The Rise of Coal Technology

John R. Harris’s article The Rise of Coal Technology  highlights the technological developments associated with coal and provides the reader with a historical timeline of the inventions and industries which are bound to this significant development.  Interestingly, Harris notes that inventions of the late 18th century came about from earlier developments, less known or historically recorded, but which utilized coal in increasingly important ways.  The article distinguishes how coal and its industrial development led England, within about 200 years, to a level of superiority that the British maintained throughout the 18th century.  Harris cites John U. Nef’s work The Rise of the British Coal Industry to give examples of how British industries applied the increasing use of coal to the economy

As early as the Middle Ages, coal was used by blacksmiths and metal workers. The use of coal spread to pewter, gunsmiths and copper smiths.   It was burned and used in textiles, dyeing, and salt extraction. The manufacturing of coke, or the residue left from the distilling process and used as fuel was developed early in 16th century.  Later coal was used in the chemical industry for processing soaps, sugars, and eventually in the manufacturing of earthenware.  But a significant development came with the use of the reverberatory furnace used in glass making.  These closed furnaces required fireclay containers which used crucibles to withstand high temperatures.  This led to advancements in steel, leading to metals used in clock and watch manufacturing, smelting of nonferrous metals (ores, coppers, lead, zinc).  The expanded use of coal for various products and industries led to the need for expanded fuel, trade and continual improvements in the technology itself.

The Newcomen engine, developed in the early 18th century by Thomas Newcomen, is considered a monumental advancement in technology of the time.  The engine represented the first source of power that was not related to manual or animal driven strength.  This engine allowed steam to create power through a vacuum and piston forged by atmospheric pressure which caused rotatory movement.  The Newcomen engines were fueled by coal which gave rise to technological advancement in the coal and nonferrous mining industries.

Continual innovations based off the coal technologies added an additional need for improvements and empirical data, or observational collections of information, to support both the established and changing advancements.  Harris states that scientific literature dealing with methodology and materials may not have considered the importance of the craft or technique itself when documenting the development of furnaces and engines during this industrial period.

In reading The Rise of Coal Technology, I was stricken over and over again by how many modern day conveniences trickle back to the rise of the coal industry.  Many powerful and useful but commonplace items used on a daily basis stem from the development of coal.  So many things are taken for granted in my world.  For example, my glass-faced cell phone, my mother’s cast iron skillet, my Ford F-150 and the fuel that makes it run.  Without the industrial and technological advances based on elements such as fire, steam, and coal…my world would not be fathomable.

This article by Heather Whipps discusses how the Middle Ages aren’t usually associated with industry but that there were actually “factories” all across Asia, Africa and Europe at that time.  Beasts of burden were used as muscle power in the transportation of goods, lugging water and supplies needed for the “textile industry”.  Later coal was required for glass blowing in hot furnaces.  More importantly, coal was eventually used for powering steam engines and thus the transportation of goods and services intensified greatly.  Steam powered locomotives began to change the world in earnest in early 1804 across Britain.  Shortly after in 1807, a landmark journey in the United States,  between New York City and Albany by an engine called The Claremont changed the way transportation affected travel and other  industries in this country.

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