As told in Greek mythology, the champion of early humanity was the titan Prometheus, who molded humans in his own image from clay, but also committed the cardinal sin of stealing the magic of fire from the gods and delivering it to humanity. For the crime of delivering the power of fire to us lowly mortals, Zeus (king of the gods) chained Prometheus to Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains, where daily an eagle would peck out and eat his liver, only to have his wounds and organs heal nightly on account of his immortality—this cycle of atonement repeats itself for all eternity.
The tale of Prometheus provides an allegory to explain how humanity mastered the power of the gods—the ability to harness heat and light through controlled combustion. The story indicates that the power to control combustion is a great gift but has a negative side effect in the form of combustion by-products, often referred to as air pollution.
Full control of fire for early humans provided many benefits. Mastery of fire allowed proto-humans to greatly expand their diet by making meat and plant foods easier to digest. Some researchers believe that the use of fire as a deterrent for night time predators led to the domestication of wolves into dogs. Fire also allowed humans to greatly expand their nomadic footprint by providing heat in northern and mountain climates, allowing Neolithic tribesmen to fan out across Europe, Russia and northern China. Fire enabled these tribes to live at the foot of the great mountain ranges of the world, greatly increasing human access to water.
Prometheus’ gift also allowed humans to control and terraform the earth, using fire as the principal means of land management in order to clear brush to make way for open fertile fields suitable for human-scale farming and agriculture development. The mastery of fire also allowed humans to greatly improve hunting success. It was a common practice during prehistoric times for humans to use a controlled burn fire to drive herds of wildlife into valleys and depressions, where large amounts of food could be culled selectively.
From these primitive beginnings, the story of how humans have harnassed unrealized “earth” energy from the environment and converted that energy into useful work has been one of the defining narratives of the human journey for the past twenty thousand years, with some key breakthroughs occurring along the way.
Prior to the industrial revolution, our ability to harness power (defined as energy or work over time) was extremely decentralized and typically involved one of the following processes:
- Combustion of wood into heat and light;
- Combustion of animal waste into heat and light;
- Human and animal labor;
- Water wheels, the conversion of potential energy (gravity-driven water flows) into kinetic energy;
- Windmills and sails, the harnessing of potential wind energy into kinetic thrust.
Throughout the pre-industrial period, the harnessing of energy into useful work was restricted to the following domains: keeping humans alive; cooking; agricultural cultivation; light agricultural support work such as pumping water from underground; chopping and sawing wood; grinding grain; hammering wrought steel for weapons production; spinning yarn; primitive glass production; and converting wood pulp into paper.
Figure 1 represents the power sources available to human civilization from roughly 5,000 BCE to 1750, or from early antiquity to the late Enlightenment. The temptation is to imagine that these early power-generating sources were few and far between, the property and domain of the aristocratic class only. The reality is more populist and widespread. In 1086, William the Conqueror commissioned a comprehensive survey of the tax-generating and economic capabilities of every shire and cow pen in England. The work is known as The Doomsday Book. The survey recorded six thousand windmills and fifty-six hundred waterwheels in operation in England in 1086. For an estimated population of one and one-half million, this calculates to one power-generating source for every one hundred twenty-five individuals in the country at the time.
WOOD DEPLETION AND SLAVE LABOR
Although disquieting to think about, one should not underestimate the role of slave labor during this period, as enforced human labor along with wood were the dominant forms of incremental energy available. For the majority of this period, one of the primary reasons for two groups to wage war against each other was to accumulate human property. At the time of Augustus (0 CE) and the height of Roman expansion, the population of the empire has been estimated at sixty million inhabitants, of which roughly 25 percent were slaves, 40 percent non-citizens and only 35 percent citizens, with citizens concentrated heavily in Italy.
These fifteen million slaves provided roughly one and one-half million horsepower of human labor, the modern equivalent of what six thousand John Deere tractors and heavy machinery would provide when used in agriculture and building projects. It should be assumed that every great wonder of the ancient world was primarily constructed using slave labor.
Another important factor to consider: through the Roman Empire into the pre-industrial age, Europe had developed a substantial wood problem. Huge sections of continental Europe had been utterly deforested as the demand for heat and construction materials surged with increasing birthrates and life expectancy. The lack of wood has been cited as one of the primary factors in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the impetus to explore new lands.
The harsh reality that Europe was running out of wood and other critical resources is an underlying driving factor behind both the Industrial Revolution and the expansionary colonialism that would come to dominate the next four hundred years of world history.
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
In 1533, King Henry VIII of England broke from the Catholic church and seized the church-owned lands in England. These church lands were heavily concentrated in the north and happened to sit above the rich coal seams of Lancashire, south Yorkshire and Northumberland. The infusion of the commercially minded opportunists from London onto former church property would lead to an almost full replacement of wood with coal for heating in England over the next two hundred years and set the table for the coming Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution, still in its infancy in 1700, would transform every aspect of human society over the next two hundred years, with the most profound and dynamic change occurring in the energy sector. The relationship between humans, the environment, the resource abundance of the earth and the use of fossil fuels for both heat and power would all go through fundamental transformations.
In the early years, the use of coal was restricted to direct burning to produce thermal heat. This would change with the timely inventions of two British men. By 1712, the workers in the coal and tin mines of England encountered an engineering problem. As you dig deeper and deeper into the earth in search of additional raw materials, water ingresses into the mine, making conditions impassable. The solution was an invention called an engine. In simple terms, an engine is a machine that converts thermal heat into useful work; when useful work is sustained over time, you get power.
The engine burned coal to heat water into steam, and then used that steam to draw suction or provide thrust through a piston encased in a pressure-containing cylinder. The inventor, an Englishman named Thomas Newcomen, was an ironmonger by trade. The first Newcomen steam engine, also called a “common engine,” produced a useful work output of 20 horsepower (the equivalent of 200 manpower) and was installed in one of the very same coal mines accessed by King Henry VIII’s land grab. Newcomen steam engines remained in industrial operation until the 1920s or for roughly two hundred years.
By 1775, there were about six hundred Newcomen steam engines in operation in the coal and metal mines of Great Britain and continental Europe. In 1776, a Scottish instrument maker and student of Newcomen’s steam engine, named James Watt, of the unit of measure fame, made a major refinement to Newcomen’s engine. By adding a dedicated external heat exchanger, called a condenser, this improved the efficiency and also allowed the machine to draw vacuum pressure.
Newcomen and Watt have received the majority of the accolades for their inventions and for helping to ignite the Industrial Revolution, but in truth there were hundreds of individuals involved in finding new uses for coal—which was mined in greater and greater abundance.
ROCK OIL OR WHALE BLUBBER?
Two other important breakthroughs occured in the next century, which would set the world on its course to the present-day energy reality. The first involved coal’s liquid brother, rock oil or petroleum, soon to be known as crude oil. By the 1850s, Captain Ahab and his ilk had hunted the North Atlantic sperm whale population to the point of extinction. Sperm whale blubber was harvested and rendered to produce a bright illuminating oil used in lamps across the world. With fewer whales to hunt and render, the price of illuminating oil had skyrocketed to four dollars per gallon in real money terms (dollars of the day) or what today would be the equivalent of one hundred thirty dollars per gallon with inflation.
Two men set out to exploit this emerging market opportunity. The first was George Bissell, an industrialist who realized that a distilled product could be derived from what was then known as rock oil into a suitable illuminating fuel. The product was called kerosene. Rock oil had been known in various corners around the world since antiquity, since it would frequently bubble up from seeps in the ground after earthquakes. The substance already had a variety of uses including in medicines, tinctures, waterproofing—and for starting fires, of course.
The second man was Colonel Edwin Drake, who was recruited by Bissell. Together in 1859, are credited with drilling the first commercial oil well in the world, in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The well was drilled using a Newcomen-Watt-style steam engine and produced fifteen barrels a day. By 1870, the area surrounding the first Drake well was producing fifteen thousand barrels of oil per day, from which three thousand barrels per day of high-quality kerosene were produced at the world’s first oil refinery, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In context, that production of illuminating oil would require the hunting and harvesting of three thousand sperm whales per day. At the time, estimates put North Atlantic whale hunting at fifty to sixty thousand kills per year. In absolute energy terms, this level of production is even more substantial. An oil field producing fifteen thousand barrels per day contains as much thermal energy as ten million pounds of wood or two thousand average-size trees, every single day.
Roughly fifty years later, in 1901, a single oil well was struck above the geologic salt domes of Spindletop, Texas, which would produce one hundred thousand barrels of oil per day. The era of the fossil fuel had now fully arrived. Fossil fuels saved the whale and saved the trees—for by 1900, the eastern forests of America were largely denuded, just as they had been in Europe several centuries earlier.
ENERGY FROM THE SUN
All energy on the earth, whether chemical, potential or kinetic, ultimately derives its origins from our star, Sol the sun. Fossil fuels are no exception. Our sun is a massive fusion reactor operating at temperatures of 10,000 degrees F on the surface and several million degrees in the center. Every second, the fusion reactor that is our sun converts six hundred million tonnes of hydrogen into helium; in the process, roughly four million tonnes of matter are converted into energy, providing the heat, light and radiation that serve as the basis for all life on the planet.
Here on the earth, plants use the process of photosynthesis to absorb energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air to produce oxygen and absorb carbon. Fossil fuels are formed through a specific decomposition process that requires just the right conditions and a healthy pinch of geologic luck. When living matter dies and biodegrades in the absence of oxygen, this is the critical enabler that leads to the formation of fossil fuels.
If oxygen is present during the decomposition process, the original living matter will be converted back into carbon dioxide and directly released to the atmosphere. Trees in swamps and bogs ultimately decompose into coal due to the presence of carbon-rich lignin. Most of the crude oil present under our feet originally started off as algae and other simple organisms. In ancient times, when the carbon dioxide concentration was about two and one-half times higher than today, large inland lakes would experience enormous algae blooms that would deoxygenate the water, die, sink to the bottom of the lake and decompose under layer-upon-layer of oxygen-deficient silt.
Through continental drift, these carbon-rich sheets are driven under ground where the organic material cooks into crude oil. If the oil or coal cooks too long, the organic material decomposes further into the third member of the fossil fuel family, natural gas (often referred to as cooking gas), composed mostly of the simplest hydrocarbon, methane. In other words, all fossil fuels represent a long-term concentrated storage of the sun’s energy.
If left in the ground undisturbed, fossil fuels represent an enormous global carbon sequestration program. As we all well know, we have not left these remnants undisturbed in the ground. In some ways, the Industrial Revolution into modern times represents the unlocking of a vast and virtually unlimited source of energy—five hundred million years of stored sun energy.
The release of this stored carbon has brought many benefits—from the end of worldwide slavery to the conveniences that make our modern lives so comfortable. The Pandora’s curse piece of the global energy equation is the unforeseen side effect of releasing five hundred million years’ worth of stored carbon in the span of just several hundred years, thus increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The final major technological breakthrough, connecting the Industrial Revolution to the modern energy complex of today, was the electrification revolution, which emerged in the late 1800s, a subject I’ll discuss in my next column.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2021🖨️ Print post