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Coal Industry


Coal is a rock that is made up mostly of carbon. Because it is combustible, it is used as a fuel that can provide light, heat, and power. Most coal was formed during the Carboniferous Period and the Permian Period, approximately 250-to 350-million years ago. Warm moist swampy areas became covered with vegetation that decomposed into peat, which in time and under pressure turned into different types of coal, depending on the exact conditions. There are four major grades of coal (from softest to hardest): lignite, subbituminous, bituminous, and anthracite. Bituminous coal is the type most often produced in the United States.

The use of coal may trace back to China around 1000 b.c.. The Romans may have used coal in the fifth century a.d., and there references to the use of coal in medieval Europe. However, there was no widespread use of coal until the Englishman Abraham Darby began to burn it as fuel for his furnace. The invention of the steam engine provided another important use for this product.

By 1745 coal began to be commercially mined in North America, but it was not until the American Revolution(177583) brought a halt to the importation of coal from Europe that the American coal industry began to expand at a rapid pace. By the 1840s there were numerous small mining companies in the northeastern United States. The development of the steam locomotive in the second half of the nineteenth century improved transportation and distribution of coal over long distances. The Industrial Revolution also contributed greatly to the expansion of the coal mining industry in the United States.

By the 1920s the coal industry experienced a decline in coal processing, largely because of over-expansion. Many mines closed and as many as 150,000 coal mining related jobs were lost. As other fuels such as petroleum and natural gas became popular, coal continued to drop in price. An act of Congress called the Bituminous Coal Act (1937) attempted to improve the stability of the coal industry.

The 1940s saw the conversion of steam locomotives to diesel fuel, but the loss of this use of coal was replaced by greater use of coal in electric power plants. Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, electric power plants continued to be a major consumer of coal. More efficient methods of shipping coal by train that were introduced in the 1960s allowed greater quantities to be moved across the country. Oil shortages in 197374 also caused the demand for coal to increase. Several developments in the 1970s limited productivity and profits although they forced coal operators to become better corporate citizens. Among them were stricter federal regulations on safety, labor practices, and environmental pollution, all areas where coal companies had a questionable reputation. In addition, other fuel resources such as nuclear power came into use as alternatives to coal.

Two very common ways to mine coal on the surface are strip mining and auger mining. However, the most hazardous method to mine coal is under-ground. Coal mining was always a dangerous under-taking and some of the early coal operators took advantage of mine workers. Dangers included mineshaft collapse, explosions, and exposure to coal dust, which could cause "black-lung disease." In 1890 miners banded together to found their own union, the United Mine Workers (UMW), to improve safety and working conditions. The union also improved wages; the UMW remained active through the end of the twentieth century. However, though automation and advancements in technology reduced the dangers, elements of risk would always be present.

The 1980s saw some profit increases for coal producing companies through advancements in technology that improved efficiency and productivity. In the 1990s growth in coal production remain slow but steady, although the numbers of people employed in the coal industry continued to drop. The major use of coal in the United States continued to be the production of electric power. In the 1990s coal resources in the United States were projected to last for another 250 years. According to these estimations, this natural resource would continue to be utilized as a means of power for generations to come.

See also: United Mine Workers


Heil, Scott, and Terrance W. Peck, eds. Encyclopedia of American Industries, 2nd ed., Vol 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.

Stearns, Peter N., and John H. Hinshaw. The ABC- CLIO World History Companion to the Industrial Revolution. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1996, s.v. "Coal Miners."

Stearns, Peter N., and John H. Hinshaw. The ABC- CLIO World History Companion to the Industrial Revolution. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1996, s.v. "United Mine Workers."

"Assessing the Coal Resources of the United States," [cited February 1, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @

The Business of Coal. Chicago: Arthur Andersen and Company, 1981.

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coal industry

coal industry. This has the longest continuously recorded history of any British industry, beginning with monastic and manorial documents of the 13th cent. Pits were small, shallow, or outcrops, capital investment was minuscule, drainage was an insignificant problem, and markets were generally local. However, by the 14th cent. a water-borne export trade from the Forth and Tyne had developed. Expansion occurred in the 16th and 17th cents. as a consequence of the growth of markets. By 1690 coal output was approaching 3 million tons, with Northumberland and Durham accounting for 45 per cent of production.

Growth in output resulted from greater investment by landowners with coal on their estates. Supply was partly affected by the Reformation and secularization of ecclesiastical land. New owners exploited coal reserves more actively and sought markets within and beyond their localities. Where land was leased for mining, leases were often longer, encouraging investment and entrepreneurship. Mining methods improved considerably, and coal-mining was a major stimulus of invention, especially in the use of water-wheels to drive drainage pumps. Ultimately, between 1698 and 1705 the problem of drainage led to steam pumps devised by Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen. Demand from London accounted for the dominance of the seasale mines of the Great Northern Coalfield; domestic consumers were very important, but the industries of London—smiths, glass-makers, owners of sugarhouses, brick and tile kilns, breweries and distilleries—should not be ignored. A range of industries from lime-burning to dyeing encouraged landsale and seasale, the former operating close to the pit-head, thereby offsetting transport costs.

Demand for coal escalated in the 18th cent. as the iron and metal industries altered their methods of production. Smelting by coke, achieved by Abraham Darby I in 1709, spread rapidly after 1760. In the late 18th cent. the Cranage brothers, Peter Onions, and Henry Cort applied coke to the puddling process in producing bar iron. New industries, notably gas, chemicals, the railways, and steam-power installations, also widened demand. Domestic consumers increased in number as urbanization proceeded. By 1800 output exceeded 11 million tons and in 1854 approached 65 million tons. It has been estimated that annual gross capital formation increased nearly sixfold between these years from over £480,000 to over £2.5 million. Technical and commercial constraints on growth were removed in this period. The steam-engine solved the problem of mine drainage; ventilation was improved in deeper pits by the sinking of air shafts; George Stephenson's and Humphry Davy's safety lamps began the improvement in underground lighting and mining safety, although gases remained a hazard; a labour-intensive industry which used ponies underground, as well as women and children in coal haulage, mining gained from the wire rope, the cage, and the rotary steam-engine, all features of substantial collieries by 1855. Cheaper transport was achieved by river improvement, canals, and railways. One per cent of national income in 1800, the coal industry accounted for about 6 per cent by 1900. Coal represented 5 per cent of the total value of exports up to the 1870s and by the early 20th cent. about 10 per cent. The industry was Britain's major male employer by 1914, when output reached 287.4 million tons, the highest figure ever attained.

After the war (1914–18) coal went into structural decline, encountering massive labour problems and declining productivity, interrupted only by the Second World War (1939–45) and its immediate aftermath. Nationalized in 1947, the industry was extensively modernized at great public cost. Demand fell as alternative fuels gained ground. High-costing pits closed after 1959, and declining productivity was reversed. The number of collieries fell from 901 in 1951 to 438 in 1967, a process hastened in the 1970s and 1980s; one consequence was a substantial fall in the mining labour force. Despite a growing emphasis on open-cast working and new mechanized mines, such as the Selby complex, in an abortive attempt to compete with foreign imports, the industry continued its decline in the 1990s, returning to private ownership in 1994–5. By 1997 there were only 20 large deep mines still in operation.

John Butt

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drainage (in mining)

drainage, in mining, removal of water seeping into shafts and other underground mine workings from the surrounding ground. Unless seeping water is removed continually, it may endanger haulage and mining equipment, weaken supporting structures, and, in some instances, flood the mine completely. Water in a mine is drained into sumps, or reservoirs, usually excavated below the lowest working level of the mine, and is then removed by pumps. Methods to minimize seepage include the sealing of visible fissures through which water enters and the injection of concrete into the ground surrounding the shafts.

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