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What can we learn from the role of coal in the Industrial Revolution?

Coal played an important role in the Industrial Revolution, but the air pollution it created eventually acted as a drag on economic growth. As we seek to achieve a net-zero economy, there are important lessons from the energy and industrial transitions ushered in by coal.

“We all know the basics of climate change… The additional CO2 in the atmosphere is due primarily to the massive burning of fossil fuels that has accompanied the Industrial Revolution” (Weitzmann, 2015). In a review of economics Nobel laureate William Nordhaus’s book The Climate Casino, the late Martin Weitzmann, doyen of environmental and climate change economics, voiced the commonly held view that coal played a central role in the Industrial Revolution.

But is that true? How important was coal to the Industrial Revolution? And to what extent did economic growth during this period depend on coal?

What role did coal play in the Industrial Revolution?

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801), Artist: Philip de Loutherberg

Coalbrookedale, a small village in Shropshire, has been called the cradle of the Industrial Revolution because it was here in 1709 that Abraham Darby discovered how to smelt iron ore using coke (a purified form of coal that burns hotter and cleaner) rather than charcoal.

This discovery transformed the making of iron, with annual production in Britain growing from about 2,500 tonnes per annum in the 1700s to 28,000 tonnes per annum by the 1750s to 180,000 in 1800 and 2.5 million by 1850 (Riden, 1977). This scale of production would not have been possible without coal. Some estimates indicate that if half the land surface of Britain had been covered by woodland to supply charcoal purely for the iron industry, then iron production would have been 1.25 million tonnes per annum at best (Wrigley, 2013).

Crucially, iron enabled bridges to be built and Britain’s extensive rail network to be constructed, and the machines and engines to be built that would power cotton factories, steamships and locomotives.

As well as it metallurgical uses, coal was increasingly used during the Industrial Revolution as a source of power. The heat energy it created was transformed into mechanical energy thanks to the development of the steam engine.

Somewhat ironically, the first steam engine, which was developed by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, was made to pump water from coal mines. Flooding meant that mines could not go below 50 metres, but the development of the Newcomen steam engine allowed mine shafts to be a lot deeper and thus substantially increased the supply of coal (Wrigley, 2013).

Steam engines were eventually developed for other purposes, most famously by James Watt in 1763. Although the steam engine was relatively slow to diffuse across other  industries, by 1870, steam power was providing 90% of the horsepower for British industry (Crafts, 2004). The famous French engineer Émile Levassor estimated that 1 horsepower provided by a steam engine was equivalent to that delivered by 21 manual workers (Wrigley, 2013). This means that by 1870, steam power in Britain was delivering the equivalent of 43 million manual workers.

Figures 1a and 1b show the rise of coal as an energy source relative to other sources. By 1700, it was a major source of energy for the country, but over the next 150 years it became the dominant one. In Figure 2 we see that coal’s dominance as an energy source lasted until the 1950s, when oil and natural gas began to replace it. By 2000, coal supplied only 19% of the country’s energy, with oil and natural gas supplying 30.9% and 39.5% respectively (Warde, 2007).

Figure 1: The rise of King Coal – annual energy consumption per head (megajoules) in England and Wales, 1561-1859 

Panel A:

Panel B:

Source: Wrigley, 2013

Figure 2: Coal’s share of energy consumption in England and Wales, 1800-2006

Source: Warde, 2007

A striking irony with coal is that unlike the industries it helped to transform, the mining of it was labour-intensive and remained so throughout the time it dominated the country’s energy supply. Figure 3 shows coal output and the numbers employed in coal mines. Coal mines were major employers – over 7% of working age men in 1900 were employed in coal mining.

Figure 3: UK coal output and number employed in coal mines, 1800-1980

Source: Mitchell, 1988

Did coal play a major role in economic growth during the Industrial Revolution?

Somewhat surprisingly given coal’s centrality to the energy revolution and iron making, there is a lot of debate among economic historians about the importance of coal for the Industrial Revolution. Some see it as the key player (Pomeranz, 2000; Wrigley, 2010). Others argue that a cheap energy supply in the form of coal alongside high British wages underpinned the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, there is a view that the Industrial Revolution was not dependent on coal (Moykr, 2009). 

One study has used coal rents, pithead and market prices of coal, and the price of firewood to perform a counterfactual analysis, which asks what the Industrial Revolution would have looked like without British coal or even coal in Europe (Clark and Jacks, 2007). The admittedly speculative findings suggest that Britain’s coal deposits made a negligible contribution to growth during the Industrial Revolution.

The most comprehensive study to date of coal’s role in the Industrial Revolution examines the effect of coal on growth during the European Industrial Revolution (Fernihough and O’Rourke, 2020). This study uses the size of 2,180 European cities from 1300 to 1900 to examine the relationship between city size and proximity to a coalfield.

Prior to 1750, the authors find no relationship. But, after 1750, cities located close to coalfields grew much more rapidly than those located further away. In other words, geology and fossil fuels mattered for growth during the Industrial Revolution.

Did pollution eventually hinder growth?

Coal smoke has long been considered detrimental to health. For example, John Evelyn, a diarist, published a pamphlet in 1661 entitled Fumifugium, which is considered one of the first works on air pollution. By the 1830s, social reformers were increasingly concerned about the conditions in which the urban working classes had to live – squalor, over-crowding and pollution from the burning of coal.

Exploiting the fact that coal use by industries varied greatly across urban areas in Britain, researchers find that industrial coal use explains about one-third of the urban mortality penalty for infants in the 1850s (Beach and Hanlon, 2018). In other words, air pollution had major negative consequences for infant mortality.

Air pollution also had an effect on child development. Using data on heights of soldiers who enlisted during the First World War and who had been born in England and Wales during the 1890s, it has been found that coal pollution had a detrimental effect on child development (Bailey et al, 2018).  

A further study indicates that the effect of these negative qualities (or ‘disamenities’) on both quality of life and growth was trivial (Williamson, 1981). This argument is based on the fact that people voted with their feet and moved into these urban areas and that workers did not need much of a premium to move into a polluted urban setting for work. In this sense, the costs of regulatory attempts to tackle these disamenities during the Industrial Revolution would have fallen disproportionately on the working classes.

Research has also explored how air pollution from coal affected long-run city growth in Britain between 1851 and 1911 (Hanlon, 2020). Exploiting the facts that air pollution was high and highly variable across Britain, this research finds that industrial use of coal had a major negative effect on employment growth in British cities.

The effect may have come through two channels. First, pollution makes a city less attractive to live in and thus affects the supply of workers. Second, pollution makes workers less productive, thus affecting the demand for them.

What are the lessons for today?

Coal played a role in the transformation of the British and European economies during the Industrial Revolution. This transformation ushered in economic growth and a substantial rise in living standards. But, the air pollution that accompanied this revolution affected both mortality and health, and eventually slowed down economic growth.

As the UK and other economies seek to decarbonise their energy, there are at least two lessons from the energy and industrial revolutions ushered in by coal. First, there needs to be a recognition that fossil fuels both transformed economies and improved people’s living standards. This implies that as emerging and developing economies seek to catch up with the developed world, fossil fuels will continue to play a central role unless there is a great leap forward in renewable technologies.

Second, the knock-on effects (what economists refer to as ‘externalities’) associated with the burning of coal placed a restraint on growth. Climate change will do the same. The British government acted late in the day to deal with coal pollution because of their adherence to laissez-faire ideology.

But, even a more pragmatic government would have struggled to prevent the poor and working classes from bearing the cost of regulation. As countries move away from fossil fuels, care needs to be taken that the costs of regulation are not disproportionately borne by the working classes and the poor.

Where can I find out more?

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Author: John D. Turner, Queen’s University Belfast

Image by Philip James de Loutherbourg, Sourced from Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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