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A Human History

Simon & Schuster,

15 min read
11 take-aways
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What's inside?

Inventors created today’s technical world by harnessing all sources of energy, from coal to the atom. 

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • Concrete Examples


In this timely book, Richard Rhodes tells us the stories of the inventors and industrialists behind the major innovations in energy during the last 400 years. He provides an enjoyable, engaging and sometimes esoteric account of the scientific history of the modern technological world. Rhodes covers the breakthroughs that made it possible to turn coal into steam, and build railroads, electrical grids and automobiles and, later, harness the power of the atom. He also offers valuable lessons on the benefits and risks of each source of energy to help inform the future challenge of addressing climate change.


Societies have failed or prospered based on their success in finding cheap, abundant sources of energy.

Over the last 400 years, western societies have demonstrated astounding innovation in finding and exploiting new sources of energy.

Obscure inventors and scientists made great advances motivated by the scarcity, cost or other shortcomings of existing energy sources. In turn, they delivered more efficient sources of heat, light and transportation, practical solutions that have spread around the world and fundamentally changed how people live.

The scarcity of wood in Elizabethan England drove the search for alternatives; coal provided energy, but mining it was difficult.

Elizabethan England was a rising power in Europe and required large amounts of wood to fuel its energy and shipbuilding needs. As wood sellers cut down old-growth forests to meet these needs, wood prices began to rise. One anecdote says that builders pilfered the wood used to build Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theater. Building one English naval ship required as many as 2,500 oak trees. There was a general fear that the country...

About the Author

Richard Rhodes is the author of 24 books. He has received numerous fellowships for research and writing, including grants from the Ford and Guggenheim Foundations.

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