Large-scale coal mining developed during the Industrial Revolution, and coal provided the main source of primary energy for industry and transportation in the West from the 18th century to the 1950s. Coal remains an important energy source, due to its low cost and abundance when compared to other fuels, particularly for electricity generation. However, coal is also mined today on a large scale by open pit methods wherever the coal strata strike the surface and is relatively shallow.
Britain developed the main techniques of underground coal mining from the late 18th century onward with further progress being driven by 19th century and early 20th century progress.
However oil and its associated fuels began to be used as alternative from this time onward. By the late 20th century coal was for the most part replaced in domestic as well as industrial and transportation usage by oil, natural gas or electricity produced from oil, gas, nuclear or renewable energy sources.
Since 1890, coal mining has also been a political and social issue. Coal miners' labour and trade unions became powerful in many countries in the 20th century, and often the miners were leaders of the Left or Socialist movements (as in Britain, Germany, Poland, Japan, Canada and the U.S.) Since 1970, environmental issues have been increasingly important, including the health of miners, destruction of the landscape from strip mines and mountaintop removal, air pollution, and coal combustion's contribution to global warming.
Coal Information Institute reports the Chinese
mined coalstone for fuel since 10,000 years ago at the time of the New Stone Age
, or Neolithic Era
. "People in Shanxi
, now the largest coal production base, have been burning coal as fuel since then. Coal usage was widespread in various parts of the world by the Bronze Age
, 2000-1000 BC. Chinese usage of coal for smelting began in the Warring States Period
(475-221 BC). They are credited with organizing production and consumption to the extent that by the year 1000 AD this activity could be called an industry. In the 11th century, the demands for charcoal
of the Song Dynasty
(960-1279) Chinese iron industry
led to widespread deforestation
. With the advent of coal replacing charcoal in the iron smelting process, thousands of acres of prime timberland
were spared in China. China remained the world's largest producer and consumer of coal until the 18th century. Roman
historians describe coal as a heating source in Britannia
The earliest use of coal in the Americas was by the Aztecs. They used coal not only for heat but as ornaments as well. Coal deposits were discovered by colonists in Eastern North America in the 18th century.
Early coal extraction was small-scale, the coal lying either on the surface, or very close to it. Typical methods for extraction included drift mining and bell pits. In Britain, some of the earliest drift mines (in the Forest of Dean) date from the medieval period. However, the Romans exploited coal on a large scale as shown by the stores of coal at many forts along Hadrian's Wall, and the remains of smelting industry at forts such as Longovicium nearby.
As well as drift mines, small scale shaft mining was used. This took the form of a bell pit, the extraction working outward from a central shaft, or a technique called room and pillar in which 'rooms' of coal were extracted with pillars left to support the roofs. Both of these techniques however left considerable amount of usable coal behind.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution
, which began in Britain
in the 1700s, and later spread to Europe
, North America
, and Japan
, was based on the availability of coal to power steam engines
. International trade expanded exponentially when coal-fed steam engines were built for the railways
in the 1810-1840 Victorian era
. Coal was cheaper and much more efficient than wood burning
in most steam engines. As central and Northern England
contains an abundance of coal, many mines were situated in these areas as well as the South Wales coalfield
. The small-scale techniques were unsuited to the increasing demand, with extraction moving away from surface extraction to deep shaft mining
as the Industrial Revolution progressed.
Beginning of the 20th century
|Coal Production of the World, around 1905
||Short Tons |
| Germany (coal)
| Germany (lignite)
| Hungary (lignite)
|Italy (coal and lignite)
|New South Wales
Deep shaft mining in the UK
started to develop in the late 18th century, although rapid expansion occurred throughout the 19th century and early 20th century when the industry peaked. The location of the coalfields helped to make the prosperity of Lancashire
, of Yorkshire
, and of South Wales
; the Yorkshire pits which supplied Sheffield
were only about 300 feet deep. Northumberland
were the leading coal producers and they were the sites of the first deep pits. In much of Britain coal was worked from drift mines
, or scraped off when it outcropped on the surface. Small groups of part-time miners used shovels and primitive equipment. Before 1800 a great deal of coal was left in places as extraction was still primitive. As a result in the deep Tyneside
pits (300 to 1,000 ft. deep) only about 40 percent of the coal could be extracted. The use of wooden pit props to support the roof was an innovation first introduced about 1800. The critical factor was circulation of air and control of dangerous explosive gases. At first fires were burned to create air currents and circulate air, but replaced by fans driven by steam engines. Protection for miners came with the invention of the Davy lamp
and Geordie lamp
, where any firedamp
) burnt harmlessly within the lamp. It was achieved by restricting the ingress of air with either metal gauze or fine tubes, but the illumination from such lamps was very poor. Great efforts were made to develop better safe lamps, such as the Mueseler lamp produced in the Belgian pits near Liège
Coal was so abundant in Britain that the supply could be stepped up to meet the rapidly rising demand. About 1770-1780 the annual output of coal was some 6¼ million tons (or about the output of a week and a half in the 20th century). After 1790 output soared, reaching 16 million tons by 1815 at the height of the Napoleonic War. The miners, less menaced by imported labour or machines than were the cotton mill workers, had begun to form trade unions and fight their grim battle for wages against the coal owners and royalty-lessees.
passed into Government control
in 1947, although coal had been a political issue since the early part of the 20th century. The need to maintain coal supplies (a primary energy source) had figured in both world wars
As well as energy supply, coal in the UK became a very political issue, due to conditions under which colliers worked and the way they were treated by colliery owners. Much of the 'old Left' of British politics can trace its origins to coal-mining areas, with the main labour union being the National Union of Mineworkers, founded in 1888. The NUM claimed 600,000 members in 1908.
Although other factors were involved, one cause of the UK General Strike of 1926 was concerns colliers had over very dangerous working conditions, reduced pay and longer shifts.
Technological development throughout the 19th century and 20th century helped both to improve the safety of colliers and the productive capacity of collieries they worked. In the late 20th century, improved integration of coal extraction with bulk industries such as electrical generation helped coal maintain its position despite the emergence of alternative energies supplies such as oil, natural gas and, from the late 1950s, nuclear power used for electricity. More recently coal has faced competition from renewable energy sources and bio-fuels.
Post World War II, the coal industry in Britain was Nationalised, and remained in public ownership until the 1980s and the decline of the industry after the UK miners' strike (1984-1985).
The 1980s and 1990s saw much change in the UK coal industry, with the industry contracting, in some areas quite drastically. Many pits were considered uneconomic to work at then current wage rates compared to cheap North Sea oil and gas, and in comparison to subsidy levels in Europe. The Miners' Strike of 1984 failed to stop the Conservative government's plans under Margaret Thatcher to shrink the industry. The National Coal Board (by then British Coal), was privatised by selling off a large number of pits to private concerns through the mid 1990s, and the mining industry disappeared almost completely.
In January 2008, Wales's last deep pit mine, Tower Colliery in Hirwaun, Rhondda Cynon Taff closed with the loss of 120 jobs. The coal was exhausted.
However, coal is still mined extensively at a number of deep pits in the Midlands and the north, and is extracted at several very large opencast pits in South Wales and elsewhere. There are proposals to re-open several deep pits with Russian capital, owing to the soaring price of the commodity.
|Coal Producing States, 1889
(thousands of short tons)
(or "hard" coal), clean and smokeless, became the preferred fuel in cities, replacing wood by about 1850. Anthracite from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Coal Region
(and later from West Virginia
) was typically used for household uses because it is a high quality coal with few impurities and stoves and furnaces were designed for it. The rich Pennsylvania anthracite fields were close to the big Eastern cities, and a few major railroads like the Reading Railroad
controlled the anthracite fields. By 1840, hard coal output had passed the million-short ton mark, and then quadrupled by 1850.
Bituminous (or "soft coal") mining came later. In the mid-century Pittsburgh was the principal market. After 1850 soft coal, which is cheaper but dirtier, came into demand for railway locomotives and stationary steam engines, and was used to make coke for steel after 1870.
Total coal output soared until 1918; before 1890, it doubled every ten years, going from 8.4 million short tons in 1850 to 40 million in 1870, 270 million in 1900, and peaking at 680 million short tons in 1918. New soft coal fields opened in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, as well as West Virginia, Kentucky and Alabama. The Great Depression of the 1930s lowered the demand to 360 million short tons in 1932.
After the Lattimer Massacre
of 1897 and the Battle of Virden
in 1898, the United Mine Workers
(UMW) labor union
was successful in its strike against bituminous coal
mines in the Midwest
in 1900. However, the union's strike against the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania
turned into a national political crisis in 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt
brokered a compromise solution that kept the flow of coal going, and won higher wages and shorter hours for the miners, but did not include recognition of the union as a bargaining agent.
The UMW called strikes in Colorado's coal fields, one of which resulted in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Neutralized by the dispatch of federal troops after ten days of skirmishes provoked by the massacre, the UMW essentially suspended most activities in Colorado for more than a decade. Meanwhile the organization grew stronger in the east until about 1920, when it collapsed after a national strike.
In 1927, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) led a state-wide strike in Colorado's coalfields which resulted in the Columbine Mine Massacre. Immediately after that massacre, Rocky Mountain Fuel Company announced that it would recognize any union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. In announcing this policy, the company avoided recognizing the radical IWW. Thus, the United Mine Workers was awarded its first contract in Colorado.
invented the first conveyor belt
for use in coal mines in the early 1900s. Within the first forty years of the 20th century, there was an increase of over sixty percent in the amount of coal that was loaded mechanically rather than by man power. Over time, less and less manual labour would be needed in the industry.
As this trend continued, the labor-intensive coal-mining methods that supported the miners declined. As the miners saw their livelihood taken away, resistance to mechanization grew. As noted in historian Keith Dix’s article, “What’s a Coal Miner to Do?” one of the first machines to arrive at West Virginia’s Kanawha field had to be escorted by armed guards. Dix also writes that “The same machine introduced at a mine in Illinois was operated at a slow speed because the superintendent feared labor troubles.”
Despite resistance, mechanization replaced more and more laborers. By 1940, almost seventy percent of coal loaded in West Virginia, one of the largest coal producing states, was done by machine. With the increase of mechanization came hard times for the former miners and their families. Many miners moved to the cities to find work.
Post-World War II
Under John L. Lewis, the UMW became the dominant force in the coal fields in the 1930s and 1940s, producing high wages and benefits. Repeated strikes caused the public to switch away from anthracite for home heating after 1945, and that sector collapsed.
In 1914 at the peak there were 180,000 anthracite miners; by 1970 only 6,000 remained. At the same time steam engines were phased out in railways and factories, and bituminous was used primarily for the generation of electricity. Employment in bituminous peaked at 705,000 men in 1923, falling to 140,000 by 1970 and 70,000 in 2003. Environmental restrictions on high-sulphur coal, and the rise of very large-scale strip mining in the west (especially the Powder River Basin fields in Wyoming and adjacent states), caused the sharp decline in underground mining after 1970. UMW membership among active miners fell from 160,000 in 1980 to only 16,000 in 2005, as coal mining became more mechanized and non-union miners predominated in the new coal fields. The American share of world coal production remained steady at about 20% from 1980 to 2005.
In 1984 Australia surpassed the US as the world's largest coal exporter. One-third of Australia's coal exports were shipped from the Hunter River region of New South Wales, where coal mining and transport had begun nearly two centuries earlier. Coal River was the first name given by British settlers to the Hunter River after coal was found there in 1795. In 1804 the Sydney-based administration established a permanent convict settlement near the mouth of the Hunter River to mine and load the coal, predetermining the town's future as a coal port by naming it Newcastle. Today, Newcastle, NSW, is the largest coal port in the world.
had a small coal industry concentrated at Cape Breton
in Nova Scotia
. At its peak in 1949 25,000 miners dug 17 million metric tons of coal from mines. The miners, who lived in company towns, were politically active in left-wing politics
. Westray Mine
closed in 1992 after an explosion killed 26 miners. All the mines were closed by 2001. The United States always supplied the coal for the industrial regions of Ontario
. By 2000 about 19% of Canada's energy was supplied by coal, chiefly imported from the U.S.
Coal mines all shut down two years later due to an over-exportation crises in the West.
The first important mines appeared in the 1750s, In 1782 the Krupp
family began operations near Essen
. After 1815 entrepreneurs
in the Ruhr Area
, which then became part of Prussia
took advantage of the tariff zone (Zollverein
) to open new mines and associated iron
smelters. New railroads were built by British engineers
around 1850. Numerous small industrial centres sprang up, focused on ironworks
, using local coal. The iron
works typically bought mines, and erected coking ovens
to supply their own requirements in coke
. These integrated coal-iron firms ("Huettenzechen") became numerous after 1854; after 1900 they became mixed firms called "Konzern."
The average output of a mine in 1850 was about 8,500 short tons; its employment about 64. By 1900, the average mine's output had risen to 280,000 and the employment to about 1,400. Total Ruhr coal output rose from 2.0 million short tons in 1850 to 22 in 1880, 60 in 1900, and 114 in 1913, on the verge of war. In 1932 output was down to 73 million short tons, growing to 130 in 1940. Output peaked in 1957 (at 123), declining to 78 million short tons in 1974.
By 1830 when iron
and later steel
became important the Belgian coal
industry had long been established, and used steam engines
for pumping. The Belgian coalfield lay near the navigable River Meuse
, so coal was shipped downstream to the ports and cities of the Rhine
. The opening of the Saint-Quentin Canal
allowed coal to go by barge to Paris
. The Belgian coalfield outcrops over most of its area, and the highly folded nature of the coal seams meant that surface occurrences of the coal were very abundant. Deep mines were not required at first so there were a large number of small operations. There was a complex legal system for concessions, often multiple layers had different owners. Entrepreneurs
started going deeper and deeper (thanks to the good pumping system). In 1790, the maximum depth of mines was 220 meters. By 1856, the average depth in the area west of Mons
was 361, and in 1866, 437 meters and some pits had reached down 700 and 900 meters; one was 1,065 meters deep, probably the deepest coal mine in Europe
at this time. Gas
explosions were a serious problem, and Belgium had high coal miner fatality rates. By the late 19th century the seams were becoming exhausted and the steel industry was importing some coal from the Ruhr
Mining has always been dangerous, because of explosions, roof cave-ins, and the difficulty of mines rescue. The worst single disaster in British
coal mining history was at Senghenydd
in the South Wales coalfield
. On the morning of 14 October 1913
an explosion and subsequent fire killed 436 men and boys. Only 72 bodies were recovered. It followed a series of many extensive Mining accidents
in the Victorian era
, such as The Oaks explosion
of 1866 and the Hartley Colliery Disaster
of 1862. Most of the explosions were caused by firedamp
ignitions followed by coal dust explosions
. Deaths were mainly caused by carbon monoxide
poisoning, although at Hartley colliery, where the victims were entombed when the single shaft was blocked by a broken cast iron beam from the haulage engine, death occurred by asphyxiation
The Monongah Mine disaster of Monongah, West Virginia 6 December 1907 was the worst of many mining disasters in American history. The explosion was caused by the ignition of methane gas (also called "firedamp"), which in turn ignited the coal dust. The lives of 362 men were lost in the underground explosion.
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Pre-World War II Mechanization
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Coal miners and unions
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