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...

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;...

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 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 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...

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.

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...

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...

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...