Coal: A Human History

by Barbara Freese
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

Barbara Freese, whose interest in coal began through her involvement with Minnesota’s industrial uses, provides an historical overview and situates the benefits and drawbacks of the more recent use of coal. As the subtitle suggests, her history goes far beyond geology and emphasizes coal’s influence on people.

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Coal is unique among natural resources for the primary role it played in the Industrial Revolution. Although its properties as a fuel source were known at least in Europe since the 14th century, it was in the 19th century that its advantages became clear and its usage skyrocketed. Over the last few decades, although its many disadvantages have also surfaced—especially its role in global warming—it continues to be one of the world’s most commonly used fuel sources.

The growing use of coal in industry is tightly linked to Britain, as Freese addresses in three chapters. Industrial development and the spread of British commerce and governance through its maritime forces were the foundations of empire. Coal fueled the rapid industrialization that also took a severe toll on human health, both directly through mining conditions and air pollution and indirectly through inhumane factory labor conditions.

In the United States as well, but somewhat later in the 19th century, expanding industrialization demanded fuel, which in turn expanding coal mining provided. Here again, abysmal mining conditions and threats to worker health were the backbone of extraction of the valuable fuel. The military and civilian growth in the Civil War, including the growing railroad system, depended on coal. Even more, the post-Civil War era of rampant industrial expansion by the “captains of industry” cemented coal into the fiber of American monopolistic capitalism. In turn, the establishment of labor unions to combat the deplorable mining conditions was directly linked to coal, as well as to the industries it supported.

Finally, Freese turns to China as a modern industrial power that is heavily dependent on coal. Although it was used there centuries earlier than in Europe, she spends less time covering China because the country industrialized later than the West. Since the mid-20th century, however, both China’s position as a global industrial giant and the presence there of vast coal reserves have endowed it with a unique role both as consumer and producer of this vital fuel source, as well as of the related climate threats.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1698

Coal: A Human History illustrates that this familiar carboniferous mineral has played a key role in human advancement. Although in recent times oil and natural gas have come into prominence as energy resources, to a surprising degree society’s reliance on coal is ongoing. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, coal-fired plants produced more than half the electricity in the United States. As Barbara Freese explains, coal is a uniquely accessible and historically important storage medium for solar energy.

Freese became interested in coal through her experiences as assistant district attorney in Minnesota, where she was involved in a legal proceeding intended to quantify the impact of the state’s electricity use on global warming. Because most of Minnesota’s electricity is produced by coal-fired plants, the coal industry moved aggressively to persuade all parties involved that coal burning would cause only climatic improvements. Although the unlikely claim attracted few believers, changes in the state’s energy policy were not immediately effected. As a result of the case, Freese determined to learn more about coal and its role in human society, a relationship often neglected or only minimally addressed in the writing of history.

Warming human habitations, cooking food, fueling industry, and banishing the dark are all benefits traditionally derived from coal—a material once thought to border on the miraculous. Revelations about the poisonous qualities of particulate emissions have only recently been demonstrated through research into global warming. Nevertheless, battles against noxious fumes and soot-filled air have been waged since early times. Freese describes a thought-provoking incident that occurred in 1306, when King Edward I of England was persuaded to ban the use of coal by artisans and blacksmiths. The air had become filled with acrid smoke, and angry citizens were demanding action, but wood had grown scarce and expensive in London. This circumstance would worsen as forest depletion added transportation costs to wood and charcoal prices. The ban proved to be unenforceable, thus signaling the beginning of Britain’s polarizing relationship with coal.

The title of Freese’s introductory chapter, “A Portable Climate,” is taken from a description of coal by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised coal’s capacity to create a climate conducive to power and civilization. Emerson’s phrase aptly characterizes Freese’s depiction of coal as a vast reservoir of stored energy, one that has been used to transform the extremes of temperature found in nature to create habitat more hospitable to a civilized world. In fact, Freese characterizes life itself as a complex system reliant on collecting and redistributing energy from the sun.

The succeeding sections of Coal are divided regionally. Three chapters focus on Britain, where an abundance of coal contributed immeasurably to the growth of naval power, industrial development, and the building of an empire. Without coal, Freese asserts, the Industrial Revolution would have been much slower and may have allowed for more humane practices in the workplace. Instead, a circular pattern developed wherein the use of coal created needs that mechanization, technology, and additional coal were used to meet.

“A Precious Seed” shifts the narrative to North America, where plentiful coal played a similar role in the development of the United States. The title of this chapter refers to a theologian’s statement that coal had been “scattered by the hand of the Creator,” who had intended its use to transform the feared and despised wilderness that surrounded settlers. Coal proved influential in developments leading to the American Civil War as well as in railroad-building, settlement of the Western frontier, and the growth of powerful labor unions.

China is the third and final geographic region Freese covers. Here the mining of coal created a powerful dynasty that predated the earliest use of coal in Britain by the Romans. Despite the subsequent decline of the dynasty’s hegemony, coal remained a basic energy resource for China’s people for centuries. In the modern era, coal was restored to political and economic importance on a national level through the flawed and erratic energy policies of the Maoist period. Future industrial development of the extensive coal reserves in China may further jeopardize world habitat and climate, but the needs of the Chinese people have much in common with those of British citizens in the industrial age.

Freese moves adroitly through these broad topics and extended time periods, embellishing her conclusions with convincing anecdotal illustrations. Her description of the natural history of coal formation includes accounts of the fear that its occasional fossil patterns inspired in early miners. Tales of stained clothing, corroded buildings, blackened skies, and dangerous mines illustrate the social degradation caused by coal.

In her chapters on Britain, Freese suggests that modern industry has its origin in coal mining. As early mines penetrated ever more deeply into the earth, tons of seeping groundwater had to be removed. At first pails of water were carried out by humans—often children—and later by pack animals, but eventually mine operators were able to purchase newly invented piston-driven pumps. This pattern of development continued unabated. As more coal reached the surface, better transport was required. Whereas manufacturing cities like Manchester had grown up close to the mines, the roads to other cities were muddy and rutted. As London grew in population, it needed more coal. Improved transport was facilitated by new roads and waterways, by the use of human- and horse-drawn carts on rails, and finally by the invention of the steam engine. While coal had long provided the heat to transform substances into a range of useful materials from metal and glass implements to salt, soap, and ale, a transportation application was revolutionary. The startling and dynamic steam-driven machine would transform human lifestyles. Freese illustrates the horror and awe inspired by early steam locomotives with the story of a clerk who fell prostrate upon seeing an engine emitting its dense, sulfurous smoke. When finally able to speak, the frightened man asked, “How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?”

The new portability of coal brought down energy prices and increased the volume and pace of manufacturing, but as this expansion occurred it became clear that the lives of “factory inmates” had become yoked to the inhuman capabilities of machines. Decreases in the economic viability of cottage industry and farming led families to migrate to cities. With factory jobs the only available means of support, the family structure of the working classes suffered, and traditional social mores began to collapse.

Two particular problems in Britain were the extended workday and child labor. When factories began running around the clock thanks to the installation of coal oil lamps, the resulting twelve-hour shifts actually relieved workers who had been putting in fourteen- to eighteen-hour days. A setback occurred, though, as the lack of fresh food and natural light in factory cities led to an unhealthy population. Half of the children born in Manchester died before reaching age five. Rickets became so common as to be known abroad as “the English disease.” Calls for social reforms by sympathetic members of the upper classes became widespread and led to further social unrest. This cycle of benefits followed by unanticipated social and environmental costs prompts Freese’s comparison of coal to a genie, the granter of wishes who has an “unpredictable and threatening side.”

Colonists in North America had no need of coal for many years, as they harvested fuel and building materials from the abundant forests. Because methods of shipping supplies were known and in place, coal was even imported from Nova Scotia and Britain. However, recognition of the potential of the great fields of American coal eventually proved irresistible. As in Britain, mining led to the need for improvements in transport and machinery. Coal use grew throughout the United States as cast-iron coal stoves replaced fireplaces for heat and cooking purposes. Gas lighting, made possible by “baking” coal and piping the resulting gas into cities, laid the groundwork for communal dependence on cooperatively developed energy resources. As coal use increased in political and economic importance, “King Coal” became central to the everyday lives of American citizens. Union members battled for recognition and increased wages, while at the same time society demanded pollution control that would not interfere with the supply of cheap energy that coal provided.

As Freese reports on the continued political and economic importance of coal, she includes a clear and sorely needed explanation of the nature of coal emissions and how they affect air quality and contribute to the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere. Here she notes that coal production has eluded emission control measures in spite of legislation to promote them. In an artful circumvention of the law, owners of coal-fired electricity plants have refused to build new, regulated plants. Instead, by careful replacement of components, old plants have become virtually immortal. According to Freese, the political clout of the coal industry has given it the power to conduct public relations campaigns leading to the United States’ refusal to sign the Kyoto Accords on Climate Control treaty, to obfuscate scientific warnings about greenhouse gases, and to swing the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, who persuaded the predominantly Democratic West Virginia electorate to vote Republican in the hope of protecting the state’s coal industry from antipollution measures.

Freese closes with “A Burning Legacy,” a brief chapter in which she calls for channeling greater resources into research and engineering to develop and implement new sources of energy. Because electricity must be created and used in an uninterrupted cycle, current alternative energy resources such as solar and wind power will have to reengineered to make them more reliable if they are to replace coal in energy-dependent economies. Without effective efforts from society, Freese suggests, the commonly heard excuses for continued coal burning will return to haunt future generations plagued by coal’s legacy of environmental disruption.

Review Sources

American Scientist 91 (March/April, 2003): 167.

Booklist 99, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2003): 820.

The Ecologist 33, no. 8 (October, 2003): 61.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 22 (November 15, 2002): 1672-1673.

Library Journal 128, no. 2 (February 1, 2003): 112.

New Scientist 177, no. 2379 (January 25, 2003): 52.

The New York Times, December 8, 2002, Section 3, p. C6.

The New York Times Book Review 152, no. 52417 (March 9, 2003): 6.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 2 (January 13, 2003): 49.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 3, 2003, p. 26.

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