Energy Becomes Labor: The Role of Engineering Theory

  • Ted Underwood


In 1833 John Herschel wrote that “the sun’s rays are the ultimate source of almost every motion which takes place on the earth,” including the labor of human bodies, of falling water and of “those great deposits of dynamical efficiency which are laid up for human use in our coal strata.”1 In the same year Thomas Carlyle’s professor Teufelsdröckh echoed the observation by remarking that the lowly “smithy-fire” glowing before him “was (primarily) kindled at the Sun”—a link displaying secret affinities between “Iron Force, and Coal Force, and the far stronger Force of Man.”2 As earlier chapters of this book have indicated, the connection between sunlight and human enterprise was not in itself new. Writers like Humphry Davy and Mary Robinson had foreshadowed Carlyle’s fascination with a connection between sunlight and the “Force of Man” as early as the 1790s. But the tone of the fascination does change around 1830, and the change is at least as important as the continuity. When Mary Robinson in 1798 represents the sun as “the source refin’d / Of human energy,” it is not quite the same thing as saying, with Herschel, that the sun is a source of “dynamical efficiency” (RP 3:1).


Motive Power Human Labor Natural Force Labor Power Dynamical Efficiency 
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© Ted Underwood 2005

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  • Ted Underwood

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