Coal: Human History

by Barbara Freese

Paper Book, 2003




New York : Penguin Books / c2003,2004.


Publisher's description: The fascinating history of a simple black rock that has shaped our world--and now threatens it. In this remarkable book, Barbara Freese takes us on a rich historical journey that begins hundreds of millions of years ago and spans the globe. Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, expanded frontiers, and sparked social movements, and still powers our electric grid. Yet coal's world-changing power has come at a tremendous price, including centuries of blackening our skies and lungs--and now the dangerous warming of our global climate. Ranging from the "great stinking fogs" of London to the rat-infested coal mines of Pennsylvania, from the impoverished slums of Manchester to the toxic streets of Beijing, Coal is a captivating narrative about an ordinary substance with an extraordinary impact on human civilization.… (more)

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User reviews

LibraryThing member DonSiano
This book is not so much about coal, as it is about the environmental issues surrounding its use. I would have thought, though, that even a book of this sort would provide at least some of the basics of coal chemistry, giving some information on the chemical nature and reactions of coal, and the number of Joules per kg, perhaps. If you are looking for information of that sort, pass this jeremiad on by. Its approach is that you don't need to understand a technology in order to appreciate or regulate it.
The book starts pretty well, giving some highlights of the history of coal's critical contributions to the industrial revolution, some of which will appeal even to those only tangentially concerned about the history of technology and how our present world came to be. The tale of the resistance of Londoners to the use of more efficient stoves over the smoky fireplace with its visual appeal, now superseded by the TV, was fine to read.

Sorrowfully, there is not a word about the men who invented and developed the cast iron stove. The trials and tribulations of the men who enabled the transition of charcoal to coal in the production of iron is not to be found here. The important development of the coal-gas light, though described briefly, also totally neglects the chemistry, the men behind it and their heroic struggles. The production of coke is briefly described, but there is not even the briefest mention of the coal tar and the role it played in the development of the chemical industry. Although the transition of wood to coal burning locomotives is covered, the epical transition to the diesel is nowhere described. The properties and uses of the ash produced when coal is burned is also essentially ignored in this essay of environmental fantasies.

The book does have for much of its length, a preoccupation with the smoke generated by burning coal, its noxiousness, and its mentions in the novels and memoirs of the times. But where is the discussion of the characteristics of smoke, its particle size and densities, its variance with the type of coal and how it is burned? Neglected again. The possibility of the conversion of coal to a liquid petroleum-like fuel, and the enormous amount of research surrounding this possibility is likewise unknown to this author. Long wall mining techniques which have done so much to improve mine safety is not worth a mention either.

The author, an environmental solicitor and pleader, vaguely, feebly, and predictably argues for the complete replacement of coal by "renewable resources" such as solar power and windmills or something. Nuclear power is, in keeping with the usual dogma, dismissed in a sentence or two. The influence of this sort of discourse, while dominant for now among the media mongers and uplifters, will have little impact on our energy future. Our civilization, born in Northern Europe, has a record of steady and continuous improvement, and has a future that will be again filled with surprises and glories through the efforts of heroic engineers.
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LibraryThing member Wordherd
A well-edited presentation of the relationship between humankind and coal. While forthright about her specific interest in coal's environmental ramifications, the author maintains an enlightening treatment of coal's important (and perhaps forgotten) position in the development of human social and institutional civilization. You come away with a respect for coal and the people who work it. Coal alone didn't usher in the world as we understand it; but without coal, little of what we take for granted would be recognizable.

I appreciate the optimistic tone with which Ms. Freese addresses global climate change - an opportunity for humankind to surmount yet another challenge, with our ingenuity and understanding of our interconnectedness. In the future, perhaps folks will look with interest at our lengthy affair with coal and wonder.
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LibraryThing member satyridae
This book is both interesting and heartbreaking. It's also a high-flying overview, covering thousands of years in about three hundred pages. I think that's just right for me- I don't know that I could have taken too much more about the Victorians dying from "fog" or the little kids with rickets or... well, any of it. Including the modern coal industry spin doctors who are the same soulless bastards they've always been. Coal dust is GOOD for children to breathe, they said back then. Greenhouse gases are GOOD for farmers, they say now. *shudder*

Well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member MatthewN
I learned some fairly interesting things about coal. However, I felt like I was being lectured to from an environmental approach. I am all in favor of clean air and water, and would love to see industry as a whole take a more eco-friendly approach, but I also like electricity.
LibraryThing member martensgirl
I love books that describe how a single commodity slots into and shapes human history; this book is a fabulous example of the genre. There is ample biology, geology and politics to keep the reader fascinated. A stunning read!
LibraryThing member LynnB
From the title, I was expecting a commodity history, like some of Mark Kurlansky's excellent works about cod and about salt. This book has a little of that at the beginning, but most of it is about environmental damage and climate change. Even the role coal miners played in the union movement was barely mentioned. That said, I give the author credit for her clear, engaging writing style.… (more)
LibraryThing member ladycato
This is an interesting overview of the complex relationship between coal and humankind, how the natural resource propelled people into the industrial age and many technological advancements even as it kills with both intimate and widespread forms of poison. The focus is on the zones: Britain, western Pennsylvania, and China. Freese's approach is even-handed, blunt in her descriptions of coal as a blessing and a curse.… (more)
LibraryThing member jlparent
Pretty interesting micro-history about coal and how it influenced (and continues to influence) history. Not as good as some other microhistories (Salt and Cod leap to mind) but still an educational and interesting read.



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