Tag Archives: Canadian Journal of History

  • “Flicking switches, turning dials, and pressing buttons”: The important work of energy historians

    Written by guest blogger, Andrew Watson.

    I don’t think it’s too much of a cliché to say that most of us have only the vaguest idea what the origins are of the energy we consume on a daily basis. Many of us living in the world’s industrialized countries have it hammered into our daily lives that we should turn the lights off when we leave a room, that we shouldn’t leave the front door open on a cold day, and that we shouldn’t leave the engine idling. Doing these things is a “waste,” so we’re “saving” energy (and money). We’re concerned about an abstraction, but not because we appreciate its true form.

    In my introduction to the CJH/ACH special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories, I used Plato’s simile of the cave to convey the veil that shrouds our understanding of energy in the 21st century. In his parable, Plate describes prisoners in a cave who have never known any other life. Their gaze is fixed on a wall. Behind them, a light casts shadows on the wall, and the prisoners are convinced that these images are the objects themselves. It is only upon their release and ascendance to the surface that the prisoners come to understand the difference between the shadows dancing on the wall of the cave and the true form of the world.

    The phenomenal power of fossil fuels has led us into the false perception that energy is, to quote Christopher F. Jones, “profoundly immaterial.” As Jones argues in his contribution to this special issue, “The Materiality of Energy,” we use so much energy today that we somehow don’t even notice. How is this possible? Under what historical circumstances has the industrialized (and industrializing) world come to detach energy consumption from most knowledge about its origins?

    letter Figure 1: Coal breaker, anthracite coal mining, Scranton, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

    In the opening article of the special issue, Jones lays out two useful types of arguments that historians of energy should consider in beginning to answer this question. First, modern energy regimes are shaped by the material realities of energy delivery infrastructure. Using oil and coal in the eastern United States as case studies, Jones explains how important it was that pipelines and canals had very different influences over energy pathways. Second, the materiality of an energy source fundamentally influences its production and consumption. Using anthracite coal as an example, Jones reveals that the transition from one fuel to another is never inevitable, but mediated by human negotiation with physical properties of competing fuels.

    letter Figure 2: The first oil well. Reproduction, copyrighted in 1890, of a retouched photograph showing Edwin L. Drake, to the right, and the Drake Well in the background, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the first commercial well was drilled in 1859 to find oil. Source: Library of Congress

    Jones prompts us to grapple with material questions. Energy histories can help us understand the material realities of what are largely abstract understandings. Released from the belief that the material realities of our energy systems and experiences stop at the gas pump, or the light switch, or the thermostat, energy historians (like the ones featured in this special issue) can help society break free of those bonds and turn to see the fire burning behind us.

    Banner: Oil rig at Titusville, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

    Read the Editor’s Note in the latest issue of CJH as well as Christopher F. Jones’s article The Materiality of Energy, both free to read for a limited time here.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    Icons COAL OIL and NATURAL GAS

    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?

    graphs

    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.

  • “The view of the nation, Sire, is that the Constitution be respected:” Support for the French Constitution of 1791 on the Eve of the Republican Revolution

    Written by guest blogger, William S. Cormack.

    This article is part of a larger project on the French Legislative Assembly and the demise of the Constitution of 1791. I have always been interested in the French Revolution’s shift from its original moderate phase to its more radical phase. The period of the Legislative Assembly, from September 1791 to August 1792, has been relatively neglected by scholars. Yet these were months of great political significance, of high drama, of fear and uncertainty.

    One of the most dramatic episodes occurred on 20 June 1792 when crowds invaded the Tuileries palace in Paris. While Louis XVI made no concession to the popular militants, who demanded he sanction the Legislative Assembly’s decrees against émigrés and refractory priests, this journée is usually seen as step toward the insurrection of 10 August that overthrew the monarchy. The events of 20 June, however, provoked an outpouring of protest from across provincial France: departmental directories, district councils, municipalities, political clubs, and groups of ordinary citizens sent addresses and petitions to the Legislative Assembly denouncing the events in Paris. The address presented by a delegation from the Seine-et-Oise echoed the sentiments expressed in many other petitions: “We come in the name of the citizens of our department to foil the factious who dare to present to Your Majesty the shocking view of a few misled individuals as the view of the nation. The view of the nation, Sire, is that the Constitution be respected.”

    In examining this period, historians have emphasized the importance of the king’s attempted flight in June 1791 to undermining the early revolutionary consensus. Scholars have also explored the emergence of the popular movement in Paris, the rise of the Jacobin Club and its provincial network of popular societies, and the fateful consequences of France’s declaration of war against Austria in April 1792. All of these factors help to explain the fall of the constitutional monarchy on 10 August 1792, but their examination often reveals little about those who opposed the coming of a second revolution. My interest in that question was stimulated by Michael P. Fitzsimmons’ The remaking of France: The National Assembly and the Constitution of 1791, which argues that the importance of the constitution has too often been minimized or neglected. The same could be said for those who supported the Constitution of 1791 on the eve of its collapse. With regard to the provincial denunciations of the events of 20 June 1792 in Paris, historians have tended to characterize such protests as “royalist.”

    Yet reading these documents in the Archives Nationales, I found it striking that their statements of loyalty to Louis XVI are overshadowed by expressions of commitment to the principles of 1789. The petitions’ authors feared that the crowd’s intimidation of the king, incited or encouraged by the Jacobin Club, threatened the rule of law, individual liberty, the independence of the national legislature, and, above all, the survival of constitutional government. Thus provincial reactions to the journée of 20 June 1792 suggest evidence of a more subtle political division in France between radicals and defenders of the liberal revolution. The failed efforts to defend the Constitution of 1791 perhaps have relevance to our contemporary world where political moderation is out of fashion and rising populism threatens the ideal of written constitutions upholding individual rights and the rule of law.

    Photo of William S. Cormack

    William S. Cormack received his Ph.D. from Queen’s University at Kingston, Ontario, in 1992. In 1995 Cambridge University Press published his first book, Revolution and Political Conflict in the French Navy 1789-1794. Since 1998 he has been a member of the Department of History at the University of Guelph in Ontario, where he teaches modern European history. His new book, Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorists in the West Indies: The French Revolution in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802, comes out with the University of Toronto Press in November 2018. His current research concerns the French Legislative Assembly and the demise of the Constitution of 1791. His article in the CJH/ACH is entitled “Defending the Liberal Revolution in France: Provincial Reactions to the Parisian journée of 20 June 1792,” and is available for FREE for a limited time at UTP Journals Online.

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