a-history-of-energy-timeline

A History of Energy Timeline

Jane Marsh - June 2, 2021

We are reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn affiliate commission.


From the light of the sun to solar panels, energy has changed quite a bit throughout history. As the population has grown, the energy demand has increased, meaning that fire power and heat from the sun wouldn’t sustain human needs anymore. 

In some regards, we have come full circle in energy production. Humans centuries ago used wind and solar power for their daily activities, and now, we’re using it as a renewable energy source, just a bit more technologically advanced. 

On average, someone living in the United States uses about 150,000,000 British Thermal Units (Btu) per year, equal to the amount of energy stored in 165,000 sticks of dynamite. That’s a lot of energy! Thankfully, energy production has evolved to be able to accommodate that much energy for everyone. 

Where It All Began

The history of energy timeline began when humans were first on the earth. Thousands of years ago, humans discovered fire. However, even before that, the sun and wind provided energy. The sun continues to give off heat and light, just as it did when the earth formed. 

Later, humans discovered the powers of fire. It could do the same thing that the sun did, but it would last into the night or during rainy and cloudy days. People used fire to cook and provide people with an additional source of light and heat. 

Humans also used wind and water energy for centuries to power mills and transportation across bodies of water. They also used the power of animals like horses and oxen for transportation and work. Humans have made many discoveries surrounding energy use. Even before modern energy was discovered, people used the energy stored in wood, dung and straw to heat their homes. 

These sources were heavily relied upon by humans until the Industrial Revolution, which was only a few centuries ago. That’s when coal came into the energy timeline.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution is one of the events that changed history and energy. In the late 18th century, modest ways of power became a thing of the past. Societies that relied on agriculture in Europe and America soon became societies that relied on industry and urban employment.

When people realized the potential for industrialization with coal, machine-made products boomed. Plus, with the invention of electricity, the possibility was even more significant than imagined. Coal could power tools and machines. In 1769, James Watt even patented the world’s first steam engine powered by coal. People could go further than ever before. 

Oil Wells on the Rise

Coal was a primary source of energy for nearly 100 years. However, that changed when Edwin Drake struck liquid gold in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. This launched the age of petroleum. 

Oil soon became the dominant fuel and energy source for the 1900s. The oils could power vehicles, heat buildings and even produce electricity. It’s still a significant source of energy today. Although there is an abundant source of oil, it may one day run out. It’s not renewable, and it has significantly contributed to climate change and conflict. 

However, it will be a while before people completely give up oil. It’s still used to power most energy needs for Americans and even other people around the world. In 2020, oil was used mainly for transportation, followed by industrial, residential, commercial and electrical usage. 

Energy Now

Energy has rapidly evolved this past century. Now, there are more ways to power your home, car and other daily needs. Below are the primary energy sources used today. 

Clean Energy

Here’s where energy has come full circle — the need for renewable energy is evident, so people are looking back to the sun and the wind to provide clean energy for their homes, vehicles and workplaces. Solar, wind, water, hydrogen fuel cells and geothermal are just some of the clean energy sources used today. Each of these is renewable, meaning they’ll last forever. Plus, they are much better for the environment, and the Energy Department continues to work on storing that energy.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels remain a widespread energy source. This includes coal, oil and natural gas. Fossil fuel industries use these products to produce electricity, for energy or transportation. However, a majority of human-caused emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels.

Electricity

Electricity is considered a secondary energy source. To produce electricity, conversion of fossil fuels or renewable energy must occur. Electricity is necessary for everyday life. It powers homes and businesses, and it provides economic benefits and vitality. 

Powering Through History

Although there have been many changes in how energy is produced, we’ve gone back to the basics, where it all began, with wind and the sun. These resources are precious, and they’re proven to work and provide humanity will all of the energy they need. 

About the author

Jane Marsh

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.