Accounting for a most dynamic world—Part 2

In last week’s post I commenced a brief and highly selective look at the history of the energy concept. The purpose of this historical approach to our inquiry is to get some sense of how the pioneering investigators might have made sense of their experience of the physical world, unaided—and hence also, in a sense, unconstrained—by the conceptual tools that we take for granted today. This in turn might help us to get a better sense of what the energy concept is all about in experiential terms. The aim of all of this is to ensure that, in thinking about societal energy challenges and dilemmas, we hold the conceptual tools, rather than the conceptual tools holding us.

We started out in Part 1 by considering some of the early forerunners of the modern energy concept through the work of Galileo, Descartes and Leibniz, all important pioneers in the branch of physics known as mechanics. While the contributions of these investigators all preceded the arrival of the earliest heat engines—the general class of machines that enabled the rise of industrial society, and that continue to provide the overwhelming majority of electricity and transport today on a global scale—they had little direct influence on the rise of the mechanised world. For most practical intents and purposes, we can consider the historical precedents of the modern energy concept in terms of two largely independent paths: the physicists and mathematicians travelled by one route; on the other, we find the engineers. These paths would eventually undergo a significant convergence, but at the end of the seventeenth century, the two groups typically had quite distinct interests. While we might say that the physicists tended to focus on describing and explaining physical phenomena, the engineers were interested in harnessing physical phenomena for practical human purposes. Nonetheless, there were still important instances of crossover between the groups. The French physicist and mathematician Guillaume Amontons (1663-1705) was an important figure in this respect. Not only did he propose a conceptual design for a novel heat engine, in work published in 1699 he attempted to quantify its useful effect in terms of the labour of “men and horses”, still at that time the dominant prime movers for most areas of economic activity. In doing so, he effectively pre-empted the concept of work.[1] Motivated by the engineers’ need for a means of quantitatively comparing performance amongst different types of machines, the work concept as we know it today emerged during the early years of the eighteenth century.[2] Continue reading