Energy by Richard Rhodes Book Summary

Energy, A Human History by Richard Rhodes


In this timely book, Richard Rhodes tells us the stories of the inventors and industrialists behind the major innovations in energy during the last 400 years. He provides an enjoyable, engaging and sometimes esoteric account of the scientific history of the modern technological world. Rhodes covers the breakthroughs that made it possible to turn coal into steam, and build railroads, electrical grids and automobiles and, later, harness the power of the atom. He also offers valuable lessons on the benefits and risks of each source of energy to help inform the future challenge of addressing climate change.


  • Societies have failed or prospered based on their success in finding cheap, abundant sources of energy.
  • The scarcity of wood in Elizabethan England drove the search for alternatives; coal provided energy, but mining it was difficult.
  • Mine owners built canals to reduce the cost of transporting coal.
  • Steam drove the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first commercial passenger and freight railway, which opened in 1831.
  • The search for oil began because kerosene could be distilled from bitumen.
  • Electricity was a breakthrough energy source that powered economic growth.
  • The invention of the internal combustion engine further revolutionized transportation.
  • The need for oil became international in scope leading to exploration in the Middle East.
  • The invention of the nuclear bomb during World War II spurred the development of nuclear power.
  • By the 1950s, the problem of pollution from power generation became evident.
  • Understanding the benefits and risks of each source of energy is crucial to managing environmental impact and addressing climate change.
Energy Book Cover

Energy Book Summary

Societies have failed or prospered based on their success in finding cheap, abundant sources of energy.

Over the last 400 years, western societies have demonstrated astounding innovation in finding and exploiting new sources of energy.

“Today’s challenges are the legacies of historic transitions. Wood gave way to coal, and coal made room for oil, as coal and oil are now making way for natural gas, nuclear power and renewables.”

Obscure inventors and scientists made great advances motivated by the scarcity, cost or other shortcomings of existing energy sources. In turn, they delivered more efficient sources of heat, light and transportation, practical solutions that have spread around the world and fundamentally changed how people live.

The scarcity of wood in Elizabethan England drove the search for alternatives; coal provided energy, but mining it was difficult.

Elizabethan England was a rising power in Europe and required large amounts of wood to fuel its energy and shipbuilding needs. As wood sellers cut down old-growth forests to meet these needs, wood prices began to rise. One anecdote says that builders pilfered the wood used to build Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theater. Building one English naval ship required as many as 2,500 oak trees. There was a general fear that the country could run short of wood for this purpose, making it vulnerable. This scarcity pushed households and industry to begin to use coal (pit coal as it was called) as a substitute. However, coal was very dirty and created pollution that particularly affected cities.

“Besides making charcoal to smelt iron, the English cut down timber to build houses, barns and fences; to produce glass and refine lead; to build bridges, docks, locks, canal boats and forts; and to make beer and cider barrels.”

As coal mining expanded, miners encountered the problem of flooding as they dug deeper below the surface. An inventor named Thomas Newcomen developed a steam engine that pumped water out of the mines, thereby allowing for increased production of coal. This engine relied on both steam and atmospheric pressure and was very inefficient. James Watt, a Scottish inventor, developed a better steam engine which he patented in 1769. He partnered with the wealthy industrialist Matthew Boulton to create the company Boulton and Watt engines, which sold the improved steam engines to coal miners and other industrialists under an exclusive patent until 1800.

Mine owners built canals to reduce the cost of transporting coal.

The next major problem that coal miners encountered was transportation. The costs of the right to transport across private land and the sheer number of horses and carts required made transporting bulky coal very costly. The first solution was to construct canals. The Bridgewater Canal was the first, developed by the Duke of Bridgewater to serve his coal mines near Newcastle by bringing coal to the booming industrial market of Manchester. The price of coal in Manchester decreased by 50%, providing a significant boost to the textile and smelting industries. Improved smelting allowed for the use of iron rails along which a horse could efficiently haul up to 30 tons of coal over land.

The British military did not stable its own horses, relying instead on the private market to sell it the horses it needed for war. After the onset of the Napoleonic wars, the country experienced a national shortage of horses, and specifically for use in industry.

Steam drove the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first commercial passenger and freight railway, which opened in 1831.

A Cornish inventor named Richard Trevithick developed a high-pressure steam engine where steam directly drove the piston, allowing the engine to be significantly smaller than earlier models. He was granted a patent for his engine in 1802. Using this engine, he developed the first steam-powered vehicle in 1803. In 1804, Trevithick and a partner manufactured the first steam-powered locomotive on rails. The take-up of this new technology was slow; it would be more than two decades before the first commercial railway began operations.

In the early decades of the 18th century, steam power continued to be used primarily for coal mines. Initial proposals to build railroads faced opposition from both landowners and the public who were skeptical the technology would work. A group of industrialists staged a competition to demonstrate the safety and speed of steam-powered rail. An inventor called George Stephenson won the competition with a light, fast engine called Rocket that was capable of going 32 mph. He used this technology to develop the first railway in the world, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1831. The success of this railway ushered in a new era in transportation, boosting the industrial revolution and global trade.

Until the end of the 18th century, society lacked any means of large-scale lighting, and that limited human productivity to daylight hours. In 1780, the Earl of Dundonald discovered by accident that the gas released in manufacturing coal tar produced a bright light when lit. The adoption of the new technology was slow. The first gas lights were installed on a city street, Pall Mall in London in 1807. The infrastructure and cost to manufacture and transport the coal gas to homes and businesses limited the technology.

“A threat to Britain’s national security – a consequence of the shortage of wood – catalyzed British development of a superior form of light from coal in the transition decades between the 18th and 19th centuries.”

The oil from whale blubber was another source of energy that could provide light. The whale hunting industry boomed in the early 19th century, but nearly hunted whales to extinction. The push was on to find better technology that exacted less of an environmental cost.

The search for oil began because kerosene could be distilled from bitumen.

A Canadian physician named Abraham Gesner invented kerosene as a fuel source for lighting. He distilled kerosene from bitumen, a substance that came naturally from the earth, pooling in tar ponds such as those found in Pennsylvania. Investors rushed into Pennsylvania and began drilling to find more bitumen, or “rock oil” as it was then called. In 1859, they struck oil in large quantities.

The US Civil War boosted the market for oil as naval warfare diminished the supplies of whale oil. The oil rush progressed rapidly with production reaching 4.8 million barrels by 1870. The environmental costs of drilling for oil also quickly became apparent. It was messy to drill for oil, transport it and distill it.

Electricity was a breakthrough energy source that powered economic growth.

Scientists had known of the existence of electricity, but they did not know how to make use of it. Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment showed that people could capture and store electricity, but scientists still did not know how to generate power. Then Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted discovered electromagnetism, which allowed the generation of electricity in sufficient quantities for practical use. Electromagnetism harnessed the magnetic field around an electrical current to generate power through motion. After this discovery, miners could use the force of water or a steam engine to turn a turbine and generate consistent power.

“Knowledge of electromagnetism eventually opened the way to the modern world of electric power.”

Early developers of electricity understood that Niagara Falls on the United States-Canadian border offered the potential to be a major source of power generation. They worked to solve the problem of how to harness this potential effectively and how to transmit its power long distances to major population centers. The prevailing transmission technology, direct current (DC), could not convey power over long distances.

Inventor William Stanley Jr. developed a new technology called alternating current (AC), which enabled people to regulate current through voltage and amperage, allowing transmission over long distances. Stanley went to work for Westinghouse, which commercialized the technology. By 1904, Westinghouse had built the generators and transmission lines that harnessed the power of Niagara Falls and provided electricity to Buffalo, New York, the first electrified city in the world.

The introduction of the electric streetcar beginning in the 1880s drastically reduced the cost of transportation and accelerated the growth of cities. Developers built the first suburbs, and people who faced long commutes needed more power.

The invention of the internal combustion engine further revolutionized transportation.

Henry Ford developed his first automobile in 1896 using the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. Ford’s entrepreneurship prevailed over competing technologies, such as steam and electricity- or battery-powered automobiles.

“By 1914, the internal combustion engine had swept the field. The Stanley and other steamer companies built a total of only about 1,000 of their cars that year compared with…569,000 by conventional US automobile manufacturers.”

Ford used production line manufacturing to bring down the price of his cars substantially, causing exponential growth in sales. Improved distilling technology made engines more reliable. The addition of distilled grain alcohol heightened engine efficiency; however, Prohibition impeded its production. Oil company chemists discovered that adding lead to gasoline also improved the efficiency of engines despite concerns over the safety of leaded gasoline.

The need for oil became international in scope leading to exploration in the Middle East.

Yale University chemist Harold Hibbert estimated in 1920 that the United States would exhaust its domestic oil supplies by 1933. This led to a push to seek other sources of oil, primarily in the Middle East. In 1933, Standard Oil of California (Socal) signed a 60-year deal with the King of Saudi Arabia to begin exploration for oil in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia was eager to allow oil exploration because, as a newly independent country, it needed sources of revenue. Extensive exploration and drilling activity finally led to a significant discovery in 1938. That first productive well produced 32 million barrels of oil and did not shut down until 1982.

“It’s obvious today that Saudi Arabia overlies one of the world’s largest oil fields. It was not obvious in the 1930s, when Socal started prospecting.”

The development of oil fields required the construction of oil and gas pipelines. Electric arc welding improved pipeline technology and reliability. In the United States, pipelines primarily served as a way to deliver natural gas, a by-product of oil production. Natural gas was typically vented off, or wasted, but it became a valuable commodity as a domestic and industrial heating fuel. The outbreak of World War II boosted the demand for oil, specifically a demand for the United States to supply its allies in Europe. To meet this need, the US government built the world’s largest and longest oil pipeline from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic seaboard in New Jersey. Known as the Big Inch, it could carry 335,000 barrels of oil per day. After the war, the government sold the pipeline to the Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation, which converted a smaller parallel pipeline to natural gas. Both pipelines are still in use.

The invention of the nuclear bomb during World War II spurred the development of nuclear power as an energy source.

Uranium is the least stable element on Earth and the primary ingredient needed to achieve nuclear fission, the process used to make an atomic bomb. Nuclear physicists initially believed that uranium was extremely scarce, but after the war they discovered new sources. The abundance of uranium led to the belief that scientists could harness a controlled nuclear reaction to generate heat for power. The Atomic Energy Act granted the US government a monopoly on nuclear power, which stymied efforts to use it as an energy source. In 1953, the government-owned Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) created a joint venture to build a nuclear reactor near Pittsburgh that would generate 60 megawatts of power. The reactor successfully started generating power in 1957, thus beginning the age of atomic energy in the west.

By the 1950s, the problem of pollution from power generation became evident.

The connection between air pollution and health was poorly understood until the mid-20th century. In 1948 a toxic fog descended over the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, killing 20 people. A similar event transpired in London in 1952. Scientists understood that chemical emissions from industrial polluters caused these deaths, but action to limit emissions was slow.

A Dutch-born chemist at the California Institute of Technology in Los Angeles examined the city’s notorious smog in the 1950s. He determined that it was the by-product of automobile and factory emissions interacting with sunlight and the ozone in the atmosphere. Industry contested this information, but it became the basis for clean air regulation that came into force in 1970 under the US Clean Air Act. Economists have suggested a link between wealth and environmental regulation. As societies become wealthier, they typically become cleaner and healthier.

Understanding the benefits and risks of each source of energy is crucial to managing environmental impact and addressing climate change.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, which became the basis of the modern environmental movement. The rapid economic progress of the first half of the 20th century and the advent of the nuclear age caused public reflection on the environmental costs of progress. Many experts raised alarms over growing pollution, runaway population growth and the risks of nuclear proliferation. In particular, many questioned the benefits of nuclear power as the risks of radiation exposure from testing became apparent. Activists and regulators worried that industry had been guilty of over-promoting nuclear energy without fully understand the risks and costs.

In recent decades, scientists have come to understand the existential threat that climate change poses to humanity. These risks have increased public awareness of the significant impact of the ways companies generate energy. Research on renewable energy such as wind and solar power has led to significant technological progress and commercialization. View each energy technology in the context of its costs, benefits and other risks. The decarbonizing of energy sources is possible but it is likely to progress from the wealthiest societies to the poorest over time.

About the Author

Richard Rhodes

Richard Rhodes is the author of 24 books. He has received numerous fellowships for research and writing, including grants from the Ford and Guggenheim Foundations.

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