Marriage of the millennia

According to Darwin, fire (a form of energy) and language (an information system) are the two most important human inventions. Not surprisingly, energy and information have been the dual pillars of civilization for centuries.

Our ancestors discovered that cooking meat and vegetables made them more digestible and nutritious. Cooking breaks up long protein chains and makes it easier for us to digest meat. Cooked vegetables are also more digestible, and thus release more energy. We had time to start changing our environment to better our living standards.

Our intricate relationship with energy progressed with the domestication of animals, particularly those animals that we can use to enhance our capacity for work and transport. Cattle were domesticated around 8,000 BCE. Later, we learned how to domesticate other animals, whic were used to carry loads, plow fields, and pump water.

Once humans had learned to make some basic goods, they look for ways to find new customers, and energy in the form of the wind, enable traders to travel further. Wind, water, and fire were the main sources of energy for millennia. Our use of fossil fuels and consequent impact on the environment takes off with the Industrial Revolution when mass industry emerges in Britain in the 1750s. Our ability to harness source of energy, other than our muscles, made the advancement of human civilization possible. We could grow more, make more, and trade over a wide range.

Information systems, the other pillar of civilization, also developed over the millennia. We started building rudimentary information systems when we learn to exchange information through gestures and actions. Later we added vocal communication to our repertoire for cooperation. Around 3,100 BCE, cuneiform writing appeared to record mainly business transactions. Writing solved the joint problems of information storage and transmission. When the Chinese invented moveable type for printing around 1040, the efficiency of knowledge storage was greatly improved. We gained another leap in efficiency with the invention of Morse code and associated technology in the 1830s. Marconi’s public demonstration of wireless telegraphy in 1896 started us on the path to ubiquitous communication.

The interconnection between energy and information systems is readily apparent when we trace the patterns over the millennia.  Cuneform writers used a wedge-shaped stylus to record the amounts of different crops on a clay tablet, which was then baked in the sun. Printing presses were operated by hand until the 1880s, when steam power was introduced. However, mass printing needs low cost paper, and water-powered paper mills, appearing in Samarkand (now in Uzkbekistan) in the 8th century, mechanized the production of paper. The digital age starts with Morse code and the transmission of binary information using electronic currents. Marconi’s invention of wireless communication was also dependent on electricity to power to send and receive electricity. Our world cannot operate without computers, which require electricity.

Energy and Information Systems have been the progenitors of civilization for millenia. As the song says, “You can’t have one without the other.” What is surprising is that we have not married the two as a discipline. Now is the time for Energy Informatics to emerge as a distinct field of study.

Rick Watson

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