Richard F. Hirsh

History 4214
Course Information

Selected Topics in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology:

Energy in American History

With gasoline prices and dependence on foreign oil near record levels, energy has become a big topic again in public policy circles. Americans consume a disproportionately large amount of energy by world standards, yet government leaders—Democrats and Republicans—have been unwilling or unable to craft coherent policies to ensure reliable sources of fuel at reasonable prices. Because of petroleum imports, government initiatives have often been directed toward securing stable supplies of foreign oil, even if that meant resorting to war (i.e., the two Gulf wars), according to some policy analysts. Of course, oil is not the only energy resource available to Americans, but alternatives such as domestic coal and nuclear power have encountered serious technical and political objections that reduce their availability for use. Meanwhile, the development of renewable energy resources and the pursuit of energy efficiency have encountered political and market-based problems as well.

This course takes an historical approach toward understanding the development of government policy dealing with energy in the United States. It will trace the often-convoluted evolution of energy use and government policy in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Regulation and deregulation of energy industries will also be studied to gain insights about the purposes and consequences of government intervention in the energy markets.

Dr. Hirsh last taught this class in fall 2011.

Class Resources

Other Resources


Energy crisis and beyond

No gas today

The crisis of 1973 made Americans painfully aware of the precarious nature of the way they produce and use energy.

Wind turbine

Dr. Hirsh does research on the history of energy systems and policy. He also manages the interdisciplinary Consortium on Energy Restructuring at Virginia Tech.