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.
This module covers the New England-based commercial whale fishery in the middle of the nineteenth century.
After human muscle power, domesticated animals provided the most accessible, economical and efficient source of power available to Americans in the nineteenth century.
Coal can easily appear mundane to modern eyes—an inferior product from a bygone era.
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.
In 1859, the completion of the first successful petroleum well in northwestern Pennsylvania set off a wild speculative oil boom. Independent oil producers dominated this early oil extraction. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
From right before World War II until the late 1950s, American architects and engineers experimented with solar house heating and solar houses were built across the Midwest, Northeast, and Southwestern United States. Working with international aid organizations such the Ford Foundation, architects also were involved with solar technology transfer as part of development projects in India, South Africa, and Morocco.
In October 1973, the Arab state members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared that they would cut oil production, and limit exports to certain countries, to protest the United States’ support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. American policymakers believed that this decision, which they called an “embargo,” would raise the market price of oil as supplies diminished and would lead to shortages of oil in the United States.