Coal -- that ugly, dirty mess -- gets its due

Sunday, April 13, 2003

A pile of coal might look like so many ugly black lumps. But that dusty mess was the stuff that turned England into a sea power and launched the Industrial Revolution which made the world as we know it today.

That's the story of the rock that burns, detailed by Barbara Freese in "Coal: A Human History."

While coal remains a major fuel, electricity, oil and natural gas get more public attention these days.

But the shift from a rural, farming society to factories producing masses of goods and hiring thousands -- the Industrial Revolution -- "emerged, literally, in a haze of coal smoke," reports Freese.

"Coal is a commodity utterly lacking in glamour. It is dirty, old-fashioned, domestic and cheap," she observes.

But its value became clear as England was running short of wood fuel, having cut down most of the forests.

Coal provided the energy to heat homes, run steam engines, power railroads and factories, and produce the steel they were made from.

Indeed it became so valuable that the Royal Navy was formed to protect the ships which carried coal from northern England to London. And when war came, those same coal boats were commandeered by the navy, raising its strength in battle.

In America the presence of coal made Pittsburgh the nation's first industrial center and later powered the growth of eastern Pennsylvania when anthracite was found there.

And while coal polluted the atmosphere, it solved one major safety problem of the nation's new means of travel -- the hot cinders spewed by wood-burning railroad locomotives.

An 1831 inaugural trip in open railroad cars on the Mohawk Valley, for example, degenerated into a melee with passengers beating out fires on each other as cinders drifted among them.

Thousands of patents were filed in attempt to stop the trains from setting their surroundings and passengers alight, but it was coal that eventually solved the problem. In the meantime, safety-conscious railroads offered passengers buckets of sand to pour over burning neighbors.