Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 316
Coal: A Human History is American attorney and writer Barbara Freese's 2016 natural, political, and cultural history of coal and its use as a resource by humans.
The book opens in the 14th century with the very start of coal as a human-used resource; at the time, the use of coal as a heating method was just beginning. Freese starts the story by recalling feudal lords traveling to London for one of the first sessions of the newly established English parliament and being introduced to coal.
These nobles were used to the usual stenches of medieval towns—the animal dung, the unsewered waste, and the rotting garbage lining the streets. What disgusted them about London was something new in the air: the unfamiliar and acrid smell of burning coal.
After a failed effort to ban coal in the middle ages, the utility and use of the rock continues to grow. By the 1700s, Freese notes, new innovations have made it ever more useful.
. . . a device came along that finally allowed humankind to escape this age-old constraint by turning fuel into motion. The device was the steam engine, and the fuel was coal.
Still, however, the environmental problems with coal were already beginning to manifest themselves.
With all its potential for aesthetic appeal, it's quite clear the pollution of Victorian London could bring confusion and death, particularly when a dense fog planted itself over the city for three or more days.
Later in the book, Freese recounts the onset of coal as a major and industry-fueling resource in the United States. She attributes this to the industrial revolution and points to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 as its onset. More specifically still, she points to railroad magnate Franklin Gowen:
Gowen was an early champion of the "gospel of bigness" for American industry. Central to his vision, and to the Reading's profits, was a cheap and steadily growing coal supply. . . .
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