headshot of Thomas Turnbull

Thomas Turnbull

Research Scholar (Jan 2018-Nov 2026)


Thomas studied history and geography at Kings College London and the University of Oxford. He completed a thesis in 2017, titled “From Paradox to Policy: The Problem of Energy Resource Conservation in Britain and America, 1865–1981,” which provided the first history of energy resource conservation as both a form of science and policy.

The thesis documented the emergence of a body of knowledge that espoused the belief that society could act to conserve energy via conservation, the efficient use, or cessation of, fuel use. During the long twentieth century, this claim was articulated by researchers and policy advocates in a wide variety of fields, from control engineering to particle physics.

Catalyzed by a series of energy crises, a science of “energy resource conservation” developed into a comprehensive approach to energy resource economy via a far-reaching set of policy recommendations. The history of this energy historical interplay between science and policy is told via a series of contested, resolved, and ongoing controversies regarding the efficacy of energy conservation measures. This thesis is currently being prepared as a book manuscript.

Before coming to the MPIWG, Thomas worked as a policy advisor for a London-based environmental think tank involved in implementing the European Eco-design Directive. He has also been part of a project at Cambridge University’s Museum of Anthropology, which was dedicated to preserving endangered languages via the creation of an audio database.

Before joining Department I, he was a predoctoral fellow at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, and then Life Members Fellow in the History of Electrical and Computing Technology at the Institute for Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), and he was an awardee of the American Institute of Physics small grant for archival research.

While at the MPIWG, Thomas has been invited to collaborate with Maastricht University to participate as a visiting fellow on the project Managing Scarcity and Sustainability, headed by Professor Cyrus Mody. This 5-year project is directed toward the documenting of the oil industry’s short-lived support for alternative energy technologies in the 1970s.

In 2019 and 2020, Thomas worked as project coordinator on the Mississippi. An Anthropocene River project, alongside Christoph Rosol, managing the implementation and delivery of this interdisciplinary regional analysis of this river basin region as a site that both contributes to and is affected by the human-led Earth system transformations that constitute the Anthropocene. This work has resulted in a double special issue of The Anthropocene Review, and is the basis for ongoing site-centered work studying sites of anthropogenic impact.

While at Department I, Thomas is interested in contributing to the formalization of energy history as a vibrant and scholarly sub-discipline, which combines insights from geography, the history of science and technology, and the history of political economy and economic thought. In doing so, he has contributed a number of articles to the first Journal of Energy History; alongside Daniela Ruß he is preparing an edited collection of energy-historical primary texts from a global perspective, with the support of the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF). He has also prepared a number of articles on the historiography of energy history, energy and anthropology, and on the energy concept in geographic thought.

Since joining the MPIWG, Thomas organized a workshop on coal transitions (Kohletag) and has worked alongside Jeremias Herberg (IASS/Radboud) to deliver a multi-disciplinary panel, addressing the subject of Fossil Legacies as an aspect of coal phase out, at the 4S conference in Prague in 2020.

In 2021–2022, Thomas will participate in a series of workshops held at Villa Vigoni, Italy, on the subject of Energiewenden im Anthropozän: Einsparung, Wissensproduktion, Substituierung, coordinated by Yves Bouvier, Rüdiger Graf, and Giuliano Garavini, and a workshop at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam,

While at the MPIWG, Thomas is also a member of the voluntary Anti-Racism working group.


Epistemic Configurations: The Formation of Anthropocene Knowledge




Histories of Energy Resource Conservation: from Paradox to Policy


IV. Anthropocene Formations


Material Practices: The Anthropocene Earth in Formation


Mississippi. An Anthropocene River


No projects were found for this scholar.

Selected Publications

Brandt, Christina, Anna Klassen, Gregor Lax, Jürgen Renn, Carola Sachse, Martina Schlünder, Florian Schmaltz, Juliane Scholz, Alexander von Schwerin, and Thomas Turnbull (2024). “Politische und ethische Herausforderungen der Forschung.” In Die Max…

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Turnbull, Thomas (2024). “Energy and Industrial Film: Energo-Critical Registers.” In Films That Work Harder: The Circulation of Industrial Film, ed. V. Hediger, F. Hoof, and Y. Zimmermann, 123–142. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. https://doi…

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Turnbull, Thomas and Cyrus C. M. Mody (2023). “Turn and Turn Again: How Big Science Both Helped and Hindered Alternative Energy in the 1970s.” In Big Science in the 21st Century: Economic and Societal Impacts, ed. P. Charitos, T. Arabatzis, H. Cliff…

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Turnbull, Thomas (2023). “California’s Quandary: Saving Energy at the RAND Corporation.” Environmental History 28 (4): 738–765. https://doi.org/10.1086/726450.

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Past Events


Historical Epistemologies of Planetary Modelling


Energy Demand Forecasts: Constructing Demand or a Means to Save Energy?


Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia


Experts, Expertise and Energy Transition between Germany and Chile


The Social Dynamics of the Technosphere


Kohletag: A Multi-Disciplinary Workshop on the Past, Present, and Future of Coal Use in Germany and Beyond


Transformations of Energy Systems: Historical Perspectives on the Anthropocene


Presentations, Talks, & Teaching Activities

"We RANN So Far Away: The National Science Foundation, the Energy Crisis, and the Turn toward the Marketisation of Science"

FaSoS Maastricht

“Second Cybernetics: The Science of Saving Energy”

Epistemic commitments of complexity theories, Institut Rhônalpin des Systèmes Complexes

"Overturning the idea that 'real men don’t study how to use less energy:' U.S. physicists and the 1973 energy crisis"

TiP Salon, Copenhagen

“Systematising Energy Saving at the RAND Corporation in the 1970s”

Séminaire CIRED, Paris

“Overturning the idea that ‘real men don’t study how to use less energy:’ America’s physicists and the 1973 energy crisis”

American Physical Society Brown bag lunch talks

“Historiographies of coal phase-in in Britain, Germany, and the United States”

Contested Futures for Coal, Centre Marc Bloch, Berlin

“Coal and Catholicism: Energy Humanities at the University of Chicago in the Inter and Post-war Period”

Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

“From Kirchhoff to DeepMind: The Network as Energy’s Preeminent Mode of Representation and Manipulation”

Latent, present Energy. Devices, Infrastructures, and Discourses of (In-) Visibility, ETH, Bern

“Energy accounting in Revolutionary Russia and Edwardian Britain”

Workshop: Balance and Competition in World Politics Universität Bielefeld

“The Science of Energy Resource Conservation”

NYU, New Histories of Energy Conference, New York City

Nachrichten & Presse

The Anthropocene Review veröffentlicht zwei Sonderausgaben über Mississippi. Anthropocene River


Abteilung I: Bericht über das Projekt "Mississippi: An Anthropocene River“ auf Österreich 1


3Sat über das Mississippi-Projekt mit dem Haus der Kulturen der Welt