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Energy: A Human History

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  816 ratings  ·  140 reviews
Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Richard Rhodes reveals the fascinating history behind energy transitions over time—wood to coal to oil to electricity and beyond.

People have lived and died, businesses have prospered and failed, and nations have risen to world power and declined, all over energy challenges. Ultimately, the history of these challenges t
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published May 29th 2018 by Simon Schuster
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Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Richard Rhodes has been writing since the early 1980s and I have read most of his books. He always has a good sense of historical narrative and he is a good science popularizer. He combines both these talents in many of his works and this book is no exception. He covers what many including myself consider the key to modernity our energy systems. He starts in Elizabethan England which was highly dependent on a dwindling supply of lumber for nearly everything from ships to baking bread. He covers ...more
Simon Eskildsen
Oct 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reread
I couldn't put this down. A fantastic account of our transition from organic energy sources (horses, mules, oxes, ..) to fossil fuels to electricity. Taking detours at each level into lighting (which takes you into whaling, and the Canadian invention of kerocene), a deep account on the steam engine (and the insidious effects of patents), why we ended up with combustion engines when steam and electrical engines seemed just as likely at the time (it's hard to imagine that the technologies weren't ...more
Jul 17, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, 3-stars
A little bit of a dry read at times, but very informative. Rhodes devotes a chapter or two to each of the major sources of energy humans have used over the last several hundred years. Wood, steam, coal, hydrocarbons, nuclear fission, renewables; all are covered in detail. Rhodes also discusses the history of several environmental movements which is much more interesting than it sounds.Part III, which covers hydrocarbons, nuclear power, renewables, and our path forward is the most noteworthy for ...more
Peter Tillman
2 stars might be a little harsh, but this was a disappointing book. The early chapters rehashed stuff I already know, the nuclear energy chapter, well, rehashed old stuff too. The windup was a little better, and it's all well-written. But not much substance, if you know a bit about the topic. Better to read Daniel Yergin's great "The Prize."

WSJ featured review, which led me to read it:
"Splendid .... A riveting account .... Humanity’s bottomless ingenuity i
Margaret Sankey
Mar 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Rhodes applies his talent for explaining science and technology to a popular audience to the modern history of energy--the deforestation of Europe and the coming of coal of increasing efficiency and quality, rushlight, steam engines, whale oil, kerosene and turpentine, oil, nuclear and wind. Along the way, there are vivid portraits of the people who made the technological leaps, often at high cost to themselves and their families, and the political and cultural oddities (the attempt to lure Nant ...more
Lubinka Dimitrova
Very informative, but too dry for my taste and my mind was wandering off. Still, plenty of interesting facts.
David Montgomery
May 26, 2018 rated it liked it
A good overview of the changes in human energy use from the Elizabethan period through to the present. Rhodes surveys the rise and fall of muscle, water, steam and electricity, of wood, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar in turn. Each gets capsule histories of varying lengths, summarizing the circumstances of their rise and the major figures and events involved in the major inventions.

I enjoyed the first half of the book, focused on pre-20th Century energy, more than the second hal
Jul 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I read this book at the same time as Smil's Energy and Civilization. It proved to be a good compliment to Smil's book but left me feeling pretty disappointed at the same time. I wanted more from this book than it had to offer. Maybe I would have favored it more if I had not read at the same time as Smil's masterpiece.

This book started out more interesting than it ended. Rhodes asked thought provoking questions, such as how did humans figure out how to best harvest energy from nature. For exampl
Larry Bassett
I want to note 1st that this book includes an extensive bibliography at the end of the Kindle edition. I also wanted to note that this author is a promoter of nuclear power which is in contrast to my personal anti-nuclear position.

I thought several times as I was listening to this audible book that it would be a delight for a person who wants to learn about inventors and engineers over the last several hundred years. I found it less interesting until it moved into the current time.
Dec 07, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Dry overview of energy discovery and use through western history. Touches on wood, coal, oils, gasses, and newer sources without getting technical; names the principal inventors without going into much of their biography.

The early chapters do a good job of showing the various fuels burned to provide light, comparing costs and effectiveness. Over time, the market pressures changed due to various influences, and that story was pretty interesting.

Later in the book, that format is dropped for a much
Sep 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Audiobook. I cannot say enough about this. It is completely outstanding. When I saw that it was by Richard Rhodes, I couldn’t wait to read it. This is a comprehensive, well thought out and researched book on the history of energy conversion across the last 400 years and its overwhelming and undeniable benefit to the quality of human life and longevity.
It is full of interesting anecdotes and asides that add enormous flavour to the stories. It is written in a manner that would be entertaining to
Lee Woodruff
Jun 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you love books that cover epic transformations in history this is your next non fiction read about the evolution of energy from wood to nuclear - four centuries of change and all the implications - an in-depth good read.
Travis Tucker
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
A good history of the progression of the history of the development of energy sources and machines to use them. My only issues were: 1) that is was bit America/Western Europe-centric. I understand that this is where the invention took place, but it would have been interesting to know how quickly ideas / adoption spread to other parts of the world. 2) the discussion on wind / solar renewables was a bit brief.

It’s hard to imagine a more light-weight read. From the same author who who wrote the awe-inspiring “Making of the Atomic Bomb”. If you want to understand the industry and ideas, stick with Daniel Yeargin.

Most of the book is nothing new. Only at the end does Rhodes provide some useful stats. Such as nuclear power has caused the least number of deaths of any energy production technology. And in 1996, half of Americans were alive only because of technological improvements.

But, there’s no energy i
Todd Stockslager
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Review title: Energy to burn

Rhodes, best known for his histories of the atomic bomb, here turns his attention to the history of energy sources and how humans have developed and transitioned between them. Beginning with wood, Rhodes documents the development and transition to coal, steam, whale oil and other "burning fluids", electricity, oil, nuclear energy, and renewable sources.

While he outlines the technology behind the energy sources, he focuses on the social, commercial, and political respo
Brendan Holly
Jul 12, 2018 rated it liked it
Energy is incredibly informative, although it didn't necessarily grab my attention as much as I had hoped. Still I learned an incredibly amount, but I was, perhaps naively, surprised by the end of the book. The final section quickly became almost exclusively devoted to nuclear energy apologetics. While I am not particularly committed to an anti-nuclear position like some of my fellow environmentalists, the book ended with a rhetorical flourish propping up the Promethean spirit of human innovat ...more
Abhi Gupte
Jun 23, 2020 rated it it was ok

I'm surprised this is a book by a Pulitzer Prize winner - the writing is so uninteresting, the narrative so random. The "book" feels more like a compendium of essays poorly stitched together. The chapters make no coherent sense because one minute there author will be talking about oil drilling, then pipes, then steel-making, then war, then back to oil markets, pipes, women, all in the course of one "chapter".. Stick to a storyli
Richard Powers
Feb 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a terrific book, my first read of Richard Rhodes, and I am going to carry-on. He starts with vacuum powered steam engines and closes with a surprising and credible pitch for nuclear power. He writes like a dream. For the science-curious, it is a great read.
Randall Wallace
Dec 02, 2018 rated it liked it
A local in Titusville, PA (site of Drake’s first successful oil well in the U.S.) said back then (probably with Cletus’s accent), “We knew there was oil there, but that didn’t count for much with us because the oil didn’t seem good for much.” Sperm oil was used until the 1960’s to lubricate machine guns. He reminds us that it is amperage and not voltage that kills you; an electric fence packs 8,000 volts powered by a single 9-volt but the amperage is 0.1 amp. We were a country of horses before a ...more
Oct 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Rhodes, perhaps best known for his works about nuclear weapons, turns here to a history of how people have generated power and light over the past 400 or so years. It starts with wood-burning, moves through the development of the steam engine and the rise of coal, oil, and nuclear fuels; there are major parallel strands about the burning of gas for illumination and the refining of petrochemicals for transportation, too.

That's an ambitious agenda, even if it doesn't include much about hydropower
Jan 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
* Wood to coal to oil to nuclear to natural gas to renewables
* How did humans confront how to draw energy from the world and then deal with consequences of how they did so

Part 1 No Wood, No Kingdom
* 1599 The Globe Theater was opened after being dismantled and moved by Shakespeare and his fellow theater owners taking the precious wood material away from the absentee landlord.
* Between charcoal, ship and building construction, England may have been running out of wood.
* Chimney sweeps got scrotum
Gabbi Levy
Jul 05, 2018 marked it as to-read
My interview with Richard Rhodes:

ENERGY IS ALL AROUND us. It lights homes, fuels cars, cooks food and connects people to their world, yet most spend little time thinking about where it comes from and how it gets to their lamps, televisions and cellphones.

But the world is at a turning point. Scientific consensus has concluded that humans – especially through a reliance on the fossil fuels used to produce energy – have contributed to the warming of the planet and that time is running out to avoid
Borislav Boev
May 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Great book, written in historical context. The author points out the discovery and development of different kinds of fuels and how important were they for the development of our civilization. Rhodes made a strong connection between science and practice, with real examples. I recommend the book to everyone who wants to understand the history of energy and its importance for today's economy.
Daniel Krell
Nov 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Mr. Rhodes demonstrated the results of his legendary research skills, and provided great amounts of science, personal and political history that rewarded my continued reading through most of the book. I was not as happy, however, with the latter part of the book because of several issues. The book was about energy, and opining about science’s capacity to give us a benign future was an unnecessary and distracting tangent.

The easy dismissal of the concerns about population control discussions, in
Matt Chester
Oct 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
To read the my full review, check out my blog post about the book here:

Early this summer, I excitedly discovered Richard Rhodes' newest book Energy: A Human History. Rhodes previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on the history of the atomic bomb, but in his latest book he turns to the history of how society discovered and interacted with various energy sources throughout time. While this book is no light beach read, I found that Rhodes' approach
Lars Plougmann
Feb 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
At the outset, mechanical power was delivered by animals, and thermal power by burning wood. Our trajectory involved finding new substances to burn, converting thermal energy to mechanical energy, and finding ways to transmit energy. Only recently in our journey have we started being able to scale energy generation that doesn't involve burning stuff.

A human history of energy would focus on the explorers, inventors and experimenters that pushed our civilization forwards towards new fuels, fuelled
Sep 29, 2018 rated it liked it
3.5. If you read this book not knowing the title, it'd be more like a 4 but, including the title it's more like a 2.

The book considers no humans outside America and the UK as well as no history before 1700-1950. So judging it based on the grandiosity of the title, this book is an abject failure. It spends pages on the biographical details of various British inventors who made relatively minor efficiency gains in early steam engines while not even touching on say rural electrification in the US o
William Schram
Dec 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Energy by Richard Rhodes chronicles the relationships between men and resources. From the Age of Sail where everything was constructed of wood to our modern day of Nuclear Power. Human beings have constantly been looking for things to provide energy. From the clear-cutting of ancient Oak forests to make the Royal Navy to mining for coal and pumping oil, our relationships to the Earth are defined by such struggles. The book contains little images to demonstrate what it is talking about. Mostly ab ...more
Jan 14, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I read this book quickly, having been primed by its underwhelming introduction wherein Rhodes does little to try to elevate his work above an anthology of stories.

Taken as is, the book is good: in covering the human side of (selected and Western) energy innovation since ~1600, Rhodes makes the reader see parallels in the process. Chapter after chapter, we see how innovaters and scientists encountered and transcended all manner of obstacles as they developed more modern and more familiar technolo
Aug 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was an interesting book that really helps you get a sense of how we have have used various energy sources over the last 40 years. My only complaint is that it sort of ends suddenly, with just the briefest description of renewable energy. To some degree this is understandable, but compared to the detail and storytelling in the rest of the book, it is a bit of a letdown.

The book is basically exactly what its title suggests, a history of human energy use. This may not sound exciting to most, b
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Richard Lee Rhodes is an American journalist, historian, and author of both fiction and non-fiction (which he prefers to call "verity"), including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), and most recently, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007). He has been awarded grants from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation a ...more

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“Wood use peaked in the United States at 70 percent in 1870. (It had peaked about a century earlier in Britain.2) Thirty years later, in 1900, coal commanded that 70 percent of US demand, and wood use was declining.” 0 likes
“It was general knowledge, then, that whales were overhunted in whaling’s so-called golden age, their populations declining. The US whaling fleet had reached its maximum extent in 1846, with 736 ships totaling more than 233,000 tons burden.2 Whale oils were a depleting asset, inherently limited by their limited source: far more gallons of camphene and burning fluids than of whale oils were produced for lighting in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. Castor, rape, and peanut oils, tallow and lard were widely used as well, as were wood and grain alcohol. But camphene, at 50 cents a gallon, was cheaper than whale oil at $1.30 to $2.50 a gallon, and cheaper even than lard oil at 90 cents a gallon. Burning fluids included naphtha and benzene, both distilled from coal. Camphene was distilled turpentine. The most common burning fluid was a mixture of high-proof grain alcohol blended with 20 percent to 50 percent camphene to color the flame and deodorized with a few drops of camphor oil.” 0 likes
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