The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How technology and innovation shaped our world

Steven Mufson is a Washington Post staff writer covering business and climate change.

There are few forces stronger than Americans’ belief in the power of innovation and technology to transform and improve our society. That article of faith is what animates Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes in his new book, “Energy: A Human History,” which recounts how the global economy has gone from one built on burning wood and coal to one that also has tapped into the vast potential of oil, natural gas and nuclear power.

At each step of the way, Rhodes argues, energy innovation and technology have opened up new resources, overcoming obstacles and improving lives. “Here is how human beings, again and again, confronted the deeply human problem of how to draw life from the raw materials of the world,” he writes. “Each invention, each discovery, each adaptation brought further challenges in its wake, and through such continuing transformations, we arrived at where we are today. The air is cleaner, the world more peaceful, and more and more of us are prosperous.”

It is an argument that is irrefutable on one level. No one wants to return to the era of chimney sweeps, horse-drawn carriages and whale oil (all described in the book). No one denies the prosperity that energy advances have brought.

But that the world can count on technological breakthroughs is a dubious and dangerous assumption today when climate change — in large part a product of the energy revolutions Rhodes lauds — threatens to bring catastrophic damage and wrenching upheaval to our economy and society.

Rhodes is keenly aware of the environmental damage that different forms of energy have caused. He quotes John Evelyn, a wealthy diarist and horticulturalist who wanted to move industry out of London, and who described the city awash in “a cloud of sea-coal [smoke], as if there be a resemblance of hell upon earth.”

Yet Rhodes writes with confidence that “far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come.”

To frame his argument, Rhodes turns energy development into a story. He weaves together short portraits of scientists and inventors alongside detailed descriptions of technical challenges to advancement, especially in steam engines and electricity.

It’s a big tableau with entertaining personal details. We learn, for example, that in the mid-18th century the third Duke of Bridgewater, who carried on a scandalous public dalliance with a French actress, became the patron of Britain’s canal system after being “smitten” by the Languedoc Canal in southwest France. He even built a controversial three-arch stone aqueduct to carry a canal over a river and bring his coal holdings to market.

The book, best seen as a history of science, is structured in three broad parts. The first focuses on the development of the steam engine and the coal mining demands that contributed to that. The second recounts the development of electricity. The third discusses the discovery of oil and gas and the development of nuclear energy.

Rhodes begins his narrative in 1598, when William Shakespeare’s partners moved their theater across the Thames River — and took the valuable wood with them from the original site.

As the British economy switched to coal, it needed to dig deeper and deeper to meet demand. That meant pumping water out of coal mines. One scientist called it “the great engineering problem of the age.” People went at it with a combination of horses, vacuum pumps, gunpowder engines and finally steam.

Denis Papin, a physician turned engineer, applied his experience with steam pressure cookers and tough vegetables and meat. One key element in his design was a self-regulating safety valve. Papin, a Huguenot from Catholic France who moved to London in 1675, managed to pump water up as much as 70 feet, a vast improvement at the time. But he could not overcome myriad technical issues — including the weakness of pipes and welding to withstand high pressures.

That was done by Thomas Newcomen, who stumbled across cold-water injection. That enabled his engine to cycle over and over again, bringing water up from hundreds of feet below. The Newcomen engine pumped water from British coal mines for more than 200 years.

The parade of scientists and tycoons includes James Watt, a Scot who figured out how to create a vacuum in a cylinder and later built steam engines for industry. And Michael Faraday, the son of a blacksmith, who oversaw experiments on batteries, electricity and magnetism at the Royal Institution.

In this century, Charles F. Kettering, head of research at General Motors, helped solve the problem of engine knocking by finding the right additive for gasoline. In 1948, a California Institute of Technology researcher, Arie Haagen-Smit, was extracting and condensing the scent of pineapples he had collected in his laboratory. He then used the same technique to extract exhaust fumes from the smoggy California air and became a leader in pollution control techniques.

The stories are engaging, though at times one feels that the profiles stack up one on top of another, with details that could have been pruned. There is no single idea, project or person to create a strong narrative.

Near the end of the book Rhodes attacks the foes of nuclear energy. He criticizes them for being too frightened of the potential radiation effects of nuclear power while brushing aside too lightly the issue of whether nuclear power reactors are economic in any case.

He oversimplifies the politics of nuclear energy. “As with so much else in American life, energy sources have become politicized, with Republicans embracing nuclear power and Democrats rejecting it, a state of affairs unlikely to save the planet.” In fact, many prominent Democrats favor nuclear energy. Rhodes says that “certainly nuclear has faltered against massive political resistance in both Europe and the United States, regions where renewables are heavily subsidized and nuclear heavily regulated.”

In fact, in the United States, renewable subsidies are being phased out while nuclear power benefits from an array of government policies, most important the Price-Anderson Act, which insures companies in the event of a catastrophe. Recently, several states have also provided assistance to nuclear reactors that would otherwise be unable to compete with renewables or natural gas.

Rhodes sees clearly that altering the nature of the energy infrastructure to address climate change requires projects on a massive scale. Invention is only the beginning, he says.

He ends up favoring, as President Barack Obama put it, “all of the above.” Rhodes says we will need not only nuclear and natural gas. “We will need all that and renewables as well to sustain a world population of ten billion in anything like reasonable prosperity,” he writes, adding with his optimistic outlook: “The boats are lining up. There’s room aboard for everyone.”

But with rising seas and the need for massive investment, reengineering our society for climate change could prove to be a bigger leap than any taken by the inventive characters in Rhodes’s tale.

By Richard Rhodes

Simon & Schuster. 464 pp. $30