By Robinson Meyer
The first thing you should know about the history of energy in the United States is that, about 150 years ago, the horses got absolutely ripped.
“In the mid-19th century, you have a massive expansion of the horse body. They become 50 percent more powerful,” Robert Suits, a historian at the University of Chicago, told me.
This matters to the history of energy because, back then, horses were a primary form of transportation. (As Jason Torchinsky has written, horses were the world’s first semiautonomous vehicle.) It matters because of how the change happened at all—a massive program of selective breeding that was not possible, Suits said, until railroads existed to ferry promising horses over long distances.
And it matters, finally, because you must understand how yoked horses are to figure out how much energy the U.S. economy used to use. In the 1810s, the average American horse ate 25,000 to 30,000 calories a day, Suits said. By 1900, each ate 35,000 to 40,000 calories a day. That translates to far more hay and oats.
That tidbit is one of many things I learned from an astonishing new research project from Suits and his colleagues. It’s a history of the American energy system in chart form, from 1800 to 2019. It was published today:
In recent years, you can see natural gas driving out coal from the electricity sector. It was getting a handle on that change, actually, that led the project’s leader to start working on it in the first place. “The changes that are happening in the electricity sector now—changes that are as large as any energy transition we’ve seen—are difficult to grasp … without animating the data,” Elisabeth Moyer, an atmospheric-chemistry professor at the University of Chicago who created the project, told me.