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The history of the future: A clean, green tech lesson with Alexis Madrigal

October 8, 2010 | 12:23 pm

Alexis Madrigal
Americans once thought they would fly personal helicopters to work. We also thought we’d have nuclear power plant islands floating off the coasts.

These and other quirky facts are part of Alexis Madrigal’s “green tech timeline” that shows where we’ve been, what we failed at, and what our future could look like in terms of energy production.

Madrigal, senior editor at the Atlantic, is clear that the debate over energy sources did not begin in the last decade, or even the last 50 years. In fact, seeking alternative forms of energy has been part of the American dialogue since as early as the 19th century.

In his talk at CalTech on Thursday night, titled “The History of the Future: Clean Tech History,” he explained how early Americans thought they could manipulate the natural landscape, and how early inventors sought to create solutions to rapidly growing energy demands.

As America grew and became the nation we recognize today, more homes meant a greater need for power, electricity and water. Oil won the battle of energy production in the United States, and nuclear power was discovered to be too costly early on.

As Madrigal flipped through old photos of manufacturing plants, drawings of early windmills, and vintage maps -- he opened a curious cabinet of oddity, the absurd, and historical record.  He showed early innovations in solar, steam and wind power that point to where we might be headed.

But he was also clear that American ingenuity has not always led us to the right environmental solutions.

“We tend to overestimate how well we can tell absurdity from breakthrough. We don’t know as much as we think we do about what the future will hold,” he said.

He surprised students, telling them that the electric vehicle is not a new concept.

The idea that we could save the world and profit from alternate forms of energy at the same time is not new thinking either -- in fact, a green economy, in early forms, was also a dream of our forefathers.

Madrigal's presentation at CalTech
For the engineering students at CalTech, he encouraged collaboration to effectively create innovative tools of the future.

His last slide in the presentation read: “Change the tools people use to make decisions and you change the choices they make.”

Madrigal’s new book, “Inventing Green: America's Two-Century Search for a More Perfect Power,” due out in spring 2011 from Da Capo Books, covers his green tech timeline, tracing energy origins and resurrecting the lost history of American green invention.

“When I was working at Wired and covering a lot of green technology, new wind development, and geothermal, I found all these interesting stories of alternative energy history. I discovered no one had collected them in one place,” he said, regarding how the book first started to form.

“I came to appreciate the strangeness of the past. There was something freewheeling and Western about it, and I love that.”

As odd as many early ideas and inventions were, some of where we’ve been might show us where we’re going.

“The history ends up echoing all the way down to the current debates as to whether we should put wind farms out in the desert.”

Readers can follow Madrigal's online real-time research notebook as he continues to discover more at

-- Lori Kozlowski


Photos: Top, Alexis Madrigal lecturing at CalTech. Second, Vintage artwork and articles from Madrigal's presentation and discussion on alternative energy sources. Credit: Lori Kozlowski / Los Angeles Times.