Back to the future - a brief history of the electric car

Earlier this month, there was a small flurry of headlines about the rapid growth of electric vehicles (EVs) – whizzing past the two million mark globally in 2016.

Before you get too excited, 2 million is very little compared to the total number of cars on the planet right now – it’s only 0.2% of total passenger light duty vehicles.

Still, that two million is 60% up from 2015, and as a lot of the press picked up, electric vehicles were pretty much unknown a few years ago (unless you count milk floats, lunar rovers and golf buggies…).

A few years ago, maybe, but go back further – a bit over a century, to the early 20th century – and things might would been a different matter. Because today we’re getting used to thinking about electric cars as the future but, once upon a time, that’s been true before too.

Look, for example, at this beauty. It’s a London electric cab from 1897.

electric cab 1897

The first electric cars date back a lot earlier, with small-scale models developed in Hungry, Scotland, the US and the Netherlands in the 1820s and 1830s.

The problem with the early electric car designs is that until someone had invented a rechargeable battery that you could store in the car and drive around with, they weren’t really all that much use.

Long before Elon Musk and Tesla, there was Thomas Parker and the Elwell-Parker Company which and sold electric trams, helped electrify the London Underground, and put the first electric car into production Parker tinkered with the more advanced battery designs available by the later 19th century, and had a marketable electric car in 1884.

By the turn of the century, electric vehicles could compete with petrol, horse and steam based options. In the US, the Electric Vehicle Company was the largest motor car manufacturer in 1899. EVs weren’t the fastest, and they couldn’t go long distances without needing a charge, but they were quieter, smoother, and cooler (as in they didn’t produce a load of excess heat). They were, apparently, Edison's choice.

The cab company that owned the EV above had a fleet of over 75 cabs. In New York, the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company started with twelve Electrobats (the first US electric cars) in 1897. Two years on, and they had several hundred.

Petrol might rule in the countryside, and steam would take us up and down the country, but electricity would work for cities. Indeed, many felt it might do for a fair bit of inter-city travel too. As Alexis Madrigal puts it in his book on the history of US green tech, Powering the Dream, a betting man at the end of the 19th century might well have invested in centralised, electrical transport – something more akin to a fleet of electric Ubers or Zipcars than the oil-based model of personal ownership that ended up dominating the 20th century.

The big problem with electric cabs was that the batteries needed changing if they were going to compete with petrol-based equivalents. As Madrigal describes, the New York outfit cooked up an intricate design for swapping batteries in and out of cabs quickly, converting an old skating rink on Broadway into a central battery-swapping station. In London, a battery swapping station at Lambeth similarly employed a hydraulic lifting system, turning them around in a few minutes.

So where did the EV go? Was it just that petrol cars were better, faster, able to go further? Histories of technological choice are rarely so neat. It was partly improvements in the design of petrol cars, and a drop in the price of oil. It was partly that roads developed, and that people bought into an idea of independence that the petrol car offered (though that’s partly marketing and infrastructure – there’s a 20th century imagined future, as well as a very possible 21st century one that has a concept of EVs as freedom at its core). It’s also been suggested that EVs were seen as women’s cars, and the rather monopolistic zeal of some of the American electric transport entrepreneurs put people off, or led to bad business decisions. In London, the cab company had an expensive problem with tyres (amongst other issues).

Whatever the mess of reasons, in the 20th century, petrol-based transport was allowed to dominate, and we’ve built a whole load of our lives around that.

And why does this matter? Because transport is one of the things we need to electrify if we’re going to kick the fossil fuel habit. It accounts for around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The figure is even higher in some parts of the especially polluting parts of the world, like the US or the EU.

Electrify a system, and you can feed it with a range of energy sources – so you’re options include wind, hydro, solar and nuclear, not just coal, gas or oil – whereas you’re a bit more stuck if you’re working with an engine based on petrol or diesel. We’re a long way from an electric plane – for all the hype around that solar plane – but when it comes to cars, buses and trains, that’s something we can get on with now. With increasing evidence of the dangers of air pollution caused by oil-based cars too, it’s about time we got a wiggle on

It's the 25th anniversary of the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change. Happy birthday!

Last week, Donald Trump announced he’d be withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement. This month, it’s also the 25th anniversary of the signing of the UNFCCC — the larger system which gave birth to the Paris Agreement — so it seemed timely to trace some of its history.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or the UNF-triple-C to its friends) was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in June 1992.

As Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then UN secretary-general, said at the start of the event: “Ultimately if we do nothing, then the storm will break on the heads of future generations. For them it will be too late.”

Before the event, there were the now-familiar rumblings from the US that all this climate change stuff was a waste of time/ communist plot.

It wasn’t the first UN meeting on climate change. There had been discussions of the issue in and around the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (aka the Stockholm Declaration) though arguable, they didn't talk about climate change nearly as much as they could have, or some scientists would have wanted.

Amongst other things, this 1972 conference had given birth to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which had, in turn, worked with the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to set up the (IPCC, no not that IPCC, the other IPCC, the one that shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore). This collects global expertise on climate change, issuing regular reports assessing what we know about the issue. The first came out in 1990, helping prepare the ground for the 1992 summit, the most recent was 2014, part of the drum-beating before the Paris talks at the end of 2015. It's split into different working groups: WGI no the physical science basis (i.e. is it happening?), WGII on impacts (i.e. what’s happening/ will happen?) and WGIII on mitigation (i.e. can we stop it?).

Small diversion: the point in history where climate change starts inspiring UN conferences is also the point it starts to turn into an alphabet soup of acronyms. And it only gets worse as the meetings get going and thy start talking about stuff like AOSIS (the Alliance Of Small Island States), LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry), BAU (Business as Usual), or DAI (Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference with the climate system… aka we’re screwed).

There were also World Climate Conferences in 1979 and 1990. Politicians were increasingly talking about the issue, and it was picking up press coverage. I highly recommend reading Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the UN, if only for the steampunk image of Charles Darwin in a spaceship. It should be noted, however, that the growing media interest in climate change included a fair bit of sceptical coverage, stressing uncertainty and lack on climate consensus, and Thatcher herself ended up rather on the sceptic side as she got older. Climate politics was slightly different back then, but a lot of the seeds of our current situation were already sown in the early 1990s, indeed in some areas they’d already grown some pretty sturdy roots by then too.

In the end, the 1992 Convention didn’t include any binding limits on carbon emissions for specific countries, nor any enforcement mechanisms (in contrast, for example, from some agreements on control of weapons). Instead, it’s an agreement to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Or, in human language, they agreed to take action on greenhouse gas emissions so we might stop climate change really kicking our bottoms sometime in the future, but they put off agreeing a precise definition of what such a kicking might look like, or whose bottoms they were going to worry about in particular, and didn’t really build in any way to keep anyone accountable, other than plan to have more meetings about the topic.

Still, they agreed to update and publish inventories of their emissions as well as developing, co-operating in and promoting programes for both mitigating climate change and adapting to it. These are all important first steps to more. They also agreed to promote public education about climate change and its effects, and public participation projects for tackling climate change (a point often forgotten, especially when government science and climate comms budgets get cut). Another important part of the convention was the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” with responsibility largely on the shoulders of developed countries. So the EU, for example, was expected to dramatically cut emissions, but India was not.

With the signing of the UNFCCC, they also kicked off annual UN climate conferences. They’re also called the Conference of the Parties or, colloquially, a COP the “parties” being the signatories to the convention). These were meetings for representatives of the countries that had signed up to the convention, and they’ve happened roughly once a year since. The most famous of these COP events recently was the Paris talks, but you might well have heard of the Copenhagen one too, or Kyoto.  

A body called the UNFCCC sits alongside the signed document, organizing these meetings. It’s based in Bonn in Germany. The current head of the secretariat is Patricia Espinonsa, who succeeded Christiana Figureres in July last year (more on her in a bit).

These regular COP meetings have lead to the UNFCCC being criticised as a bit of a talking shop. In some ways, this is a very fair criticism, though it’s also fair to say that something as big as action on climate change will take a fair bit of talking. And these meetings have offered up the necessary space to do the sorts of diplomatic work necessary to build the sorts of action we need.

They can get dramatic too. Venezuelan delegate Claudia Salerno lifted a bloodied hand to the UN and Danish hosts at the 2009 talks. At COP13 in Bali in 2007, Yvo de Boer — then head of the UNFCCC — had to be led away from the chamber in tears and at COP19, in Warsaw in 2013, Philippines lead negotiator Yeb Sano broke down in the middle of his address. He also added an unscripted pledge that — in solidarity with his country people who were struggling to find food in the wake of super-typhoon Haiyan — he would be fasting for the duration of the talks.

There’s always been a bit of a fringe too — arts, and protest. The more official ends of things allowing local engagement with climate action, the less official sides being a great opportunity for global networks of climate activists to network. As activist and writer Kevin Smith argues, COP 6, held in the Hague in 2000 was a bit of a milestone in that respect. A series of direct actions took place around the conference, including activists occupying one of the main beams over the great hall and scattering fake carbon credits over the delegates below. Hot on the heels of the World Bank/IMF mobilizations in Prague in September of that year, Smith argues this was influential in developing a coalition of climate activists who sought to highlight the role of corporate lobbyists and the marginalization of the global south.

Back to official business. At the first COP (in Berlin in 1995) they agreed that their initial idea of stabilising their emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 wasn't going to cut it, and planned discussions around a larger challenge at the 1997 Kyoto talks, which lead to the Kyoto Protocol.

This was adopted in December 1997, but didn’t come into force until February 2005. To come into force, it needed to be ratified by at least 55 countries, and that their emissions must account for at least 55% of global emissions. Most countries signed the Protocol at the time, but signing was the easy step – a basic nod of support. If you were going to ratifying the Protocol, however, you had to take action, and that proved too much for some key players, namely George W Bush who famously withdrew the US in 2001.

The next attempt to give the UNFCCC more teeth was Copenhagen in 2009. These were accompanied by a massive “Hopenhagen” PR push (yes, really, they called it Hopenhagen, you might be able to still find some of the more cringe-worthy vids on YouTube) and it’s fair to say that climate action was, with or without the UN, picking up momentum at this point. It was more accepted, more normal, even fashionable to want to tackle climate change. The kids who’d watched Rio on television in 1992 were now adults, some with kids themselves — voting, taking a lead in their communities, teaching. It felt as if, finally, something meaningful might happen. And the President of the US wasn’t called George Bush. It was Obama, who was still basking in the glow of the hopey changey election rhetoric.

But the talks ended in what was at best described as a weak compromise, if not complete collapse. Indeed, arguably, Copenhagen left much of the environmental movement in a state of despondency which lasted for years after. At least part of the climate community had pinned a fair bit of their hope on a UN agreement sorting things. As the ambition in this agreement crumbled, so did their optimism.

We also now know, via Edward Snowdon, that the USA spied on climate negotiators before and during the conference, potentially giving the American delegation an edge in discussions. In 2014, the UN announced it was to investigate the UK for doing similar. Naughty.

Six months on. Enter Christina Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat who had worked on Kyoto as well as Copenhagen. (Fun Figueres facts: she has different coloured eyes, she did her masters at the LSE and picked up a taste for British-style tea, her Dad was as President of Costa Rica three times, she received the French Legion of Honor, and though she owns a Prius, she generally takes the tram to work).

Figueres was appointed Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC in July 2010. As she describes her first few days in office, a journalist asked if she thought a climate change agreement was possible, and she responded - to despair of her press officers - “Not in my lifetime.” But she soon realised that if the were going to change things, they'd have to get out of the post-Copenhagen despondency, and get some of the optimism back. Building a new climate agreement would be, at least in part, a matter of changing the tone.

As Figueres puts it, “impossible is not a fact, it’s an attitude. And I decided, right then and there, that I was going to change my attitude, and I was going to help the world change its attitude on climate change.” Drawing on the technological and economic shifts in wind and solar energy, she worked with others across the UN to construct a sense that the move to clean energy was unstoppable.

Arguably, this idea that clean energy is ‘unstoppable’ is more than rhetoric, and this is one of the reasons why Trump pulling out isn’t game over for climate change. According to a report out today, 31k solar panels were installed every hour last year. 31k per hour.

Another shift we can trace between Copenhagen and Paris is greater networking of mayors and local leadership on climate, and more leadership from large business too. With this, we’ve seen climate power move away from the leaders of nation states, and with it, a slightly smaller (or at least different) role for the UN. It’s also true that more people are consciously experiencing the effects of climate change, and reading about it happening to others. It’s all a lot less far off than it was back in 1992.

So we end up with things like the We’re Still In Group — a letter to the UNFCCC signed by mayors of Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and more, alongside companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook alongside university presidents all stating that, whatever Trump does, they’re all still signed up to the Paris Agreement, and they’re taking the 120 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the US economy they represent with them.

The US — the nation, as a nation, not just people in it as individuals, or via their city, university or company — participating in a global agreement would still help though. It could help a lot if they not only stayed in, but upped their ambition loads too. If nothing else, it’s a big budget loss to the Climate Fund. Plus, as a report from the International Energy Agency issued just today argued, clean energy technologies might be unstoppable, but lack of support from policy at a national government level is really slowing them down. Still, it’s a long way from game-over. Both climate action at large, and the UN in particular are way more powerful than that. 

"Spandex jackets for everyone" - the International Geophysical Year

It’s June 1957, and Prince Philip is addressing the nation, warning about the threat of rising seas caused by melting glaciers.

No, it’s not some new alternative history science fiction. It actually happened. You can watch it on the BBC archive. It was part of a special BBC TV documentary launching something called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the topic of today’s post.

In practice, the International Geophysical Year lasted over a year – it was 18 months – and was a little short of international too as China abstained. But it’s crucial to the history of climate change, and pretty interesting in its own right too.

As we’ll see, there were a lot of players and agendas involved in the IGY, but the initial idea came from scientists, or so the story goes. It was April 1950, and a British scientist, Sydney Chapman, was visiting Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of DC. One evening, Chapman sat with few other geophysicists in James Van Allen's living room, including Fred Singer (now more famous for his climate scepticism). They’d been discussing the International Polar Year that had been held in 1932 and at some point in the conversation someone pointed out that with all the recent technological developments like computers, rockets and radar, maybe it was time for something similar, but bigger – a massive coordinated, worldwide study of our planet.

Fast-forward to summer 1957, and it’s being launched by royalty on the BBC  (Eisenhower gave a US TV and radio address too, but there’s more pageantry and melting ice in the BBC version, so I’m going to focus on that).

The duke stands in the television studio, surrounded by maps and bits of scientific equipment, rubbing his thumbs with an awkward enthusiasm while he introduces a series of films about international environmental science. We go from the Antarctic to Japan, to Canada to what was, at the time, the Belgian Congo, via the Swiss Alps and a high school rocket society in the USA. It’s a bit like the bit at the end of Eurovision when the points roll in from different countries, but with less glitter, thicker beards, and a slightly different political subtext. We see fieldwork in all sorts of locations, scientists’ offices, lab-work and, finally, a rocket launch. Environmental science is presented in the mode of a noble (posh, white, male) quest, an adventure of daring-do, exploration and wide-eyed discovery. The politics of the cold war are implicit, but very much present. The same can be said for the politics of colonialism.

About half an hour in, there’s an especially dramatic bit from Greenland talking about an international project on glaciers involving Swiss, French, Austrian, German and Danish scientists. “Why bother?” the science presenter rhetorically asks the camera, all the time wearing sunglasses and clutching a pickaxe. “Well, for the last 50 years, the glaciers have been receding, and the high snow is melting. The levels of the ocean have been rising. If all the glaciers melted at once, the water would rise halfway up Nelson’s column.”

Today, imagery like that is pretty banal. But in 1957? That’s a while before the Day After Tomorrow.

The central premise of the IGY wasn’t fear though, if anything, the ethos was incredibly beautiful. People around the world working together to understand their planet. As the duke puts it at the end of the BBC doc, “the IGY is the world studying itself, but it’s also a much more than that. It’s a great experiment in world co-operation.” Prince Philip, the old hippie.

It’s worth remembering that this is before we’d put people in space – 15 years before Apollo 17 sent back its “blue marble” shot of Earth. One of the key hopes of the IGY was to use networks of research projects to create a sort of snapshot of the Earth. We couldn’t do that from space back then, so we’d have to find ways to piece one together by connecting a range of different perspectives on Earth. This ‘snapshot’ would be useful, but it could be inspiring too, a cooperatively produced image of the planet we shared.

The IGY could also be credited with starting the space race, in as much as the Soviet Union and the USA both launched satellites for the event – Sputnik 1 in October 1957 and, a month later, Jupiter-C. Unlike some of the other IGY projects, Sputnik and the equivalent US programme could well have happened anyway, but the IGY offered them the costume of scientific discovery and a stage of scientific co-operation on which to play out their more competitive show of military might.

We could argue all this hopey-feely stuff was always a massive smokescreen for Cold War plotting – although there’s a lot of truth in this analysis, it’s also slightly too cynical. As historian Spencer Weart puts it, a variety of motives converged to make the IGY possible. The idea of an IGY offered a lot of real scientific opportunities. Aside from the excitement of a big event acting a hook to get funding, there was also the argument that to study the whole Earth we really did need a broad range of countries to be involved. As a Canadian scientist puts it in the BBC documentary, “oceanography demands co-operation” simply because the oceans touch a range of countries. The government officials who stumped up the cash for IGY projects would have got that – at least in the USA, science policy wonks were up for a bit of basic exciting research. But they did also expect data to come out of the IGY too, data that could be put to use to both civilian and military ends.

It’s also fair to say there were also people involved in the IGY who honestly hoped the world might learn something from 18 months contemplating scientific cooperation and this shared planet we all live on. As Eisenhower put it, the most important result of the IGY was the “demonstration of the ability of peoples of all nations to work together harmoniously for the common good.” In the mouth of a politician, this is rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also a serious agenda fuelling at least some parts of the IG too.

In principle, the concept of scientific diplomacy the IGY came wrapped in is pretty neat. In theory, scientists want truth and, again in theory, are happy to work together to get it. This is part of the idea behind CERN and the similar Sesame particle accelerator – get scientists to work together on some shared interesting project and they’ll forge relationships along the way, relationships which can reverberate beyond just that project.

Except the politics of science aren’t that simple. Even if the scientists involved are just in it for the truth (if…), and they’re good at working together (again, if…), there are plenty of other people involved to make it about so much more. And you can hide all sorts of things behind scientific missions and conferences, and just as scientists can broker relationships with each other, they can work with a whole range of different actors too.

Take, for example, IGY trips to Greenland. These allowed scientists to study interesting clunks of ice, and for the US government officials who handled the logistics, it was a chance to learn more about routes to the Soviet Union. Or, when it came to oceanography, the Navy got data they could use to better move their ships around, and in exchange, the scientists could use these ships to travel to bits of the planet they wanted to study. All this data the IGY was to collect as it built a ‘snapshot’ of the Earth was fascinating for scientists, but it was also invaluable for military planners who would otherwise be limited to the data they could collect in their own regions, or trusting data they managed to get somehow wrangle from the other side.

In his book, Arming Mother Nature, Jacob Darwin Hamblin offers further links between the IGY and military imaginations. He notes that buzzword of the IGY was synoptic – this sense it was a chance to view together, and take a mass snapshot of the Earth. The IGY brought this concept of the Earth into military planners’ view, a concept some of them later ran with, at least within a 1960 committee chaired by Theodore von Kármán. As Hamblin puts it “while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation”. All this data didn’t just help the military know more about the Earth to move around, the data could potentially help the military manipulate the Earth too, creating weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. Scientists could already disperse fog (indeed, Guy Calendar worked on that), but could they go further? Could blackening agents be used to absorb light and so quicken the melting of ice sheets, flooding ports? Could targeted nuclear bombing disrupt key food chains? Engineering, chemistry and even medicine had all been weaponised in previous wars, was it now the turn of environmental science?

Hamblin’s book is fascinating, and discusses interactions between environmental science and the military far beyond just the IGY, so I’ll let you read it for yourself if you’re interested.

For all the reference to sea level rise in the BBC documentary, global warming wasn’t explicitly high on the agenda in the IGY. Still, it offered opportunities to nurture research projects that has proved vital to our modern understanding of climate change. As mentioned in an earlier post on David Keeling, researchers interested in tracking the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere took advantage of some of the IGY money floating around to set up a research base in Mauna Loa, a centre which continues to collect data to this day.

IGY was a lot more than just the 18 months it ran. The years running up to it were crucial as a range of international scientific organisations worked together to plan the event, cementing relationships as they also built instruments, projects and research bases. And the IGY was always meant to have lasting impacts too. Central to the IGY, was the establishment of three data centres. Data collected in the 1932 polar year had been lost due to the Second World War, and new concern about how the ‘Iron Curtain’ was limiting scientific debate. As part of building the IGY they established the World Data Center system – one part housed in the USA, another in the Soviet Union, and a third divided up between countries in Europe, Australia, and Japan. Each host country agreed to keep to the IGY principle of open exchange of data between nations, and the idea was that each centre would eventually have a complete archive of IGY data. If one centre was lost, there'd still be a record. This data still lives on, managed by the International Council for Science.

Also established as part of the IGY was the Halley Research Station in Antarctica. There’s a lot we humans now know that we wouldn’t if it wasn’t for that base – the hole in the ozone layer, for example (though that’s another story...). Another key spinoff of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, establishing that part of the planet for peace and scientific research. Like IGY itself, there’s a lot of beauty in the simple principles of science diplomacy at work here, and also a lot more going on behind it too. And, while we’re listing IGY legacies, there was Sputnik too – inspiring, significant, and drenched in Cold War politics.

It’s questionable whether the money needed for something as big as the IGY would have been put up in a more peaceful world. Then again, as decades of pacifist slogans have told us, less war might well mean more money for research, so who’s to know. What we do know is that it wasn’t nearly as simple a matter as old Second World War technology being given the chance to be put to peaceful ends, or the world coming together despite the tensions of the Cold War period with a pure devotion to science. There was a lot more going on.

The cultural impact of the IGY is perhaps less than you’d want from such a massive scientific project – Sputnik inspired all sorts of cultural impacts, and Halley’s had it’s fair share too, as has Keeling’s CO2 measurement, but IGY itself is harder to trace. Still, there’s an interesting song about it from the 1980s, by Don Fagin. I.G.Y. (what a beautiful world) sings for the hope of sunshine-powered cities, a tunnel between Paris and New York, and, er, “spandex jackets for everyone”. It’s a slightly ironic and nostalgic hope, as if we naïve to even want or imagine such a glorious future in the first place. Which analysis you prefer maybe depends on how much you want a spandex jacket, or how comfortable you feel about the funding of environmental science letting itself be used as a cloak for military endeavours.

There's an exhibition about the IGY at the Polar Museum, Cambridge, until the 9th September 2017. 

Who sells sea-shells by the river Niger’s shore?

Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells. True story.

Our tale starts in the East End of London in the mid 19th century, and one Marcus Samuel.

Some people say Samuel came from an Iraqi Jewish family, others say his family arrived in London via Holland. Both could be true, but both also fit so neatly into a narrative of the oil industry, they’re maybe worth taking with a pinch of salt. What we do know is the 1851 census has Marcus Samuel down as a shell merchant.

At the time, small boxes covered in sea-shells were in vogue, but it’s likely Samuel sold a whole range of things - whatever he could pick up round the docks and sell on to the burgeoning London bourgeois. By the 1860s, he’d built some wealth and was importing everything from ostrich features to bags of pepper. He was also joined in business by his two sons, named, imaginatively, Marcus and Samuel. They forged relationships with trading houses across the world, especially in Asia. Apparently he imported the first mechanical loom to Japan. According to Daniel Yergin's book the Prize (which, if you're into the history of oil, you should totally read), the Samuels’ tiny office in Houndsditch crammed full to the ceiling with Japanese vases, imported furniture, silks, seashells and feathers.

Let’s shift focus to Marcus Samuel Jr, as he was the real oil man. So legend has it, while travelling in Caspian Sea area in 1892, Marcus Jr realised there was potential in exporting oil from the region, and commissioned the world's first purpose-built oil tanker. He named the tanker the Murex, Latin for a type of snail shell, with a nod to his father’s earlier trade.

Oil tankers existed before this. Ludvig Nobel – big brother of the chap the prizes are named after – is credited with building this first modern one in the late 1870s, and there are records of boats we might call oil tankers before that, off the coast of the North of England, or in Pennsylvania. But Marcus Samuel Jr’s ships were the first to convince the Suez Canal company - understandably worried about explosions - of their safety. Crucially, this allowed him to ship oil to Bangkok and Singapore.

By the end of 1893, Samuel had launched ten more ships - all also named in reference to shells, the conch, the clam etc - with 50 more by 1895. Marcus himself was knighted in 1898 when his tanker SS Pecten (another shell name) helped pull HMS Victorious to safety.

In February 1907 Samuel’s Shell Transport & Trading merged with Royal Dutch Petroleum and we got the entity we know today, the entity we know today, Royal Dutch Shell.

Another part of Marcus Samuel’s company, M. Samuel & Co, developed into a merchant bank and, in 1960s, merged with another company to create Hill Samuel, which is now a part of Lloyds TSB. The Sydney end of their business, Hill Samuel Australia, is now better known as Macquarie, of vampire kangaroo fame. But that’s a slight diversion from our story. Back to the oil.

During the First World War, Shell was the main supplier of fuel to the British Expeditionary Force. It was also the sole supplier of aviation fuel and supplied 80 percent of the British Army's TNT. Marcus Samuel was made an actual oil baron - the 1st Baron Bearsted of Maidstone in the County of Kent - in honor of his support of the war effort.

In 1919, Royal Dutch Shell took control of the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company and by the 1920s was established as the world’s leading oil company, producing 11% of the world's crude oil supply. During the depression the 1930s, they merged with BP, and traded as  Shell-Mex and BP till 1975 when the brands parted again. In 1970, they bought the mining company Billiton, then sold in 1994. They discovered the first oil well in Malaysia in 1910 and started work in Nigeria in 1958. Suffice to say, they get around, and one of the things that makes Marcus Samuel’s story so important is that it’s not just a story of oil, but of the history of globalisation. People like Marcus Samuel didn’t just fuel 20th century trading, they were it too.

Marcus Jr died in 1927, and his son, Walter, took over as Chairman of the Shell Transport and Trading Company. His old home Upton Park is now a National Trust property, and recently switched its heating system from oil to renewable energy.

And the Murex? She ended up fighting in WW1, and was torpedoed inDecember 1916 by a German Navy submarine a bit north of Port Said, Egypt, sunk with the loss of one man.

The man from the Elephant who helped switch on the world

If we really want to understand climate change - where it came from, but also how to tackle it - we need to talk about electricity. Plus this gives me a chance to talk about Michael Faraday. And he’s great.

Before the 19th century, people had a sense of electricity, but only really played around with it. The ancients knew you could get shocks from some fish - electric eels for example - and had worked out that if you rubbed some stuff (e.g. your cat) with an amber rod, then lightweight things like feathers might fly towards them. There’s evidence of batteries - or at least something like them - from around 200 BC to AD 200 in modern-day Iraq, though no one's quite sure what it was used for.

Even before 1752, when Benjamin Franklin took a damp kite into the middle of a lightning storm, the bourgeois were entertained by tricks like the ‘electric boy’. Find a child, suspend them from the ceiling with silk threads and then rub them with an amber rod so they attract feathers or bits of paper. A more elaborate version had the child standing on a friction generator so their hands might attract small pieces of paper, even turn the pages of a book without touching them. Or you might create a spark if you touched them on the nose.

The electric boy - 18th century electrical demonstration. 

The electric boy - 18th century electrical demonstration. 

In 1780, Galvani discovered he could make frogs legs twitch with an electrical spark. By the 1820s, between Ampère and Ørsted, we had a sense of the connection of electricity and magnetism, after Ørsted noticed a compass needle moving when a current was turned on and off. But no one had really put this to work.

Faraday’s work helped change that, and with he gave us some key bricks for the energy system we now have. It’s an energy system that, so far, has been largely fuelled by fossil fuels. But it could well be an energy system for the future too. We can get electricity from a range of places - not just coal, but wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, etc - and electrifying as much as possible (then making sure that electricity is low carbon) is one of the key things we need to do to tackle climate change.

But back to Mr Faraday himself. He was born in 1791 in Newington Butts, near the Elephant and Castle (if that sounds like something out of Harry Potter, you should know that today it is a massive roundabout surrounded by speedily-gentrified tower blocks). The soon moved north of the river, to Manchester Square near Marylebone. Faraday’s family were far from rich, and he didn't receive much of a formal education. He started working as a delivery boy at a nearby bookbinders and booksellers and was soon promoted to apprentice.

He'd often read the books he was sorting or binding, and developed a strong interest in science. He also go to lectures held nearby, encouraged by his employer, and kept detailed notes about everything he learnt. There’s stories about the young Faraday experimenting with what he’d read about in books too. His first recorded experiment was a sort of early battery - a pile of seven coins stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water.

The bookseller got Faraday to show off his notes to customers. One, a musician called William Dance, was so impressed he gave the young Faraday tickets for lectures given by Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution (which I’ve already mentioned in a post about Tyndall).

The RI has an amazing funnel-shaped lecture theatre. If you ever have the chance to go, do. The young Faraday sat in the gallery, behind the clock. He took meticulous notes and, using his bookbinding skills an , presented them to Davy in a beautifully 300 page book which led to some correspondence between them. A year later, in March 1813, after one of the RI's chemistry assistants was dismissed for fighting, Davy remembered this keen young bookbinder and offered him a job.

Faraday was paid £1.5s a week, less than he got at the booksellers, but it came with a room at the RI. And he get to work on science.

Soon, Davy announced he was going on an 18 month tour of Europe, and Faraday was invited to join. It didn’t sound like the trip was all fun and science for Faraday. He was expected to deputise as Davy’s valet, at least until they reached Paris, and he was very much treated as a servant by Davy’s wife. Plus it was all cut short when Napoleon escaped from Elba. Still, he stayed on, and got to meet people like Alassandro Volta, who gave him a battery. As the Royal Institution puts it, “as if the inventor of the electric battery passed on the torch of electrical research to Faraday.”

He returned to the RI and gradually built his career there. In 1822, he’d developed what we’d now understand as the world’s first electric motor. Developing the work of Ørsted and Ampère and playing around with a magnet, small bath of mercury and a battery, he managed to turn the electrical energy from the battery into something that moved. A key step in the history of humans using electricity.

In his excitement, Faraday published results without acknowledging that he’d worked alongside Davy and another scientist, William Hyde Wollaston. This strained his relationship with Davy, and may well have led to Faraday being shifted to work on other areas, away from electromagnetism.

After Davy’s death, Faraday returned to the topic. He’d already managed to make movement from electricity using a magnet, but could he make electricity using magnets? Working with some simple apparatus - the wire he used seems to be the same stuff made to use bonnets - he fashioned a basic electric generator. Wire was coiled around a tube of some neutral material and insulated in cotton. Faraday realised that if he moved the bar magnet back and forth through the coil of wire, he could generate a current.

It was really inefficient, not practical as a power source itself in anyway. Still, it was the start of something. Virtually all the electricity we use today is produced using this these principles. The initial movement could come from all sorts of sources - coal, wind, hydro - they all power a generator which then produces electrical current we can be passed on and used.

There are loads of other steps before we get to the sort of electrical lives we live today - loads of refinements to the generator, not least further inventions like the lightbulb, the transistor and the microchip - but Faraday’s work was crucial.

Faraday’s life wasn’t all about electromagnetism. He was very committed to his church (he was a Sandemanian). In 1825 started a series of christmas lectures for children which are still going. Apparently he also had a very intense and personal correspondence with Ada Lovelace, but he felt this was inappropriate and later distanced himself from her (there’s some great scientific fanfic in this...). He also helped with the planning for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and, in 1855, famously wrote a letter to the Times about the state of pollution in the River thames (a nice example of politicians ignoring scientists concerns over pollution, until they realise an economic opportunity a few years later).

Faraday publicly stated several times that he would not accept a knighthood, saying he preferred to remain "plain Mr Faraday to the end.” There’s no evidence that he was actually ever offered one, but that’s not to say Faraday was been a massive egotist to assume he might be. There’s a story that he refused to help develop chemical weapons in the Crimean War, though he was also Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, for a couple of decades too, so we shouldn’t mark him up as a pacifist. He also refused the chance to be buried in Westminster Abbey (though there is a plaque to him there, by Newton’s tomb. Newton was nowhere near so modest, but that’s a whole other story…).

In 1848, he did accept an all-expenses-paid home at Hampton Court Palace (the one in all the Henry VIII movies), which is where he retired and then died.

If you want to visit his grave, it’s in the West side of Highgate Cemetery. There’s also a weird metal cube memorial over a electric substation in the middle of Elephant and Castle roundabout. Apparently the first idea was an inverted glazed pyramid revealing glowing mercury vapour, but this idea was ditched in case it distracted drivers. More conventionally, there’s a statue outside the Institution of Engineering and Technology, or you can also visit his old lab at the RI. If you're round the White Cliffs of Dover, you could drop by the South Foreland Lighthouse which, after considerable testing by Faraday, became the first lighthouse in the world to be lit with electric lighting in 1858. Or simply thank him next time you flick a switch and something happens. 

No one told Gilbert Plass to study global warming. But no one told him not to either.

No one told Gilbert Plass to study global warming. But no one told him not to either.

It was just that the US Navy was supporting his post-doc work on infrared radiation, and he got curious around the edges of what he was supposed to be doing.

Plass was the sort of guy who listened to his first year undergraduate tutors when they said you should “read around your work”. He happened upon some of the older work exploring how the ice age could be explained in terms of changes of C02 - stuff by Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius and Callendar. This was the 1950s, so the idea of global warming wasn’t exactly established by then, but it wasn’t new either. Plass was the heir to over 150 years of work on the topic already.

Born in 1920 in Toronto, Canada, he moved to the US to study. After a bachelors at Harvard which included courses on geology, chemistry and physics, he did a PhD in physics at Princeton University, graduating in 1947.

He got a job as an instructor of physics at Johns Hopkins University in 1946, and eventually became an associate professor there and. As a side-project, he started considering how C02 in the atmosphere absorbed infrared radiation.

At Hopkins, he had money from the Office of Naval Research to study infrared radiation. Crucially, a sabbatical year at Michigan State University in 1954–55 gave him access to a large computer to crunch his numbers. Before he’d finished the work, he got a new job at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Southern California – researching heat-seeking missiles. But he kept up the global warming stuff as a sort of evening project, a bit of light environmentalism as a break from the military-industrial-complex.

Plass published a series of papers on the impacts of carbon dioxide on climate, and they were covered in mainstream press, not just scientific journals. In 1953 both Popular Mechanics and Time discussed Plass’ work describing a sort of invisible blanket growing over the Earth, and highlighting that if our industrial growth continues as it has, our climate will get warmer.

You can read his 1956 American Scientist article in the magazine’s archive, republished with commentaries from historian James Rodger Fleming and climate scientist Gavin Schmidt. Although there were still loads missing in Plass’ research, articles like these helped make the argument that this was something we should invest in some proper science to explore, and highlighted key gaps for us to invest in research on. If it wasn’t for Plass, for example, Keeling might not have had the chance to start his crucial carbon dioxide measurements at Mauna Loa.

It’s worth noting that Plass was pretty much the end of the side-project phase of climate science. After that, things got a bit more professional. It is also worth noting that Plass is one of many people involved in early climate science who had their work supported by the military.

But we should be wary of simply celebrating military funding of science. The same discoveries might well have been made if these scientists had been given the money and freedom around study of any number of topics. It’s a very lazy history of science which looks at the various spin offs of military R&D and can’t imagine a world where we had the same discoveries (and possibly more) if our brains had been invited to focus on some other challenge. Moreover, as Jacob Darwin Hamblin reminds, us Cold War funding of environmental science a long way from accidental, and not not necessarily something to celebrate (more on that in another post).

Plass died in 2004, and so would have seen his arguments take root - both scientifically and politically. Arguably, he also lived long enough to really see impacts of global warming bite. The early sketches Plass drew on - by Fourier, Tyndall or Arrhenius - were largely intellectual exercises about a far-off future no one really imagined happening. That wouldn’t be the case for Plass, or the generations of climate change scientists who followed him.

He was also a massive stamp collector, but I don’t think that lead to any big scientific discoveries.