Energy in American History
- Aaron SachsAaron SachsDepartment of History, Cornell University
Energy systems have played a significant role in U.S. history; some scholars claim that they have determined a number of other developments. From the colonial period to the present, Americans have shifted from depending largely on wood and their own bodies, as well as the labor of draft animals; to harnessing water power; to building steam engines; to extracting fossil fuels—first coal and then oil; to distributing electrical power through a grid. Each shift has been accompanied by a number of other striking changes, especially in the modern period associated with fossil fuels. By the late 19th century, in part thanks to new energy systems, Americans were embracing industrialization, urbanization, consumerism, and, in a common contemporary phrase, “the annihilation of space and time.” Today, in the era of climate change, the focus tends to be on the production or supply side of energy systems, but a historical perspective reminds us to consider the consumption or demand side as well. Just as important as the striking of oil in Beaumont, Texas, in 1901, was the development of new assumptions about how much energy people needed to sustain their lives and how much work they could be expected to do. Clearly, Americans are still grappling with the question of whether their society’s heavy investment in coal- and petroleum-based energy systems has been worthwhile.