Here are some Achievements that Made America Great. Much has been written lately on the “Rise of China”. I thought I would write a short history of the application of energy in America. This is a short history of America’s rise over the last 130 years and some of the pioneers that I wish to lift up as being major contributors to our high quality of life. Quality of life and energy use grew in direct proportion.
America remains a beacon for freedom and hope to many in the world. Being born and raised in America for me, was my greatest Blessing, perhaps equal to the Blessing of being raised by caring parents. Now as a retired senior citizen, I have time to read, study history and reflect on my good life and the advances that America accomplished in the last Century.
The purpose of this document is to highlight some of the great inventions and achievements done by Americans during the last hundred and thirty years. I am hopeful that the next Generation of youth will read and contemplate these components of the Foundation of our Society. During these difficult times that our country is divided and the main stream Media, entertainment personalities and politicians seem to be more interested in cancelling history, I thought it is appropriate to highlight America’s progress as leader of the Free World. General Electric’s slogan of the 1960’s could be used to sum up what America showed the world, “We Bring Good Things to Life”.
Energy and Economic Prosperity is what I wish to discuss. However, there are, in my view, some important pre-requisites to the continued success of our nation:
Freedom, Basic Judeo-Christian values of the citizens, Law and Order, Protection of Private Property, Capitalism that rewards risk and innovation, a sound public education system including Colleges and Universities, a caring Philanthropic citizenry that with our Christian-Judeo heritage, care for others. You could say, this is a reminder of where we came from and some of the reasons why the U.S.A. became the world’s strongest and best country of the world.
My 50 entire year career involved energy use and electricity generation. As I reflect back on my life and my parents lives, I can not help relating the correlation of American ingenuity, creativity and the need to use energy to power the ever improving quality of life that we enjoy.
I should also add, over my life-time I have had the privilege and advantage of visiting dozens of countries around the world in both business and as a tourist. I have seen for myself, both Developed and Developing countries and the impact of available and reasonable cost energy. Reasonable cost, abundant energy makes a huge difference in the lives of any society. I have seen so myself.
Let’s review some notable inventions (and the need for energy to fuel them).
1859 Drake’s First Oil Well in Titusville, PA
Whale oil was used for illumination and hundreds of whales were slaughtered to provide fuel. The Drake oil well began a replacement source of energy. Oil refining to distill crude oil into different useful fractions of naphtha, gasoline, kerosene began after 1859. John D. Rockefeller founds Standard Oil Company in 1865 and ultimately becomes the world’s largest oil refiner.
Babcock & Wilcox the premier water tube, steam boiler manufacturer is founded in 1867 by the two Americans, Stephen Wilcox and George Babcock. B&W Boilers were widely applied to provide steam for Westinghouse and General Electric steam engines and steam turbines.
In the year 1900 kerosene lights were popular all across America, soon to be replaced.
Edison begins the electrification of America at Pearl Street Station in NYC in 1882.
General Electric is founded in 1892. Production of Edison’s incandescent light bulb and the electricity distribution systems grew across the country.
Westinghouse Electric formed in 1886 and shortly thereafter invents the transformer which became critical for distributing Alternating Current electricity over long distances.
Although they were reliable, the early steam engines were huge, heavy devices that were not very efficient. Thus, nearly all companies in the electric equipment business seized the opportunity to develop the steam turbine as an alternative. In 1897, GE entered into an agreement with Charles Curtis, who directed turbine development work at GE until 1900, to exploit his patent (No. 566,969) for the Curtis steam turbine. In 1895, Westinghouse acquired rights to manufacture reaction turbines invented and patented in 1884 by the English inventor, Thomas Parsons. Allis-Chalmers also acquired rights to manufacture under Parsons` patents, so early machines of these two manufacturers were quite similar.
The Curtis and the Parsons turbine designs were based on different fundamental principles of fluid flow. The Curtis turbine was an impulse design, where the steam expands through nozzles so it reaches a high velocity. The high-velocity, low-pressure steam jet then impacts the blades of a spinning wheel. In a reaction turbine such as the Parsons design, the steam expands as it passes through both the fixed nozzles and the rotating blades. While the difference appears subtle, it affects the shape and size of the nozzles and blades. In most modern steam turbines the high-pressure stages are impulse blades. The steam pressure drops quickly through these stages, thus reducing the stress on the high pressure turbine casing. The many subsequent stages may be either impulse or reaction designs.
The Internal Combustion Engine and Energy for Transportation
After 1900 the invention of the Internal Combustion Engine drove oil demand higher as more vehicles were manufactured.
This is the time when the inter-relationship of energy and economic prosperity becomes apparent.
At the turn of the Century, over 60% of Americans lived in Rural areas and worked on their farms. It took about 40% of the population to grow food for our nation1. Horses were the main motive power for farm power and transportation.
Willis Carrier7 invented air conditioning in 1902. As a resident of South Carolina I often think of this marvelous invention and what it means for comfort during the summer heat and humidity.
Orville and Wilbur Wright begin the journey of American aviation industry 1903.
Henry Ford invents the automotive Assembly Line about 1913. Tractors become a farm productivity factor about 1920. Henry Ford increases worker’s wages to $5.00 per day and begins the migration of rural families to the city.
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse vigorously compete to electrify the nation. Serbian immigrant, Nickola Tesla invents the poly-phase motor and other inventions while working for Edison and Westinghouse. Motors designed by Tesla and manufactured by Westinghouse power the manufacturing boom in America.
Low cost, abundant coal becomes the primary fuel for electric power generating plants across the U.S.A.
Coal and native iron ore fuel the American Steel Industry. US Steel was founded in 1901. At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of businessmen were involved in the formation of United States Steel Corporation, including Andrew Carnegie, Elbert H. Gary, Charles M. Schwab, and J.P. Morgan. Carnegie had founded Carnegie Steel Company.
The “Roaring ’20s” was a period of prosperity and expansiveness. The United States produced 40 percent of the world’s supply of iron and steel.
In 1927 Juan Trippe, another American entrepreneur, forms Pan American Airways starting as mail service between Florida and Cuba. About 1931 Trippe and the Russian immigrant aeronautical engineer, Igor Sikorsky develop flying boats called the Pan Am Clipper’s to expand passenger travel across the Caribbean. Later, Trippe becomes a pioneer in purchasing commercial aircraft from Martin and Boeing. Pan American Airways expand to regular service all around the world.
During WWll, America enters and becomes the “Arsenal of Democracy” to defeat the Axis enemies. After WWII, America rebuilds Germany and Japan with the transfer of American expertise, trade secrets and manufacturing know how . Germany and Japan rise to become highly productive countries.
Hydraulic Fracturing is invented by Americans during the Civil War about 1862. Later developed about 1947 and combined with Directional Drilling by George Mitchell about 1999. Directional drilling combined with Fracking in 2017 propelled America to becoming the world’s number one producer of oil and natural gas.
Captain and eventually promoted to Admiral, Hyman G. Rickover invents a nuclear propulsion system for the US Navy. The first nuclear ship, the submarine USS Nautilus is launched in 1954, and traverses the North Pole under the ice in 1957. Later in the 1950’s, Rickover provides a gift of a means for economical and reliable nuclear power generation to all of mankind. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative promotes peaceful uses of atomic energy worldwide. The American companies, Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox, General Electric, Allis Chalmers, General Atomics and more all contribute to the building of commercial nuclear power plants around the world. France’s highly successful nuclear power generation began with the gift of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water Nuclear Steam System. The commercial nuclear steam system was perfected by Admiral Rickover for the Navy and later applied to the first commercial nuclear power plant at Shippingport near Pittsburgh, PA. After Shippingport as the expression goes, it is all history and the old nuclear plants in the U.S.A. built in the 1970’s and 1980’s still generate about 20% of America’s electricity. Here is a time line of Rickover’s productive life:
- 1900 Jan 27th Born in Maków Mazowiecki, Kingdom of Poland.
- 1922 Received B.S. from the United States Naval Academy.
- 1929 Received M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University
- 1929 to 1933 Served on two submarines for the Navy.
- 1939 to 1945 Worked in the Bureau of Engineering (consolidated into the Bureau of Ships in 1940) in Washington, D.C.
- 1946 Traveled to Oak Ridge.
- 1949 to 1982 Served as Director of Naval Reactors.
- 1954 The USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, is commissioned.
- 1958 Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first full-scale, commercialized pressurized water reactor, is commissioned.
- 1982 Forced to retire from the United States Navy. (age 82!)
- 1986 Jul 8th Died in Arlington, Virginia
Thank you Admiral Rickover, your gift to mankind of peaceful uses of nuclear power changed the world!
Energy and Economic Prosperity are Linked
The chart below which uses data from the World Bank and the United Nations reminds us of the importance of energy to support favorable living standards. Note that over 50% of the world’s population lives on a small percentage of the energy used per capita in America.
China’s Rise Powered by Fossil Fuels, for Comparison
In other sections of this Blog, I have written about the rise of China and how China has built more coal power generation capacity in twenty years than America did since Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station first began. That is right, China has built far more electricity generation in twenty years than that accomplished by the U.S.A. in 130 years. Here is a graph of the world’s largest coal consumers and as you can see, China is far ahead of all other countries of the world.
In closing, let me say, I am very thankful to be an American and to enjoy our high quality of life.
The first part of this document was to remind us of some of the fine American inventors, business people and entrepreneurs that built the industries that make our good lives possible.
Wishing you a Blessed and Happy Easter,
March 31, 2021
- U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and Census Report: https://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/41667073v5p6ch4.pdf
- Henry Ford invents assembly line 1913: https://corporate.ford.com/articles/history/moving-assembly-line.html
- ASME Program to Honor Drake’s First Oil Well in the U.S.A. : https://www.asme.org/wwwasmeorg/media/resourcefiles/aboutasme/history/landmarks/40-drakeoilwell.pdf
- History of Oil Refining: https://www.britannica.com/technology/petroleum-refining
- John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Co. : https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/john-d-rockefeller
- History of Steel Making in U.S.A. https://www.steel.org/about-aisi/history/
- Willis Carrier, inventor of Air Conditioning 1902: https://www.carrier.com/carrier/en/worldwide/about/willis-carrier/
- General Electric History: https://www.britannica.com/topic/General-Electric
- Westinghouse Electric History: https://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/news/2017/03/29/timeline-westinghouse-electric-co.html
- Pan American Airways History: https://www.panam.org/about-pahf/paa-a-brief-history
- Babcock & Wilcox Boilers: https://www.babcock.com/about/history
- Our World in Data Fossil Fuels consumption since Industrial Revolution: https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels
- McKinnsey and Company Energy and GDP: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/electric-power-and-natural-gas/our-insights/the-decoupling-of-gdp-and-energy-growth-a-ceo-guide#
- World Energy Use and GDP relationship chart: https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/correlation-of-per-capita-energy
- NPR Economy and Energy explained: https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2013/04/10/176801719/two-centuries-of-energy-in-america-in-four-graphs
- Why Fossil Fuels are so hard to Quit, Brookings Institute: https://www.brookings.edu/essay/why-are-fossil-fuels-so-hard-to-quit/
- Shippingport Nuclear Plant, first commercial nuclear power generation plant 1958 as part of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shippingport_Atomic_Power_Station
- Power Engineering Historical Report on Steam Turbines: https://www.power-eng.com/coal/steam-turbines-power-an-industry/#gref
- Charles Parsons, 1884 Steam Turbine inventor: https://www.britannica.com/technology/turbine/History-of-steam-turbine-technology
- History of Hydraulic Fracturing: https://www.aoghs.org/technology/hydraulic-fracturing/