JITE v40n4 - Under Review - Energy and Society: An Introduction

Volume 40, Number 4
Summer 2003


Energy and Society: An Introduction

By Howard H. Schobert
Format: Softcover, 656 pp. ISBN: 1560327677
Publisher: Taylor & Francis, Inc.

Reviewed by
Robert T. Howell
Fort Hays State University

Energy and Society: An Introduction by Harold H. Schobert is not a book for those who are looking for something new in the field of power and energy. The book does not present any new earth-shattering facts, nor will it provide the reader the answers to the future energy questions posed by society. However, the text does an excellent job of presenting little-known facts and information about the development of power and energy, historical events that inspired these new power- and energy-related developments, how society viewed these innovations, why some advances were accepted while others were rejected, and how people learned to develop new energy sources when the need arose.

Schobert presents many obscure but interesting facts when he explains that many times it was not the inventor who became known for the invention, but the person who improved or perfected the innovation. A prime example of this notion was the automobile. Henry Ford did not come up with the idea of a horseless carriage, nor was he the first person to develop a working model. What he did do was develop a reliable vehicle that everyone could afford to purchase.

Schobert does an excellent job of putting these types of facts into perspective with attention-grabbing examples and stories. He provides these interesting examples at the beginning of the book, which sets the tone for the rest of the book and makes readers want to read this work. For those inquiring minds, Schobert adds a list of further readings where the reader can locate more detailed information about the topics discussed in each chapter.

A Look at Energy and Humans

Energy and Society: An Introduction begins at (where else?) the beginning of society. Schobert provides a short introduction on early hominids who inhabited the earth as far back as 5,000,000 years ago. These gathers and hunters did not learn to control fire until about 500,000 B.C. The discovery of fire was due to natural events and not a result of scientific inquiry. Early humans depended upon their muscles to do work until around 240,000 B.C. when it was speculated that reindeer were used to pull sleds. Humans progressed to using wind and water to help do work, along with learning how to use animals to carry some of the burden, and also learned that cooking meat was more preferable than eating and chewing raw meat. At this time humans knew little about the relationship of food and why it was important to eat properly cooked food. They probably cared little about what was good to eat as long as they had something to eat.

Schobert goes into great detail about the relationship between food and energy. This chapter informs the reader about some basic chemistry and how humans take food in, use it, and then store its energy. In the early days of the human species, people did not have to worry about storing too much energy and becoming overweight, as happens today. The author presents some informative charts explaining which foods provide the best energy, which foods provide needed vitamins, and those foods that do not provide energy for the human body.


Schobert states that firewood was the first source of energy for humankind. It was of course the easiest and most abundant fuel to find and use at the time. The book presents firewood as a very important source of energy, not just in the past, but also for many third-world countries today. Many of these third-world countries obtain as much as 30% to 40% of their energy from firewood.

With the increase in demand for firewood, people were forced to find another source of energy in order to maintain their standard of living. Firewood had its time and place in history as the main energy source; but as supplies began to dwindle, a new source of energy had to be found before the available supply of firewood was exhausted. As with any energy crisis, the poor of the time suffered the most, as they did not have the resources to purchase the needed energy for cooking, heating, and transportation.

Other Energy Sources

As human needs began to require more powerful and more efficient energy, a variety of different energy sources began to appear. Schobert presents this variety of energy sources. Although waterwheels and windmills were important for only a short period of time, Schobert spends a lot of time explaining how they operated. As with all energy sources, wind and water had limitations. Waterwheels had to be operated where there was an abundant water supply. There were very limited locations where a factory that was powered by water could be built. The same was true of windmills.

In an effort to overcome the limitations of waterwheels and windmills, steam engines began to take hold as the next major power source. Steam engines could be used when and where a person needed them. They could be made as large or as small as needed. As people began to see the importance of steam engines, more types of steam engines were developed.


As humankind learned how to use coal, the importance of the mineral began to grow. Schobert identified coal as a source of energy from the past that is still being used today. In the past, coal was used for home heating, transportation, and the generation of steam for factories. Coal-fired locomotives for transportation and shipping became the major modes of transportation. Steamships and locomotives powered by coal were faster and more powerful than anything else of the day.

As with any energy source, Schobert notes that coal had its problems. Not only was it a dirty fuel, it was not energy efficient. Ships and trains had to carry large amounts of coal; ocean-going ships had to have hundreds of stokers to keep the boilers operating. It was not long before oil replaced coal as the main source of energy for ships and trains. Although coal still plays an important role in the generation of electricity, the use of coal for home heating and transportation is declining in most countries.


The energy source that has had the largest impact of how we live was discovered with no real purpose in mind. Electricity was not discovered or developed out of necessity; but as people learned about this energy source and how to use it, electricity became more and more important for society. As with other sections of the book, Schobert covers the history of those who worked with electricity in the early days. Everyone has heard about Benjamin Franklin and his famous kite-and-lightning experiment, but there were many others just like Franklin doing many of the same things. Some of these early inventors were not as fortunate as Franklin and lost their lives experimenting.

More people learned about the benefits of electricity as time passed. The invention of the light bulb provided the impetus for times to really begin to change. Thomas Edison built the first electrical generating stations to bring electricity into homes. Edison was using direct current at the time, which had its limitations. Others at the time were working on alternating current, which proved to be more effective. Edison did everything he could to prevent this change, as he had invested much of his own money in building generating stations for direct current.

This story and many more were included in the chapter dealing with the development and usage of electricity. It made very interesting reading, especially learning about how electrical generation progressed into what it is today. The author includes many drawings about the development of generators and diagrams of various electrical devices.

Transportation and Energy

Until the past 200 years, people had essentially traveled by the same methods as they had for the past 2000 years. In order to travel any great distance, they either had to walk or if they were wealthy, they could ride in a carriage drawn by an animal. People just did not travel outside the vicinity of their village or farm. One of the main reasons people did not travel far was because there were no roads at the time. It was not until the 1800s when road-building techniques were developed that people began to consider travel on land. They had already learned the value of traveling on water and were perfecting travel over greater distances, but the one requirement was having the proper waterway. When better roads began to come into play, people began to travel more over land.

The book then goes into an interesting chapter on the importance of the bicycle to transportation and the bicycle craze that resulted from better roads. People soon learned that they could travel very efficiently on a bicycle. It was during these early days of bicycling that engineers learned the fundamentals of making horseless carriages.

With steam engines becoming popular in shipping and railways, it would only seem logical that someone would try making a horseless carriage driven by steam. Early attempts to develop a workable method proved to be, for the most part, unsuccessful, due to the weight and amount of fuel needed to operate a steam engine. It was not until the chance discovery of petroleum that a new energy source for transportation came into play.


In the early days petroleum was easy to find; oil was first discovered seeping out of the ground in Pennsylvania. At first people did not quite know what to do with this fluid. Chemists soon learned that by heating it, they could obtain a product known as kerosene. Kerosene could be used for home heating and lighting; and a byproduct of refining kerosene from oil was gasoline. At the time, gasoline was considered a nuisance, as there was no use for it. The demand for kerosene as a cheap source of energy grew as more and more people began to use this petroleum product.

Scientists found that gasoline was a useful energy source for the newly developed internal combustion engine. In keeping with the rest of the book, Schobert does a good job of outlining the development of the internal combustion engine and the refining of gasoline from petroleum. The internal combustion engine was invented in 1876 and soon replaced steam engines (Bohn, Fales, MacDonald, & Kuetemeyer, 1986). When the new internal combustion engine was successfully adapted to a horseless carriage, it did not take long for people to adopt its use. Coal was now out as an energy source; homes were heated with petroleum; ships and trains were converted to petroleum; and the automobile began to grow in popularity.

As with any new invention, there will always be those who try to enhance the innovation or find new ways to use the technology. A German engineer, Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel, found a method of making an internal combustion engine run more efficiently and without as many parts as found on the standard internal combustion engines of the day. This engine, known as the diesel, is the only power system that bears the name of its inventor.

A diesel engine has many advantages over the standard engines in that it will burn almost any available fuel, has fewer moving parts, and is more fuel-efficient. The disadvantages are that the engine must be made much heaver that standard engines and costs more to produce. Even with the disadvantages of the diesel engine, it is still popular and in use today, mainly in ships, power generation stations, and train engines. There were even people who tried to develop a diesel power plant for aircraft. They were successful to a point and were able to get airplanes to fly, but could never overcome the weight problems enough to make them successful.

Inventors began to experiment with a new type of engine in the mid 1930s. The new jet engine burned kerosene for a fuel and had fewer moving parts than standard aircraft engines. Jet engines could run for longer periods of time with little maintenance, could produce more power, and could operate at very high altitudes. Schobert notes that of course there was a downside to the jet engine, the amount of fuel it consumed.

Alternative Energy Sources

As Schobert explained in previous sections of his book, the need for society to change its energy sources was fueled by new technology, energy shortages, or a danger to the environment. Unlike the past, where one or more of these conditions were present, it would appear that in today's society, all of these conditions are present. Although the price of gasoline is still relatively low, it has been rising at a steady rate. With threats of war and oil embargos from countries controlling most of the world's oil exports, the author makes a good case for switching to alternative energy sources before it is too late.

Although nuclear power is not a new source of energy, it has become a large and important source of electricity in the United States (Bohn & MacDonald, 1992). Energy and Society: An Introduction goes into great detail in explaining the atomic structure, how fusion and splitting the atom creates energy, and how nuclear power can be safely used in the future.

Schobert notes that wind energy is fast becoming a household name. Wind technology in the United States and worldwide has improved steadily in becoming a proven and economical alternative for electrical generation. Schobert does an excellent job of providing facts related to wind energy technology.

The author finishes this section on alternative energy sources by talking about the unlimited and underused energy from the sun. As Bohn, Fales, MacDonald, and Kuetemeyer (1986) stated, solar power is one of the most promising alternative energy sources. Schobert explains how the sun generates energy that is transmitted to earth. A large part of solar energy is used in passive and active heating and cooling systems in our homes. Schobert also discusses the environment, including vehicle emissions, carbon monoxide gases, and the greenhouse affect.


Schobert does an excellent job of presenting facts about our past energy use, how it developed, and social issues related to power and energy. I found the many little-known facts presented very interesting which made reading the book very enjoyable. The way the book was put together made it seem less like a textbook and more like a book written for pleasure reading.

If there were any areas for improvement in the book, the changes would come in the chapters in which the author went into too much in detail explaining technical terms. Another area in which the author could have added to the quality of the book was in the area of alternative fuels. Nuclear power, wind power, and solar power were discussed in great detail; but nothing was written about technology presently being developed for the future, such as hydrogen fuel cells and biotech fuels. These are areas of great promise for the future.

The importance of this book to technology teacher education is unlimited. Energy and Society: An Introduction provides an excellent source for lessons on the development of power and energy, basic power and energy background information, or an anticipatory set. Pre-service teachers now have one source where they can discover for themselves the answers related to power and energy. This book is written for freshman-level teacher education courses. Technology teacher educators should read this book even if they do not teach power and energy courses. They will be surprised by what they will learn from it.


Bohn, R. C., Fales, J., MacDonald, A. J., & Kuetemeyer, V.F. (1986). Power, Energy, and Transportation Technology. San Jose, CA: Bennett & McKnight.

Bohn, R. C., & McDonald, A .J. (1992). Energy Technology: Power and Transportation (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Howell is Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology Studies at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. Howell can be reached at bhowell@fhsu.edu.

Tracy Gilmore