How Important Is Coal to Explain the English Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution is a period that begins in the last 18th century and ends in the middle 19th century. It is a period of demographic increase, thanks in part to Agricultural revolution (end of the subsistence crisis) and the advances in medicine and hygiene.

The pre-industrialization is also characterised by the flow of peasants to the cities and the increase of the rural population income. It is the change from the “domestic system” to the “factory system” that leads to socioeconomic, technological and cultural transformations of the human history. In the 1770s England was a high wage economy, what permitted the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution.

The most important innovation of the period is the steam engine that drove the process of industrialization and stimulated the economic growth of many countries. The steam engine is the most important but not the only innovation of the time, new energy sources, such as coal, also took an important part in the Industrial Revolution. In this essay we are going to try to answer to the question “How important is coal to explain the English Industrial Revolution?”, for that we are going to follow the following questions:

* What are the sectors involved in the Industrial Revolution? How important is coal in their development? * What is the link between coal and commerce? * What about the Industrial Revolution without coal?

I.The importance of coal in the mechanization of the industry.

The industrial revolution born in a context of economic system expanding, and countries had to find ways to satisfy needs of population growing within the area. The rising demand of goods for a more and more refined population lead to particularly develop tow sectors: the textile sector, also called the “Leading sector”, and the steel and iron sector.

The first one to be developed was the textile sector, Britain was one of the biggest producers of material of the world. The rising demand led to change from the “domestic system”, farmhouse production using simple tools or machines, to the “factory system”, using textile mill moved by hydraulic energy or steam engines, which its fuel was coal. The utilization of the steam engine in the textile sector was generalized by 1800s and permitted a production en masse as well as a decrease in the average costs.

At the beginning of the 19th century Abraham Darby invented the way to do iron with coal instead of using wood. This innovation allowed improving the quality of the iron, as well as its production time (the combustion of coal was quicker). It substituted wood in agricultural tools, building’s structures, pieces of machines… iron became the star product of the period, the demand raised incredibly, what forced to increase the supply of coal. Another effect of the substitution of wood by coal was the construction of big factories near to the coal mines, especially in Midland.

The generalization of the used of iron in all the sectors of the economy has obviously as a consequence the rise of the demand and the supply. In 1720 England produced 25.000 tons of iron, in 1796 125.000 tons and in 1850 2.500.000 tons. According to the professor Jesús Tapia Corral without the cheap iron of good quality produced from the implantation of coal it should be impossible to develop the Watt’s steam engine, the railway and the locomotive, the hull of the steam boats...


II. From the development of the industry to the development of international commerce through the improvement in transports.

A country’s economy’s modernization happens through the transports’ modernization. This improvement falls in a general decrease of costs in all sectors and permits the creation of markets that make possible an increasing size of the firms and therefore a greater specialization and economies of scale. “Canals were shown to have met several […] requirements of a transitional economy […] and also have met particular needs of the economy, the need for fuel, especially coal, in town and industry”, said Deane (Turnbull 1987, p 537).

The rising demand of the more and more popularized coal given to its generalized used (domestic and industrial used) lead to develop new transporting methods. The construction of more than 3000 km of channels, thought in general to the transportation of heavy merchandise, and in particular of coal, enormously reduced the transporting cost and thanks to the rainy clime, they were passable during the whole year. However, the real revolution came with the construction of the railway. The idea of constructing iron rails was very old; it was used in the proximity of the coal mines to transport the mineral. Those wagons were towed by horses or bullocks.

The revolution came with the implantation of the “mobile” steam engine that was able to tow itself and an undetermined number of wagons. The firsts attempts to develop locomotives moved by steam energy were done in order to transport coal from the mines. In 1825, George Stephenson developed the first railway line, Stockton- Darlington, destined to the transportation of coal. In 1830, another line matching London and Liverpool started transporting merchandise and passengers.

In the mid 19th century, the steam boats displaced the sailing ships, and started to transport merchandise and passengers. Thanks to the substitution of the wheel by the propeller, the incorporation of more efficient machines, and construction of boats with iron hull, the substitution of the sailing ships was possible. Those improvements made the boats more easy-to-use, faster and more secure.

During its speech to the Parliament in February 1846, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Sir Robert Peel, pointed out the importance of coal and iron in the English Industrial Revolution. He referred to them as the “nerve centre of the production” that gave to the country an advantage over their competitors in industry. He also asked to consider “the advantage that Good and the nature” have given to them.

The abundance of the English coal is, in this way, one of the most important factors that lead the country to position itself as the first one. “In the coal industry […] [Great Britain] maintained its lead in Europe and produced a surplus for exports.”(Cameron and Neal, 2006, p.221). Those exports represented 3% of English exports by 1870. The mechanization of the industry raises the supply of goods, as well as its quality.

The demand reached a national, thanks to the increase in the standards of living, and an international level. The favourable political and economical conditions led to the expansion of the English commerce through the world. At this point, the improvement in transports (in a first moment thought to transport coal) took a very important role, and the port of London became the first port of the world, through which enormous quantities of iron, coal and textile products crossed the world. Sir Robert peel said “we are the confines of Europe, the union point between the Old and the New World”.

III. The relative importance of coal during the English Industrial Revolution.

According to Pomeraz (Pomeraz 2000), coal was a key actor of the industrial revolution. Its easy access to deposits of coal near population centres made possible the success of the country. He compares it with China, that hadn’t accessible coal mines and say that that explains its failure in the Industrial Revolution.

However, other economists talk about coal as a bit actor of the industrial revolution (Gregory Clark and David Jacks 2006). They sustain its theory by saying that “without coal, water power, wind power and firewood would alone served the energy needs of the industrial Revolution”. It is true that the cost of the energy should raised because they should have to import it but this shouldn’t changed the course of the Industrial Revolution since the coal industry only represented 2% of the GDP when we talk about the domestic used and 4% of the GDP for the industry.

Another reason of coal being a bit actor of the Industrial Revolution is its low productivity growth along the period, “the contribution of coal mining productivity to the overall growth in the Industrial Revolution era was 0.003% per year”, that is an average share of the GDP of 1.6% between 1760 and 1869. This was due to the costly extraction of the mineral. The rising demand of energy forced to increase the depth extraction, what increased a lot it cost. The coal rent was only 10% of the selling price. The extraction of other energies should be between 10 and 20% cheaper and the rent of the selling price should be considerably higher.


Coal was very important to the English industrial Revolution because thank you to its abundance it reduced the cost of the fuel permitting to increase profits. Furthermore, the steam engine, the most important innovation of the period, is really dependent on coal, its efficiency led to the mechanization of the industry and the industrialization of the country. Transports, another important innovation of the industrial revolution dependent on coal, made easier one of the consequences of the industrial revolution: the international commerce.

However, we tend to think that coal was the key actor of the industrial revolution, but it seem that it was just a way through which the country reached the high levels of productivity, permitting therefore to reduce prices and rise standards of living in Britain. The truth is that its real contribution to the growth of the country was relatively small given to the high extraction cost. Some economists have shown by their analysis that the used of other energies wouldn’t have change the course of the Industrial Revolution. .

References TAPIA CORRAL, J. (2006): “La Revolución Industrial”, Madrid: Centro Nacional de Información y Comunicación Educativa, online: (Accessed 1st May 2010)

PEEL, R. (1846): “Speech of Sir Robert Peel in front of the Parliament, February 16, 1846”. Clases de Historia, online: (Accessed 7 May 2010)

TURNBULL, G. (1987) :” Canals, Coal and Regional Growth during the Industrial Revolution”, Economic History Review, Vol. 40, No 4, pp. 537-560.Online: ( Accessed 7 May 2010)

CAMERON, R. and NEAL, L. “Patterns of Development: The Early Industrializaers”. A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present, 4th edition. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 219-244.

CLARK, G. and JACKS, D. (2006): “Coal and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1869”, European Review of Economic History 11, pp. 39-72. Online: (Accessed 5 May 2010)

POMERAZ, K.(2000) : The Great divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Quoted in Gregory Clark and David