Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Energy: A Human History” as Want to Read:
Energy: A Human History
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Energy: A Human History

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  1,303 ratings  ·  199 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
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Energy, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Energy

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.74  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,303 ratings  ·  199 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Energy: A Human History
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Franco Pasqualini
Jul 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The book was excellent, well researched and well explained. It may not be for everyone, but I loved it.
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.
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.
Andrew Oglesby
Feb 09, 2021 rated it really liked it
I’m a total sucker for how current technology came to be and the steps it took to get here. This one falls right in that basket
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.

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
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
Dec 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
Also reviewing Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots
by James Suzman. It was a stroke of blind luck that I happened to come across & to read in close succession "Work" & "Energy". These are two of the best written, most informative, critically relevant, & pleasurable books of recent years, not only of this year but I'm inclined to think that these are among the 10 "must reads" of our new millennium! & they go together like hand & glove while simultaneously covering mostly
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
Jan 07, 2022 rated it really liked it
Great information in here related to many different concepts (with energy as the central theme). The history of cars, electricity, trains, steam power, whaling, and nuclear weapons are all covered. This is a worthwhile and informative journey.
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.
Wes Martin
May 08, 2022 rated it really liked it
An excellent account of the transition from from animal and human power to nuclear and renewable energy. It provides insight and analysis of why and how the transitions progressed as they did though I wish the text included a longer and more robust section on the relevant topics of today: renewable energy and energy storage. Some effort was put in this and the nuclear section is great, but it doesn’t quite go into depth on the most important transition for our civilization which is occurring now ...more
Arjun Boddu
Apr 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This was tough to get through. Like reading an extremely detailed summary. But will be cool to use as a reference book later on. 2/5 stars
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
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
Tough publicized as a book narrating the history of energy, and the prospects on the future, the author drifts too often into unrelated events, at the same time as he fixates too much on a very limited geographical and temporal part of energy history.
Rhodes begins his book with the transition from wood to coal in England, to transition to energy history in the US. And altough he mentions here and there that certain technologues started to develop elsewhere, it's only a marginal note, and focuses
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
Luke Landis
Feb 08, 2022 rated it liked it
While I have to appreciate Rhodes’s thoroughness (5/5 stars there), it made the book difficult to trudge through in some sections (counterpoint: maybe not every book should be a walk in the park; I digress). Regardless, a great overview of our journey from wood & coal to nuclear & renewables and the discoveries & inventions that enabled or demanded new energy sources.

Reinforced my (borrowed) opinion that nuclear hasn’t gotten a fair shake and is likely our best bet at decarbonization.

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. ...more
Benno Hansen
Jun 23, 2020 rated it liked it
Innovation, greed, disaster. Repeat.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization
  • The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World
  • The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations
  • The Grid: Electrical Infrastructure for a New Era
  • The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age
  • Energy and Civilization: A History
  • Speed & Scale: A Global Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now
  • The Model Thinker: What You Need to Know to Make Data Work for You
  • Fast Burn!: The Power of Negative Energy Balance
  • Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters
  • Fear Less: How to Win at Life Without Losing Yourself
  • The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization
  • Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World
  • Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made
  • Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power
  • Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World
  • The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power
  • How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future
See similar books…
See top shelves…
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

Related Articles

August has arrived with plenty of interesting destinations for the discerning summer reader—from spooky offshore islands to an...
87 likes · 18 comments
“The technology that made possible long-distance pipeline construction was electric arc welding.” 1 likes
“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
More quotes…