Saturday, August 1, 2015

Peter A. Shulman's "Coal and Empire"

Peter A. Shulman is an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America, and reported the following:
My book is about how Americans came to think about energy in terms of national security—not around oil in the twentieth century but coal in the nineteenth. As the United States industrialized, Americans had to learn to think about fossil fuels as strategically important, and precisely how they did so evolved over time.

The story on page 99 involves Ambrose W. Thompson, a businessman and promoter from Philadelphia. In the 1850s and into the 1860s, Thompson attempted to induce the American government to fund his speculative ventures—a steam line to Ireland or China, a coal mine in Panama’s westernmost region of Chiriquí, a colony for slaves freed during the Civil War.

This page has Thompson lobbying the U.S. Navy Department to set up a naval station in Chiriquí, where he imagined American steamers could dock and purchase from his anticipated vast mines of steaming coal. A line from this page captures the mix of commercial desire and strategic imagination that persisted throughout the nineteenth century: “The strategic value of coal in Chiriquí was not a simple geological or geopolitical fact but rather an argument that Thompson used to lobby the United States and New Granada [today Colombia and Panama] to promote his speculative investment.”

This page highlights several themes that appear throughout the book: the significance of law in shaping energy politics (which government had jurisdiction over coal in western Panama, the local one of Chiriquí or the distant capital of Bogotá?), the role of scientists and engineers in evaluating claims of new fuels and sources of power (did Chiriquí have coal at all? If it did, was it suited for American steamers?), and the importance of government action in developing new sources of power (should the navy subsidize the infrastructure of steam power?). These were the kinds of questions Americans found themselves asking ever since.
Learn more about Coal and Empire at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

Writers Read: Peter A. Shulman.

--Marshal Zeringue