Coal Demand and the Industrial Revolution

Mining, Industrial Revolution, engraving, 19th century, United Kingdom
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Before the eighteenth century, Britain — and the rest of Europe — had produced coal, but only in a limited quantity. Coal pits were small, and half were opencast mines (just big holes in the surface). Their market was just the local area, and their businesses were localized, usually just the sideline of a larger estate. Drowning and suffocation were also very real problems.​

During the period of the industrial revolution, as demand for coal soared thanks to iron and steam, as the technology to produce coal improved and the ability to move it increased, coal experienced a massive escalation. From 1700 to 1750 production increased by 50% and nearly another 100% by 1800. During the later years of the first revolution, as steam power really took a firm grip, this rate of increase soared to 500% by 1850.

The Demand for Coal

The rising demand for coal came from many sources. As the population increased, so did the domestic market, and people in town needed coal because they weren’t near to forests for wood or charcoal. More and more industries used coal as it became cheaper and thus more cost-effective than other fuels, from iron production to simply bakeries. Shortly after 1800 towns began to be lit by coal powered gas lamps, and fifty-two towns had networks of these by 1823. During the period wood became more expensive and less practical than coal, leading to a switch. In addition, in the second half of the eighteenth-century, canals, and after this railways, made it cheaper to move greater amounts of coal, opening up wider markets. In addition, the railways were a source of major demand. Of course, coal had to be in a position to supply this demand, and historians trace several deep connections to other industries, discussed below.

Coal and Steam

Steam had an obvious impact on the coal industry in generating vast demand: steam engines needed coal. But there were direct effects on production, as Newcomen and Savery pioneered the use of steam engines in coal mines to pump water, lift produce and provide other support. Coal mining was able to use steam to go deeper than ever before, getting more coal out of its mines and increasing production. One key factor to these engines was they could be powered by poor quality coal, so mines could use their waste in it and sell their prime material. The two industries — coal and steam — were both vital for each other and grew symbiotically.

Coal and Iron

Darby was the first person to use coke – a form of processed coal – to smelt iron in 1709. This advance spread slowly, largely due to the cost of coal. Other developments in iron followed, and these also used coal. As the prices of this material fell, so iron became the major coal user, increasing demand for the substance vastly, and the two industries mutually stimulated each other. Coalbrookdale pioneered iron tramways, which enabled coal to be moved more easily, whether in mines or on route to buyers. Iron was also needed for coal using and facilitating steam engines. 

Coal and Transport

There are also close links between coal and transport, as the former needs a strong transport network able to move bulky goods. The roads in Britain before 1750 were very poor, and it was hard to move large, heavy goods. Ships were able to take coal from port to port, but this was still a limiting factor, and rivers were often of little use due to their natural flows. However, once transport improved during the industrial revolution, coal could reach greater markets and expand, and this came first in the form of canals, which could be purpose-built and move large quantities of heavy material. Canals halved the transport costs of coal compared to the packhorse.

In 1761 the Duke of Bridgewater opened a canal built from Worsley to Manchester for the express purpose of carrying coal. This was a major piece of engineering including a ground-breaking viaduct. The Duke earned wealth and fame from this initiative, and the Duke was able to expand production because of the demand for his cheaper coal. Other canals soon followed, many built by coal mine owners. There were problems, as canals were slow, and iron trackways still had to be used in places.

Richard Trevithick built the first moving steam engine in 1801, and one of his partners was John Blenkinsop, a coal mine owner searching for cheaper and faster transport. Not only did this invention pull large quantities of coal quickly, but it also used it for fuel, for iron rails, and for building. As railways spread, so the coal industry was stimulated with railway coal use rising.

Coal and the Economy

Once coal prices fell it was used in a huge number of industries, both new and traditional, and was vital for iron and steel. It was a very vital industry for the industrial revolution, stimulating industry and transport. By 1900 coal was producing six percent of the national income despite having a small workforce with only limited benefits from technology.

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Wilde, Robert. "Coal Demand and the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Coal Demand and the Industrial Revolution. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Coal Demand and the Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).