United States and world energy systems are in a period of tremendous change, driven by technological advances, cultural and social pressures, and government policies to respond to the threat of climate change. Studying the history of energy illuminates this current moment, helping us to identify what questions to ask, to see what trends and patterns might repeat themselves, and to understand what is truly new and unprecedented.  

Through curated teaching units and a library of curated teaching materials, Energy History Online seeks to promote energy literacy among students, practitioners, and the interested public.  Only by understanding the complex historical forces that created our current predicament can we hope to create a more just and sustainable energy system in the future. 

From the time Puritans settled in New England in the seventeenth century to the decades after the American Revolution, the region’s landscape was dotted by small mills that used water power for sawing wood, grinding grain, and carding wool to meet the needs of local communities.  During the Industrial Revolution, however, corporate investors established mills and factories for manufacturing that harnessed water power on much greater scale and toward different ends, producing an extraordinary bounty of textiles, shoes, paper, and iron goods for markets near and far.  Unlike the older mills, which relied on dams that could be lowered or removed during spring freshets and typically featured some version of a water wheel, the industrial enterprises depended on ever-higher permanent dams to make huge mill ponds that fed turbines to turn intricate belt systems. 

This module covers the New England-based commercial whale fishery in the middle of the nineteenth century. The documents cover three themes:  how did whalers’ labor on board ship and their dependence on the whale-oil economy shape their ways of valuing and understanding whales; how were transitions from an “organic to a “mineral” energy regime experienced by whalers and whale-oil consumers; and, how did whalers and consumers understand the ecosystem change brought on by energy demands?

Coal can easily appear mundane to modern eyes—an inferior product from a bygone era. Yet this black, sooty, heavy rock provided a crucial underpinning for the Industrial Revolution: the development of industrial economies based on manufacturing from the late 18th century onwards. The rise of coal in the modern era was a global phenomenon, taking place in earnest in Britain beginning in the mid-18th century, the United States and Germany in the early 19th century. Most other nations have followed suit since, with China and India becoming the world’s leading consumers of coal in the present century.

Industrialization, a slow and uneven process, helped bring enormous social changes, including the rise of factory work, the move from rural farms to giant cities, the production and consumption of countless new goods, and the spread of global inequality and modern empires.

In 1859, the former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake drilled the first successful petroleum well in northwestern Pennsylvania, setting off a wild speculative oil boom. Independent oil producers dominated oil extraction in its early years. Petroleum moved to markets first on wagons traveling over rough roads, and then by means of pipelines and railroads. Corporate consolidation in the refining stage, however, soon created a bottleneck in the supply chain. By merging several Cleveland refineries and negotiating favorable shipping rates with railroads, John D. Rockefeller and his business partners gained control of the rapidly growing petroleum industry. 

The rapidly increasing use of coal in the late nineteenth century required hundreds of thousands of workers to dig that coal out of the ground, sort and load it into railroad cars, and ship it to the urban and industrial centers that consumed it. Most coalfields were sparsely populated compared to the cities they supplied. Workers had to be recruited and lured to the coal camps. Company representatives traveled across the agricultural south, recruiting Black workers from former plantation areas as a new wave of white violence followed the collapse of Reconstruction. Recruiters also went to struggling towns in Southern and Eastern Europe, paying voyage fares for men who promised to work in the coal mines on arrival. By the turn of the twentieth century, close to half a million workers—mostly men and boys, but also some women in smaller, family mines—toiled in the American coalfields.

Patterns of energy consumption started to change significantly in the first decades of the twentieth century. As electrical service became increasingly available in urban areas, middle class households experimented with and adopted new electrical appliances. To boost demand, electric utility companies and appliance manufacturers sought to teach American consumers how to use electrical devices and promoted the electrified household as thekey to a better, more prosperous life. This teaching unit explores cultural aspects of electrical use in the home, including the intersection of electricity with changing conceptions of femininity and the gendered nature of household labor. How would the new electrical appliances change the burden of maintaining the home and how would they alter standards for home-making?

Who should develop and control electric power resources? In the 1920s and 1930s, private electric companies struggled with state and federal governments over how the vital new infrastructure would be built and made accessible. Advocates of public power included Nebraska Senator George Norris, who called for federal development of the Muscle Shoals dam site in Alabama. Proponents of public initiative prevailed with the passage of the Tennessee Valley Act in 1933 and the subsequent development of the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest. The Rural Electrification Administration also gave the federal government responsibility for bringing electricity to rural areas across the country.  On the other side, critics attacked these government-led energy programs as socialistic, and warned that the government should not compete directly with private industry.

The era of large-scale hydroelectric dam building spanned roughly four decades, from the 1930s through the 1960s. Symbolically, the era commenced with Hoover Dam’s dedication in 1935. Hoover, however, was a culmination of larger technological and political changes.

Large-scale dams suggested engineering mastery over the vagaries of nature and structural social and economic conditions. They enthralled Americans who read into them possibilities for a new, emergent modernity that mixed rural electrification, public power, and industrial growth. But economic growth came at great social and environmental cost. Western dam building in the 1940s and ’50s was particularly tragic for rural indigenous communities. Grand Coulee and the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River, for instance, inundated the river’s last dip-net fishing sites. Garrison Dam on the Missouri River displaced 90% of three affiliated tribes. Environmental costs were equally devastating. Concrete walls trapped sediment, drowned wetlands, and dramatically transformed river ecologies. Salmon symbolized this ecological tragedy, particularly on the Columbia basin where salmon catches plummeted two-thirds by 1960; by the 1990s, several Pacific salmon species were officially “endangered.”

Almost since its inception, nuclear technology has raised challenging questions about the goals, costs, and the very nature of progress. Would nuclear technologies lead to a world of cheap energy that freed humans from the demands of physical labor—or to a world of dystopic, technocratic rule and environmental ruin? The documents in this module provide a window into American ideas about nuclear energy, progress, and nature in the early years of the “Atomic Age.”