The Rise of Coal Technology – Harris

Coal, the remains of dead plants and biomass, carbonized into a dark black rock; dustier than Kansas with Toto, but burns beautifully. By the end of the 1600’s England was mining nearly every coal field they had, producing nearly two to three million tons (recent studies have questioned the accuracy of that number). With such disposable coal, many British industries by the 1700’s has switched to using coal as their primary fuel source.  The use of coal in the reverberating furnace was significant in the process of glass making among other processes. The furnace built like a traffic cone, much like its name suggests, reverberated heat into the furnace, allowing for it to reach higher temperatures, needed in glass making and in many other industries. 

With the turn of the century, the first commercially successful steam engine became prominent. The Newcomen engine used coal to power itself and was the first practical source of mobile power that wasn’t an animal or a elemental power. Fittingly its first major use was to drain mines that would fill with water, effectively filling itself with coal, by letting the miners mine.  When introduced in 1733, 104 were pre-built and ready to go. By the end of the century, over 1500 had been constructed, 3 times the amount of Watt engines made. While these are not directly responsible for the industrial revolution, the clear connection can be seen in the use of coal power and the steam engine as a producer of mechanical work.

Harris goes on to say that while the first major revolution happened in England, the historical accuracy of it can be questioned. It’s known that England had the worlds largest copper smelting industry, yet to read about it, historians look at Swedish, German, and French works. Similarly, the most detailed written piece of work done on the coal industry, was made by a Frenchman. One possible explanation for this is that the techniques for coal working were already familiar in the end of the 17th century. With the rise of scientific literature in the same time period, there was no purpose to publishing those works in England, as they were common knowledge. The other explanation, is simply that written communication was not the best way to describe how to do the techniques, rather hands on presented a better description.


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To read more about why Britain was the first, check out this lengthy blog/article/textbook thing!

5 Replies to “The Rise of Coal Technology – Harris”

  1. The last paragraph grabbed my attention. This is actually the first time I’ve read an article that questioned the relation of the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s impact on it. Very interesting. Anyways, I found a website that has a neat graph that shows the statistics on the consumption of coal in Britain at the time. It works well with your summary, showing the significance of the usage of coal:

  2. Great post! Coal really became the fuel of industry in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the supply of wood in England rapidly declining, people began searching for a better, more populous source of heat. Beginning with surface coal in the Middle Ages and expanding to deep hillside mines, coal was mined in massive quantities. Coal fueled steam engines, which kept water out of mines, which allowed workers to mine more coal. While Harris questions that the first major industrial revolution began in England due to many sources being French and German, I would argue that the principles discussed in French and German writings were first applied practically in England. For example, while the steam engine was described by Savery in France, it was first applied industrially by several inventors such as Newcomen in England.

  3. Your post did a good job of summarizing the main points of the article. I do like how you focused a large part of your comment on the comments that Harris made about John Nef’s argument that the Industrial Revolution was first in Great Britain. While Harris does agree with this notion, he does address faults he sees in Nef’s beliefs, namely how he feels that Nef has exaggerated the revolution in Great Britain.

  4. Nice summary of Harris’ article. I like how you pointed out that by draining mines of water, the Newcomen engine fills itself because it lets miners mine and provide more coal for it. With all the focus nowadays on clean energy and how bad fossil fuels are, it sometimes is lost on me how revolutionary coal was when people discovered what a great source of energy it made.

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