Keeping the nation rolling

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Wall sockets give your home machines access to the energy they need to work, right from your computer, television and phone on down to fridges and power tools. Hand-operated washing machines have long-since disappeared, and we have become so dependent on electricity that a power outage is remembered for years. But by the turn of the 20th century electricity was still a new technology, and it spread only slowly to Danish homes. Often it competed with town gas. Town gas has almost disappeared today, but at the dawn of the 1900s it lit up many Danish towns and cities.

Sources of power
How the electricity that comes out of the outlet is produced – by burning coal, in a nuclear reaction, as water flowing over a dam turns a turbine, as the breezes make wind turbines turn or by the sun shining on a solar panel – is irrelevant for our use of electricity. But the choice of power source is not only a matter of technology. It is also about politics. Attesting to that fact is the debate about nuclear power, which meant that Denmark, unlike its neighbours, did not built nuclear power plants, as well as the debate about CO2 and climate change. Access to energy sources such as coal, oil, gas, waterfalls and biomass is also crucial. In Denmark, a tradition of exploiting wind power led not only to the appearance of many wind turbines in the domestic landscape, but also created a successful export industry.

Industrial energy use
Previously industrial producers needed to establish themselves close to natural energy sources to drive their machines. The first factories were, therefore, often built by streams that could turn a mill. In the 19th century human, horse, wind, and water power began to face competition from the steam engine, which had developed from a simple pump machine in the 18th century to a more efficient power source. The first Danish steam engine was built in 1790, but was so inefficient that it was quickly torn down again. Steam engines played their biggest role after 1850. By the end of the century, steam supplied nearly 90 percent of the mechanical power that Danish industrial producers used. At the same time industrial production had grown.

New power sources
At the beginning of the 20th century newer engine types as the four-stroke, electric and diesel began to take over. The new engines were cheaper and required less space. They could be decentralised and placed at machines in contrast to the steam engine which was placed centrally and ran all the machines through an ingenious system of shafts and belts. The new engines altered the design of industrial building, and steam power is now only used in steam turbines in power stations.

The race between electricity and petrol
Vehicle design also changed to keep up with the development of motors. The steam engine was an important prerequisite for the development of railways and revolutionised the shipping industry. But the petrol engine was used to drive cars and, until the jet engine arrived, fly aircraft. Petrol initially faced stiff competition from electricity and steam to power cars. And in fact it was an electric car that was the first to drive 100 kmh. Despite advantages such as less noise and easier operation, electric cars were outperformed by the petrol car in the first decades of the 20th century. Filling stations were built across the country and an infrastructure that made it easy to use petrol and diesel had been established. Muscle power is now only used to power one type of vehicle: the bicycle.