The Use of Coal during the Industrial Revolution

Several developments in the eighteenth century led to an expanded use of coal in England, culminating with the Industrial Revolution, which occurred over the century of 1750 to 1850. These developments included the transport revolution, the iron industry revolution, and the demise of the forests [10]. In eighteenth-century England, no fuel other than coal was available because wood had become an exhausted resource in the populated areas. There was a continuing demand for coal to supply fuel for domestic needs and the few industries that were in place in the pre-industrial community—namely, bakeries, smithies, tanneries, sugar refineries, and breweries [10]. Transporting coal by sea could not meet the demands for coal, as this mode of transportation was not always reliable, plus sea transport was not able to satisfy the demand for coal inland. Canals, however, could meet this need. More than half of the Navigation Acts passed between 1758 and 1802 to establish a canal or river-improvement company were for companies whose primary aim was to carry coal [10]. Establishing a transport system was crucial for the success of the Industrial Revolution because the Industrial Revolution was ultimately driven by the coal and iron industries, and it was necessary to move bulky raw materials and the finished products quickly and inexpensively across England [10].

The iron industry (and the resulting increased need for coal to produce coke for iron smelting) was an important contributing factor to bringing about the Industrial Revolution. Abraham Darby successfully smelted iron with coke as early as 1709, and this technological innovation became very important in the 1750s as the price of charcoal rose and the price of coal declined [10]. When the switch from wood to coal was complete, an ironmaster's constraint on his output was not his fuel supply but his power supply to provide an adequate blast in his furnace. The invention that provided an unlimited source of power, which up to this time had primarily been water and to a lesser extent wind power, was Boulton and Watt's steam engine. The steam engine, introduced around 1775 and fueled by coal, removed any restrictions on the ironmasters with regard to the size or location of iron works. The ironmasters could now move into areas rich in coal and iron resources and reap the economies of scale of a modern industry [10]. With the invention of the steam engine came the locomotive, another means for mass transportation of raw materials and products and which also consumed coal as a fuel source.

The uses for coal did not stop with coking and solid fuel combustion for transportation. It was discovered that gases released from the coal during the coking process could be burned. This in turn led to the establishment of the manufactured gas industry to exploit the illuminating power of coal gas. In 1810, an Act of Parliament was obtained for forming a company to supply coal gas to London [2].

The Industrial Revolution began in England but spread to continental Europe, mainly France and Germany, and to the United States. These countries were able to benefit from the discoveries driving the Industrial Revolution because they too had ample supplies of coal. In the United States during the 1800s, coal became the principal fuel used by locomotives and, as the railroads branched into the coal fields, they became a vital link between the mines and markets. Coal also found growing markets as fuel for homes and steamboats and in the production of illuminating oil and gas. In fact, shortly after London began using coal gas, Baltimore, Maryland, became the first city in the United States to light streets with coal gas, in 1816. And in England, coke soon replaced charcoal as the fuel for iron blast furnaces in the latter half of the 1800s.

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