Coal and Industrialization; History and Status of the Western WA Business Report

Coal and Industrialization

By Kellen Betts in Manifold

The dawn of industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries was led by innovations in metallurgy, steam power, and production processes. The energy powering these developments was coal. 

In pre-industrialized societies, biomass was the dominant source of energy including woody phytomass (firewood), crop residues, dry dung, and charcoal. These energy sources are renewable and limited by ecosystem constraints. Coal is a non-renewable, ancient biomass—a group of energy resources commonly called “fossil fuels”—that proved to be a more efficient power source than biomass in 18th and 19th century Britain—and subsequently all major economies of the world.

Coal is a black or brownish sedimentary rock formed when dead plant matter decays and is buried deep underground, subject to heat and pressure over millions of years. The best anthracite coals are nearly 100% carbon. Bituminous and lignite coals contain a number of impurities including sulfur, incombustible ash, moisture, and traces of heavy metals.

Both coal and wood biomass have similar energy densities. The energy density of coal ranges from 8 MJ/kg for lignites to 30 MJ/kg for anthracites. Coal and renewable biomass, however, have very different power densities measured by land area. Power density of biomass harvests range from just 0.1 W/m2 for woody species grown in arid and cold climates to 0.5 W/m2 the best crops harvest like corn (yielding 10 t/ha) and sugar cane (yielding above 50 t/ha). In contrast, even thin seams of coal can produce 1,000 W/m2 making it a vastly more efficient energy resource by land area. [1]

Coal is found in rock strata forming seams. In the 18th and 19th century, coal mining was energized by heavy human labor and the depletion of outcroppings in the 19th century drove miners to ever deeper seams. Deep mines required strong water pumps and ventilation, which were initially powered by waterwheels, windmills and horses until effective steam-powered pumps became available.

These were the energetic foundations of modern civilization: men with picks, shovels, and (later) simple jackhammers cutting coal from underground seams, often working in incredibly confining conditions narrow tunnels; women and children (and later also ponies harnessed to small wagons) moving the cut fuel to loading points; women (including teenage girls) ascending ladders with back loads of coal in baskets…; on the surface, horses (often with blinkers) walking in circle and turning the whims lifting coal (and miners) from deeper shafts. [1]

The two main industrial uses for coal in the 18th century were combustion in the steam engine and coke-fueled iron smelting. Demand from steam engines created a reinforcing feedback loop with engines increasing the demand for coal, which had to then be mined from deeper and deeper seams requiring more steam-powered pumps. Iron smelting is the process of melting iron ore—requiring a furnace capable of reaching over 1,500°C—allowing it to be cast into weapons, tools, cookware and other objects.

By the early 18th century, there were 60 charcoal-fueled blast furnaces operating in Britain, producing roughly 17,000 tons of pig iron and 12,000 tons forged into bars. The charcoal demands from these furnaces put immense pressure on regional forests and by 1700 nearly all accessible natural-growth forest was gone in Britain. With accessible coal seam outcroppings and a burgeoning mining industry, however, coal offered a seemingly limitless supply of fuel for British industrialization. [2]

In global terms, the 19th century was still dominated by biomass. In 1800 Britain was producing five times the amount of coal as continental Europe, and over the next 100 years all of the world’s major economies transitioned from biomass to coal making it the most important global fuel source of the early 20th century.


[1] Smil, V. (2016). Energy Transitions (2nd Ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. Pg 73-74. 

[2] Smil, V. (2017). Energy and Civilization. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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The History and Dire Status of the ISM-Western Washington Business Survey

By Carol Kujawa

ISM-Western Washington has one of the longest-running local Business Surveys in the United States. It has been published continuously since 1997. I took over the Survey from Don Blackburn in 1999, serving as ISM-WW’s Business Survey Chair. In those days, data for the Survey was collected with a paper form, which was mailed out to Survey respondents, who completed it and mailed it back. Over the years, the form was changed to an Excel spreadsheet (designed by another ISM-WW member), and sent out and returned via email, thus saving the Chapter about $150 per year in printing and mailing expense.

In the beginning, there were about twelve members of the business and academic communities who signed up to receive the results each month. The results were sent out first by mail, then by fax, and finally by email. Today there are over fifty entities, including business and general press, economists, banks, government agencies, and others, who receive the results. In 2019, the first foreign economic group signed up to receive the monthly results (in Poland!).

Enormous progress has been made in the ISM-WW Business Survey. New recipients sign up a few times a year, and they all eagerly await our results each month. If results are a day or two late in appearing, I hear about it!

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for respondent companies. The local Survey is of manufacturing companies, and there have never really been enough firms that sign up to complete the Survey every month. The Survey has existed through multiple recessions, and sometimes the buyers who do the Survey for their companies are laid off with no notice, or retire, reducing the respondent base. I have searched the ISM-WW Membership database for members at manufacturing companies, and invited them to participate, with no luck. I have also contacted suppliers who built parts for my employer, and added at least three respondents that way. Now, in 2020, it is getting to the point where there are simply not enough Western Washington manufacturing companies participating to produce a valid Survey.

It would be a shame to discontinue the Western Washington Business Survey. Unless buyers at manufacturing companies step up to do the Survey, however, ISM-WW will not be able to continue providing valuable information on local economic activity.
Are you a buyer at a manufacturing company? If so, we need you! Please, step up and participate in the Survey for your company. A new form is sent out each month, and it takes less than 15 minutes to complete. Please help save the ISM-WW Business Survey! Sign Up Today!

By the Numbers

600 GWh

The amount of electricity storage capacity Phadke et al. estimate we need to cost-effectively support conversion to 90% clean energy by 2035.

About Us

Kellen Betts is Editor of Supply Chain Weekly. He also writes the newsletter Manifold, exploring the intersection of supply chain, sustainability, and technology. Contact him at Follow him on LinkedIn and @KellenBetts.