Teaching Units

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

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.

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 overview for this teaching unit is presently in development. Select primary source items are available in the teaching unit.


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 overview for this teaching unit is presently in development. Select primary source items are available in the teaching unit.


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.”

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.