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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Energy A Human History

By: Richard Rhodes(Author)
465 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Strongest at the beginning of its 400-year historical tour, this gracefully written book provides many interesting human stories, but runs a bit out of steam towards its end.
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  • Energy ISBN: 9781501105364 Paperback Jun 2019 Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Energy ISBN: 9781501105357 Hardback Jun 2018 Usually dispatched within 6 days
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Gracefully written with fascinating human stories
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 19 Dec 2018 Written for Hardback

    The story of human progress is intimately entwined with that of energy. Pulitzer-prize winning author Richard Rhodes here takes the reader on a 400-year tour of energy generation, shining a light on the many forgotten figures whose ingenuity and inventions were instrumental in the many energy transitions.

    Starting in Tudor-era England that was running low on wood, Rhodes gives a detailed history of the discovery and use of coal. This, in turn, required new inventions once surface deposits started to run out, leading to stationary steam engines to pump water out of mine shafts, leading in turn to mobile steam engines that gave us trains to haul first freight and later people. This first section is rich in historical detail, revealing the many hurdles that needed to be cleared before steam power and steam engines became reliable enough to be adopted widely.

    A second section looks at energy generation to provide lighting, covering natural gas (long ignored or seen as a fairly useless novelty), a brief history of industrial whaling, the drilling for oil, and the discovery of electricity. Rhodes explores the first experiments in hydropower at Niagara Falls in 1895 and gives a brief nod to horse power before the invention of combustion engines paved the way for cars. There are interesting period illustrations included here, though the quality and resolution of some of the source material are very poor, resulting in pixelated pictures and visual artefacts that obscure details.

    These first two sections are undoubtedly the strongest in the book. Rhodes excels at telling the human stories of the forgotten inventors who revolutionised the world, such as the Englishman Richard Trevithick who started tinkering with high-pressure steam in an era when metalworking skills could not yet produce boilers capable of withstanding the pressure. Or the Scotsman Archibald Cochrane who discovered the inflammable nature of coal gas, but dismwissed it as a curiosity. Or the exchanges between the Italians Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta about the nature of electricity in living and non-living matter, which led to the invention of batteries (see also The Ambiguous Frog and Shocking Frogs). Equally interesting were contemporary conundrums such as the question whether engines with metal wheels on metal rails would simply slip and spin in place or actually be able to haul loads. Rhodes gently reminds us that the story of technological progress is rarely straightforward and linear as witnessed by the many different designs for steam engines and later combustion engines that existed side by side for a while.

    Given the large range of topics, many subjects are understandably not treated in-depth or exhaustively. I’m not too familiar with the literature on the history of, say, the discovery of electricity, but topics such as industrial whaling and the overlooked role of horses have been the subject of book-length treatments elsewhere (see Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems and A Savage History; and The Horse in the City, Horses at Work, and Farewell to the Horse).

    Even so, in the final third of the book it feels as if Rhodes runs out of steam. He gives a brief history of the first steps towards nuclear energy, but only pays lip service to wind and solar energy in the final chapter. Similarly, what happened to energy production in the decades since the 1950s as the world population ballooned is barely spoken of – to the point that there is little overlap with Pirani’s recent book Burning Up (the two complement each other nicely as a consequence).

    More pronounced in this last part is his pro-nuclear energy stance. I will happily agree with Rhodes on the disconnect between perceived and actual risk of nuclear power generation, as well as its potential to deliver clean(er) energy than fossil fuels. Simultaneously, Rhodes is irked by the opposition to nuclear energy by the environmental movement, which he considers contradictory (understandably so, in my opinion – see also my review of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise). But he somehow manages to tie this into a larger critique (which I am less sympathetic to) of what he sees as the antihumanist ideology of neo-Malthusians such as the Club of Rome and their concerns about human overpopulation. He infers that this ideology has shaped the opposition to nuclear energy. Although I will acknowledge the misanthropic streak running through much of contemporary environmental thought, in my opinion that does not mean we can discount their concerns regarding overpopulation out of hand.

    All this distracts a bit from what is otherwise a gracefully written book that provides an interesting overview of the sometimes circuitous routes by which human ingenuity has effected breakthroughs in energy production. Especially its coverage of earlier time periods – when discussing steam technology, coal, gas, and oil – is fascinating. Does Energy: A Human History qualify as the definitive big history on the topic? I would be very interested in seeing how it compares to Vaclav Smil’s recent Energy and Civilization. Until I have had a chance to read that, I dare not quite make that bold a statement yet.
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By: Richard Rhodes(Author)
465 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Strongest at the beginning of its 400-year historical tour, this gracefully written book provides many interesting human stories, but runs a bit out of steam towards its end.
Media reviews

"Rhodes doesn't minimize the downsides of advances, both human and environmental, yet, on the whole, this is a beautifully written, often inspiring saga of ingenuity and progress, ideal for general readers. Immensely engaging, trusted, and best-selling, Rhodes will attract the usual avid interest as he brings facts, context, and clarity to a key, often contentious subject."
Booklist, Starred Review

"A magesterial history [...] a tour de force of popular science, which is no surprise from this author."
Kirkus, Starred Review

"Once again, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author Richard Rhodes takes on entangled issues around the use of science and technology and makes complicated matters more approachable. Rhodes's study will appeal to many, not just technophiles. As always, he is an exceptionally engaging writer."
Library Journal, Starred Review

"Energy is both a work of history and a passionately written moral tale [...] Rhodes's hope that a critical look at past energy technologies will benefit those of the future is heartening."
Science Magazine

"Rhodes delivers brilliantly on the inner workings of steam engines and reactors, and his lively narrative takes readers on thrilling side trips [...] His fascinating tale will delight technology wonks and particularly appeal to inventors and discoverers."
Publisher's Weekly

"Energy is an excellent book that manages to be both entertaining and informative, and it's likely to appeal to both science fans and those of us who only passed physics by the skin of our teeth. It's also a powerful look at the importance of science."

"Richard Rhodes' dazzling Energy: A Human History tells a compulsively readable tale of human need, curiosity, ingenuity and arrogance [...] This exceptional book is required reading for anyone concerned about the human impact on the future of the world."

"In this meticulously researched work, Rhodes brings his fascination with engineers, scientists and inventors along as he presents an often underappreciated history: four centuries through the evolution of energy and how we use it."
The New York Times Book Review

"Riveting [...] Mr. Rhodes has scored another masterpiece."
The Wall Street Journal

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