How important is coal to explain the British Industrial Revolutioт


For the ordinary people the term Industrial Revolution is related to iron, steam engine, cotton miles, coal and railroads. Each of these terms has played a significant role for the emergence and the development of this phenomenon that changed the direction of the mankind’s evolution. For sure there was interdependence between some of them, fact that contributed for their influence and significance for the Industrial Revolution.

In this essay I will explore in more details the great importance that one of these five simple words, “the coal”, had for the British Industrial Revolution. In his “The History of the coal industry” Roy Church writes that “It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of coal to the British economy between 1830 and 1913”1 . Coal was one of the things that distinguished Britain from the others developed economies in the world at that time and one of the main reasons that explains why the Industrial Revolution started exactly in Great Britain.

This natural resource had a major role not only explicitly by offering cheap and inexhaustible source of energy and thus reducing the costs, but also implicitly by increasing the efficiency of three of the main components of the “phenomenon”- the steam engine, the iron industry and the railroad and this way inducing their further improvement and development. This synergy with the steam engine, the iron and the railroad combined with the implication of the coal in the engineering industries which mechanized manufacturing are just some of the factors that explain why this natural resource was so important for the British Industrial Revolution.

The importance of coal for the British Industrial Revolution

The most curious question with regard to the linkage between the coal and the Industrial Revolution was why this process happened in Britain and not in one of the others developed economies at that time? Indeed Britain was not the only place with coal in the world, but it was the only place in Europe with such a huge and fast growing urban centre as London and this is exactly the answer of our question.

Before and during the Industrial Revolution a significant part of the thermal energy, obtained through the natural resources, that is, charcoal, peat and later on coal, was used for domestic heating. The growing London supposed an increase in the demand for thermal energy.

This meant that more and more timber should be obtained to respond to this demand that is to use trees placed at larger distance from the urban centre, which would mean higher transportation and correspondingly final prices. That gave Londoners incentive to substitute charcoal with coal when the price of the former became high enough. Unfortunately this process was far more complex than just to put coal instead of timber in the hearth.

The medieval house was not suitable for domestic heating with coal, which was the main reason for the invention of the coal-burning house. Once the coal- burning house was invented it spread across Britain. We can say that there was interdependence between the Great Rebuilding2 and the development of the coal mining. The cheap new source of energy was an incentive to replace the old houses with the new ones, and the building of new houses increased the demand and therefore the output of coal. From Chapter 4 of “The British Industrial Revolution in Global perspective” by Robert

Allen we know that “Half of Britain’s coal was mined in Northumberland and Durham. …Western England, Wales and Scotland accounted for the other half”3. Here emerges an interesting question. If London was so far from the main coal fields and also if the coal was 50% more expensive in London than in Northeast England why the Great Rebuilding started there? The reason is the coal-burning house.

Allen claims that “Design innovations were left to the decentralized market. Since most of the innovations were unpatentable no one could recoup the cost of experiments through patent royalties. … Copying and elaborating innovations was the way the coal-burning house evolved. … Despite the cheap coal in the ground, this sort of experimental work would not have taken place in small towns in the west midlands since not enough building was going on.”4

The invention of the coal-burning house resulted crucial for the further development of the coal industry since it gave the people a strong incentive to increase significantly the output obtained from the mines. This holds especially for the towns and villages next to the coal fields since there the price of the coal was many times lower than anywhere in the world.

“The Newcastle price was one-eight of the London price, which indicates the burden of transportation”5. There was also another reason for the increase in the demand and therefore the output of coal. This is the explanation proposed by John Nef in his “The Rise of the English coal industry (1932)”.

He claims that “Between the accession of Elizabeth and the Civil War, England, Wales, and Scotland faced an acute shortage of wood… By the end of the seventeenth century …the timber crisis had become general in all the countries of western Europe.”6 This was the stimulus to look for a new source of energy that could respond to the increased demand- the coal. There was some truth in this theory, but indeed it was not valid for the case of London, whose growth accounted indirectly through the invention of the coal-burning house for the increase in output devoted to domestic heating.

Thus the most important factor which led to the expansion of the coal industry was the success of Britain in the world economy, because it was the reason for the growth of London. When the coal-burning house was invented, it spread to the northern and western parts of Britain where coal had always been cheap.

Consequently, the growth of domestic demand and not the shortage of timber was the cause for the growth of coal industry outside the northeast coast. To summarize, the shortage of timber was the cause for the increased coal industry in Durham and Northumberland, whereas the invention of the coal-burning house was the reason for its growth in Western England, Wales and Scotland.

Now that we have already explained the main reasons for the development of the coal industry we will concentrate our analysis on the implications and the impact that it had on the British Industrial Revolution. “The decisive technological changes that feed so many industries form dependence upon organic raw materials was the discovery of a way of using coal where once wood had been essential.

”7 This gave many industries the ability to increase their output as much as they wanted at a constant average cost, without the existence of diseconomies of scale that had impeded them to do so by using the charcoal. The first consequence of that was the higher real wages economy in Britain, something that was impossible for the others developed economies at that time. This led to higher disposable income and from then to increased demand for consumer goods, that was another stimulus for the development of many industries.

The other consequence was that increasing demand, especially, for this type of inorganic source of energy augment the coal output which not only expanded the already existing industries but also gave rise to others. The timing of change from organic to inorganic was different depending on the sector. Firstly coal was implemented in such industries where there was no direct contact between the source of heat and the object, for instance the boiling of salt.

This was so because in such activities as iron smelting and hop drying where there was a contact the final product resulted damaged by the impurities in the coal. In 1709 Abraham Darby found way to drive these impurities off the coal. Unfortunately this breakthrough spread slowly through Britain.

However, “The continued rise in the price of charcoal after 1750 together with such innovations as Henry Cort’s pudding and rolling process of 1783-1784 finally freed iron production altogether from reliance on charcoal fuel.”8 Thus, implicitly through the iron industry, coal accounted for another great part of the British Industrial Revolution. A lot of machines that firstly were made of wood could be greatly improved by using iron instead. Furthermore many of the great engineering constructions couldn’t have been made without the existence of the iron at a cheap price.

The steam engine, the iron ships, the iron bridges and the iron rails complement successfully the picture of the indirect importance of coal. In the buildings coal didn’t substitute wood directly as a material rather it did it as a fuel in the brick industry. The production of bricks could expand without increasing average cost per unit and thus it became the leading building material of the new age. The large-scale use of coal gave great opportunities, but it also caused big problems. In the solutions of these problems we can find some of the most significant technological and economic foundations of the British Industrial Revolution.

The main problem was the high transportation cost with the existing means of transport. Coal could be used efficiently only if it was cheap, that is the transportation cost should decrease. Before the boom of the coal industry there was almost no incentive to improve overland transport because in the case of animal and vegetable products there were no movements of a great bulk of material along a single way.

The difference was that the production of coal was punctiform, which made the improvements in transport economically reasonable. Thus we can conclude that coal was the main incentive for the development of the incredible for its time canal and railroad red in Britain. They were constructed to decrease the cost of coal, but actually they diminished the transportation losses in almost all the other industries.

“The steam engine can easily be considered the single most important invention of the entire industrial revolution”9 The invention of the Newcomen’s steam machine, which further was improved by James Watt to what we know as the “steam engine” was stimulated again by the coal industry. The minors were entering deeper and deeper in the mines to achieve more and more resource, but the problems with the drainage were becoming bigger, consequently they needed a tool to drain the mines- the steam engine.

The enormous impact of this genius invention was huge not only for the Industrial Revolution itself, but also for the mankind’s development up to nowadays. In his article “The supply of Raw materials in the Industrial Revolution” Wrigley claims that “The steam engine more than any other single development, perhaps, made possible the vast increase in individual productivity which was so striking a feature of the Industrial Revolution by providing a source of power which dwarfed human, animal and even hydraulic sources.”10


The Industrial Revolution was one of the most important moments in the last 20,000 years, since for first time in the human history there was a steady increase in the GDP per capita which has continued until nowadays. The coal industry was the heart and the main engine of the British Industrial Revolution. It provided an inexhaustible source of cheap energy decreasing the average cost and allowing for unlimited output in almost all the other industries that before were dependent on wood supply.

Coal was also important because of its technological spin-offs, the railroad and the steam engine. Its combination with iron was the basis of the engineering industries that mechanized manufacturing and integrated the world economy in the XIX century. The coal industry was both directly or indirectly the most significant factor for the British Industrial Revolution. Without its development nowadays we would have lived with the same living standards as we did between 10,000 B.C and 1400 A.C.

Bibliography: Church, Roy, The History of British coal industry, vol.3, 1830-1913. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986 Allen, R., The British Industrial Revolution in global perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009 Nef, J.U., The Rise of the British Coal Industry. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1932 Wrigley, E. A., “The Supply of raw materials in the Industrial Revolution” London:

Blackwell, 1962 Publishing on behalf of the Economic History Society, accessed May 2, 2013 Cameron, Rondo E. and Larry Neal, A concise economic history of the world: from Paleolithic times to the present . New York: Oxford University Press 2003 Balon, Kendra (2001): “The steam engine”, accessed May 2, 2013, .