John R. Harris: The Rise of Coal Technology

Though coal had been around for centuries, it did not become a major energy source until the Industrial Revolution.  In the Middle Ages prior to the Industrial Revolution, coal was used only by blacksmiths and other metalworkers.  As the advantages of coal became more well-known throughout the centuries, it became more prevalent in industrial society.  Coppersmiths and gunsmiths began to use coal in the 16th century.  In the late 17th century, coal began to be used for making soap, gunpowder, and refining saltpeter.  By the 18th century, the use of coal had reached an all-time high and spread to a wide variety of industries.  In his article The Rise of Coal Technology, Harris addresses the technological development of coal that took place during the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution continued the increase in coal usage.  As Britain became a more industrialized country, more coal was needed than ever before.  With the improved Watt steam engine and the development of factories during the Industrial Revolution, the demand for coal increased dramatically.  Because of the high demand for coal, the Newcomen engine and the process of smelting iron using coal developed and became extremely popular.  As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the uses of coal became more widespread and refined in Europe.

Abraham Darby was the inventor that first started smelting coal to produce iron.  In 1708, Darby founded the Bristol Iron Foundry Company which began to use coke to smelt iron for the first time in 1709.  Instead of using charcoal for smelting, it was discovered that coal could be used for smelting to produce iron.  Once heated at a high temperature without contact with air, the residue left from the decomposition of coal became known as coke.  Darby found that smelting coke produced pig iron, which was a material that was in high demand in the 18th century.  Though pig iron was in high demand, wrought iron was even more useful during the period of industrialism, and because pig iron could not be turned into wrought iron, Darby’s discovery did not become widely used for some time.  However, the switch from charcoal to coal increased the efficiency of smelting, which was considered a huge success during the Industrial Revolution.

Another major piece of technology that used coal during the Industrial Revolution was the Newcomen engine.  Unlike the Savery engine, the Newcomen engine was fueled by coal in the early 1700’s.  The popularity of the Newcomen engine during that time period increased the amount of coal needed to fuel the engines.  Not only was the engine dependent on coal, but it allowed extreme growth in the coal mining industry.  Because the steam engine was used to extract water from mines, the more steam engines were used, the more coal was being extracted from mines to be used.  The popularity of the engine made coal mining a very profitable industry in the 18th century.  Without coal to fuel the Newcomen engine, the entirety of the coal industry would not have been successful during the Industrial Revolution.


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