The Three Hundred Year Party

The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down.

Proverbs 21

All living creatures, including human beings, need energy in the form of food to survive, grow and reproduce. Without sufficient energy they die. Throughout most of history we humans have obtained our energy from the grains, root crops and vegetables that absorb the energy of sunlight. We also consume meat products from animals that eat those crops. Although it is possible to store small quantities of food from one season to the next, most of the time we have lived in equilibrium with our environment. We have lived a life that has been, to use a modern word, sustainable. 

This all changed 300 years ago. But the story starts with the invention of the heavy plow about 1,500 years ago.


Imagine that, two thousand years ago, in biblical times, you could have flown over northern Europe from what is now western Russia, across northern Germany and France, and then over England and  finishing the journey in Eire on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Looking down from the airplane you would have seen one continuous forest with a scattering of clearings, villages and towns, the occasional small city and a few narrow roads. It is the area is circled on the map shown below — an area that Ugo Bardi rather unkindly refers to as, "a vast regions of fog and swamps, inhabited by hairy Barbarians . . . the area we call today Western Europe".

Most of that forest has gone now — were you to make the same airplane ride today you would mostly see fields, towns, large cities and extensive transportation systems. Why? What happened in the last two thousand years to cause such a dramatic change in the landscape?


The answer to the above question lies in the nature of the soil and climate. The soil of northern Europe is generally heavy, and the climate is cool and wet. Consequently, even if the trees are cleared it is difficult to plow the soil and grow crops. But sometime in the 7th to 9th century CE (a period of time that we ironically refer to as the Dark Ages) the heavy cross plow was developed.


Up until that time plows had been based on a Mediterranean design. Such plows are designed to create a shallow furrow in light, dry soils. Therefore they are easy to pull; generally two oxen or horses were more than sufficient. Also, because the team was small and because the plow was light, it was fairly easy to turn around and plow the next furrow in the reverse direction. Hence the fields tended to be square in shape.

This type of plow did not work so well in the wet, heavy soils of northern Europe. However, the heavy plow was effective. It had a vertical knife with an iron cutting edge, a horizontal share to slice under the sod, and a moldboard to turn the sod over. The plow was much heavier than the Mediterranean-style plow and required much more effort to pull, so teams of up to eight oxen were needed. Turning the team was difficult and required more space than the Mediterranean system, so the fields were no longer square, they now tended to consist of long, narrow strips.

This plow was able to open up huge areas for cultivation — but first the trees had to be cut down, which they were.

Deforestation, the subsequent availability of new agricultural land and the consequent increase in the supply of food led to substantial population growth and to changes in the way society was organized. For example, more people could now move to the towns and work in activities that did not directly contribute toward agriculture. Also, because few peasants could afford eight oxen or own their own plow, they had to pool their equipment to form communal teams. Consequently, society gradually came to be organized around the demands of this new technology. Indeed, the heavy iron plow can be seen as being one of the precursors to the industrial revolution, both technologically and socially.

The deforestation and opening of agricultural space created a vicious cycle. The forests were cleared, more crops were produced, the population grew, so more land was needed to feed the increased number of people, so more forests were cleared and so on and so on. Eventually, of course, a limit was reached; once the forests had been mostly cleared there was no more new arable land to exploit.

The problem with this cycle was not just that society was running out of new available agricultural land, but it was also using up its supply of wood for manufacturing. Wood was absolutely crucial to mediaeval civilization — not just as a source of heat, but also as the material of construction for most buildings, all tools and equipment — virtually everything was made by wood, including, of course, the cross plow (only its cutting edges were made of iron).


So the people of the late Middle Ages were faced with a conundrum: there is little new arable land and their vital raw material is disappearing. What do? Their answer, just like ours now, was: Alternative Fuels. By the year 1700 an answer was urgently required. That answer was coal.

Buried Sunlight


What we refer to, somewhat inaccurately, as “fossil” fuels are really buried sunlight. Over millions of years plant life died and sank to the bottom of lakes and the ocean. A tiny fraction of this material was compressed at high temperatures and slowly formed coal, oil, natural gas and all the other carbon based fuels that led to undreamed of prosperity, and a growth in the world’s population from less than 1 billion 300 years ago to about 7.5 billion now. It’s been quite a party.


The success of the Industrial Revolution and our use of buried sunlight led to unprecedented economic growth and material abundance. This, in turn, led to the creation of a new human faith system — one that is shared by people all over the world. Regardless of what our formal religious beliefs may be, almost all of us are now members of the “Church of Progress”. Such a faith system would have been incomprehensible to the people living prior to the 300-year party — the people of biblical times.


Coal was not a new source of fuel; people of the middle ages had been using it for many years as a source of heat for their homes. Most of that coal was “surface coal”, i.e., it was taken from surface seams or from the beaches (sea coal). But there was insufficient surface coal to meet the needs of the developing industrial economy — hence it became necessary to extract coal from underground mines. But, as we have seen, the countries of northern Europe have a wet climate and a high water table in most places, hence the new coal mines were often flooded. Some means of pumping the water out of the mines was needed. To do this they needed two technological devices. They needed high capacity pumps to remove the water from the mines and they needed engines to power those pumps — neither human nor animal power was sufficient. Hence, necessity being the mother invention, the industrialists of that time had to invent the steam engine.

Thomas Newcomen

Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729) was a Baptist preacher and iron worker. He developed a steam engine to pump water from the Cornish tin mines around the year 1710; his invention was quickly adopted by the coal-mining industry. The essential point here is that men such as Newcomen did not invent these machines because they felt like it; demonstration steam engines had been invented two thousand years earlier but they had never been commercialized. He and other like him developed industrial-scale steam engines (which were fueled by the coal that had just been mined) because the economy of the time needed them. The forests were "past peak".

(Strictly speaking Newcomen's machine was an atmospheric engine, not a steam engine because the power stroke came from air pressure driving the piston. It was also horribly inefficient — at the end of the power stroke water was injected into the cylinder, which then needed to be reheated. But it had one important engineering attribute: it worked.)

However, simply digging coal out of the ground was not sufficient. Most coal mines are not near the factories and communities that need the coal. The transportation system of the time consisted of wooden carts, hauled by horses along muddy roads. The solution was to turn the newly-invented steam engine through 90 degrees, put the engine on a frame, put the frame on wheels, and put the wheels on steel rails. In other words, the solution was to invent the railway. Which means that we have just started the Industrial Revolution.


The 300-year party started. It was coal that put the “Great” in “Great Britain”.



The discovery and exploitation of coal was followed by similar developments for oil and natural gas. The oil industry in the United States started in the year 1859 when Colonel Drake (1819-1880) drilled a commercial well in Titusville, Pennsylvania to a depth of about 70 feet. (He is the guy in the stovepipe hat in the picture below.  The second picture is of the oil fields in Pennsylvania a few years later.)

In 1859 Drake (who wasn’t a colonel) drilled an oil well Production was around 25 barrels per day. His important innovation was the use of casing pipe with a drill inside it rather than just digging a hole. The pipe prevented the well from collapsing. It also meant that there was no effective limit as to the depth of a well. Drill pipe is still the technology used by the oil industry. The subsequent oil boom in Pennsylvania meant that, until the discoveries in Spindletop, Texas, at the turn of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania fields were producing more than half of the entire world’s oil.


Happy Motoring

Although the industrial revolution started with the exploitation of coal reserves early in the 18th century, it was only with the onset of the oil industry that our modern, high-consumption lifestyle really kicked into gear, particularly in the years following the Second World War. We entered the era of “Happy Motoring”. It is this era that is now coming to an end.

The Party Ends

But we have behaved like someone who has received a massive financial windfall. While the money lasts life is good. But when the money runs out he or she is back to the old lifestyle, along with some hefty bills to pay. So now we are running out of fossil fuels that can be extracted economically, and we have created a looking environmental catastrophe. To compound the problem, we need fossil fuels to clean up the problems created by our use of fossil fuels. We are returning to a time when, once more, our lifestyles will have to be truly sustainable. New sources of energy such as solar panels and wind turbines can help slow the rate of decline, but they do not replace fossil fuels. 

The 300-year party is coming to an end. Our faith in the Church of Progress is being sorely tested and will eventually disappear.

30 Years — Not 300 Years

It took us 300 years to build an industrial infrastructure based on fossil fuels. We are now talking about dismantling most of the that infrastructure and replacing it with something else, while simultaneously maintaining our standard of living.

In other sections of this site we talk about the “Kodak Moment”. The Kodak company brought out one of the first digital cameras. They understood how their industry was changing. They tried to maintain the old business of film in order to keep revenues and profits where they were, while simultaneously destroying that business. The oil companies face a similar challenge now — how do they keep the stock owners and other stakeholders happy while moving out of the oil business into a different business area?

But this “Kodak Moment” concern applies not just to specific companies, it applies to society as a whole. How do we transform our energy basis in a short period of time while maintaining our current standard of living?

So far, the signs are less than encouraging.

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn

©2021. Sutton Technical Books. All Rights Reserved.