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Spring 2018, Special Issue: The Material Culture of Energy | Review

Energy/Culture: a reading guide for historical literature

Hiroki Shin


energy consumption, energy culture, energy history, energy humanities, energy reading guide, energy research, environmental history


Very few people living in today’s energy-intensive society would doubt that our cultural and intellectual activities are deeply intertwined with – or even premised upon – energy use. This paper is a case in point, since, as it is appearing in an online publication, it cannot be read without a computer, internet access and an electricity supply. Since as early as the 1930s, scholars have commented on the relationship between energy and culture, though the definitions of culture have varied from narrow (e.g. high culture) to very broad, such as one that includes diverse senses of ‘literary, visual, and other forms of poesis… and the broader forms of collective human experience’ (Wenzel, 2017, p 4). One early commentator on the topic was Lewis Mumford, the author of Technics and Civilization (1934). On 11 September 1936, Mumford gave a speech entitled ‘Power and Culture’ at the special meeting of the World Power Conference, held at Constitution Hall, Washington, DC. In this speech, Mumford stated that ‘Every society is characterized by the means it uses to convert energy into life and to convert life into those higher forms of energy that we call culture’ (Mumford, 1938, p 167). This idea of energy being the precondition for the advancement of culture was implicit in his 1934 book, in which he described his contemporary age as being characterised by the harnessing of electric power to operate an expanding range of machinery. Mumford’s formulation of a causal link between energy and culture was grounded on the optimistic idea of energy development, which was why his speech at the World Power Conference was so opportune.

His speech was a part of the ceremony marking the beginning of hydropower generation at Boulder Dam, better known by its official name: Hoover Dam. The event reached its climax when US President Franklin D Roosevelt, after describing how his nation was coming of age with abundant natural energy resources, solemnly pushed a button and brought to life the first hydro-turbine generator of Boulder Dam, ‘a symbol of greater things in the future’ (Roosevelt, 1938, p 184). As this episode eloquently illustrates, in the early twentieth century, the connection between culture and energy hinged on the future promise of abundant energy.

Black and white photograph from the World Power Conference of a large stage with seated presenters and a large seated audience
Figure 1 : World Power Conference Special Meeting © World Energy Council

Later periods have witnessed similar ideas of energy being the material basis of cultural progress, including that expressed in Leslie White’s (1943) famous theorem: ‘Other things being equal, the degree of cultural development varies directly as the amount of energy per capita per year harnessed and put to work’ (p 338). Since the time of Mumford and White, the literature on energy and culture has vastly increased and diversified. Broadly speaking, there have been two major changes in how the subject is considered. Firstly, while early commentators separated culture and energy, more recent scholars often discuss cultures of energy, showing how deeply culture and energy have become entangled in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Secondly, early optimism about a plentiful energy future has been muted. Instead, today’s discussion of energy is dominated by anticipation of a disturbing or uncertain future grounded in concerns about climate change and resource depletion. The shift in the general mood is not without positive signs, however, as scholars attempt to meet new challenges by mobilising culture to envisage alternative energy futures. This reading guide aims to map out (a small portion of) the vast and expanding literature in this broader shift.

Energy and its historical development

As Vaclav Smil (2017) wrote in Energy and Civilization, ‘both prehistoric human evolution and the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them’ (p 1). The long history of human society and its energy use is usually divided into different eras according to each era’s primary energy source, punctuated by shifts from one dominant energy source to another through energy transitions (Melosi, 2006; Smil, 2010). For the creation of the modern world, according to E A Wrigley (1988, 2010), the most significant change was the transition from the organic economy to the mineral economy. Indeed, the harnessing of coal in the ‘subterranean forest’ was the major contributor to Britain’s Industrial Revolution and subsequent industrialisation of other nations (Sieferle, 2001). Global historian Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) raised the same point when he attributed the diverging paths of modern economic development in the East and the West largely to different nations’ geographic proximity to coal reserves and ability to exploit energy resources. The potential of energy resources was best realised when energy availability was accompanied by relevant technology to convert energy to serve human purposes. Such ‘development blocks’ of energy and other technologies could be seen in the close links between coal, the steam engine and the metallurgical process of iron-making during the Industrial Revolution, or, the linkage between oil and the internal combustion engine in the twentieth century (Kander, Malanima and Warde, 2013). These long-term perspectives are essential for understanding how energy and culture are connected. However, in works of energy history written from the macro perspective, culture is usually seen as secondary to other factors of economy, technology and resource availability. For this reason, the following survey takes a narrower historical perspective, focusing chiefly on the historical literature covering the long twentieth century.

In terms of the energy history of the twentieth century, the most widely discussed topic has been the energy development of America, reflecting the nation’s leading role in technical advances and the diffusion of modern energy, notably electricity and oil. John Hammond’s (1941) Men and Volts and Arthur Bright’s (1949) The Electric-Lamp Industry were among the pioneering works investigating the origin and progress of electric technology. Historical research on energy saw significant strides in the 1980s, when several urban historians began to systematically analyse energy development in major cities, chiefly from the perspective of the competition between electricity and gas. Mark Rose (1988, 1995) studied the growth of the electricity and gas industries in Kansas, Denver and Detroit, and Harold Platt (1988, 1991) investigated Chicago, one of the heartlands of early twentieth-century electrification. In the systematic investigation of historical energy development, Thomas Hughes’ (1983) Networks of Power has had a profound impact on subsequent studies. Hughes’ work shifted the historical narrative of energy away from specific inventions, inventors or corporations and toward the assemblage of innovative technology, expertise and business operations. Together, these formed what he called large technological systems, the prime example of which was the electricity supply system (Hughes, 1989). In Networks of Power, Hughes illustrated how the socio-technical assemblage – through the work of system builders (e.g. inventors, engineers, business managers and financiers) – gradually gained ‘technological momentum’ in his selective case studies on major cities in the United States, Germany and England.

Colour photograph of an electricity pylon with a large energy facility in the background surrounded by fields and a lake
Figure 2 : Longannet Power Station and Power Lines © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Hughes’ work paved the way for writing the history of the expansion of electricity supply well beyond the United States, as his comparative analysis rested on the recognition of variations (in his words, ‘styles’) in how networks were built in different parts of the world. This approach made technological transfer a legitimate starting point for narrating the development of a nation’s power network, a theme taken up by Edmund Todd’s (1989) article on the German region of the Ruhr, Armstrong and Nelles’ (1986) book on Canada, and Timo Myllyntaus’ (1991) book on the electrification of Finland. The development of the power network in Europe has become a well-researched field that covers a wide range of topics, such as the electrification of inter-war Central European nations (Hallon, 2001) and the transnational aspects of Europe-wide grid development (Lagendijk, 2008; Van der Vleuten and Kaijser, 2006). One key factor in the development of national and regional variations was politics. Jonathan Coopersmith (1992) expanded the scope of Hughes’ original discussion, which drew exclusively from cases of capitalist countries, by turning to 1920s Russia, where the Communist Party’s political agenda and the technical visions of engineers were two wheels of electrification. Ronan Shamir (2013) examined 1920s Palestine and found that the country’s power network during the period was not just an embodiment of colonialist economic interests, but that the electrical grid was also a socio-technical infrastructure that helped to create and consolidate the ethno-national division between the Jewish and Arab populations. In a similar vein, Rao and Lourdusamy (2010) and Sunila Kale (2014) discussed the formative influence of colonialism and regional politics in fostering distinctive variations within India’s electrification.

Energy and consumers

As much as electric power has played a crucial role in global economic development, the supply of electricity can also be seen as a consumer service involving consumer technology. With a few exceptions (e.g. medical use), electricity cannot be seen or felt, and it can only be used through appliances. Thus, as the supply of electricity grew, a host of appliances appeared. While electric lamps, heaters and cookers replaced old fuels, innovations like washing machines, vacuum cleaners and cooking devices reduced human labour. Furthermore, radios, record players and televisions ushered in new activities made possible only through electricity use. Scholars have provided several good cultural and social histories of appliances like the refrigerator (Peavitt, 2017; Rees, 2013), the lift/elevator (Bernard, 2014) and air conditioning (Ackermann, 2002; Cooper, 1998). More theoretically-oriented science and technology studies have problematised a wider range of large and small technologies, including some mundane technical objects. Studies on gas and electricity meters, for example, have examined how these humble technical objects regulate and modify social relationship by visualising the flow of invisible energy (Gooday, 2004) and allocating responsibilities to suppliers and customers (Ackrich, 1992).

David Nye’s (1990) Electrifying America demonstrated that electrification has been much more than the sum of technological innovation, infrastructure building, business strategy and appliance use. The book described electrification as a process in which technological, social and cultural changes are deeply intertwined. Nye’s story of electrification depicted consumers as active partners of inventors and business managers, and this partnership was mediated by cultural symbols and discourses that appeared in advertisements, journalists’ reports and cultural commentaries. Commercial advertisers and marketers self-consciously exploited signs and symbols and circulated them throughout American society to propagate the gospel of electrification. Thus, many historians saw commercial promoters as primary actors in bringing electrical life to modern homes. Andrew Feldman’s (1994) study of 1920s America focused on the individuals who sold the ‘electrical idea’ for General Electric, Westinghouse and the National Electric Light Association. During the period between the First and Second World Wars, the electricity supply industries of industrialised nations intensified their efforts to cultivate the domestic demand for electricity. The industry’s turning to the domestic energy market was initially prompted by the slackened industrial demand after the First World War; however, more generally, the growth of a supply infrastructure required additional demand from non-industry users to fill the gap during ‘off-peak’ hours (i.e. hours when industrial demand dropped) in order to make efficient use of generation capacity. Given the inherent issue of fluctuating electricity demand, it is no surprise that industrial nations mounted vigorous national campaigns to connect a greater number of customers with different consumption patterns to the grid, and encourage them to use greater amounts of electricity at different times of the day (Forty, 1986). In 1919, Britain’s electricity supply industry and trade associations established the Electrical Development Association (EDA) to promote electrification and electrical appliances (Carlsson-Hyslop, 2016; Luckin, 1990). While acting as the main voice for electrification, the EDA also funded a separate publicity organisation, the Electrical Association for Women, to edify female consumers as the main users of domestic electrical technology (Pursell, 1999). With respect to this focus on women, as Anne Clendinning (2004) showed, Britain’s gas industry outstripped its rival, the electricity industry, until the 1920s. As early as the Edwardian period, female demonstrators, or ‘lady demons’, formed an important part of the gas industry’s sales force, as they were believed to best understand women’s needs and desires.

early twentieth century black and white photograph of a woman cooking at a kitchen oven
Figure 3 : Demonstration kitchen at the Electrical Association for Women headquarters © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Magazine advertisement for a gas cooker showing a maori cooking at a hot spring next to a western woman cooking on a stove
Figure 4 : An advertisement promoting a gas cooker © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

The recognition that consumers were an integral part of the electrification process led historians to grow more critical of the previously implicitly held assumption that electricity fulfilled the promise of its promoters. In other words, historians began to ask: To what extent did producers’ visions of electrical modernity match users’ actual experiences? The pioneering work in this literature was Ruth Cowan’s (1983) More Work for Mother, which argued that new domestic technologies did little to alleviate American housewives’ burdens. The redistribution of housework following the introduction of ‘labour-saving’ devices enforced a clear demarcation between housework, for which housewives were to be responsible, and other types of (paid) work. As the result, men were largely relieved from house chores, and domestic work fell firmly on housewives, who were expected to achieve the traditional tasks with a higher level of care and efficiency and, simultaneously, required to fulfil tasks associated with the use of new appliances. Cowan’s discussion shed light on the fact that, from women users’ perspectives, electrical modernity hardly became reality. Her critical revision of the diffusion process of modern domestic technology was further developed in her later formulation of the ‘consumption junction’, a heuristic device that posited a site where ‘technologies begin to reorganize social structures’. At the centre of this socio-technical intersection was the consumer’s choice of technology (Cowan, 1987, p 263).

The idea that consumers played a key role in technological choice sparked an investigation of rural electrification, since rural consumers were often confronted with different sets of technological choice than those usually available to urban consumers. In America, urban and non-urban electrification drew their support from separate sources. In urban areas, the organised promotion of electrification was carried out chiefly by commercial corporations. By contrast, in rural America, where potential customers were spread far and wide and there was comparatively little prospect of business profit, electrification was often led by public and semi-public organisations, such as the Agricultural Extension Service and the Rural Electrification Administration (Glaser, 2009). The distinction between private- and public-led electrification was often less clear in Western Europe, where both the state and the municipality were major actors in the development of the electricity supply system in both urban and rural areas (Schott, 2008). Even in America’s urban electrification, as Ronald Tobey (1996) pointed out, commercial corporations’ early electrification initiatives could not have been sustained without wider social provisions, especially the housing initiatives institutionalised by the New Deal policies of the 1930s.

In practice, those who led America’s urban and rural electrification often came from similar professional backgrounds. As illustrated by Carolyn Goldstein (2012), between the 1920s and the 1940s, home economists frequently crossed the boundary between public and private organisations. Even when they worked for commercial companies’ customer service divisions, home economists’ primary agenda was to propagate ‘rational consumption’ among domestic consumers, rather than to maximise profit for their business employers. Ronald Kline (1997) revealed that these self-proclaimed ‘agents of modernity’ who brought their urban ideas to the countryside rarely questioned the legitimacy of their mission to bring modern energy life to rural consumers. However, their aspiration to electrify America’s farmsteads did not always find willing ears among rural consumers, who were often reluctant to adopt electrical modernity. As Katherine Jellison (1993) argued, in early twentieth-century Northwest America, there was a tension between the government policy of farm mechanisation and the visions held by rural consumers. Many farm women refused to take up electrical appliances despite electrification advocates’ tantalising offer of liberation from housework. Jellison explained this disagreement in terms of farm women’s desire to maintain their place in farm production, which had a direct bearing on their status in the patriarchal family structure, by refusing to accept any movement to confine their role to one of merely operating domestic technology. Sandwell (2015) scrutinised a similar case, examining Canadian consumers’ reluctance to embrace electrical modernity. To understand this indifference, Sandwell suggested, one needed to consider the broader energy regime in which they operated. Prior to the Second World War, Canadian consumers’ knowledge and skills were largely structured according to the old energy regime of coal and wood, and official and commercial indoctrination was not sufficient to persuade them to abandon long-established knowledge and lifestyles in favour of new technology.

Magazine advertisement informing the reader that electricity and associated pylons will be arriving in rural areas
Figure 5 : 'The New Farming Age: Electricity Comes to the Country' © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

The chapters of the recently published volume Transforming the Countryside (Brassley, Burchardt and Sayer, 2016) compel us to examine past electrification in its multitude of forms. The book offers a kaleidoscopic view of rural energy situations in England, Wales, Scotland, Sweden and Canada, showing that rural consumers were hardly passive ‘marginal’ users, but, rather, people who actively coordinated their energy lives, often using traditional and modern fuels side by side. Kline (2000) argued that the refusal to accept electrification was one of a variety of tactics rural consumers could employ in their reception of new technology, which included creative uses of appliances (e.g. listening to music via the telephone). The insight regarding technical appropriation also applied to urban consumers. In Consumers, Tinkerers, Rebels, Ruth Oldenziel and Mikael Hård (2013) explored historical cases of tinkering consumers, such as the residents of cooperative houses in 1920s Amsterdam, who fiddled with the central heating systems to warm up their rooms beyond what the cooperative board was willing to support. Pushing Cowan’s (1987) argument of technological choice further, Oldenziel and Hård (2013) claimed that consumers co-produced technology by frequently challenging engineers’ and designers’ intentions concerning what constituted the ‘proper’ use of technical objects.

In his Domesticating Electricity, Graeme Gooday (2008) contended that the adoption of electricity was not an historically inevitable process, substantiating this claim by elucidating the process of how electric lighting was integrated – or domesticated – into British society between 1880 and 1914. Gooday departed from the early historical assumption that the success of electricity could be attributed to its inherent technological superiority to rivals, notably gas: an assumption held by such scholars as Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1988). On the contrary, Britons in the late nineteenth century were generally unconvinced of electricity’s practical benefits. According to Gooday (2008), electricity was accepted in British society only through a range of cultural manoeuvrings. Advocates of electricity strove to sever the popular association between electricity and danger, while also inventing visions of an electricity-oriented future. Although these efforts bore fruit in British society, Gooday (2008) cautioned his readers, electricity’s triumph was limited or incomplete, and gas and coal retained more than a small share of the country’s household fuel (for a critical revision of historical electrification as a fluid and open-ended process, see Chappells and Shin’s article in this volume).

Another major theme of Gooday’s (2008) book was gender, which he addressed on two overlapping levels. At the level of cultural representation, the gendered personification of electricity spread the image of electricity as a harmless or even beneficial entrant to the domestic space. The early iconography of electricity often positioned electricity as female (also in Wosk, 2001). In the early twentieth century, however, electricity’s gender identity became less clear-cut, as electricity was increasingly represented in diverse and often contradictory ways (e.g. as feminine, masculine, androgynous or sexually neutral). On one hand, de-sexualising electricity’s image generally helped to minimise the cultural anxiety of female consumers, thereby boosting electricity’s wider acceptability. On the other hand, by failing to give electricity a clear gender identity – unlike the country’s gas industry, which had the iconic ‘Mr Therm’ – Britain failed to complete the cultural domestication of electricity. At the practical level of technological diffusion and business strategy, utility companies and appliance retailers could not deny the importance of gender. During the early period of electricity’s introduction into British society, women’s influence over purchasing decisions regarding domestic equipment and furnishings made them a crucial target of sales campaigns, as ‘it was only by winning over such female consumers that electric light came to have a long term future at all in Britain’ (Gooday, 2008, p 34). This comment brought Gooday’s study in line with a strand of research on gendered aspects of technological development, pioneered by Ruth Cowan (1987) who described the introduction of new domestic technology as a process that carved out and consolidated women’s role in domestic work according to the ideology of domesticity. As much as labour-saving technology may have reduced the time and effort required to complete a unit of a domestic task, it also confined women to the role of the housewife (Jellison, 1993): someone required to be an effective house manager and to oversee the health and safety of the domestic space (Tarr and Tebeau, 1997).

Poster in German depicting an angel figure holding electrical connectors
Figure 6 : Cover to Die Elektricität im Dienste der Menschheit ('Electricity in the Service of Mankind') by Alfred Ritter von Urbanitzky © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

While some female consumers resisted the new domestic machinery and accompanying gender ideology (as noted above), these shifts were successfully implanted in many other places. Susan Reid’s (2009) study of Soviet Russia showed that the historical complicity between electrical technology and domestic ideology could be observed in the electrification processes of not only capitalist nations, but also non-capitalist nations. In his pioneering work on the social aspects of appliance design, Adrian Forty (1986) argued that the (presumably masculine) idea of workplace efficiency was transplanted into the domestic space through the design of appliances. Similarly, Shelley Nickles (2002) showed that the process of refrigerator design in 1930s America involved negotiations between competing ideas about domestic life. In fact, the design of electrical appliances was an area in which some historical attempts were made to redress the male-dominated technological development; however, in most cases, these efforts eventually failed. The statist intervention to orchestrate this process, as discussed in Karin Zachmann’s (2002) study of East Germany’s Central Working Group on Household Technology, foundered in the face of more immediate concerns about resource shortages and production planning, which shut women out of the process of envisaging the future shape of domestic technology. A similar process of gender role assignment was described by Amy Bix (2009), who examined the act of repairing domestic equipment. When a growing number of domestic appliances began to enter American homes after the First World War, women were expected to acquire skills to fix domestic technical problems. The situation was transformed in the aftermath of the Second World War, when traditional gender roles reasserted themselves, and home repair was ‘remasculinised’. Thus, studies on electrification have revealed the many gendered assumptions that are deeply entrenched in modern energy life.

Black and white early twentieth century photograph of a woman ironing
Figure 7 : Electric kitchen display at the Daily Herald Modern Homes Exhibition © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Although electricity was the major focus of several studies from the 1980s, a growing focus on the variations of energy life has led historians to assign greater significance to electricity’s competitors, such as wood, coal, kerosene and gas, thereby providing a more comprehensive view of the modern energy landscape. Various chapters of Powering Up Canada (Sandwell, 2016) draw readers’ attention to the complexity and unevenness of Canada’s energy development, in which traditional fuels (e.g. wood) remained an important source of heat long after power networks covered a large part of the country (for a similar approach, see (Yaeger et al, 2011). In Britain, Scott and Walker’s (2011) empirical study of household expenditures revealed that, in the nation’s domestic energy market, gas and coal maintained their strong competitive position against electricity well into the 1930s, chiefly due to their role as the primary fuel for many working-class households. Trentmann and Carlsson-Hyslop’s (2017) research article on Britain’s council housing uncovered further complexities in residents’ energy life. The study found that residents’ individual energy choices produced significant variations in consumption patterns in a place where, one might assume, standardised energy provisions would have created a degree of homogeneity in energy life.

History’s neighbouring disciplines – notably, anthropology and sociology – have helped to fill the gap in the traditional energy history, which has long been preoccupied with developed societies. From the anthropological perspective, Harold Wilhite (2008) examined the diffusion of electrical appliances in South India as a major challenge to the society’s pre-existing habitual practices, resulting in the creation of new or modified social practices (also see Wilhite in this volume). Tanja Winter (2008) produced a rich description of the interactions between electrification and indigenous social structures in Zanzibar, Tanzania, while Leslie Bank’s (2011) ethnographical work elaborated the cultural significance of paraffin for female energy users in East London, South Africa. These investigations of energy development in the Global South, as summarised by Akhil Gupta (2015), raise such questions as ‘What is it like to live in the dark?’ and ‘Why do people steal energy?’. Recent studies have attempted to answer these questions without falling back to the simplistic argument of ‘backwardness’ in the energy cultures of developing countries. The wide range of emerging questions was illustrated in Cultures of Energy (Strauss, Rupp and Love, 2013), a volume that brought together diverse anthropological approaches and their application to energy studies. Historians have also drawn inspiration for the examination of energy from the field of sociology. The ‘Energy and Society’ special issue of Theory, Culture and Society (2014) showcased several of the sophisticated theoretical perspectives and imaginative approaches of energy sociologists. Mimi Sheller’s (2014a) contribution to the special issue interpreted modern society from the perspective of an energy-intensive material: aluminium, sometimes dubbed ‘packaged electricity’ (also in Sheller, 2014b. For a similar approach examining plastic, a petroleum product, see Meikle, 1995). In the same volume, Elizabeth Shove and Gordon Walker (2014) contended that everyday practice should be taken as the analytical focus when explaining the social and material development of domestic technology (see also Shove, 2003). Theoretical discussions like Shove’s offer clearer expressions of what some historians of domestic technology have observed on such topics as machine washing (Parr, 1997). Overall, recent works in history, anthropology and sociology have important theoretical and topical overlaps and are breaking new ground in the geographic and thematic coverage of energy studies. What connects the increasingly multidisciplinary research of energy is the general departure from technological and economic determinism in favour of an acknowledgment of culture’s greater significance as a factor in the shaping of modern energy society.

Public and popular cultures

The incorporation of local cultures into accounts of energy history highlights the diverse ways through which modern energy has been integrated into different societies and individual lives. This does not mean that energy cultures have been entirely fragmented. Indeed, historical studies show that local cultures have generally co-evolved with or operated in relation to wider public and popular cultures. The history of energy exhibitions is a good example of how an aspect of the co-evolution process unfolded in cultural media. Well before it was introduced to the domestic energy market, electricity appeared in expert and popular scientific demonstrations, such as those performed by Francis Watkins and Michael Faraday in early nineteenth-century Britain (Beauchamp, 1997; Morus, 1998). Toward the end of the same century, supported by commercial and state sponsorship, electricity became a recurrent feature in such high-profile exhibitions as the 1881 Paris International Exhibition of Electricity (Caron and Berthet, 1984) and the 1889 Chicago World’s Fair (Platt, 1991). Electricity was as much an object of wonder as it was a constitutive part of exhibition machinery: the special effects created by floodlighting and other electrical illumination added glamour and a sense of spectacle to exhibitions. By the early twentieth century, electricity was still featured in major exhibitions, but the emphasis had shifted from illumination to more comprehensive visions of an electrical future (Nye 1990, 1994). From the 1930s, as Nina Möllers (2012) argued, exhibitions began to focus on the consumptive aspects of electricity, embedding electrical technology in the context of modern consumer society. We know much less about the gas industry’s involvement in exhibitions. Möllers’ (2013) short survey depicted the German gas industry as a major player in early energy exhibitions, but its presence was obscured by electricity’s strong progress in the domestic market following the First World War. Similarly, Anne Clendinning (2004) described Britain’s early gas industry as a major sponsor and organiser of exhibitions, noting that the industry employed the format of exhibition (on both large and small scales) as a chief tool for marketing their services and products.

Black and white illustration of a grand hall of illusions
Figure 8 : La Salle des Illusions © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Advances in electrical technology in the early twentieth century entailed the encroachment of electrified cultural media into the strongholds of the conventional mass media consisting of print matters and exhibitions. Film, radio and television were all built on electrical technology and electricity supply, and they proved extremely powerful in informing public culture. The potential force of new media was clearly illustrated by its use in nationalistic and militaristic propaganda during the Second World War in countries like Russia, Germany and Japan (Taylor, 1983). To exploit new media to influence consumers, electricity, gas and oil corporations sponsored and created films (Brassley, Burchardt and Sayer, 2016; Bouvier, 2012; Clendinning, 2004; Russell, 2011; Swann, 1989). There is a significant volume of literature on radio and television and their cultural impacts as new communication media, but their impact on twentieth century energy development has yet to be fully gauged. On this topic, Bowden and Offer (1994) suggested that ‘time-using’ appliances, such as radio and television, saw faster diffusion than time-saving appliances, indicating that the cultural desire kindled by these new appliances may have precipitated electrification. This phenomenon may be more familiar to anthropologists and historians of recent electrification, such as the electrification movement in Bali, Indonesia, where the major factor that drove villagers to electrify their communities in the 1980s was the desire to have a television in the home (Mohsin, 2017).

Past exhibitions also offered historians a proving ground to examine how the seemingly dominant progressive culture of energy – of which electrical modernity was a prominent example – was often counterbalanced or contested by the public’s doubts, anxieties and fears about energy technology. This was especially true for nuclear energy, a popular scientific feature of international exhibitions after the Second World War. In the 1947–1948 Atom Train exhibitions and the 1951 Festival of Britain, the British public was encouraged to see nuclear power as a technology that would launch the nation’s industrial revival (Forgan, 2003; Jolivette, 2014; Laucht, 2012). One of the major exhibitions in the late 1950s was the 1958 Brussels World Expo, which promoted the idea of the peaceful use of atomic power – ‘atoms for peace’ – informed the public presentation of nuclear technology (Schroeder-Gudehus and Cloutier, 1994). However, despite attempts by technocrats, engineers and business leaders to impart nuclear technology with a peaceful, positive and beneficial image, they failed to overcome the popular association of atomic power with military weapons and destruction. National contexts affected the degree of popular anxiety about nuclear power, as shown in the collection of essays in Nuclear Age in Popular Media, which examined situations in the US, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Japan, India and Soviet Russia (Van Lente, 2012. For a more comprehensive European-wide research project, see Butler’s article in this volume). In France, nuclear technology was incorporated into the national identity, as it addressed widely-held public concerns about national decline (Hecht, 1998). A similar belief in nuclear power as a driving force of social progress in the context of Soviet Russia was discussed by Sonja Schmid (2014). In Japan, state and private corporations vigorously promoted nuclear power through exhibitions to turn the public’s attention away from wartime memories of atomic bombs toward a vision of a prosperous future built upon the nearly unlimited supply of energy derived from the peaceful atom (Low, 2003). In the Netherlands, visitors to the kitchen display at the 1957 Atom Exhibition were encouraged to imagine how their domestic life would be improved by the development of nuclear energy (Cieraad, 2009). Such a cultural evocation of positive nuclear futures – what Paul Boyer (1985) called the ‘Techno-atomic utopia’ in his discussion of early American nuclear development – was only one aspect of the multifaceted nuclear culture. As Jonathan Hogg (2016) demonstrated in the context of Britain, in order to understand a nation’s response to the nuclear age, with its ‘constantly evolving set of understandings of knowledges’, examining the unofficial nuclear narratives is as crucial as analysing the official narratives.

Black and white leaflet showing a nucleus a human hand and a skeletal hand with the message atomic energy for good or evil
Figure 9 : 'Atomic Energy for Good or Evil' © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Anxieties about energy in public and popular culture existed well before the nuclear age: an important aspect of energy history shown in both past (and present) public concerns about coal smoke pollution. Although it is now considered a self-evident truth that burning fossil fuel creates harmful gas, it is worth remembering that this was hardly a common view in the early nineteenth century. As Peter Thorsheim wrote in his Invention of Pollution (2006), the emergence of the general consensus that coal use degrades air quality and human health was a protracted process involving changes in political, social, cultural and medical discourses. Even after coal smoke was identified as the main cause of some serious respiratory diseases (e.g. bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia) in late nineteenth-century Britain, it took another half century for legislation to begin to regulate coal pollution. The process was slowed by popular beliefs and attitudes, as the British population generally believed that an open fire was hygienic and were emotionally attached to fireplaces as the centrepieces of the home (Mosley, 2001, 2007). As shown by Lynda Nead (in this volume), culture was a potent factor that significantly prolonged the shelf life of coal as the primary household fuel in Britain after the Second World War. Modern energy created new sources of pollution. As Thorsheim (2006) noted, the gas industry in nineteenth-century Britain, which manufactured relatively clean but ‘far from pristine’ fuel, exploited the pollution issue to gain an upper hand in its competition with the coal industry. Around the same period, in the USA, neither gas nor coke manufacturers gave much regard to their own part in contaminating air and soil, and the industry’s attitude remained unchanged until well into the twentieth century (Tarr, 2014).

Black and white night time photograph of a street food stall outside a chinese restaurant
Figure 10 : 'A foggy Piccadilly partially lit by the light from a fruit seller's stall' © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Black and white photograph of a husband and wife sat in front of their living room fire
Figure 11 : Man and woman reading by the fireplace © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Electricity, despite being touted as a ‘clean’ energy by its early promoters, has hardly been without problems. Bill Luckin’s (1990) Questions of Power traced cases of local resistance to the extension of the national grid in 1920s to 1930s Britain. In the South Downs, the Lake District and other parts of the country, locals tried to protect natural landscapes from the intrusion of high tension wires and pylons. Around the 1990s, academic studies on energy history and environmental history saw signs of convergence, and an increasing number of historians started to reconsider past energy development in terms of its environmental consequences. In particular, the history of hydropower has attracted historians’ renewed attention because historical projects to construct large dams and hydroplants have typically been accompanied by grand-scale remakings (or destructions) of the natural environment. In both of the pioneering works for this approach – Richard White’s (1995) book on the Columbia River and Patrick McCully’s (1996) work on large dams – the environment and hydropower technology were seen not as isolated entities, but, rather, constituted parts of a larger system: what White called ‘organic machines’. More recently, Sara Prichard (2011) expanded this idea by proposing the notion of an ‘envirotechnical system’ in her book on the Rhône River. The research field continues to grow, as shown by recent additions by Vincent Lagendijk’s research article (2016) on the River Rhine, Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted’s (2014) comparative study of the Volga and Mississippi and Matthew Evenden’s (2015) monograph on Canada’s hydropower development during the Second World War.

The resurgence of research on hydropower’s past has also led historians to re-examine the historical creation of technical modernity and its variety of forms. Erik Swyngedouw’s (2015) critical investigation of ‘liquid modernity’ in Franco’s Spain revealed the political and cultural process through which hydropower development became the symbol of the nation’s modernisation project. His findings confirmed Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller’s (2008) claim in the edited volume Rivers in History that river dams were iconic structures that not only boosted electricity supply capacity, but also glorified the nation and assisted economic progress and nation building at the expense of forests and wildlife habitats. In Africa, as discussed by Heather Hoag (2013), the legacy of colonialism cast a long shadow on post-colonial hydropower development. African utility companies’ and political leaders’ continued belief in economic development via the expansion of hydropower was at odds with their condemnation of their colonial past because this policy virtually followed the blueprint created by administrators and entrepreneurs in the colonial era. Extending the time-frame of enquiry, Christopher Jones (2014) situated hydropower development within the American mid-Atlantic region’s transition to a mineral energy regime of coal, oil and electricity. This transition, which took place between the 1820s and the 1930s, was driven by the construction of a transport infrastructure of roads, waterways, railways, pipelines and transmission lines. The expansion of these infrastructures helped American society gradually overcome the geographically situated nature of energy systems. However, the enhanced infrastructure for moving energy from one place to another with relative ease created a ‘landscape of intensification’, in which people were encouraged to consume ever greater volumes of energy in the face of a diminishing sense of place and environment. Some recent publications by the Rachel Carson Center show how strengthened scholarly commitment to environmental perspectives has enriched our understanding of past energy transitions (Unger, 2013; Mavhunga and Trischler, 2014).

Reflecting today’s climate of environmental concerns, oil looms large in the recent literature on energy history. Although the social impact of oil use – a prime example being the American automobile culture – has long been recognised by both academics and non-academics, current historical research digs much deeper into oil culture’s meanings and manifestations (Black, 2014). Literary scholars have been particularly active in examining oil culture, taking their initial cue from Amitav Ghosh’s (1992) essay on ‘petrofiction’. As Bob Johnson (2014) argued, American society has suppressed, mainly through cultural means, the trauma of ‘the collateral human and environmental damage’ created by fossil energy dependencies. This cultural suppression of energy trauma, once recognised by scholars as such, exploded into a flourishing research field that covers not only American culture but practically every culture in the modern world (Barrett and Worden, 2012, 2014; Macdonald, 2012; Walonen, 2012). Studies on petroculture, initially a branch of literary history, now investigate the multitude of ways in which oil has shaped popular imagination (Hitchcock, 2010). Stephanie LeMenager (2014), a leading scholar on petroculture, stated in Living Oil that the aesthetics of oil permeated through society and manifested in such diverse forms as ‘[f]ilms, books, cars, foods, museums, even towns’. In other words, ‘compelling oil media are everywhere’.

Colour photograph of a sunrise over an oilfield in Texas North America
Figure 12 : Oil Rigs Silhouetted Against a Texas Sunrise © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Culture for the future

Recent studies on oil culture have reinvigorated the wider cultural approach to energy history. The emergence of ‘Energy Humanities’, a term increasingly used to designate a large body of energy studies written (mainly) by arts and humanities scholars, shows that the cultural approach now informs a wide range of energy scholarship (Buell, 2012; Szeman, Wenzel and Yaeger, 2017). More importantly, many recent scholarly contributions to the cultural aspects of energy history share the conviction that culture is not just an analytical framework, but has also become a point of intervention for the active creation of our energy future. In the introduction to Energy Humanities: An Anthology, Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer (2017) suggested that energy humanities scholars should play a greater role in shaping our energy future. While acknowledging the crucial role of environmental scientists in identifying the causes and consequences of global warming, Szeman and Boyer claimed that ‘the next steps in addressing the environmental crisis will have to come from the humanities and social scientists – from those disciplines that have long attended to the intricacies of social processes, the nature and capacity of political change, and the circulation and organisation of symbolic meaning through culture’ (p 3). This recognition calls on humanities and social sciences scholars to take greater responsibility in today’s discussion about energy. Indeed, research councils across countries have started to substantially invest in energy history projects that connect energy, technology and culture throughout history and into the future. Some examples are the Euratom-funded HoNESt project (see Butler’s article in this volume), the UK ESRC/EPSRC-funded DEMAND Centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand) and several energy-related research projects funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Care for the Future’ initiative.[1] More fundamentally, Szeman and Boyer’s (2017) statement signals a reversal in the causal link between energy and culture. Early commentators on energy and culture, like Leslie White (1943), believed that cultural development was largely the effect of increased human command over energy resources. By contrast, the rise of energy humanities points to the growing scholarly conviction that cultural change can create alternative energy futures.

The reversal of causation in the relationship between energy and culture is not an entirely new idea. In his 1936 speech ‘Power and Culture’, Lewis Mumford stated: ‘every increase in the power denominator imposes an ever graver duty to increase the cultural numerator… As machines become more powerful and automatic, their rulers must become more self-controlled and more humanized’ (Mumford, 1938, p 173). The energy history of the twentieth century can be characterised as one of humans losing control over their desire to consume energy without engaging in commensurate efforts to nurture an awareness of the ‘graver duty’ to control energy use. So far, we have yet to succeed in humanising energy. However, collectively, the general trajectory of recent energy literature suggests that scholars are gradually awakening to the importance of Mumford’s early exhortation.

Authors’ note:

This article forms a part of a larger research project on energy history, the ‘Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption and Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century’ (UK AHRC, AH/K006088/1).



1. These projects’ websites offer useful insights and resources for exploring energy’s past, present and future. HoNESt project (; the DEMAND Centre (; The Power and the Water project (; Material Cultures of Energy project (
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Hiroki Shin

Hiroki Shin

Research Fellow

Dr Hiroki Shin is a socio-economic historian studying Britain and Japan in the modern period (c.1700 to the present). After completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2009, he was a visiting fellow at Yale University (2008) and a research associate at the University of York (2008–2012) and the University of Manchester (2013–2014). Since January 2015, he has been a Research Fellow in History at Birkbeck College

Media in article

Black and white photograph from the World Power Conference of a large stage with seated presenters and a large seated audience
Colour photograph of an electricity pylon with a large energy facility in the background surrounded by fields and a lake
early twentieth century black and white photograph of a woman cooking at a kitchen oven
Magazine advertisement for a gas cooker showing a maori cooking at a hot spring next to a western woman cooking on a stove
Magazine advertisement informing the reader that electricity and associated pylons will be arriving in rural areas
Poster in German depicting an angel figure holding electrical connectors
Black and white early twentieth century photograph of a woman ironing
Black and white illustration of a grand hall of illusions
Black and white leaflet showing a nucleus a human hand and a skeletal hand with the message atomic energy for good or evil
Black and white night time photograph of a street food stall outside a chinese restaurant
Black and white photograph of a husband and wife sat in front of their living room fire
Colour photograph of a sunrise over an oilfield in Texas North America


Hiroki Shin
Published date:
25 April 2018
Cite as:
Energy/Culture: a reading guide for historical literature
Published in:
Spring 2018, Special Issue: The Material Culture of Energy
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