Today, we learn why we shouldn't bring coals to
Newcastle. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines that
make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
History does offer some reports of
the ancients burning coal. But when Marco Polo went to
China in the late thirteenth century, he was still
surprised to see black stones being burned there. He
would've been equally surprised if he'd gone to England.
For the English were already using coal for smithing,
brewing, dyeing, and smelting. The English had even begun
exporting it to France.
European millwrights had been building waterwheels of
wood for three centuries by then, and they were now
beginning to build the new windmills as well. Iron
smelting was an even worse destroyer of forests. To smelt
one pound of iron took about eight cubic feet of wood,
which had first been made into charcoal.
Wood became too precious to keep burning as fuel. In AD
1205 an Italian settlement created a reforestation plan
in which each citizen had to plant ten trees a year. Such
measures were not enough. By AD 1230, the English had to
start importing Scandinavian timber.
But they also learned to replace wood fuel with
surface coal, also called sea-coal. That's
because the largest outcroppings of the stuff were to be
found near the English coast.
The reason we don't bring coals to Newcastle is that
sea-coal deposits surrounding that city were mined in
open cuts thirty feet deep. Newcastle was soon girdled by
a dangerous maze of water-filled trenches.
Sea-coal was filthy stuff, loaded with bitumen and
sulfur. It created environmental problems from the start.
As early as AD 1257, fumes from the city below drove
Eleanor, Queen of England, out of Nottingham Castle. But
the medieval population explosion drove people to use
this foul fossil fuel anyway. An anonymous
fourteenth-century balladeer vented his anger at its use:
Swart smutted smiths, smattered with smoke,
Drive me to death with din of their dints; ...
The crooked caitiffs cryen after col! col!
And blowen their bellows that all their brain
For a century or so, medieval environmentalists fought
with medieval industrialists over the use of coal. Then
famine and plague ended their argument until the middle
of the fifteenth century.
As Europe began repopulate after the plague, people
returned to coal, using the new techniques of metal
mining. With more people smelting metals, wood shortages
reappeared. So people followed coal seams into the earth,
mining it the way they mined metal.
They found their way down to the clean hard coals that we
use today. Just over two centuries ago, we learned to
make coke from those coals and use it in place of
charcoal for smelting steel.
For six hundred years, coal, wood, and metal swirled
about one another. As energy needs keep changing, coal,
which Emerson once called "a portable climate," could
well emerge to play some new role in the ongoing balance
of human cold and warmth.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.