EARLY STAGES IN THE USE OF EXTRANEOUS ENERGY
In previous lessons we have seen how the degradation of solar radiation in processes occurring on the earth’s surface has resulted in the various forms of movement that matter on the earth’s surface is continually undergoing. We have pointed out that the various life forms are in competition with one another for shares of the solar energy. We have seen, furthermore, how the human species, by learning to use fire, to domesticate plants and animals, and by developing various tools and weapons, first of stone, wood, and bone, and later of metals, has been able to disturb the biologic equilibrium and gain for itself a disproportionate share of this solar energy as compared with other species. At first thought one might conclude that this would result in an improved human standard of living and general well-being, and in some cases, this was true, but by and large the improvement as regards the individual does not seem to have been great.
Food, Fire, Animals, Wind, and Water. Consider the energy available per person during all this time. Before man learned to use fire, his sole available source of energy was that contained in the food he ate. This, as we have seen already, for an average population of young and old, amounts to about 2,300 kilogram calories per person per day. Since available evidence indicates that our ancestors at that time were approximately the same size we are now, they must have consumed energy in the form of food at about the same rate we consume it now.
Extraneous energy—energy other than food eaten—was, as we have just seen, introduced but very gradually. First, there was fire. This was the utilization of the heat contained in wood. Then there was the work of animals, the horse, the ox, the dog. At no time throughout early history was the number of domestic animals per capita very large on an average. Then came the use of the energy of the wind and running water, but these were only used locally, and were never (during this period) of great importance.
The tendency of the human species to multiply at a compound interest rate tended always during this early history to keep the population at approximately the maximum number that the means available were able to support. Estimating on the average the use of fuel to provide approximately 400 kilogram-calories per capita per day (average for all climates), and one domestic animal for every five people, providing an additional 1,600 kilogram calories per person per day, we would arrive at a total of extraneous energy of only about 2,000 kilogram-calories per capita per day prior to the extensive use of fossil fuels.
Thus, we see that great as were the strides made by the human race through the preceding history, the increase of the average standard of living, stated in the physical terms of energy consumption, was almost negligible. This can be seen in another way when one considers the abject poverty and squalor under which the great bulk of the people during all preceding history apparently lived.
During the ‘golden age’ of Athens only a relatively small part of the population was free. The preponderance of the people were slaves or serfs of some degree or other. History, as it has been handed down, has focused attention upon a few of the more illustrious of these free citizens; the others whose toil made this freedom of the few possible have been more or less tactfully omitted.
Under the glory that was Rome, one finds a similar or worse condition. At the height of the power of the Roman Empire most of the necessary work that was required, such as building, agriculture, and mining, was done by slaves. The campaigns of the Roman armies of this time, so the records of the Roman senate show, were largely directed for the acquisition of spoils, such as mines and the products thereof, and slaves. These slaves were worked to the limit of human endurance, and were, after a few short years of service, broken, discarded, and replaced by others obtained by new conquests.
The Use of Fossil Fuel. A totally new era in this unidirectional progression was entered when man began to tap a hitherto unused energy resource, that of fossil fuel—coal, and more recently, oil. Coal and petroleum in small amounts, and largely as curiosities, have been known, according to available records, since the time of the ancients.
Coal, however, as an energy resource first began to be exploited extensively in England in about the twelfth century. First, chunks of coal found along the seashore, came to be burned for domestic fuel; later, in the vicinity of Newcastle, coal was dug from the ground out of open pits. The fact that this coal could be more easily acquired, and, if purchased, was less expensive than wood, caused it to be adopted as fuel by the poorer classes. Shortly after, coal was shipped from Newcastle to London, where it came to be used as fuel, much to the annoyance of the royalty and nobility of the time; and, because of its smoke and sulphurous odor, laws were passed prohibiting its use. Somewhat later, coal from Newcastle found its way to Paris in exchange for boat loads of grain.
By the year 1600 the use of coal for domestic purposes in England had become a custom permanently established. Chimneys had been built, much to the disgust of the older generation, who considered that the young folks were becoming effeminate by not being able to endure the smoky atmosphere after the stalwart manner of their elders.
Coal found its way, also, into industrial uses. First the blacksmith, and then the glassmaker, found its use more and more indispensable. The iron mines of England, which, simultaneously with coal, were being developed, had up to this time depended upon a supply of charcoal for smelting purposes. The demand for wood for the making of charcoal, as well as for the building of English ships— men-of-war and merchantmen—was placing a heavy burden on English timber. Comments and complaints began to increase after the year 1600 about the exhaustion of timber. This placed a premium upon a method whereby iron might be smelted by the use of coal. In about the year 1745 such a process was discovered. Coal could be roasted into coke, and this latter used for the smelting of iron. Iron ores, like coal, were abundant in England. The union of these two components, coal, and iron, was among the most significant events of human history. The more iron that was smelted the more coal was required. Also, the more iron that was made available, the more equipment requiring iron was devised. Thus, we have a process which of itself appears to have no ending.
The Use of Gunpowder. Another important contribution to the use of extraneous energy that occurred during this period was the invention of gunpowder. While its exact date is obscured, gunpowder came into use in the Western World about the end of the thirteenth century. Gunpowder was composed of charcoal, saltpeter, and sulphur. These, when ignited, react together with explosive violence, releasing energy as follows:
2KNO3 + S + 3C → K2S + 3CO2 + N2 + heat
Saltpeter, Sulphur, Charcoal, Potassium, Carbon, Nitrogen
Of course, the first and most obvious use of this new form of energy, as with most others that can be so applied, was for weapons of warfare. Guns were developed, and those people using firearms exercised a very decisive advantage over those not so equipped, as well as over other animals. This still further disturbed the biologic equilibrium in favor of the human species over other animal species, as well as in favor of those groups of people having this energy resource over other peoples of the earth not so equipped. The conquest of the New World by the Europeans is due almost entirely to the superior energy technique of the Europeans as compared with that of the Indians. Bows and arrows were no match for firearms; wood and stone tools could not compete with tools of metal; little or no domestication of plants and animals rendered the Indian far inferior to the European in regard to the production of food.
So decisive is the matter of energy control that one may fairly state that other things being equal, that people which has a superior energy control technique will always tend to supplant or control the one with a lesser technique.
Another use to which gunpowder was applied which may have been of greater significance than its use in warfare, even though not so much noted in textbooks of history, was its application to mining, and later to other industrial purposes requiring blasting. Gunpowder as an industrial explosive came to be used in the mines of Germany in the late sixteenth century. It was employed in the mines of Cornwall in 1680. Before this time, the tools of mining had been largely the pick and hammer and simple wedges and chisels. By employing gunpowder, holes could be drilled and blasts set off, thereby breaking out a very much larger quantity of ore with a given number of workmen than had ever been done previously. This acceleration in mining practice went hand in hand with the same acceleration in the use of coal that we have just described.
New Problem. In both of these cases, as is always true of the introduction of a new technique, new and unsolved problems were created. The first coal mines, as pointed out, were shallow, open pits. The increased use of coal required the mining at continually greater depths. Ground water is usually encountered within a few tens of feet of the top of the ground. The deeper the mines and the larger the workings, the faster the rate of infiltration of water. This is true, both in metal mines and in coal mines, but due to the greater number and size of the coal mines it there presented a more serious difficulty.
In the earlier and smaller workings, the water was bailed out by hand labor. Finally, the problem became too large to be solved by this method, and pumps operated by treadmills driven by horses were introduced. At first treadmills, with a single horse, then with five, twenty, and a hundred were used. By this time, the problem had obviously reached very serious proportions, because, if the mines were to be kept open, the pumps had to be operated continuously day and night, and the food required to keep two shifts of a hundred horses working on treadmills was a very serious problem in early eighteenth century England. A new solution had to be found.
- Man and Metals, Rickard.
- Behemoth, The Story of Power, Hodgins and Magoun.
- History of Mechanical Inventions, Usher.