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Technology, Energy and Civilisation

Energy since its inception has played a fundamental role in shaping the human condition. Essentially energy is at the core of the human’s survival and over time the need for energy has augmented. This explains why the production and consumption of energy is categorised among the most important human activities. At the same time technological and economic advancement of various regions throughout history can be directly linked to the shifts in energy sources and production. In this regard the evolution of the technology behind the production of energy can be considered the wheel that determined the direction and pace energy and civilisation took. This can be further explained by the common assumption long held that living standards and the progressiveness of civilisations are directly proportional to the quantity of energy produced and consumed (Basalla, 39-52). It therefore stands that a quick look at the evolution of energy will highlight how technology, energy and civilisation are intertwined.

Theories of technological change

Many theories have been created by sociologists and anthropologists trying to explain the evolution of technology and its link to civilisation and energy. According to some, like Lewis H. Morgan technological progress can be considered to be the core factor in the development of human civilization. His concept of a three stage social evolution which is: savagery, barbarism, and civilization can be divided by technological milestones, such as fire in the savage era, agriculture, and metalworking around the barbarian era and writing during the civilization era.

Another anthropologist (White, 2007) focused on energy as a way to measure technology and civilization Instead of specific inventions. White states that «the primary function of culture» is to «harness and control energy» White further elaborates five stages of human development that demarcated major milestone in the history of technology: Initially, people used energy of their own muscles. Secondly, they saw the use of domesticated animals. This was closely followed by the use the agricultural revolution. In fourth, came the adoption of natural resource energy: coal, oil, gas. And finally, civilizations harnessed nuclear energy. The formula P=E*T, was introduced by White who argued that, «culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased».

Human technology and its periodization

The earliest energy forms primarily did not have any technology behind its production, these were simply energy gained from feeding and as such workforce was limited to human capacity. The introduction of technology increased capacity since performance could now utilise external backing. Tools were uses in “harnessing energies outside the human body” (Smil). Ancient civilisations over the years mainly focused on the immediate benefits of extracting energy from basic tools to achieve goals such as heating. Work in this era was mostly manual with a heavy reliance on animals and biomass in this case firewood. Towards the end of the 18th century there was a slight technological improvement and energy sources such as wind and watermills. The use of water power proceeded to be at the centre of western technology (Reynolds, 7). Wind power was also largely used in times surrounding this period and played a key role in opening Europe to America and eventually the world. This was used to propel sailing ships and within a period of two decades expansive water powered industrial cities begun to emerge. By the time of the industrial revolution nearly all industries in America and Europe depended on water energy.

The introduction of steam power was a major technology boost in energy production and civilisation. Combination of coal mining, steam power in the Iron Age brought about steam engines which quickly overpowered water power due to their immobility. This technology was tremendously improved by Oliver Evans and by mid-19th century steam engines were incorporated on ships and rail transport. This also led to the rise of many civilisations across America as steam engines were used to power several machines in industries (Pursell). The need to power huge steam engines successfully ushered in the use of fossil energy. The use of coal slowly replaced firewood but its scarcity and high cost lead to the development of oil. Petroleum products took centre stage. Throughout the 19th century technology improved and more efficient fossil fuel sources were discovered which led to overdependence on this form of energy.

The discovery and development of electrical energy by Thomas Edison brought about a shift in civilisation. The beginning of the 20th century saw a dramatic change in the face factories as electric powered motors were introduced. This form of energy successfully took over fossil fuel lighting in homesteads and throughout the century was developed to be the dominant energy source covering everything from homesteads to transportation.

Works cited

Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. Early Stationary Steam Engines in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969. Print.

George Basalla, «Energy and Civilization,» in Science, Technology and the Human Prospect, Chauncey Starr, ed. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980). Print.

Terry S. Reynolds, Stronger than a Hundred Men: A History of the Vertical Water Wheel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), Print.

Leslie A. White, The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilisation To The Fall Of Rome. New York, D.C.: Left coast Press, 2007. Print.

Lewis H. Morgan. Savagery through Barbarism to Civilisation. London. MacMillan & Company Press, 1877. Print.

Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994). Print.