The revolutions of the past

The revolutions of the past

Giuseppe Sammarco
From the discovery of fire to the first industrial revolution. An exploration through the four epoch-making energy transitions that have marked the history of humanity

The energy market is changing: new policies, technologies and sources are prompting us to embark on a long journey towards a new world, an “energy transition” to achieve a sustainable consumption model and solutions to tackle global warming and climate change. An important and widespread debate is already ongoing on these topics, the terms and concepts of which will be examined in this series of articles. Here you have the second one.


In the first article, we looked at the main features and drivers of an energy transition. Now, to give substance to these definitions, we will be examining the main “epoch-making” energy transitions of the past. When identifying the energy transition phases that have accompanied human history, we are likely to make subjective assessments: it is a continuous process that unfolds in stages with timeframes that are not always easy to determine. For this reason, we’ll be drawing on the classification used by a prominent scholar of the history of energy, Vaclav Smil, who has identified four momentous energy transitions of the past.


The protagonist of the first transition is primitive man. At that time, our ancestors relied solely on their own somatic energy (i.e. the conversion of food into muscle strength) to gather plant food or kill animals. This way, they supplied themselves with the energy they needed to sustain their lives and perform everyday tasks. The main driving force (the primary motor) was man himself and his muscles, while the primary source of energy was biomass, as the base of the food chain.

When early man learned to control fire – around 800,000 years ago – the first energy transition took place. Indeed, this discovery provided the first source of extra-somatic heat, making food more palatable and making the nights safer and warmer. In any case, fuel still consisted of biomass which for a long time continued to be the system’s only primary source of energy.


The second momentous energy transition occurred when early man transformed from a hunter-gatherer into a breeder-grower. This period of history is identified as “the Neolithic Revolution” or “First Agricultural Revolution” and is assumed to have taken place in the period from 12000 to 8000 BC (at the end of the last glacial period) through to around 3500 BC. From a nomadic state, man gradually transitioned into a situation of sedentary agriculture, which provided a source of food energy that was far more reliable and consistent than the conventional nomadic practice of “plundering” the natural ecosystem and, consequently, altering the area. As such, a more secure food-energy supply enabled the domestication of various animal species and their systematic use in work. In practice, it could be said that the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic period was when we saw man’s first action to pursue “energy security”.

Man then began breeding animals and using them for farming, construction, transportation and in wars. In terms of work capacity, animals overtook the most energetic and hardworking men. Oxen, horses, mules and donkeys (as well as camels and elephants) remained our primary engines throughout history, disappearing from the labor scene – although not entirely – only after the start of modern industrialization.


The third epoch-making energy transition was a lengthy and patchy process, which saw the introduction of new types of primary engines – this time of a mechanical nature – driven by wind and water. The first small paddle wheels moved by water were introduced in Europe in ancient times and the first windmills arrived around 1,000 years later. The capacity and efficiency of these machines were slow to increase, but some European countries, by the turn of the modern era, now possessed large quantities of them: windmills contributed to the Netherlands’ prosperity during the modern age and, in the 18th and 19th centuries, they become increasingly numerous and powerful even in the mountainous areas of France and Germany.


The fourth momentous energy transition – which led to the current energy paradigm – is a much more complex than the previous process. Its key elements are the relatively rapid replacement of biomass as an energy source with fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), the introduction of electricity as a modern energy carrier and the invention and diffusion of much more powerful machinery (primary engines).

The fourth energy revolution was triggered – and made possible – by the first industrial revolution. It was this process that led to the research and development of powerful engines fueled by readily and widely available energy sources. The aim was to boost the productivity of the work force and to meet an ever-increasing demand for goods. The first fossil fuel which could meet these needs was coal extracted from the subsoil. At the end of the 19th century, coal was followed by liquid fuel obtained by refining crude oil and subsequently natural gas. Major changes were also introduced to the primary engine sector. In the 18th century, steam engines were the first to be powered by fossil fuel, i.e. coal which generated steam. This was followed by internal combustion engines powered by petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel or fuel oil (discovered and developed in the second half of the 19th century) and steam turbines (developed in the 1880s). Electric motors were also introduced towards the end of the decade. The great innovations of the 20th century also include nuclear energy and the gas turbine (turbojet) – a widely used technology for electricity generation and air transportation.


Apart from these exceptions, the main fuels and various types of machinery still in use today have remained the same for over a century, although the extent of their use, production capacity and efficiency have considerably increased compared to the early stages.

Considering that the fourth energy transition has brought us into the modern age, here we may naturally ask the question: what exactly is the current energy mix? What is the energy paradigm which the next energy transition – the fifth major energy transition – will move us away from, as we pursue sustainable consumption patterns and solutions to tackle global warming and climate change? If you would like to stay with us, these are the issues that we will be addressing in the next article.