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A Brief History of Coal

Posted by: Megan Cartwright
Coal. A black, hard rock, sometimes so shiny it could pass as silver or a light grey, and other times sooty as night. Coal. Coal is made up of 65-95% carbon, and further includes hydrogen, sulphur, oxygen, and nitrogen. 

Coal is formed from peat following the pressure of rocks laid down on top. Much of the world’s first coal was formed during the Pennsylvanian Epoch (Carboniferous Period) from the remains of plants that lived and died millions of years ago in tropical wetlands. In this form, coal is a sedimentary rock; however, anthracite coal, in all its hard, glossy shine, is a metamorphic rock, due to being exposed to more intense temperatures and pressures. Anthracite coal is often the highest quality coal. Anthracite is primarily mined by China, with their global output exceeding 75%. 

The origin of humankind’s relationship with coal is, inevitably, sketchy given the simple stark lack of technology or knowledge compared with that which exists today. However, in the Americas some of the first instances of coal utilisation date back to the Aztecs, who used coal for fuel. In Europe, the Romans turned Britain into a 2nd Century A.D. coal hotbed, seeking to exploit as much of Roman Britain’s coalfields as possible. Archaeological excavation over the following centuries has discovered the remnants of coal stores at numerous forts along the famous Hadrian’s Wall. The nearby fort, Longovicium, houses evidence of the Romans having a smelting industry set up in Northern England. 

Before the Romans became interested in the early coal industry, Greek Scientist Theophrastus wrote the following of coal in his text, On Stones: 

Among the materials that are dug because they are useful, those known as coals are made of earth, and, once set on fire, they burn like charcoal. They are found in Liguria... and in Elis as one approaches Olympia by the mountain road; and they are used by those who work in metals.

As far as historians and archaeologists know, Theophrastus’s words were among the very first that noted the use of coal in metalworking. 

The Chinese, though, are suspected to have been involved in the surface mining of coal as far back as 3490 B.C.

Some of the early forms of coal mining include drift mining, which will often involve a horizontal passageway that follows the bed of coal, or an ore vein, for instance; bell pit mining; and shaft mining, which would often incorporate the “room and pillar” operating technique. Rarely did the mining operations of two millennia ago exhaust a mine’s resource mass. Whether this was due to operational profligacy or a reluctance to metaphorically “drain the lake” remains to be seen.

Coal in Britain became far less prevalent a resource following the decline of the Roman Empire until the Industrial Revolution, whose apex hinged on the mass availability of coal to power intrepid steam engines, heat buildings, and not long after, begin being used to generate electricity. The Victorian era welcomed a sizeable increase in international trade thanks to the coal-fed steam engines being used for rail and steamship travel. Around the year 1905, the U.K. and the U.S.A. were leading the way for coal production in so far as declared numbers were concerned. The U.K. at this time was responsible for approximately 236.1 million short tons; America for 350.8 million. 

Coal’s rise to prominence in the Industrial Revolution was not simply about mass availability, however. It was also a cheap resource, and came with the promise of yielding more energy than material rivals such as wood. Given the extreme shifts in weather and climate since the Pennsylvanian Epoch, 298.9 million years ago, landscapes have shifted – localities of readily available wood and readily available coal can often be separate.

From being used in the Rhineland in the early A.D. period of Roman history to smelt iron ore, presumably for weapons, wagon wheels, armour, and also in hypocausts to heat public and military baths, through to powering the British Empire’s trade expeditions, coal is primarily used for energy and heat. Current scientific estimates counted coal as responsible for roughly 25% of the world’s energy in 2010; by 2050, this is expected to rise to 33%. The world production on steel is almost 70% dependent on the burning of coal. 

South Africa, one of the many nations where WRS has invaluable mining expertise, produces in excess of 255 million short tons of coal, and 92% of coal consumed (much of it burned for energy) on the entire African continent is produced in South Africa. 

The largest producer of coal, not just anthracite coal, is indeed China. In the last decade, China has been averaging between 2.9 and 3.9 billion short tons per year. Coal is China’s main source of energy and the Chinese coal industry employs roughly five million workers a year. As mentioned in some of our other recent mining articles, the Chinese mining behemoth is unlikely to yield any time soon. 
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