Energy

Pistons, cylinders, and wheels are at the heart of civilization.

The movement of piston and cylinder is pretty obvious from our own sexual behavior—and humans think of sex all the time—but when Man invented the wheel, it was definitely a game-changer.

It can’t have taken long to realize that you could couple a wheel to a shaft, that the wheel could drive the shaft, and that the shaft could drive the wheel.

From then on, the possibilities were endless—vehicles, pumps, and tools of all kinds became available to society.

The next challenge was to harness the energy for operating these creations. Humans enslaved other humans to do that work, and in addition they enslaved other animals.

In much of the world, slavery is a thing of the past, but in most countries mammals such as donkeys, mules, oxen, and yaks still discharge those duties. They perform their services in exchange for food and lodging, whipped into submission, indentured to servitude from womb to tomb, bound by a contract in which they had no part.

In my children’s book, Folk Tales For Future Dreamers, a yak explains the issue in plain language to his incredulous daughter.

Yingwen munched a little sedge and thought hard about what to do. If I go too far down the hill, I’ll meet the tulegs, and they’ll take me prisoner. Her father had pointed them out from a distance on more than one occasion.

“There’s one, my girl, on the ridge! See, behind the bahrals.”

Yingwen could see the bahrals, with their long curved horns and soft faces. The blue sheep weren’t blue at all, and they had white streaks on their faces, running from their eyes to the corners of their mouth.

“Daddy, I see the blue sheep, but—“

“There!” Daddy nuzzled her head to make her look the right way.

“Oh!” She saw a strange creature standing on its hind legs behind the flock of sheep. It was small, covered in fur, and holding a stick in its foreleg.

“That’s a tuleg. Be very careful. If they can, they’ll grab us.”

“That? Even I could bump it.”

“No, Yingwen. They’re very sneaky, and they’ll take you prisoner, using their sneaky ways.”

“And eat me? Like the bears and wolves?”

“Not straightaway. The tulegs make you work, pulling their machines all day. They use lots of animals, bahrals and yaks, and they never let them go. They steal our milk, our hair, even our poop!”

“Our poop? Yuk!”

No, yak!” Daddy howled with laughter, very pleased with his joke. “They burn our poo in their fires, to keep warm at night. That sheepskin coat you see, Ingwen, it’s not really theirs. Actually, they have no fur at all, they’re all yellow and skinny.”

“Eewww,” said Yingwen.

“No, sheep!” Her father howled with laughter again, until she pinched him.

Natural sources were the next step in harnessing energy. Water, wind, and tide powered mills—in Al Andalus, the Moors were experts in using nature to drive these devices, a good many of which survive to this day.

But eight centuries before the Arabs invaded the Iberian Peninsula, a Greek named Hero of Alexandria described a steam-driven device that was capable of rotating a wheel. Nevertheless, it took one thousand eight hundred years before the Frenchman Savary built a working steam engine.

Savary’s engine was not efficient, and it was significantly improved upon by a little known Portuguese scientist—Portugal has never been kind to its own, and although Bento de Moura Portugal was a member of the Royal Society, and even bore the nation’s name, he died in prison in Lisbon due to his political ideas, courtesy of the inquisition and the Marquis of Pombal.

The collected writings of Bento de Moura Portugal, a great scientist who was scorned by his country.

Thomas Newcomen further improved the steam engine, and towards the close of the XVIIIth century, the Scotsman James Watt finally developed a machine that could be used efficiently.

Factories no longer needed to be located next to rivers—a huge push for industry—and mobility on road and rail had arrived. The success of steam was relatively short-lived, as the external combustion engine was overtaken by the internal combustion engine, ushering in the age of oil.

The whole of the last century has been predicated on black gold—the viscous mess has been responsible for the rise of the Middle East, and the reason for countless wars.

This week, Saudi Aramco (formerly the Arabian American Oil Company) was floated on the Tadawul stock exchange, but you’ll have a job buying shares if you’re in the West. Aramco touched a valuation of two trillion dollars on the second day of trading, so oil is still a thing—but the writing is on the wall.

Renewables are becoming increasingly popular and competitive, and we are returning to natural sources—the wind, the sun, and the tides.

All over Europe, the push is for electric cars, with Germany, the leading European manufacturer of diesel and petrol automobiles, leading the pack. With that comes a shift away from fossil fuels, which has now become a generational cry championed by XR, the Extinction Rebellion. Right now, the United States is on a different tack on this issue, but that too shall pass.

Perhaps the era of oil will last a total of two hundred years, maybe less—just as with steam, much depends on the next big thing, but by the year 2050 electric vehicles will be strong competitors, helped by major improvements in battery technology, cheap renewable energy, taxation on carbon emissions, and the votes of Generation Z.

The consequences for the Mid-East are not hard to envisage—I made a stab at those in my book Atmos Fear.

The next steps will come with marine engines, and of course, air travel.

A few days ago, a Canadian company called Harbour Air became the first to offer commercial flights on electric planes. The engine is made by Seattle-based Magnix, and promises to save around half of the fuel costs of conventional aircraft.

Plane tickets will be cheaper, and you’ll say goodbye to Doha and Dubai.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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