First fuels

The very first energy source was the sun, providing heat and light. Later a lightning strike sparked a fire. Fire was then used for many uses from cooking to an additional source of heat and light.

More than 8,000 years ago, humans discovered that sails could be used to harness wind energy for transportation. Later, wind energy was utilized yet again, this time to turn things as the first “wind farm” in the form of windmills turning water wheels for grinding grain.

Before 1850, wood fueled fires were the main source for heating, cooking and producing steam utilized in railroad engines. Other sources in use at that time were water, wind, coal and to a small degree manufactured natural gas.

Believe it or not, natural gas was used as early as 500 BC by the Chinese. Found leaking from the ground, bamboo was used to pipe the gas for use in boiling sea water to remove the salt. Yep, the world’s first natural gas pipeline!

Around that same time, engineers in ancient Rome developed a heating system called a hypocaust. When constructing homes, an open space below a floor was added where a fire would allow passage of hot air to heat the room above. This hypocaust technology, developed by the Romans, was used to warm rooms, heat baths and became a common addition to new construction in the region.

The disadvantages of hypocausts were dangerous. The risk of the fire getting out of control was real. Although the stone buildings likely would have survived a raging fire, the people inside would not. Even more common and dangerous though, was the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. The gas fumes created by the fire could spread into the main living space, if not properly ventilated. This silent killer is detectable and preventable today, ancient Romans likely had no idea of this concept. Today, hypocausts have been replaced by much safer modern solutions including radiant floor heating.

Using fuels for large-scale heat and electricity 

In 1816, manufactured natural gas, made from coal, powered street lights in Baltimore, Maryland.

From 1850 to 1945, the primary fuel source was coal. Wood was used for heating and natural gas was used for lighting. Water and wind energy use diminished with the rise of coal.

Throughout the 1900s, oil and natural gas were primary fuel sources, as electricity use became more common in the late 1900s. From 1945 to present, nuclear, solar, water and wind have played a larger role in the production of energy. In addition, alternative energy sources like geothermal and biomass continue to grow in use and technology enhancements improving viability.