The Use of Coal in the Pre Industrial Revolution

The use of coal as an energy source has been known from ancient times, although it was a minor resource until the Industrial Revolution. The first mention of coal in European literature dates from the fourth century B.C. [1]; however, scholars are certain that coal was first used in China as early as 1000 B.C. [2]. By 1000 A.D., coal was a primary fuel source in China, and its use was reported by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo in the thirteenth century [3,4].

The first documented use of coal in Western civilization is attributed to the Greek philosophers Pliny, Aristotle, and Theophrastus, who was Aristotle's pupil [1]. The first definitive record of the use of coal is found in Aristotle's Meteorology, where he writes of combustible bodies [1]. Theophrastus, in his fourth-century Treatise on Stones, describes a fossil substance used as a fuel [5]. Theophrastus and Pliney both mention the use of coal by smiths [1,6]. The coal mentioned in these writings was apparently brown coal from Thrace in northern Greece and from Ligurai in northwestern Italy. This coal was not normally used in iron-smelting furnaces because of its impurities and, hence, inability to produce the required high temperatures, although Pliney does mention its use in copper casting, which can be done at considerably lower temperatures [6].

Although the Greeks and Romans knew of coal around 400 B.C., they did not have much use for it because wood was plentiful. When wood is abundant, there is little incentive to mine coal. Coal was used as a domestic heating fuel in some parts of the Roman Empire, particularly in Britain, but it never made more than a marginal contribution as a fuel resource [6]. As the Romans invaded northward, they encountered the mining and use of coal in the vicinity of St. Etienne in Gaul (France) as well as in Britain, where coal cinders in Roman ruins indicated that coal was used during the Roman occupation, from approximately 50 to 450 A.D. [5].

In the middle ages, coal had to be rediscovered in Europe, and for some time coal remained of very restricted local importance. Coal had been used on a small scale in western Europe for thousands of years, as evidence shows from the discoveries of a Bronze Age corpse that was cremated with coal in South Wales, as well as remains of Roman coal-fueled fires on their northern English frontier along Hadrian's Wall; however, there is no evidence of European coal use for hundreds of years after the fall of the Roman Empire [7]. During the middle ages, records show that coal had been given to the monks in the Abbey of Peterborough in 852 A.D. as an offering or in a settlement of a claim [2]. Coal was mined in Germany as early as the 900s and was mentioned in the charter (dated 1025) of the French priory of St. Sauveuren-Rue [8].

While peasants probably continued to use surface coal for domestic heating fuel, evidence suggests that it was not until around 1200 that industrial uses were found. Coal was discovered to be a very good fuel for iron forges and metalworking, as it burned almost as slowly as charcoal, which is produced from wood and was the primary fuel of choice for village smiths. It is at this time that shipping records can be found for coal being marketed in western Europe because the smiths preferred coal over charcoal if they could get it at a reasonable price [7]. Li├Ęge in Belgium, Lyonnais in France, and Newcastle in England became important mining centers [7,8].

At first coal was used close to the areas where it was mined because it was competing against wood and charcoal, which were less expensive than coal to transport. Coal was bulky and therefore subject to the high land transport costs common for bulky materials; however, as water transportation on rivers and the sea increased and wood became scarce particularly in the cities, coal became the fuel of choice. By the mid-1200s, the term sea-coal was used to distinguish coal from charcoal, and sea-coal was being transported to London by sea from Newcastle. By the 1370s, 84 coal boats were traveling down the east coast of England to ten different ports along the European coast between France and Denmark, returning with iron, salt, cloth, and tiles [7].

Although coal became the fuel of choice for blacksmiths during medieval times, initially it had limited use as a heat source because of its fumes; however, as wood became increasingly scarce and coal became less expensive in the cities, coal use began to increase. With the increased use of coal (mainly in fireplaces designed to burn wood) came increased pollution problems, mainly black smoke and fumes. In 1257, Queen Eleanor was driven from Nottingham Castle by the smoke and fumes rising from the city below. In 1283 and 1288, London's citizens complained about the air quality as a result of coal being used in lime kilns. In 1307, a Royal Proclamation forbade the use of coal in lime burners in parts of South London [7]. This proclamation did not work, however, and a later commission had instructions to punish offenders with fines and ransoms for a first offense and to demolish their furnaces for a second offense. Eventually, economics and a change in government policy won out over the populace's comfort and London was to remain polluted by coal fumes for another 600 years [7]. As the price of firewood increased, it became more profitable to transport coal over longer distances. In addition, late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England faced the dilemma of conserving its remaining forests and using the only available substitute: coal. In 1615, the English government encouraged the substitution of coal for wood whenever possible. A fundamental change in English domestic building followed with more brick chimneys constructed to accommodate the fumes from coal [7].

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