Peter A. ShulmanNov 9, 2015
Coal and Empire
The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America
Johns Hopkins University Press 2015
Peter A. Shulman's new book is a fascinating history of the emergence of a connection between energy (in the form of coal), national interests, and security in nineteenth century America. Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) focuses on three groups who helped shape America's relationship between energy and security: naval administrators and officers, politicians and policy makers, and scientists and engineers. In clear and persuasive prose, the book advances three main arguments that collectively reframe the way we understand the historiography of energy. First, Americans didn't begin thinking about energy in terms of security around oil in the early twentieth century, but instead around coal in the nineteenth. Second, the security need for distant coaling stations in the late nineteenth century didn't catalyze the emergence of an American island empire around 1898. Instead, it was the other way around: the establishment of an American island empire created new demands for coal and coaling stations. Third, technological change was integral to American foreign relations. Shulman's book shows all of these and much more, in a story that moves from steam power and the postal system, to the development of notions of an economy of time and space, to Commodore Perry, to President Lincoln's interest in setting up a colony of free blacks to the calculation of great circle routes, to the study of logistics in early twentieth century classrooms, to the Teapot Dome scandal, and beyond. The conclusion of the book discusses some of the most important ways that the arguments of the book are still relevant today, and pays special attention to the ideal of energy independence.