- Philipp Lehmann, Harvard University
Over the last few years, the name Desertec has been prominent in newspaper articles and television programs about the future of the world’s energy supply. Desertec, aimed at (among other things) producing massive amounts of energy by covering part of the Sahara’s surface with so-called “concentrated solar-thermal power plants”, is noteworthy not only because of its vast size and even greater ambition, but also because of its lesser-known long ancestry in projects that reach back to the period of High Imperialism.
It was around the time of the first European ventures into the Sahara that European administrators started to wonder about the history and variability of deserts and, as a next step, about the potential to transform the driest regions into usable and productive environments. Conceived of as “blank slates” and “empty spaces”, deserts proved to be veritable playing fields for a wide array of engineers, technocrats, and utopians who drew up plans to transform and utilize the world’s drylands even before the white spots on the maps of Africa, Australia, and Asia had fully disappeared. Their visions of large-scale environmental transformation found a receptive European public, whose vision of the desert had been trained by travel reports of dangerous Sahara crossings and novels about the vast, sandy expanses of the earth.
The projects – such as Donald MacKenzie’s Sahara Sea, François Roudaire’s mer intérieure in Northern Africa, and Herman Sörgel’s gigantic plan of a new, desert-free supercontinent encompassing both Europe and Africa – were all closely connected to a set of ideas and fears about climate change and energy shortages that had begun to take hold of scientists, politicians, and the general public in the late nineteenth century. If, as was commonly held among the early generation of climatologists and geologists, dry climates were advancing and energy resources were beginning to get scarce, something had to be done to stop this. The paper explored the history of attempts to turn deserts into productive landscapes of production from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The proposed large-scale projects often both presupposed and promised enormous amounts of energy – whether in the form of hydropower, sunrays, nuclear energy, or calories from food. The paper examined the eclectic intellectual origins of the schemes and set them into the context of fears about energy shortages and hopes for novel forms and sources of energy to be discovered and exploited in the vast deserts of the world. Read less » Read more »
- Marc Landry, Georgetown University
At the turn of the twentieth century in Europe energy enthusiasts frequently referred to hydroelectricity as "white coal", a power source they believed had the potential to rival fossil fuels in significance. Whether one referred to houille blanche, weisse Kohle, or carbone bianco, white coal was a traditional energy source—water power—whose exploitation was believed to have been revolutionized by advances in electrical engineering. Indeed, electricity's ability to transport remote water power over unprecedented distances permitted the tapping of previously inaccessible energy sources. The metaphor white coal, however, actually emerged years before electrical transmission of power was a possibility. In this paper, I explore the origins of the term white coal in late nineteenth-century western and central Europe and some of its implications for energy history. I show how the moniker was initially created to describe the water power of the high-Alps. The development of the hydraulic turbine in the mid-nineteenth century allowed engineers to tap the unprecedented falls of this mountainous region, opening up a vast new space of ideal water power resources. Read less » Read more »
- David Zylberberg, York University
In 1800, people living in different communities in the West Riding of Yorkshire purchased coal by the dozen, corf, load, cart load, chaldron, bushel or sack. These units were not local anachronisms but reflected the geographic relationship of each community to its fuel supply prior to the development of an integrated national market in the mid-nineteenth century. Sacks and chaldrons were multiples of the bushel, with all three reflecting the container in which coal had long been sold in areas without local deposits. They were the standard measurements in the lowland eastern parts of the county and in most of southern England. A corf was the basket into which coal was placed underground with twelve corves making a dozen. These were the main units on the southern part of the coalfield, including the areas around Sheffield, Rotherham and Huddersfield. On the northern part of the coalfield, around Halifax, Leeds and Bradford, coalmines measured outputs in loads and it was also sold by this unit in nearby communities. Meanwhile, loads and cart loads were used in areas where coal or peat had to travel relatively short distances over land. These were usually near the coalfield or peat deposits and lacked good water transport. While all of these units are multiples of some others and could be converted into pounds, none was an obvious multiple of the ton, the unit on which canal tolls and the calculations of economic historians have been based. Meanwhile, peat was measured either by the load or by the turve, the amount taken out every time a spade entered the ground. In southern England, wood was sold by the faggot or bavin, both multiples of branches and small trees. The turves, faggots and bavins used in Hampshire all reflect local fuel supplies similar to corves on the coalfield. Read less » Read more »
The ‘Man Equivalent Day’ in China: Missionary and Chinese Researchers and Measurements of Human Labor Energy.
- Joe Lawson, Academia Sinica.
This paper explores conceptualizations and measurements of human labor inputs in Chinese agriculture in the research of American missionaries and Chinese social scientists in the first half of the twentieth century. It argues that measurements of human labor energy were shaped by researchers’ understandings of what was good for individuals and their communities, as well as the imposition of new state levies.Read more »
The missionaries, among whom John Lossing Buck was the most prolific agronomist, were strongly interested in measuring the volume of human labor in Chinese farming. Buck measured human labor inputs in ‘man equivalent days’, and converted days of female, child and teenage labor into days of male labor according to estimated differentials of male and female and different age groups’ calorie consumption. The unit was not invented by Buck, but this paper argues that he and other missionaries were particularly interested in bio-physical measurements of labor inputs due to the missionary view that ‘idleness’ was one of the key problems of the Chinese countryside. Chinese social scientists were generally not interested in measuring human labor in agriculture until the Japanese invasion in 1937. Unlike the missionaries they did not believe that the main solution to rural poverty lay in finding ways to increase the amount of work that farmers did. For Chinese researchers, landlessness was a much greater problem than idleness, so they had little interest in testing Buck’s hypothesis that a consolidation of farms would allow rural people to work more and more efficiently. After 1937, Chinese state research institutions took a greater interest in rural labor due to a belief that conscription had caused a rural labor shortage (a belief that was understandable though it is far from certain that this was really the case). Read less »
- Victor Seow, Harvard University
Japan's modern experience has been marked by concerns over access to energy. In the aftermath of the recent disaster in Fukushima, we witness not only a reexamination of the island nation's reliance on nuclear power, but also a resurgence of anxieties surrounding its lack of resources for alternative energy forms. But such is not merely a problem of the here and now, and similar fears, spoken in terms such as "fuel famine," were alive and well from the early decades of the twentieth century.This paper sets out to explore the discourse of energy scarcity in interwar Japan. By the end of the First World War, there was an emerging sense within Japan that the country, whose appetite for coal and petroleum had been growing steadily alongside the rapid expansion of its industrial and manufacturing sectors, was on the brink of a fuel crisis. Specialists and laymen alike penned pieces speaking of this particular problem, calling for the location of new sites of energy extraction, the discovery of more efficient ways of utilizing existing energy resources, and experiments in new types of energy. One such response was the development of the shale oil industry in Fushun, a coal mining town on the edge of the Japanese empire. Despite repeated failures to turn Fushun shale oil into a viable alternative fuel, Japanese scientists, government officials, military personnel, and businessmen continued to pump much money and effort into this enterprise, channeling hope into what was to be yet another pipe dream. Read less » Read more »
- Shi-Lin Loh, Harvard University
"How could the Japanese have embraced nuclear energy after Hiroshima and Nagasaki?" In response to this question, which has often been asked after Fukushima 3.11, I argue that within Japanese society, a new wave of discourse on nuclear physics and its potential applications for society in the early postwar period emerged. I term this vein of thinking "atoms of science" and here show how this dovetailed neatly with a contemporaneously-designed U.S. framework of "atoms for peace," revolving around a landmark 1953 address by President Eisenhower to the United Nations, which Japanese policymakers subsequently embraced.From today's perspective, it may seem incredible that ordinary Japanese people, many of whom wholeheartedly participated in the anti-nuclear movement after Bikini, did not voice concerted protest against the development of nuclear energy in their country. In fact, such a link between international warfare and domestic energy production was not drawn in the first stages of Japan's nuclear regime. This appears to have been due to a combination of genuine hopes and belief in the promise of "Atoms for Peace," mingled with a lack of knowledge of the potential physical and environmental costs of nuclear power. Existing hopes within the scientific community in Japan, popular pride and interest in Japan's own international achievements in physics, and the time lag between the formation of nuclear institutions and the actual functioning of nuclear power plants blocked the emergence of widespread misgivings about the risks involved in becoming a nuclear-powered nation.
The study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the complex of history, politics and memory that surrounds them, remains fundamental to our understanding of the human costs of nuclear warfare, as well as postwar Japan's involvement with the nuclear age. Nonetheless, the swell of the mushroom cloud and the scarred bodies of the hibakusha (survivors of the two bombed cities) are not the only symbols of Japanese nuclear history. Japan relies on nuclear power to supply around thirty percent of its electricity, and has been a nuclear-powered nation since the late 1960s. Yet the development of Japan's nuclear industry has hardly been considered alongside the memories and legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The literature on peace movements, while valuable for its focus on civil society, makes it easy to ignore other aspects and agents of the history of Japan's nuclear regime in its incipient stage. There are no easy generalizations about how "the Japanese" as a whole viewed nuclear science and technology after Hiroshima. Read less » Read more »
- Jeremy Zallen, Harvard University
When Bock's Car, the name of the B-29 bomber that dropped the plutonium bomb "Fat Man" over Nagasaki, struggled into the sky in the middle of the night, the 5-ton bomb was already making itself felt. The plane barely cleared the runway and it was guzzling fuel at a much higher rate than normal. To make things worse, one of the two fuel tanks was malfunctioning and a series of delayed rendezvouses meant even more fuel consumed. By the time Bock's Car reached the primary target of Kokura, it was already apparent that they would have to land in Okinawa instead of Iwo Jima as planned. It is an oft overlooked fact, but Kokura was saved that day by the weather.Clouds covered the entire city and surrounding area, and with orders to visually sight the target, the crew of Bock's Car decided to move on. When they reached cloud-covered Nagasaki, however, a rapidly unraveling energy relationship began to take control of events. Had the fuel tank not malfunctioned, in all probability the bomber would have returned to base with the bomb to wait until the weather cleared (a less and less likely condition as autumn approached). Had there been no clouds that day, Nagasaki would have escaped and instead Americans would know the tragic name of Kokura. But there were clouds, and there was a fuel malfunction. According to protocol and orders, Fat Man should never have been dropped over Nagasaki, cloud-covered as it was. But this 5-ton device was threatening to pull the fuel-bleeding plane out of the sky. Had the crew tried to make it back to Okinawa without dropping the bomb they would have crashed into the ocean. The official reports say that there was sudden break in the clouds and the bombardier quickly released the bomb. What is certain is that the bomb did drop, and about 2 miles off target, releasing in an instant the combined energies of the powerful Columbia River and the supernovae that created our solar system.
My paper tells a particular story about a particular moment in time and space when a group of thirteen young men allied with a flying machine to annihilate a city. This is the story of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, a human tragedy of immense proportions made even more tragic by the remarkable extent to which it has been forgotten. In trying to make sense of such tragedy, popular and scholarly debates have revolved around questions of blame and of remembrance, they have asked "why?" Without sidestepping such important moral debates, my paper seeks to come at this catastrophic event from a different angle: I have asked "how?" How did thirteen men in an airplane destroy a city? How did that bomb come to fall on Nagasaki? How were those men and that plane able to be there thousands of feet above that Japanese port with an atomic weapon in the first place? How had such tremendous concentrations of energy been released at that particular place in space and time? How had such energy been accumulated, transformed, transported, maintained, released? Ultimately, I came to focus on a particular relationship, the one that I believe shaped that atomic mission more than any other. That was the relationship between bomber and crew––the flows of diesel, artificial oxygen, food, stimulants, medicine, electricity, and sex that allowed humans and machines to be temporarily rearranged into such devastatingly effective bombers, such vessels of airy death. Read less » Read more »