The abstraction of “energy” emerged in the second third of the nineteenth century amid attempts to disentangle human, animal, hydro, and carbon powers, seeking to thereby transform them into manageable and docile forces. This simplification still animates the notion of “energy regimes,” so prevalent in analytic attempts to make sense of historical shifts involving these powers. Barak’s essay probes the development of this abstraction as well as the continuities and entanglements it obfuscated by attending to the imperial context of the increasing reliance on carbon-based energy, focusing on the British textile spinning and weaving sector and the carbon fibers it extended to Egypt’s agricultural periphery and urban centers. Instead of the advent of a new energy regime, coal inserted itself into existing systems and changed them from within. This rearrangement was characterized, surprisingly, by the intensification of existing forces: if animal- or waterpower gradually became relatively less central with the advent of coal, in absolute terms and in terms of their social significance their importance often grew.
On Barak; Three Watersheds in the History of Energy. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 1 December 2014; 34 (3): 440–453. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201X-2826025
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