We take electricity for granted and do not think of where it comes from when we switch on a light or use an electrical appliance. But behind the electricity coming out of a wall socket lays an entire energy landscape of poles, wires, electrical substations and power stations. It is imposed on the landscape like a gigantic web, a grid that has become almost part of the natural scenery.
Just over a century ago this electricity grid did not exist. Power generation was local or at best regional and often based on the burning of coal or the use of locally produced gas. In less than a century the grid covered the entire United Kingdom and many other countries. It revolutionised our lives, the way we worked and it made air in cities a whole lot cleaner. But how did the development of this energy landscape impact on the landscape and environment? What were the social and economic consequences of the expansion of the grid?
This history is now researched by Cambridge based PhD candidate Kayt Button. Her project is part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation. Episode 66 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast features Kayt’s work and discusses the development of the UK National Grid, and how it changed people’s lives, its environmental impacts and how the past informs the future development of the grid.
Websites mentioned & other resources
The Water and the Power Project website
Blog posts & poster by Kayt Button
Exeter Memories: Electricity Generation in Exeter
South Western Electricity Historical Society
UK National Grid at 75
“Dance of the Pixels” by Doxent Zsigmond, available from ccMixter
“Snowdaze” by Jeris, available from ccMixter
The history of human civilization is closely linked to the exploitation of mineral resources. It is no coincidence that the periodization of prehistory and antiquity has been chosen according to the main metals in use: stone, bronze and iron. It shows the centrality of the exploitation and production of these mineral resources in human history. Since the Industrial Revolution metals have become global commodities, including tin. The importance of tin increased with the invention of canned food in the 19th century, and during the 20th century with the rise of the electronics industry. Both of these factors made tin a strategic resource not seen since the days that it was used in the production of bronze for weaponry.
The heart of the Cornish tin-mining district, looking from Dolcoath Mine
(on an unusually smoke-free day), ca. 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons
A new edited book entitled Tin and Global Capitalism, 1850-2000: A History of the “Devil’s Metal”, explores the evolution of the global tin industry, from mining through the trade networks and the politics surrounding the strategic importance of tin. Interrogating the rhetoric of “strategic” raw materials is important in order to understand the social, political, and environmental effects of displacement of communities, environmental degradation and pollution, and ‘resource conflicts’.
This edition of the podcast explores these themes with the editors of Tin and Global Capitalism: Andrew Perchard, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University; Mats Ingulstad, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU); and Espen Storli, Associate Professor in History at the NTNU.
History and Strategic Raw Materials Initiative
Details of the book on the publisher’s website
“Where You Are Now” by Zapac, available from ccMixter
“Nightride” by remaxim, available from ccMixter
“Unfriendly Me” by Martijn de Boer (NiGiD), available from ccMixter