🥇 5/5 Energy: A Human History

🖋️ by Richard Rhodes
🎧 I listed to the audiobook version. It is worse than reading it, but better than nothing during road trips and workouts.

I started writing these reviews so I better remember what I read. These are summary notes of surprising information.

Energy incredibly put me into the minds of those who invented our greatest leaps forwards in energy production. I could imagine how, and why first inventors stumbled across their creations, like those first tools to harness steam power. Steam, incidentally, was my favorite energy form described. Initially very crude with building-sized machines to produce only a few horsepower, steam’s successive improvements changed the world and beautifully mirrors the evolution of computers. I applaud and recommend Energy for leaving me with a comprehensive understanding of how humans modernized.

In early mines of gold and later coal, methane would build up overnight seeping out of the rock. To eliminate it in the morning, a candle on a long stick would be brandished by a man crawling down the floor of the cave. It would trigger explosions that (should) go over the prone man’s head. Not infrequently, men were shot like cannon balls out of the tunnels. It was particularly bad after long holidays, the irony. Also, mine drainage, the first use of steam power, was “the great engineering challenge of the age.” It’s pumps man, funny that it was such a challenge.

My favorite bookmarks!

  • The development of fertilizer that was cheaper to transport and more effective than horse manure turned the shit filling cities from a profitable byproduct (street cleaners were very profitable, ushering a beautiful circle of life back to farms) into an expensive nuisance. Wow.
  • Energy source adoption follows a remarkably similar pattern. It takes 40-50 years to go from 1% market share to 10% market share, and of those that make it further, it takes another 100 years to get to 50% market share. Society adopts a new mainstream energy source roughly every 100 years.
  • US energy 70% wood in 1870, and 70% coal in 1900. That’s a big shift. Kerosene was also cheap and abundant. Average people were savvy about which type of coal to buy (for home use) the same way I’m savvy about phones or laptops.
  • Steam is 1000x the volume of water, easily creating high pressure (a “head of steam”).
  • Modern trains’ wheels only make tiny contact with the rails —the head of a dime (!)— which makes them very efficient. But at first people didn’t think trains would have the traction to spin and pull anything. So interesting (my built up intuition finds this so strange today). The first steam engine was so heavy it broke the tracks constantly, because they concentrated huge weight on only 4 wheels for more traction.
  • There are always doubters. Things take time to catch on. Science is the best tool we have for reliably learning from our mistakes.
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