A century of technology

We've got the power!

Group of women sitting in a room and working on each other's nails. Above them, nine lightbulbs are hanging.

How many times a day do you switch a light on? Can you imagine having no power plugs in the house? Or living without electricity for a day or two? Energy is of crucial importance to the comfort of our everyday lives. In the 20th century, a growing concern for the stress on natural resources caused by increasing energy consumption urged scientists to look for new sources and possibilities. A few decades in, their quest led to the astonishing discovery of mighty but possibly detrimental forces. This chapter explores how, driven by a rising energy demand, the world ended up at the brink of self-destruction.

An abstract drawing of three black antennae, their tips raised in the air and connected to each other with a multicoloured net, spanning over a wall.

Our story should begin not in the 20th, but in the 19th century, when the industrial revolution brought about a shift in energy management. Before this, biomass sources (such as wood) combined with labour of people and animals were the most important sources of energy. With the advent of large-scale and machine-driven production processes, however, the usage of coal for steam engines and power plants became ubiquitous.

a richly coloured and detailed school poster depicting deep layers of the earth's crust and the animals and plants whose decomposing matter make up that soil. Pipes from an oil plant extend deep into the earth.

Coal soon became a staple of energy production targeted at factories and - from the 1880s onwards - people’s homes. Yet, at the turn of the century, a transformation of the market towards higher energy sources began. With oil and natural gas as chief proponents, the use of fossil fuels rose exponentially, making 20th-century society the first high-energy civilisation in history.

Four people looking at a petrol lamp

Technological innovations allowed for capacity growth, more efficiency and flexibility of energy conversion, offering tailor-made solutions to all areas of the consumer market. With these innovations came new infrastructures, including complex networks of pipes enabling the transport of large quantities of natural gas over extensive distances.

Advertising poster with drawing of hairdresser and maid performing their jobs. Underneath text in Swedish ''Varmt vatten billigast med gas" (Hot water cheapest with gas)

Leak-proof pipeline coupling had been developed as early as the 1890s, but distribution remained confined to around 100 miles. In the late 1920s, pipeline technology became advanced enough to allow for long-distance gas transmission. As a result, gas became the main energy source for industries.

A view of circular construction with a clouded sky in the background

In the home, the use of electricity gained momentum when electric lights proved to be much less hazardous and more efficient than gas lamps.

Advertising poster with text in Swedish: "Before: Carbon and Kerosene. Now: Gas and Electricity"

To supply houses adequately, electricity transportation was reconsidered. Now centralised power stations and networks were interconnected to form vast grids, with pylons and power lines feeding electricity all the way into the kitchen and living room. Progress in electricity distribution was steep and swift. In France, by 1938, networks covered almost all of the country. In the same year, the implementation of the Electricity Supply Act led to the establishment of a ‘National Grid’ in the United Kingdom.

Two workers erecting electricity pylon wires

As commercial energy became cheaper, patterns of energy consumption changed. And so did societal patterns, as universal electrification became an important factor in gender emancipation. Research has shown that women in households with electricity were able to spend less time on chores and became more likely to succeed academically, establish themselves professionally and participate in social life. This is just one of the reasons why electrification is deemed by many to be the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century.

Two workers fixing on a street lamp in Heerlen

And so the story returns to where it started: with the electric current running through every aspect of our lives. Its prominence has brought about a never-ending concern for finding suitable sources our electrified society can keep tapping into. The urgency of that quest was heightened by the numerous energy crises that struck Europe throughout the 20th century.

Two workers taking a break: reading and smoking cigarettes.

During the world wars, a lack of labourers, caused by many miners serving in the armed forces, brought about coal shortages. As street lamps were dimmed, the situation became even more dire in the later war years, with gas and electricity being rationed.

Female figure pointing to four squares with symbols (incl. a lightbulb, a kettle) referring to tips on saving energy

After World War II, when the use of electricity rose substantially, some European countries initiated campaigns asking people to use as little energy as possible during peak hours. In this video, a man shaving, women doing housework and a family using lights in different rooms are asked to gather in one space and postpone energy-consuming activities to a more suitable time.

Why peak hours?, Newsreel, 1950, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, CC BY-SA

The 1970s were a decade plagued by energy crises, due to petroleum shortages. The crisis peaked in 1973, when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo targeted at nations supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Prices tripled and subsequently never returned to their previous level.

A ration card of 25 rectangles (4 have already been used) with the word 'benzine' (petrol).

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution again caused a severe interruption in Middle Eastern oil exports. The crisis slowed down the economic growth of many countries, but also raised awareness of the fragility of the society’s dependence on non-renewable sources.

A strike in the oil industry, a car-less Sunday and the closure of fuel stations unfortunately coincide with the grand national car exhibition in Brussels, 1973
VRT. In copyright

Car-free days, which had been organised for the first time in the Low Countries during the Suez crisis of 1956, returned in the 1970s, not only freeing space in the streets but also making room for new ideas and innovations.

Cartoonish poster of a group of people holding on a leash a fat well-dressed man sitting in an armchair with a drink in one hand and fuel dispenser in another. Above them, the text in Dutch "Niet wij, maar zij" (“Not us, but them!”)

The oil crisis left its mark on popular culture, inspiring no less than 70 songs. It prompted the invention of a wide range of new products: more economical car designs, lighter airplanes, even smaller toys for children - such as Playmobil.

Facing more energy troubles in the wake of the Gulf War, the late 20th-century energy industry started to look more seriously into renewable sources, such as hydroelectric, wind and solar power.

Austrian electrician Ernst Johann Aigner, a pioneer of wind energy, built his own power plant producing electrical energy, 1996 ORF, In copyright

While their impact has remained limited so far, another trial led to one of the most debated technological innovations of all times: nuclear fission. Read more about the emergence of nuclear power and anti-nuclear activism in the next exhibition chapter.

In the foreground, a series of plastic bubbles on strings (a mock-up of crystal structure of uranium). In the background, a man looking through the structure into the camera.