The Fruits of Civilization (6) Energy


Technology invariably involves the manipulation of materials. Its advances have afforded endeavors at scales both large and small; but tinkering the tiny has been the most impressive.

The ability to build the monstrosities of modern architecture pales in comparison to bending molecules to human will. In coherently channeling electrons, computers take this miniaturization to the subatomic level. Yet materiality is an aside to what the most critical technology actually does, and that is to provide energy.

The earliest technologies, from the Stone Age to the establishment of settlements, aimed at the most intimate energy: food. Controlling fire played a crucial role in human descent.

 Fire Pistons

A fire piston starts with handheld straw-like cylinder sealed at one end and open at the other. The cylinder is fitted with a piston that makes an airtight seal.

Pushing the piston compresses the air within. Quickly ramming the piston down into the cylinder generates enough heat to set a tiny bit of tinder within ablaze. That ember can then be dropped onto kindling to start a fire, assisted by some wind to encourage a flame.

Fire pistons were used prehistorically in southeast Asia. Application of the concept was reinvented many times.

The fire piston was patented in 1807 in both England and France by different men. This was after a public demonstration in 1802. So much for novelty in invention.

Fire syringes, as they were called, became popular household items in Europe during the early 19th century. They were supplanted by the safety match, which was invented in 1844, and was less safe than the fire piston. So much for truth in terminology.

The fire piston probably inspired German engineer Rudolph Diesel in his late-19th-century invention of the piston-based engine that bears his namesake. Fire pistons and diesel engines rely upon the same principle.


An exclusive focus on food-energy slowly relented. Animal domestication offered beasts of burden as a supplement to human exertion. Then man turned his attention to controlling energy as a substitute for his own labor.

Early attempts worked with water, then wind. Both involved circular motion: waterwheels and windmills.

Rotary motion was ever the ultimate object of engines; at first for mechanical work, and then the generation of electricity: pure energy that can be transmitted over distance for a vast variety of local applications.

A turbine is a machine designed to capture energy from a moving fluid to put to work. 1 of 4 fluids is usually involved: water, wind, steam, or gas. Blades catch the moving fluid. These blades rotate about an axle, which drive a machine.

There are 2 types of turbines – impulse and reaction.

The blades of an impulse engine run around the axle and are usually bucket shaped. Waterwheels are an exemplary impulse engine.

In a reaction turbine, fluid flows past blades that face the end of the axle like flower petals. Windmills are reaction turbines.

Waterwheels were known in Roman times and changed little during the Middle Ages. Like windmills, their earliest use was in grinding grains, especially corn.

By the 10th century there were tens of thousands of waterwheels in England, engaged as a prime mover in various tasks, from pumping water to sawing wood, forging metal, fulling cloth, and operating bellows. This situation was typical throughout Europe, as population centers were near rivers which facilitated cargo transport.

The origin of windmills is obscure, but they seem to have evolved independently in Persia and northern Europe in the 7th century. The likely inspiration was sailing ships.