Human Energy Use - A Brief History


Over centuries, humankind has developed a more thorough understanding of energy and matter which has allowed us to find methods of harnessing energy for uses well beyond basic survival. Mastering fire was humankind’s first major step in the utilization of energy. The beginnings of using fire as a source of energy date back at least 400,000 years. Soon enough burning certain biomass, such as wood, served for cooking and heating purposes. This also encouraged the expansion of human settlements by using fire as light, which allowed work to get done during the night.

During the 1st century, China was the first country in the world to refine petroleum (oil) for use as energy source. Petroleum began to be used for lamps, as lubricants, military actions, and other applications but, humans did not have the technology necessary to use oil as a major source of energy.


As the global population increased the demand for food also increased, which led to the discovery of water and wind power. During the 10th century, vertical carousel windmills were built in Persia to grind corn and wheat and pump water. These windmills were also utilized for tanning leather, smelting iron, and many other new applications.

The dramatic shift in population and industrial processes that took place in the 18th century was due to the introduction of coal as an energy source for mechanical power. This allowed mechanical power to become cheaper and more effective. By the end of the century, coal had displaced all of the other alternative sources of energy – wood, wind, and water.

The invention of the steam engine was a major factor in transitioning an organic-based energy economy to a fossil fuel economy. The steam engine is a system that converts chemical energy (heat) stored in coal into mechanical (motion) energy. James Watt, a Scottish inventor, was the main contributor to the significant efficiency improvements of the steam engine, which would later become a valuable tool for the progression of the industrial revolution. The steam engine became a crucial system to solve the urgent problem of pumping water out of coal mines. As it became more efficient with time its applications began to widen. The steam engine was then used to drive the manufacturing of machinery, power locomotives, ships and even the first automobiles.

The growing demand for coal in the 19th century raised concerns about scarcity and its consequences for the production process, however, technological improvement managed to keep coal prices extremely low.

The first ever solar power system was developed in France in 1860, to produce steam to drive machinery. This was primarily due to the concern that coal and other fossil fuel sources would run out. Augustine Mouchot, a French scientist realized that fossil fuels were bound to deplete eventually so he developed this system to generate steam to drive industrial machinery.

However, in 1870 John D. Rockefeller formed Standard Oil Company, where he developed and refined petroleum. By 1879, Rockefeller controlled 90% of US refining capacity. The invention of the internal combustion engine was a revolutionary system that promoted the use of refined oil, which would later become the primary source of energy in the late 19th century.

In 1905 Albert Einstein published the first ever theoretical explanation of the photovoltaic effect that light produces with certain materials. He asserted that light contains packets of energy called light quanta. This lead to the discovery of photovoltaic effect, which essentially produces electricity from light. Although this discovery was revolutionary for energy production, new policies and approaches of using alcohol fuel (ethanol) promoted the use of gasoline and kerosene as energy fuels and the idea of using solar energy for electricity purpose faded away. After the great depression, the government thought it would be a good idea to promote alcohol fuel production to improve the economy without taking environmental impacts into consideration.

During the 1950’s when automobiles became more widely used among the people, petroleum became the most used fuel in the US, which ultimately has caused crucial impacts to our environment. It was also during this period that homes began utilizing natural gas for cooking and heating purposes. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of miles of pipeline networks were constructed throughout the US. Today, the US pipeline network, laid end-to-end, would stretch to the moon and back twice.

In 2014 President Obama, at the time, announced more than 300 public and private commitments to create jobs and cutting carbon pollution by advancing the deployment of solar energy. Three years later, President Trump signed an executive order reversing Obama’s clean power plan. It is more than obvious that solar energy is the necessary route for the sustainability of our generations and generations to come. Although the current solar revolution we are going through is facing certain challenges, these challenges will not outperform the potential of solar energy – and there is no doubt about that.


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