A Short History of Energy The Old Days Before the industrial revolution, our energy needs were modest. For heat, we relied on the sun—and burned wood, straw, and dried dung when the sun failed us. For transportation, the muscle of horses and the power of the wind in our sails took us to every corner of the world. For work, we used animals to do jobs that we couldn't do with our own labor. Water and wind drove the simple machines that ground our grain and pumped our water.
Simple machines based on the ability to harness the power of steam have been dated by some sources as far back as ancient Alexandria. The evolution of the steam engine continued over time and significantly ramped up in the 17th and 18th centuries. But it was the significant adaptations of Thomas Newcomen and James Watt in the mid 1700s that gave birth to the modern steam engine, opening up a world of possibility. A single steam engine, powered by coal dug from the mines of England and Appalachia, could do the work of dozens of horses.
More convenient than wind and water, and less expensive than a stable full of horses, steam engines were soon powering locomotives, factories, and farm implements. Coal was also used for heating buildings and smelting iron into steel. In 1880, coal powered a steam engine attached to the world's first electric generator. Thomas Edison's plant in New York City provided the first electric light to Wall Street financiers and the New York Times.