University of Toronto Press Blog

  • Raised on Oil: From Childhood Memories to Research on Port City Refineries and the Global Petroleumscape

    Written by guest blogger, Carola Hein.

    Among my early childhood memories are Esso items. My father worked for the German branch of the parent company, Exxon, an American oil company. He would often bring home collectible sticker images of wild animals or fish that I could collect in albums published by Esso. From the small Esso man to the Esso tiger, our home hosted a number of company promotional products. Every time we travelled we stopped at Esso gas stations to fill up the tank. In my early mental map, petroleum played a structuring and entertaining role, one quite different from the large refineries where my father worked.

    letter Figure 1: Esso Oil Drop Man was an emblem of the company present at gas stations during the 1950s. Source: ExxonMobil

    In my contribution to the special issue, entitled “Old Refineries Rarely Die”: Port City Refineries as Key Nodes in the Global Petroleumscape,” I focus on refineries. These huge, highly specialized and expensive industrial structures are globally similar and usually hidden in large industrial areas, often in fenced-off port locations. I trace their historic evolution, form, and function in global networks.

    The article explores exemplary cases in four select periods of the petroleum industry: the lighting age (1860s–1910s), the car age (1910s–1950s), the plastic age (1950s–1980s), and the period since the 1980s with early attempts to go beyond oil. I examine the relationship between major refineries and nearby (port) cities of Philadelphia, Dunkirk, Suez, Abadan, Rotterdam, and Tehran. These refineries are fascinating places in themselves, but they are also part of a much larger network of oil spaces. Few people realize the pervasiveness of petroleum, but it is all around us.

    letter Figure 2: Philadelphia Oil Refinery, 1980. Source: Library of Congress

    Studying architecture and urban planning, I didn’t expect to encounter the oil world again. The first article that I wrote and published was about the City Nord business district in Hamburg built in the 1950s. The district was designed to give relief to the inner city where big companies occupied multiple buildings and clogged up space. A new, American-inspired comprehensive plan for a business district was designed to host large-scale headquarters each of which was designed by an architect after a design competition. In the City Nord, companies built city-like headquarters with a hairdresser, cafeteria and other services on-site. Three major oil companies were among the first occupants: Esso, BP, and Shell. Each of the companies opted for a unique design. BP’s building stood out with its hexagonal elements and open floor plan, whereas Esso had a glass-clad modernist building served by elevators.

    As I continued to study architectural and urban history, I began to pay more attention to the impact of oil on the built environment. Investigating the history of the selection of a capital for the European Communities, today’s European Union, I found projects for business districts in Milan and in Paris (La Defense), in which oil headquarters played an important role. Studying the works of the French planner Maurice Rotival, I realized that he not only planned a capital of Europe in 1945, but his career largely floated on oil. Trained in Paris, Rotival worked in Caracas, where oil revenue allowed for large-scale replanning of the city centre. After becoming acquainted with the Rockefeller family and their architect Wallace Harrison, Rotival was appointed professor at Yale University.

    From project to project, I discovered an interconnected network of spaces that were driven by oil interests, some more and some less visible, and a layer of representation of these oil spaces (or their absence) in corporate publications as well as artistic, architectural, and other commentaries from the public at large. The different parts of what I have termed the petroleumscape vary in space and visibility: some are as big as a refinery and storage tanks in a major port, others are as small as gas stations.

    Among the diverse industrial, administrative, retail, and ancillary spaces that form the petroleumscape, refineries have the most important “staying power” and they are the focus of my contribution to the special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories. Refineries have a number of requirements for implantation. They need access to water, both for industrial processes and shipping. They also need distribution infrastructures. Once these connections are built, refineries tend to stay in place, attracting flows of oil rather than following them. Even when their ownership changes during periods of war and nationalization, of destruction and re-appropriation, their location stays the same.

    letter Figure 3: Adaban Oil Refinery. Source: Wikipedia Commons

    My article explores the history of the construction of refineries as part of global transformations and national strategies. It examines how the location of refineries globally has changed over time as a result of colonization, decolonization, and war. It explores their spatial impact on their mostly urban neighbors, and it examines what their presence means for post-oil landscapes. By considering the multitude of ways in which petroleum has shaped a broad range of spaces in people’s everyday lives, the article provides insight into the relationships between energy landscapes, space, and culture.

    Such an enhanced understanding will hopefully inspire the reader to reflect upon the diverse ways in which new sustainable energy networks will reshape our spaces and lifestyles. Such a reflection might even inspire producers, designers, and parents to provide new kinds of trinkets, toys, and other products to children, who might use them to imagine the energy systems of the future.

    Banner image: Adaban the city of oil. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Carola Hein is Professor and Head, History of Architecture and Urban Planning Chair at Delft University of Technology. Her book publications include The Capital of Europe, Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945, Port Cities, Routledge Handbook of Planning History. Read her article in the latest issue of CJH, “‘Old Refineries Rarely Die’: Port City Refineries as Key Nodes in The Global Petroleumscape”—free for a limited time here.

  • The emotional energy consumer

    Written by guest blogger, Rebecca K. Wright.

    Ever since the recent IPCC report was published in October 2018 I have had a sick feeling in my stomach. Talking to others it is clear that the emotions I have experienced, from dread to depression, are not unique. Instead, a range of ‘emotional cultures’ are structuring our response to today’s climate crisis. This is not a new phenomenon. Emotional cultures have long structured society’s relationship to energy and the environment. As such, we have to ask what can energy historians learn from the sub-discipline known as the history of emotion.

    Over the past decade, the study of the history of emotion has revealed the active role of emotion and the way emotional cultures structure people’s activities and relationship to the world.i This can be expanded to include how emotion determines the ways in which societies interact with the environment and their use of natural resources. This shifts our focus away from energy systems to the complexities of our subjective life. In short, it raises the question: would more careful attention to how our emotional cultures operate help us better understand our relationship to, and impact upon, the natural world?

    Fan Energy Efficiency Office Department of Energy, The Time, March 15, 1990

    For the special issue on “The Material Realities of Energy History”, my article “Mass Observation and the Emotional Energy Consumer” set out to explore the role of emotion in energy history. I wanted to examine how emotions shape, and are materialised in energy systems over time. Energy historians have paid little attention to users (let alone emotion) in the past, focussing more on energy supply. Recently, however, there has been increasing focus on users and their role in structuring energy demand.ii The subjective life of users, however, continues to be largely overlooked. To counter this, I wanted to take emotion seriously and build up a profile of what I called the ‘emotional energy consumer’.

    This was easier said than done. After all, there are few historical records about how ordinary people feel and experience the world. While there is ample evidence about how people are instructed to feel it is much harder to access what the historian Claire Langhamer has described as the history of emotion ‘from below’.iii In 2017, however, as a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex I was fortunate to spend a year working in what Langhamer has described as an ‘archive of feeling’.iv This is the Mass Observation Archive, based at The Keep, University of Sussex [].

    Founded in 1937 by a group of three left-wing intellectuals, Mass Observation set out to study the everyday life of ordinary people in Great Britain; to provide, in their words, an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. The organisation established a national panel of observers, men and women ranging in age from across the UK, who reported back to the archive about their daily lives. The project ran until the 1950s, when it closed for a variety of reasons. It was resurrected in 1981 as the Mass Observation Project, with a new national panel and is ongoing today. The archive contains hundreds of boxes of diaries, first person accounts, and responses to Directives (a form of written questionnaire) on a range of subjects from attitudes to sex, death, work, and political events such as the Falklands War. The writing in the archive is deeply personal and intimate while also being performative as observers reflected wider social currents and conventions circulating at the time.

    Although a major collection for British social historians, Mass Observation might appear an unlikely archive through which to write energy history. And yet, reading through Directive responses collected in the late 1980s and early 1990s, what becomes apparent is how expansive people’s relationship to energy was and how frequently the topic emerged in their writing. Moreover, what also became clear was how people’s relationship to energy was woven into their emotional life. In my article I try capture two different ways in which this happened. The first shows how observers rooted their emotions about energy in longer individual and social timeframes. Those writing to the archive in the 1980s and 1990s had grown up in the 1930s and 1940s experiencing wartime and post-war austerity, and the total transformation of the British home. This lived experience continued to inform domestic practices, habits, spending patterns, social relations and worldviews.

    letter F1560, Response to Spring 1987 Directive “Waste, Thrift and Consumerism,” The Mass Observation Project, The Keep, University of Sussex.

    The second approach examined how emotions – such as sentimentality, fear and nostalgia, structured interactions with energy in the home. Observers’ hesitancy to turn the hall-way light off after dark or leave the front light on, for example, spoke of wider concerns about the manufacture of fear in Thatcherite Britain. Childhood experiences, social memory, family dynamics, social rhetoric and models of the future, therefore, all shaped the way observers felt and interacted with energy systems through their energy practices. This ranged from the temperature at which they heated their home to which lights they kept on, and what appliances and fuels they chose for cooking.

    Approaching energy history through first person accounts, therefore, allows us to understand how emotional cultures structure our relationship to the natural world. These expand beyond abstract feelings to include how emotions are materialised in resource networks and energy systems. Mass Observation can be used as an archive through which to understand the operation of these emotional cultures. But it also suggests a methodology for doing energy history; one that gives serious attention to the multifaceted subjectivities and emotional cultures that structure people’s relationship to energy and the environment.

    Banner: inset of Coal Utilisation Council, The Times, October 28, 1952)

    With thanks to the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive for permission to reproduce material from The Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex.

    i Key texts include Joanna Bourke, “Fear and Anxiety: Writing about Emotion in Modern History,” History Workshop Journal 55.1 (2003): 111-133; Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

    ii Frank Trentmann and Anna Carlsson-Hyslop, “The Evolution of Energy Demand in Britain: Politics, Daily Life, and Public Housing, 1920-1970,” The Historical Journal 61.3 (2017): 807-839. The collaborative research project “Material Cultures of Energy” led by Frank Trentmann has drawn attention to the role of consumers in shaping energy systems. See “Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption and Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century,” AHRC Award ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past,’ Birkbeck College, 2014-2017. <>, [accessed 18 July 2018].

    iii Claire Langhamer, “An Archive of Feeling? Mass Observation and the Mid-Century Moment,” Insights 9 (2016).

    iv Ibid.

    Rebecca K. Wright is a Lecturer in American History at Northumbria University. Her research focusses on the social and cultural factors that shaped energy systems in the twentieth century. She is currently working on a book manuscript, Moral Energy in America: From the Progressive Era to the Atomic Bomb. Read her article in the latest issue of CJH, “Mass Observation and the Emotional Energy Consumer”—free for a limited time here.

  • Putting the Devil in Context

    Elizabeth Lorentz was a young maid servant in early modern Germany who believed herself to be tormented by the devil, and who was eventually brought to trial in 1667. We invited Peter A. Morton and Barbara Dähms to discuss their new book, The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorentz, and how they give the reader the opportunity to grapple with Elizabeth’s testimony for themselves.

    Written by guest blogger, Peter A. Morton

    This book is the second translation of trial records from the city of Brunswick in the seventeenth century that Barbara Dähms and I have published with University of Toronto Press. The first was The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany, 1663. Both trials involved an accusation of a pact with the Devil. A question that naturally arises is what this trial offers that distinguishes it from that of Tempel Anneke. The short answer is that Lorentz's testimony reveals some of the richness and complexity of early modern ideas of the Devil and his relations with human beings.

    The first point to make about the trial of Elizabeth Lorentz is that it was not a witch trial. Although she was accused of making a diabolical pact, no one involved in the case suspected that Elizabeth was a witch according to the picture that drove the witch trials. And this raises the question, why not? It would not have been difficult for the court officials to interrogate Elizabeth about the common aspects of witchcraft, especially the use of harmful magic and attendance at the sabbat. The use of torture was an option open to them, if they had wanted to force such confessions from her. The same court did just that in the trial of Tempel Anneke just a few years earlier. Yet, according to the records, both the court and the legal faculty at the University of Helmstedt accepted fairly readily that Elizabeth was a troubled soul, and that her pact (if there was one) did not derive from a desire to harm others as was commonly assumed of witches. A second point is that the stories of the Devil came from Elizabeth herself, not from the questioning of the court officials. The officials based their questions on what Elizabeth said of her own experiences.

    There is here, I believe, a valuable lesson about early modern European beliefs concerning human relations with the Devil and his demons: There was not a single template applied universally to every suspicion of involvement with the Devil. As Stuart Clark long ago emphasized in his book, Thinking with Demons, despite the degree of uniformity in demonological thinking, the concept of human interaction with demons served a myriad of purposes and could be adapted to many circumstances. In the introductory essay to The Bedevilment of Elizabeth Lorentz I tried to convey some of the variety of ways in which concourse with the Devil was conceived of between the medieval and early modern periods. As I emphasized there, fitting Elizabeth neatly into any of these categories is problematic. These trial records will hopefully underscore the importance of not rushing to conclusions when we find the Devil appearing in historical documents.

    With regard to understanding Elizabeth's testimony, the reader of these documents is in somewhat the same position as that of the court officials. We have Elizabeth's behavior as it was reported by the family and servants of her employer, Hilmar von Strombek, and we have her own descriptions of her experiences. What we don't have is her presence before us, and so we must use the documents we have as best we can. The objective in preparing this book, as it was with The Trial of Tempel Anneke, was to present the reader with the documents as much as possible in the same manner as they would be encountered in the archive reading room. The opportunity is there for the reader to sift through the evidence so as to determine how best to make sense of the rather extraordinary tales Elizabeth tells.

    Readers in the twenty-first century are of course not likely to take Elizabeth's descriptions of the Devil as literally true, and so they will perhaps look for psychological origins of her testimony. This is an option the court considers as well. But understanding the trial records requires us to recognize that Elizabeth's testimony conformed with a belief in the reality of the Devil that was universally accepted. There was at that time no reason to reject the truth of her testimony of demonic temptation without some kind of strong evidence against it. For the court, the possibility that Elizabeth was "not of sound mind" was fully consistent with the truth of her stories of spiritual torment by the Devil. We cannot, therefore, simply label or explain away her claims of demonic encounters; to gain a sympathetic reading of the records we must, rather, "think with demons."

    Much the same can be said for the supplementary reading of the book, the preface to a book of prayers for Appolonia Stampke, a girl who believed herself to be possessed by the Devil. There are dramatic ways of imagining cases of possession: violent behavior, strange preternatural powers, and so on. Some of these ideas have their origins in the history of possession. But there is little of this in the behavior of Appolonia, although some of the scenes in the church must have been startling. The story presented to us by her pastor, Melchior Neukirch, is that of a pious girl struggling to maintain her faith against doubts implanted by Satan. Like the attacks on Elizabeth, Appolonia's actions need to be read carefully against their social and religious background.

    The editor and translator of this book hope that the records will offer a chance for the reader to work directly with the complexities and nuances in the responses of ordinary people in early modern Europe to evidence of the Devil in their world.

    Peter A. Morton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Humanities at Mount Royal University and author of the newly-released book The Bedivilment of Elizabeth Lorentz.

    Barbara Dähms is a translator.

  • Canada’s Shifting Energy Sources: A Comparison with eight European Countries, 1870–2000

    Written by guest blogger, Richard W. Unger.

    Canadians are among the greatest consumers of energy per person in the world. Iceland, with abundant geothermal sources and a small population, is the only country with a consistently higher level of energy use. Even the people in the United States fall behind Canadians in consuming energy. Those living in the ‘true North’ have been leaders on the planet for the last two centuries and probably even longer. Until the first decade of the twentieth century the majority of that energy came from fuelwood. Industrialization promoted a shift to fossil fuels. By 1903, coal supplied more energy than fuelwood. By 1955, oil exceeded coal as a source of energy. And by 1996, natural gas passed oil as an energy source for Canadians. In 2000, oil and natural gas provided almost equal amounts of energy while primary electricity, produced by wind or water power, supplied a bit more than half of either of the other two. That pattern of a series of shifts through fossil fuels was typical of countries in North America and western Europe over the last 150 years. Whatever the source, Canadians used a lot of energy.

    Postage stamp In 1983 Poste Canada Post issued a stamp as part of its Heritage Artifacts series of a woodstove, the principal device for consuming massive quantities of fuelwood in the nineteenth and for many years in the twentieth century. It joined items like skates, a decoy, a bucket and other humble household items that were part of daily life.

    Energy consumption per person in Canada was already high compared to other jurisdictions in the world through the first half of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, and despite the established position of the country as a leader in energy consumption per person, people in Canada began to use considerably more through the 1960s. Between 1958 to 1973, per capita energy consumption in Canada rose 74 percent. Countries in Europe saw sharp rises in energy use starting in the 1950s. Many of them were recovering from the destruction of World War II and also from the massive disruption in their economies that were created by the war. It was also a period when the full force of the Industrial Revolution reached parts of southern Europe, where a more traditional and agrarian economy still dominated.

    Energy Consumption per capita Lines indicate 1958 and 1973 Now the Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Stations in Niagara Falls, Ontario, uses waters from the Welland River to produce electricity for the provincial power grid. Subsequently expanded, when it opened in 1922 as the Queenston-Chippawa Hydroelectric Plant it was the largest hydroelectric generating station in the world. Canada remains among the few countries most reliant on falling water to produce electric power.

    While the increase in energy consumption in Europe during the 1960s is relatively easy to explain, the same cannot be said for what happened in Canada. In the same fifteen years that Canadians on average increased energy consumption 74 percent, consumption per person in Sweden rose at the same rate during a period of rapid economic growth in manufacturing and starting from a lower base. Sweden experienced the greatest increase among eight European states for which data are easily available - England and Wales together, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Over the same period, France saw a rise of just 58 percent and Germany, going through the Wirtschaftswunder, a considerably lower 43 percent. Canada was already well ahead of those countries in 1958. The gap widened in the 1960s despite the fact that the percentage rate of growth could be, in the extreme case of Sweden, similar. Canadians in 1958 were consuming 1.66 times as much energy as Swedes but in 1973 the figure was 1.71.

    The growth in energy use in the years just before the first oil crisis came at a time when all countries were becoming more efficient, getting more value in the goods they produced from each unit of energy they used. It was part of a long-term trend throughout the twentieth century. Again, surprisingly, Canada was able in the same fifteen years from 1958 to 1973 to increase efficiency by some 7 percent while Sweden, increasing per capita consumption as much as Canada, saw almost no improvement in efficiency.

    Alberta tar sandsThe Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, known since the eighteenth century, have long been thought a potential source of petroleum. Efforts like those shown here between 1900 and 1930 to exploit the abundant reserves proved futile. Technological advances and rising oil prices only made that possible in the latter years of the twentieth century. Library and Archives Canada, 3592868.

    The comparison of what happened in Canada with what happened in other countries is the topic of my article “Shifting Energy Sources in Canada: An International Comparison, 1870-2000,” recently published in the Canadian Journal of History special issue on the Material Realities of Energy History. This comparison can reveal a great deal about anomalies, as well as what was important to Canada’s pattern of energy use. Laying the data side-by-side reveals differences and suggests where it might be possible to identify distinct features as well as causes of changes within the energy economy of the country. The changing suppliers of energy, and their relative importance over time, has always had an impact on the environment. Comparisons can point to the sensitive times when those shifts took place and so offer indications of where and when to look for the role of final energy users in shaping the landscape. With eight different European countries with different climates and histories there are benchmarks against which to measure what happened in Canada. While the comparisons point to differences that set each of the political units apart, it proves hard to explain why those differences have appeared and why they may have persisted.

    Adam Beck Complex
    In the years from 1958 to 1973 energy consumption in Canada moved rapidly higher, extending even more its lead over eight European countries which were enjoying rapid economic growth in those years. See text.

    When looking at energy use, Canada is similar to many European countries but different in other ways. The comparison points to questions about the energy history of Canada that could yield productive and informative research. The strange drive in Canada during the 1960s to surge even further ahead of European countries in using fossil fuels, even when those European countries were themselves sharply increasing their energy consumption, is just one anomaly that sets Canada apart. Many possible explanations come to mind, yet preliminary and straightforward tests of the obvious reasons do not yield expected results. It is hard to establish why Canada was different. The preliminary investigation of some of the most obvious explanations such as the nature of climate, different resource endowment, levels of incomes per person in the article yield mixed results. Reasons for different patterns of energy consumption may well be complex. There are many other questions to test that emerge almost automatically from looking at Canada’s energy history in light of what went on elsewhere. Finding answers to those questions offers the potential for extensive productive research for anyone willing to take on the task.

    Banner: Horsepower replaced gasoline-powered engines during the worst years of the Great Depression. Called Bennett buggies after the prime minister, R. B. Bennett, this one is crossing the campus of the University of Saskatchewan in about 1935.

    Richard W. Unger is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History, University of British Columbia. His work has concentrated on the economy of pre-modern Europe, principally of the shipping and brewing sectors, as well as Canadian energy consumption. Read his article in the latest issue of CJH, “Shifting Energy Sources in Canada: An International Comparison, 1870–2000”—free for a limited time here.

  • Supply or Demand? Integrating Perspectives on the Historical Transition from Coal to Hydrocarbons

    Written by guest bloggers, Odinn Melsted and Irene Pallua.


    Since the mid twentieth century, oil and natural gas – in short: hydrocarbons – have been the dominant energy carriers in industrialized countries. They have been the main energy providers for cars, trucks, ships, airplanes, industries and home heating. What is often overlooked is that the rise of hydrocarbons meant the decline of coal. At the midpoint of the twentieth century, coal was still the fuel of choice in railroad and maritime transportation, for industrial production, in residential heating, as well as electricity production. Yet between the 1940s and 1970s, a relatively short period of time in energy history, coal was largely pushed aside by hydrocarbon alternatives. Recent research on historical transitions and today’s practical experiences in attempting to implement a renewable energy transition have, however, revealed that incumbent energy systems tend to be resistant to change. How, then, could hydrocarbons take over so quickly?


    Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) area. Own figure based on data from Arnulf Grübler, “Energy Transitions,” in: Cutler Cleveland, ed. Encyclopedia of Earth (Washington, D.C.: National Council for Science and the Environment, 2008.

    One of the main challenges when dealing with energy history is to assess the scale of a transition. One way of doing so is to take a look at historical energy data. The figures above show Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) in OECD countries from 1900 to 2000 for different energy carriers. The graph on the left depicts the absolute values of energy carriers in exajoules. Here we can see that oil and natural gas multiplied between 1940 and 1970, accounting for much of the simultaneous increase in overall energy supply. In addition, we can identify a diversification from coal to multiple fuels. On the right, the figure shows the same data as relative shares, which reveals that coal lost its dominance in the energy mix as hydrocarbons took over. By looking at both absolute values and relative shares, we can see that coal clearly lost its dominant position to hydrocarbons, but at the same time maintained a status quo; its total supply only decreased slightly at first and then actually increased in the long run. How can this contradiction be explained? In what context did hydrocarbons replace coal, and what accounts for the continuing importance of coal in the energy mix?

    Those are some of the questions we deal with in our article entitled “The Historical Transition from Coal to Hydrocarbons: Previous Explanations and the Need for an Integrative Perspective”, which appears in the Canadian Journal of History’s special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories. We are currently both PhD candidates at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and have been working on dissertation projects on the history of energy. As we both focus on continuities and changes in the use of different energy carriers in the second half of the twentieth century (Odinn Melsted on Iceland’s energy system and Irene Pallua on the Swiss heating sector), we have been faced with the challenge of explaining how and why the transition from coal to hydrocarbons took place so quickly in so many different parts of the industrialized world. We each discovered that the existing literature on energy history only marginally deals with the question of why hydrocarbons replaced coal. All too often, oil and natural gas are portrayed as the superior fuels that were bound to take over from coal inevitably. When diving deeper into the vast literature on coal, oil and natural gas, the changes in energy supply systems, evolution of industries, transportation and heating, however, we discovered that many causal explanations have already been provided. Yet the disparity of the literature has made it difficult to grasp them and see them in the context of the over-arching transition from coal to hydrocarbons.

    black and white photograph

    black and white photograph

    black and white photograph

    Coal was long the fuel of choice for steam locomotives, industrial production and residential heating, but largely replaced with hydrocarbons in the mid twentieth century. This was due to a variety of causes, ranging from competitive prices and policy to limit smoke pollution, to the physical advantages of hydrocarbons, which are lighter, cleaner, have a higher energy density and are easier to control in combustion than coal. Pictures: Wikimedia Commons.

    In the article, we draw together the causal explanations for the transition from coal to hydrocarbons. One of the problems we discovered in the research process is that the literature presents a gap between two perspectives: one on energy “supply” and another on “consumption.” The supply perspective focuses on the diversification of the overall energy supply system, where oil and natural gas were introduced to formerly coal-dominated energy economies. The consumption perspective, on the other hand, focuses on how consumers in different areas of the energy economy decided to switch from coal to hydrocarbon alternatives.

    We therefore integrated these perspectives and conceptualized the shift from coal to hydrocarbons as a complex transition that occurred at two levels. On the one hand, hydrocarbons became available as alternatives to coal at the level of energy supply, which created favourable circumstances for energy consumers to shift to hydrocarbons. On the other hand, individual energy consumers in railway and maritime transportation, residential heating, industrial production, and electricity generation actively decided to use hydrocarbon alternatives as substitutions for coal. By revisiting the explanations of the rising use of hydrocarbon energies in the mid twentieth century, we hope to direct attention to this hitherto understudied, yet nonetheless decisive transition in energy history and present an innovative approach to the analysis of historical fuel transitions.

    Odinn Melsted is the recipient of a DOC-fellowship of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences at the Department of History and European Ethnology at University of Innsbruck. His doctoral project deals with Iceland’s low-carbon transition during 1940–1990 and has also been supported by the Landsvirkjun Energy Research Fund.

    Irene Pallua is a PhD candidate at the Department of History and European Ethnology at University of Innsbruck. Her main research interest is in history of energy at the juncture of technology, society, and the environment. She is currently working on her PhD project on the history of heating in Swiss households.

    Read their article in the latest issue of CJH, “The Historical Transition from Coal to Hydrocarbons: Previous Explanations and the Need for an Integrative Perspective”—free for a limited time here.

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