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The evolution of energy sources: a visual timeline

Though the ways and means in which we source our energy has changed quite dramatically over the last 100 years, there is a longer, more complicated story to tell, which we hope to touch on here. The infographic below should give you some idea as to just how far we’ve come, but if you are looking for a more in depth analysis of where we started and how we got to where we are today then look no further.


The evolution of energy sources


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460,000 BC – The first known use of fire in the area now known as China.

200,000 BC – The first controlled use of fire by our Homosapien forefathers.

2000 BC – According to reports from early missionaries to China, by this point coal and crude oil had already been used as a heat source and for cooking for up to 4000 years.

500 BC – Socrates was a huge advocate of passive solar architecture in Greece. He suggested that in order for a home to be comfortable to reside in year-round, it should be built with a Southern orientation. In the winter, this allowed the sun to shine directly in to the porch area, therefore heating the inside space, whilst in the summer, the path of the sun was directly overhead, offering shade and a place to keep cool.

200 BC – The Chinese develop natural gas as an energy source, using it to make salt from brine in gas-fired evaporators through bamboo pipes. They also begin coal mining. During this era the vertical waterwheel is also thought to have been invented.

100 AD – The Greeks began harnessing energy from vertical waterwheels to power mills. By the time the Roman era came to an end, waterwheels were powering mills that crushed grain, tanned leather, shaped iron, and sawed wood. This meant there was less reliance on animal power and that areas with water-power resources became economical and industrial powerhouses.

347 AD – Oil wells are drilled in China, again using bamboo pipes.

644 AD – The first recorded use of a windmill with a vertical axis in Persia (now known as Iran), which is used to grind grain.

1100 – Windmills with a horizontal axis are introduced in Europe to grind grain. This set the standard for European windmills in the years to come, which utilised four blades and spun on a horizontal axis.

1200 – Commercial coal mining begins in England. Coal had been used earlier than this, but it wasn’t until the 11th century that it was actively mined. During this era, the Roman idea of using geothermal power for heating was also rediscovered by Europeans.

1510 – Leonardo da Vinci crafted the precursor to what would eventually become the water-

driven turbine, which would go on to become vital in the development of hydroelectricity.

1582 – London established its first waterwheels and built its first waterworks.

1590 – Towards the end of the 16th century, the Dutch arguable perfected the design of the windmill.

1690 – Due to the depletion of wood sources, coal began to really take hold as the primary source of power in Europe.

1700 – Throughout the 18th century, coal began to steadily displace all other energy sources that had been popular up to that point, including wood, beeswax, tallow and sperm-oil. The introduction of the steam engine also catalysed the growth of coal as the Europe’s primary power source.

1748 – The first American commercial coal production operation begins in Richmond, Virginia, 47 years after coal was discovered in the region by Huguenot settlers. Coal mines had been built in the region by 1736, and these were likely manned by farmers who would sell it by the bushel. Coal was used extensively throughout the revolutionary war to manufacture war materials.

1821 – The first natural gas well is drilled in the US in Fredonia, New York by William Hart. Hart dug the well after noticing gas bubbles rising to the surface of a creek and henceforth became known as the “Father of natural gas.” Throughout the 19th century, gas was used almost exclusively for lighting purposes, but towards the end of the century, as electricity became more popular, natural gas lights were steadily converted to electric lights.

1830 – Coal replaces wood as the primary train fuel in the US after the Tom Thumb, the first practical US-built, coal-burning train was manufactured.

1839 – Henry Becquerel, the noted French scientist, essentially invents solar power when he discovered the “Photovoltaic Effect,” which produces electricity from the sun. Around this time, Americans also began using windmills to pump water for farms and ranches.

1854 – The first oil refineries are built near the region that is now Poland.

1859 – The first oil well is drilled in the US by Edwin L. Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Refineries are built to process crude oil into kerosene, which is used for lighting. At this point, gasoline was considered waste and was usually dumped into the nearest river!

1872 – The great inventor Thomas Edison invents the electric light bulb.

1882 – Edison builds the world’s first electrical power plant on Pearl Street in New York. The power plant was able to generate electricity for one square mile and was fuelled by steam powered generators, which were run on coal. The power station was remarkably efficient for the time, burning around ten pounds of coal per kilowatt-hour. In this year the world’s first commercial-scale hydroelectric power plant was also opened in Appleton, Wisconsin. Initially it only powered three buildings; two paper mills and one home, but by the following year, the Waverly House hotel was also wired up, becoming the first hotel in the region to boast electric light.

1888 – In Cleveland, Ohio the first windmill to generate electricity is built by Charles F. Brush. The mill had a capacity at full load of 12,000 watts.

1892 – The Americans continue to lead the way by building the first geothermal district heating system in Boise, Idaho. Water is piped from hot springs to the town, serving 200 homes and 40 businesses.

1935 – The Hoover Dam is built on the Colorado River, becoming the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant. It remained the world’s largest producer of hydroelectric power until 1948.

1937 – The first offshore oil platform is built in 14 feet of water, one mile off the Louisiana shore. Also in this year, Gas distributors begin adding mercaptan to odourless natural gas for safety reasons.

1938 – The ‘Natural Gas Act’ is passed, which means that the US government became directly involved in the regulation of natural gas for the first time. Also, in Germany, Otto Hahn makes a breakthrough in discovering the process of nuclear fission for energy.

1942 – The first nuclear fission reactor is built in the US by Enrico Fermi after Fermi develops the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction.

1950 – Due to inflated demand caused by the emergence of the automobile, petroleum becomes the most consumed fuel in the US.

1951 – A nuclear power reactor produces useable electricity for the first time in Idaho, though at first it was barely enough to power a few 100-watt bulbs.

1956 – The first nuclear reactor in Britain; Calder Hall, is switched on. This was also the year in which M. King Hubbert published his famous, influential piece; “Nuclear Power and the Fossil Fuels.” A year later, the first commercial nuclear power plant also began operation in Shippingport, Pennsylvania.

1974 – The silicon photovoltaic cell for harnessing solar power is developed by Joseph Linmayer and solar power is officially born.

1980 – In New Hampshire (those Americans again) the world’s first wind farm is built. It consists of 20 wind turbines, each rated at 30 kilowatts. The farm was a failure as the turbines kept breaking. Still, despite this, wind turbine installation continued throughout the country and also increased in northern Europe.

1981 – Solar One, the first large scale solar-thermal power plant is opened in Daggett, California. It used a total of 1818 mirrors to track the sun and reflect its energy into a large central tower. It ran successfully until 1986.

1986 – The largest and worst nuclear disaster ever takes place at Chernobyl in the former USSR. The site is still uninhabitable to this day.

1990 – Horizontal drilling is developed, leading to an increase in ‘fracking’. Also in this year, North America’s installed geothermal capacity reaches 3000 MW.

1996 – The Hydrogen Future Act is passed, leading to expanded research into hydrogen power. The long-term vision for hydrogen energy is that sometime well into the 21st century, hydrogen will join electricity as one of North America’s primary energy carriers, and hydrogen will ultimately be produced from renewable sources.

2003 – FutureGen, the world’s first zero emission coal power plant is announced.

2011 – Another devastating nuclear disaster as an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 off the coast of Japan damages six nuclear power plants. The nuclear crisis level eventually reaches level 7.

2013 – Ivanpah, the wold’s largest concentrated solar power generation plant, goes online in the Carolina South Mojave Desert. Also this year, President Obama releases his climate action plan, which includes the plan for an increased use of renewable energy and imposing carbon pollution restrictions on power plants.

2014 – The Environmental Protection Agency proposes the first ever rules to reduce carbon emissions.


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