Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mankind and Energy

The history of mankind is, in large part, a history of the harnessing of energy sources. Prehistoric man had only his own muscle power to wrest a livable habitat from his rugged environment. The discovery and control of fire eventually yielded metals, which improved the efficiency of muscle power and allowed the practical cultivation of crops. Domestication of animals - the horse, ox, donkey, elephant, dog - multiplied the energies of a man by severalfold. And this is where mankind remained for several thousand years.

While water wheels were used by several cultures for irrigation, the harnessing of hydropower was the product of the Industrial Revolution in mid-eighteenth-century England. The windmill was another attempt by man to increase his energy - one which is still going on, and still has the problem (as does hydropower) of requiring the cooperation of nature to utilize energy from the sun. (Both hydro and wind power are actually forms of solar energy, as are fossil fuels; but wood, coal, oil and natural gas don't require quite as much cooperation from nature.)

Man's (and beast's) burden was lessened immeasurably by English engineer Thomas Savery who, in 1698, invented the "fire engine" to pump water from mines. Thomas Newcomen in 1705 and James Watt in 1763 improved the design to where the steam engine could be used for a variety of purposes, including transportation.

As the Industrial Revolution moved east to the continent, so did the desire for ways to deliver more energy - with less human and animal effort. Frenchman Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir is credited with building the first gasoline internal combustion engine in 1860, while German Rudolf Diesel patented his engine in 1892 (and mysteriously disappeared from a London-bound German ship just prior to World War I). The late nineteenth century saw the discovery and application of electrical principles by Dane Oersted, Frenchman Ampere, German Ohm, Englishman Faraday, American Henry, and Scotsman Maxwell - thus allowing energy to be transmitted from point of generation to point of need.

If we track both population and energy availability, we see that there has been a sixtyfold increase in industrialized countries since Savery (compared with a world population that had been constant for a thousand years) and the same order of magnitude of energy usage per capita. But today, we have reached a plateau.