History of the Energy System
Human Energy Needs
Science Notes
Energy Transformation
Measuring Matter, Force, & Energy
Energy Accounting & Balance
Fundamental Forces of Nature
Energy and Chemical Stability
Chemical Formations
Chemistry of Fossil Fuels
Energy Use, Efficiency, and the Future
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History of the Energy System

In the Beginning: Pre-Industrialization
The muscle power of human beings and animals was the first application of energy by humans and the food chain was the energy system in use. Humans have long "designed" energy systems with the goal of producing the most work possible with the least amount of human effort to generate the energy.

Pre-Industrial society depended primarily on muscle power and biomass for their energy needs. Biomass consisted primarily of wood or peat and its energy delivery had a low efficiency. Amory Lovins, an expert on energy, states, "Most of the energy generated by wood or peat went up in the chimneys rather than into the room or cooking pot of pre-industrial societies."

Animal power in the form of horse mills, wind power in the form of windmills, and water power with the use of a water wheel were major energy sources harnessed until the 19th century; especially for "industrial uses." Wood and charcoal were the main fuels for cooking, heating, and other domestic uses, but coal and oil were available as well. "In the Middle East crude oils have been known for millennia from natural seepage and pools, but they were used only rarely as fuels, and more frequently as protective coatings."1 Coal has its origin in "the lithification of peats produced by accumulations of dead plant matter in wetlands. Difference in original vegetation and, more importantly, in magnitudes of durations of transforming temperatures and pressures, have produced a large variety of coals."2 As early as the 13th century, coal pits were mined and coal energy was used specifically for the forcing and smelting of metals. In the 1600's, England experienced an energy crisis due to a shortage of wood and began using coal as a substitute fuel source for domestic purposes. Even in the 1700's, wood was the major fuel source in colonial America.

The Industrial Revolution
The quest for more powerful energy sources was propelled by the inventions and discoveries of the Industrial Revolution. As sophisticated mechanical inventions were made, a large reliable and seemingly inexhaustible source of energy became necessary for industrial uses, and transportation. The need for large quantities of accessible, dependable, and transportable energy encouraged the exploration of energy sources. The inventions of the Industrial Revolution provided the equipment to further mine or drill the already visible deposits of coal and oil.

Steam power was developed in the 1600's in conjunction with coal mining to help pump water out of the mines. It had been known since ancient times that heat could be used to produce steam, which could then do mechanical work. However, it was only in the late eighteenth century that commercially successful steam engines were invented. The first commercially successful steam engine was invented by Thomas Savery (1650-1715), an English military engineer. In 1712, this engine was refined by Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), another Englishman. The Newcomen engine was widely used in Britain and Europe throughout the eighteenth century, but had very low energy efficiency.

A greatly improved steam engine was designed and built in 1763 by James Watt who was asked to repair a Newcomen engine. Watt built and then sold or rented his engines to mining companies, charging them for the "power" in the rate of work the engine produced. Today, the unit for power is called a Watt.

The sun was also studied as an energy source in the 18th century. In 1767, the first solar thermal collector was developed by the Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure. Solar thermal power was used in the American west as an energy source for cooking until oil and natural gas became a more reliable way to generate energy. For simple cooking solar energy was absorbed by black cast iron pots. Solar thermal collectors were also used in the form of hot boxes to cook food.

In 1839, Alexandre Becquerel discovered that an electric current could be generated when certain elements were exposed to light. The scientific explanation of this phenomenon by Albert Einstein, called photoelectricity (light-induced electricity), came much later in 1905. Photoelectricity is the basis of the photovoltaic cells, now used to convert light into electricity. Despite the century and a half since it discovery, photovoltaic means of generating electricity have not been developed with enough vigor for it to become a major source of electricity. This is because the material technology for photovoltaic panels developed slowly. As coal and other fossil fuels were easier to use, and available in plenty, not much effort has gone into photovoltaic research.

Until the early 1800's our understanding of the science of energy was not well developed. The theory at that time was the caloric theory, which said that heat is a substance called "caloric" that flowed from hotter to colder bodies. In the 1840's the English physicist James Prescott Joule did a long series of experiments that showed that heat is a form of energy. Joule found the relationship between a unit of mechanical energy and a unit of heat. This helped Joule finalize what chemists and natural philosophers had come to believe--that the total energy in the universe is constant, although energy is continuously changing forms.

The study and invention of the heat engine and steam power established and confirmed the Laws of Thermodynamics. From 1840-1880, Joule, Lord Kelvin, and James Clark Maxwell in England; Sadi Carnot and Rudolf Clausius in France; and Ludwig Boltzmann in Austria formulated a theory of heat engines, laying the foundations of Thermodynamics, literally the science of "motion from heat." (Thermo=heat and dynamics=motion).

In 1820, the advances in mechanical and materials engineering made the railroad the most efficient and fastest means of transportation. Coal and wood were used as the primary fuel source for the steam engine. The locomotive also changed society's perception of travel and transportation.

Wind energy was developed on a large scale in the United States as an energy source for farms and railroad stations, using tall windmills to pump water from underground wells. There were specific design developments that made these windmills more efficient, although they still generated relatively little power. The height of these windmills helped to ensure they caught the wind and a tailfin generally kept the fan facing the wind.

Another result of the Industrial Revolution was an energy distribution infrastructure built into cities that promoted domestic convenience. As early as 1816, natural gas was piped into cities for domestic uses such as cooking, home illumination, and street lighting. The steam engine was used to pump water into homes and sewage away from homes. The city was undergirded with networks that usually began with water pipes and gas lines and gradually expanded to include sewers, electrical conduits, and telephone lines.3

In 1859, when petroleum was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, an apparently plentiful energy source began to replace coal. Oil was distilled into kerosene (referred to as coal oil) and used as a lamp oil. It replaced dwindling supplies of whale oil used for lamps. There were many reasons oil became a more desirable fuel source than coal: it was easy to obtain and transport; it emitted less particulate pollution than coal; it replaced scarce whale oil as a fuel for lamps; and coal had become an unreliable fuel source because of the labor issues surrounding the mining of coal. Miners were striking for safer work environments and more money, which affected the amount of coal available to the consumer.

But the most significant use of crude oil was as the liquid fuel for the internal combustion engine, designed in 1861 by Nikolaus August Otto. The internal combustion engine became one of the most influential inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Although this engine is low in efficiency, it could produce enough work to move a large metal vehicle far distances. The fuel of the internal combustion engine was also easier to use than, for example, shoveling coal into a furnace to power a locomotive. This was the beginning of the use of liquid fuel to advance transportation.

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb -- a major step in the human use of storable energy leading eventually to large-scale electrification. Electricity is similar to a liquid fuel in that it can be transported easily (although not efficiently) from one place to another. One of Edison's goals was to make electricity affordable for all homes. Edison began with the distribution of electricity through a direct current (DC). This meant that electrons would flow one way through a wire to bring electricity to a home; however, a good portion of the energy was lost as the electrons moved through the wire. This loss of energy using direct current to move electricity meant that power plants had to be built close to the homes the plant serviced and was eventually considered impractical.

Nikola Tesla, an inventor employed by Edison, discovered that electrons would alternate or travel back and forth on a wire and travel longer distances with less energy loss. This was called alternating current (AC) and had an advantage because AC could be more easily generated. Edison had so much money invested in his DC power plants that he discredited Tesla's alternate current as dangerous -- thus beginning a "war of the currents." Tesla eventually joined forces with George Westinghouse and began developing power plants using alternating current (AC).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the steam turbine, using coal as a fuel, was developed as a cheap power source that generated electricity. In 1882, the first functional steam turbine was designed by Charles Parsons, an English engineer. He used the high pressure of steam to hit the blades of a rotor. The principle of the turbine was a major step toward today's production of electricity.

In 1893, Westinghouse demonstrated a "universal system" of generation and distribution at a Chicago exposition. The universal system meant that power or energy could be used in a variety of ways at many different voltages. Westinghouse, using Tesla's invention of the transformer and the electric motor, as well as steam turbines, transformed Niagara Falls into one of the first hydroelectric plants in the world

In 1910, Henry Ford opened the 60-acre Highland Park automotive plant with a moving assembly line. This was the beginning of an eventually enormous use for fossil fuels. Fossil fuels were used not only to propel the automobiles that were made at the plant, but also to generate electric power for the automotive plant.

Energy technologies developed rapidly during the 20th century. Although the current version for solar thermal collectors was designed in 1908, they were not developed well enough for mass distribution. In the 1920's, 30's, and 40's, there was large-scale construction and development of hydroelectric plants/dams to support increasing population in the Southwest.

In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman demonstrated nuclear fission and within four years (1942), Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was chosen as the site for the first functional nuclear reactor plant, and for the preparation of uranium and plutonium used to the create the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. The first nuclear chain reactor was demonstrated at the University of Chicago in December 1942. In July 1945, the testing of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, demonstrated the technology used to release nuclear energy on a large scale. In 1957, the first commercial nuclear power plant opened in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.

The first large scale use of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy in conjunction with satellite technology developed in the 1950's. The United States Vanguard I was the first PV-powered satellite.

By the early part of the 20th century, crude oil and its products had become an indispensable part of the industrial economy. James Young had patented a process in England in 1850 to distill oil from coal and shale. Oil refining is not just about gasoline. The distilled chemicals from crude oil have many purposes -- for example, petroleum is used for plastics manufacturing. Young's process of fractal distillation forms the basis of the world's oil refining industry.

Figure 4 shows the oil reserves that we know for sure as of 1987.

Figure 9: Proven Oil Reserves as of 1987 (billions of barrels)
Source: Energy, John Helm, ed.. National Academy Press: p. 268. (awaiting copyright)

While a large amount of oil occurs in many parts of the world, the largest stores are located in the regions governed by the Arab countries. The Oil and Petroleum Economic Cartel (OPEC) is the economic coalition of these countries that control the flow of that oil. In the 1970's, OPEC placed an embargo on their oil sales. This "energy crisis" brought energy scarcity to the consciousness of all nations -- and especially the U.S., with its higher dependence on imported oil. This crisis began to generate interest in the exploration of renewable energy sources for large-scale generation of electricity and other energy needs.


[1] Smil, Vaclav. Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1999.

[2] Nye, David E. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1999.

[3] Nye, p. 94..



  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.