there was concern about the population of people high on the economic food chain, recognizing that they place a greater burden on the earth’s resources than do people at the low end of the food chain; analogous to nuclear fission and chain reactions, each child of a well-to-do family will enter adulthood with baked-in expectations of a life with a large home that houses numerous televisions and a crowd of well-fed, entitled children who grow up with their own images of their future lives; a vacation home; multiple (often powerful and large) motor vehicles; toys such as boats and campers; international travel (think of passenger jet fossil fuel consumption and exhaust); etc. Paradoxically, many were more concerned about the number of the entitled well off, than about those who had smaller footprints on the environment. Rhodes discussed issues as if the world’s population was homogenous, with everyone on a relatively equal level of education, societal development, infrastructure, and economics. Global disparities in education, per capita income, infrastructure, and geopolitical and socioeconomic realities will always frustrate, to varying degrees, plans to optimize energy use. Most significantly, the vision of a future made benign by the wonders of science was unsettling. Don’t worry or plan, for longer than two generations, about nuclear waste with half-lives of tens of thousands of years, because science will rescue us. He discussed global warming but made no mention of its consequences that are already affecting us. What will be the socioeconomic consequences of a growing world population living on progressively smaller landmasses (especially, driven by coastal cities and dense population areas that become unlivable), as ocean levels rise? What will be the consequences of increasing numbers of climate refugees (especially, malnourished, ill, desperate people) and their economic and infrastructure needs? What will be the consequences of climates escaping from the narrow bands they have occupied for thousands of years, to our benefit? Droughts, floods, and frequent, monster storms will toy with our best-laid plans for a benign future. Any predictions of ameliorating greenhouse gas production through the coming years will be scrambled by the realities of our forests succumbing to drought and disease (with outgassing of carbon dioxide and methane from decomposing trees), forest fires (with release of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, in addition to other products of combustion, exposing the folly of expecting forests to sequester carbon dioxide and lower atmospheric levels). Thawing of the world’s permafrost is already releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and will accelerate over coming years. When/if society becomes increasingly chaotic because of the above issues, I expect there will be increased reliance on a variety of energy sources and the capacity to use them appropriately, with the likelihood of regression to more polluting, less efficient fuels. And there was no mention of the destabilizing effects of crop losses and failures because of weather extremes, and decreasing harvests from the oceans because of overfishing, ocean warming, toxic pollutants, and loss of key species. “Science” will continue making advances and provide us with many benefits and potential strategies for addressing future global challenges, but I don’t have the degree of confidence, as does Mr. Rhodes. I was left humming the tune: “Don’t worry, be happy,” knowing that science is going to rescue us, and our plans for a benign future.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Matt Chester

    To read the my full review, check out my blog post about the book here: http://chesterenergyandpolicy.com/201... Early this summer, I excitedly discovered Richard Rhodes' newest book Energy: A Human History. Rhodes previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on the history of the atomic bomb, but in his latest book he turns to the history of how society discovered and interacted with various energy sources throughout time. While this book is no light beach read, I found that Rhodes' approach To read the my full review, check out my blog post about the book here: http://chesterenergyandpolicy.com/201... Early this summer, I excitedly discovered Richard Rhodes' newest book Energy: A Human History. Rhodes previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on the history of the atomic bomb, but in his latest book he turns to the history of how society discovered and interacted with various energy sources throughout time. While this book is no light beach read, I found that Rhodes' approach and perspective made it unique compared with other treatises on the history of energy. "[This book's] serious purpose is to explore the history of energy; to cast light on the choices we're confronting today because 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 and doomsday menace as fear of nuclear annihilation in the long years of the Cold War." Rhodes is a historian by trade, but he avoids just taking the reader through a dry timeline of energy development. Rather, he hones in on key and compelling stories along that timeline, stories with which we're likely unfamiliar, to highlight the notable characters and the captivating societal trends, and in that way he really makes the human part of energy come to life. Rhodes explains the importance of this telling of energy's history, not just for the energy enthusiast but also for the common citizen who recognizes the world is at a pivot point: 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 transition. With that, Rhodes invites everyone into the discussion to understand the how and why we got to the present day energy industry-- all it's great wonders and unfortunate ills. When I was early into this book, I read a colleague's review that expressed frustration that Rhodes appeared to overlook the energy transition we're currently experiencing. I was a little disappointed to hear this, but Rhodes himself notes "you will not find many prescriptions in this book---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 raw materials of the world." After I read this passage and got a few chapters deep, I realized that Rhodes cleverly addressed the future in a different way. Through Rhodes' treatment of historical stories on energy, the fact that these histories repeat themselves is undeniable. Rhodes was not shy about (and perhaps even took glee in) leaving this trail of breadcrumbs from the past to the present for his readers. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This book tells the story of energy technologies in societies past, but in doing so it also tells the story of now and of the future. As proof, the following seven axioms represent a portion of those connections I made while reading Energy: A Human History. (Follow through to the following link to read about those seven universal energy truths: http://chesterenergyandpolicy.com/201...

  27. 4 out of 5

    Lars Plougmann

    At the outset, mechanical power was delivered by animals, and thermal power by burning wood. Our trajectory involved finding new substances to burn, converting thermal energy to mechanical energy, and finding ways to transmit energy. Only recently in our journey have we started being able to scale energy generation that doesn't involve burning stuff. A human history of energy would focus on the explorers, inventors and experimenters that pushed our civilization forwards towards new fuels, fuelled At the outset, mechanical power was delivered by animals, and thermal power by burning wood. Our trajectory involved finding new substances to burn, converting thermal energy to mechanical energy, and finding ways to transmit energy. Only recently in our journey have we started being able to scale energy generation that doesn't involve burning stuff. A human history of energy would focus on the explorers, inventors and experimenters that pushed our civilization forwards towards new fuels, fuelled by their curiousity. And this book doesn't disappoint. The chapters on the rise of railways, especially, highlight some of the characters and amazing stories. The story of George Stephenson stands out, both in how researched and detailed it is told, but also because it seems so unlikely at the time that someone would be able to rise through society by merit like he did. And then nearly be defeated because the survey for the Liverpool-and-Manchester Railway took it across a bog that seemed intent on swallowing up all attempt at putting the industrial revolution on rails. Comparatively less detail is included for solar, wind and nuclear energy compared to steam and coal. I had hoped for more insight into the civilian harnessing of atomic energy from the author who described the building of the atomic bomb in so vivid detail. I share the author's regret that nuclear energy investment is at such a low level. But I fail to see the link between eugenics and resisting nuclear power described in the book. I would also have liked to see more detail concerning wind and solar. Wind energy has been tapped for thousands of years, but the application of aerodynamics and fluid dynamics would have been interesting to delve into. The book does a good job of describing how our ever growing need for energy has led to depletion of resources (wood, whales) and a fouling of our environment. It shows that more than a hundred years ago, people understood that treating air as a commons lead to pollution which lead to health impacts. While our energy source progression has made great leaps through the ages, sadly, our willingness to deal with externalities of energy production and consumptions hasn't.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dylan

    3.5. If you read this book not knowing the title, it'd be more like a 4 but, including the title it's more like a 2. The book considers no humans outside America and the UK as well as no history before 1700-1950. So judging it based on the grandiosity of the title, this book is an abject failure. It spends pages on the biographical details of various British inventors who made relatively minor efficiency gains in early steam engines while not even touching on say rural electrification in the US o 3.5. If you read this book not knowing the title, it'd be more like a 4 but, including the title it's more like a 2. The book considers no humans outside America and the UK as well as no history before 1700-1950. So judging it based on the grandiosity of the title, this book is an abject failure. It spends pages on the biographical details of various British inventors who made relatively minor efficiency gains in early steam engines while not even touching on say rural electrification in the US or how these technologies diffused across the globe. Perhaps not surprisingly if you've read RR's history of the Manhattan project, this is a book about the invention of major power sources from the steam engine on. The only human's involved are the (almost entirely) men who did the work. But while he does focus on biography some, RR never falls into the "Great Genius" narrative, always showing how each person was just combining the ideas that were in the air at his time. With all that said, it is unfair to a judge a book primarily on what is not there or how well it lives up to its title (possibly foisted on the author by his editor or publisher). The middle third of this book, on gas and oil, really shines. Combining RR's incredible research with brisk storytelling, I breezed through it. The first section, on coal and steam power, is good in the beginning but drags to a halt, overloaded with the "research dump" details a younger and less famous author would have been forced to cut. The final section, largely on nuclear power, is interesting and well researched, though it takes a painfully long diversion trying to link the anti-nuclear power movement to the Population Bomb fears of the Ehrlichs.

  29. 4 out of 5

    William Schram

    Energy by Richard Rhodes chronicles the relationships between men and resources. From the Age of Sail where everything was constructed of wood to our modern day of Nuclear Power. Human beings have constantly been looking for things to provide energy. From the clear-cutting of ancient Oak forests to make the Royal Navy to mining for coal and pumping oil, our relationships to the Earth are defined by such struggles. The book contains little images to demonstrate what it is talking about. Mostly ab Energy by Richard Rhodes chronicles the relationships between men and resources. From the Age of Sail where everything was constructed of wood to our modern day of Nuclear Power. Human beings have constantly been looking for things to provide energy. From the clear-cutting of ancient Oak forests to make the Royal Navy to mining for coal and pumping oil, our relationships to the Earth are defined by such struggles. The book contains little images to demonstrate what it is talking about. Mostly about things the reader might not be familiar with. The book as a whole is chronological in nature. As I mentioned, it begins with wood and goes on to discuss coal. Now coal has one or two advantages over wood. It is more compact and energy dense. From locomotives, it goes to other categories entirely, such as light-producing appliances and other things. From candles powered by whale juice to electric light bulbs, Rhodes covers it all. He discusses the development of the technologies required for the whole product in question. So for instance, with Electricity, it talks about the experiments done with Leyden Jars and Benjamin Franklin’s lightning experiment. The book is ridiculously fascinating and contains a lot of accounts from people of the era; from either memoirs or letters. It is meticulously crafted, with images from the period. So they might have an image from a patent or a photograph from the era assuming that photography was invented at the time. I really enjoyed this book and can recommend it to people who are interested in our technological history.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    I read this book quickly, having been primed by its underwhelming introduction wherein Rhodes does little to try to elevate his work above an anthology of stories. Taken as is, the book is good: in covering the human side of (selected and Western) energy innovation since ~1600, Rhodes makes the reader see parallels in the process. Chapter after chapter, we see how innovaters and scientists encountered and transcended all manner of obstacles as they developed more modern and more familiar technolo I read this book quickly, having been primed by its underwhelming introduction wherein Rhodes does little to try to elevate his work above an anthology of stories. Taken as is, the book is good: in covering the human side of (selected and Western) energy innovation since ~1600, Rhodes makes the reader see parallels in the process. Chapter after chapter, we see how innovaters and scientists encountered and transcended all manner of obstacles as they developed more modern and more familiar technologies. Rhodes is effective at relating the basic and interesting technical backgrounds of all his subjects - from steam engines to gas pipelines - and his chapters are entertaining. The book falls short of its promise, however. The selection of technologies is limited and the western bias is irritating. Most importantly, though, Rhodes' penultimate chapter does complete injustice to the modern innovations we live with today: nuclear, wind, and solar generation; power storage; LED lighting; recycling; etc. The one key theme of his work - that historical innovations are parallel and thus relevant to the modern day - is severly weakened because Rhodes fails to tie the knot at the end. I would love to hear his style applied to the foundational innovations of these technologies, but Rhodes inexplicably declines to do so. Instead, Rhodes uses his final chapter as a soapbox for his counter-Malthusian, techno-optimist worldview. It's a pathetic substitute for an analytical and editorial tone that could have been woven into the rest of the book and so feels like an unwelcome appendage.

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