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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5 Replies to “John R. Harris: The Rise of Coal Technology”

  1. I think this post hits the major points of Harris’s article well. As the Industrial Revolution spread throughout England the use of coal as a replacement for charcoal as fuel increased exponentially. As we learned this class this change arose as wood resources depleted and demand for iron and other industrial resources increased, like you mentioned Lauren. Also like you mentioned, this demand for coal also led to creating new technologies and utilizations of coal such as the process of creating coke to fuel pig iron furnaces, discovered by Abraham Darby.

    An interesting article I found related to coal production during the Industrial Revolution describes the mining process of coal and how the coal mining industry changed in England due to the increasing demand for coal in order to fuel the Industrial Revolution. I have shared the link below and the article sheds interesting light on the mining industry in England and covers the hardships of coal mining workers and their conditions, some figures on the production numbers of coal mined, as well as briefly mentioning societal issues with other industries booming around mining towns due to lack of planning and temporary economy. Overall it is a short but informative read that fills another piece of the puzzle explaining the relationship of coal and England’s growing Industrial Revolution through the 18th century.

  2. I really like your summary of the article and you definitely hit the main points that Harris outlines. This article, along with your summary, really tie together many of the inventions during the Industrial Revolution. Like you pointed out in the article, coal became in high demand and used due to the new steam engines and depleted wood resource which helped the coal industry improve since the steam engine was used to pump water out of the mine. This is why I really like this article because it helps tie together the inventions and innovations of the Industrial Revolution better than just hearing a lecture on them. This website gives a very short summary use of coal and how steam engines used coal.

  3. Lauren,

    This is a good summary and highlights the main points of the Harris article. I like that you really tied in the interdependence aspect of coal and technology at the time. Coal allowed the use/innovation of many products, and the widespread use of these products lead to a higher demand for coal.

    The video I have attached explains how coke is made. Although in more modern terms, it gives a good overview of the process.

  4. Well done. I echo everyone above. I wonder if you could have added a touch of local coal industry to your post, just to add a local aspect to the coal industry. Nothing too serious, you did a fine job!


  5. This post was well done, because of how well it wraps up the Harris article. I like how you went into detail on the process of using the coal to smelt iron, and then furthering it by explaining the later use of coke in smelting iron. It was also cool to see the info and pictures reflecting what we learned in class. Great job.

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