Energy in the pre-industrial world

Domestication of animals
Source: Fragment of a relief. Two men with a bull, 5-6th Dynasty (c.2513-c.2191 BC), Old Kingdom Egypt, Medelhavsmuseet, Identifier: MME 1990:004 1

This article is the fifth of an ongoing series from EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on .

The Historiana source collection Energy in the pre-industrial world explores the impact that an increasing amount of available energy had on the development of human kind. Developments like harnessing fire, water and wind, as well as the domestication of plants and animals made it possible to sustain more and more people. The population growth was a gradual process over time, tempered by the so-called ‘checks’ each time the population hit the Malthusian Ceiling.

The population growth accelerated significantly when more energy sources were, literally, unearthed during the Industrial Revolution, changing the way we perceive growth of society and availability energy forever… or did it? The source collection represents the way people have been using energy since the time of hunter-gatherers. In this learning activity students will delve into the different sources of energy in the pre-industrial world, which were arguably more sustainable, and think on possibilities and implications of energy use in the modern world.


The aims of this learning activity for the students are:

  • The student describes the most important sources of energy in the pre-industrial world.
  • The student explains the Malthusian Ceiling and what fire, domestication and natural energy sources like water and wind did to raise that ceiling.
  • The student discusses the significance of the Industrial Revolution in the development of energy use within society.
  • The student discusses to what extent it would be possible to maintain our current lifestyle when relying on pre-industrial energy sources.

E-Learning Activity builder

This e-Learning Activity makes use of both the sorting tool (four times) and prioritizing tool from the Historiana e-Learning Activity builder in four sub-activities.

The first time the sorting tool is used, it is merely to give students the opportunity to study a certain source. Within the sorting tool one or more sources can be placed on a white background, enabling students to orient themselves on the source.

The second time the sorting tool is used, several sources (on the domestication of fire) are put on a background of three concentric squares. Students are asked to sort the sources by cause and consequence, both short-term and long-term, by putting them in certain squares.

The third time the sorting tool is used several sources (on the domestication of crops and animals) are placed on a background with a horizontal timeline. Students need to put the sources in chronological order and after that, study the development of the use of muscle power of both animals and people over time.

The fourth time the sorting tool is used is comparable to the second time. Again there are the three concentric squares and the sorting of sources (this time on natural sources of energy like water and wind) by cause and consequence. In this case putting a source in the outer square, it represents a higher level of complexity in energy use than when a source is put in one of the smaller inner squares. The sorting tool can be used this way to have students look for increasing complexity in developments or for increasing impact (on a geographical scale for example) of a certain development.

The sub-activity that makes use of the prioritizing tool asks students to resize several selected sources in relation to the Malthusian Ceiling. Each source represents a development and not every development has had the same impact on increasing population growth. By resizing the sources and discussing their findings with a partner students are encouraged to think on the (historical) significance) of developments.

Learning Activity

The main aim of this learning activity is to have students think on the possibilities of maintaining the life style in modern (western) society without the energy sources that people have been using since the Industrial Revolution.

At the start of the learning activity students are asked to orient themselves on the Malthusian Ceiling. The central part of the activity consists of three sub-activities, each making use of the sorting tool in combination with a descriptive question. For example: put the sources in chronological order and describe the impact of the domestication of crops and animals on the use of human muscle power. The sources that have been pre-selected include sources on slavery and slave trade, so students can argue that although domestication of animals shifted the use of muscle energy from people to animals to some extent, yet not entirely, especially not in the first decennia after the European expansion.

The three central sub-activities culminate in an evaluative question, asking which development had been most significant in relation to the Malthusian Ceiling. Students discuss this question while making use of the prioritizing tool.

The final question is overarching and demands a more essay-like approach, incorporating all the things the students have studied during the learning activity. Are energy sources from the pre-industrial age, as studied in the activity, a viable alternative for the energy of fossil fuels that are being used on a large scale in modern day society? This question is intentionally complex and does not have one ‘right’ answer. It’s aim is to have students think on alternatives by exploring the past, while thinking on their own future.


The e-learning activity Energy in the pre-industrial world makes use of the Historiana source collection of the same name. It makes use of both the sorting tool and the prioritizing tool of the E-Learning Activity builder. It’s aim have students explore the development of energy use in relation to the Malthusian Ceiling, before the Industrial Revolution and the massive use of fossil fuels started. The main question has students discuss the possibilities and implications of using pre-industrial sources of energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

On a side note: while this e-learning activity was developed as a stand-alone activity, it can combined with two other e-learning activities: The Subterranean Forest and The Age of Synergies. Especially using this learning activity in conjunction with The Subterranean Forest makes for an added layer. In The Subterranean Forest students explore the possibility, probability and preferability of the use of fossil fuels, while in this activity they look at alternatives to the use of fossil fuels.

The full descriptions on the activities The Subterranean Forest and The Age of Synergies can be found in different blog-posts.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyond, and the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.

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