History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Industrialization

Coal and steam Click here for Audio

Iron production

Britain mapEngland had the advantages in developing alternatives to water power. First, they had a problem. Water mills had to be located in the hills to get the fall of water necessary to run efficient water wheels. This meant they froze in winter, and were far from ports and markets.

They had another problem, this one in the iron industry. Iron smelting is a touchy business, requiring a pure fuel. For centuries, this fuel had been wood, burned down to make clean-burning charcoal. But by the 18th century, most of the usable forests had gone or were owned in private hands. The British navy took most of the trees tall enough for ship masts, and entrepreneurs had to look elsewhere.

England is an island built on coal. But coal has impurities, such as sulfur, that would make iron unusable. In 1709, Abraham Darby perfected the creation of a purified version of coal, called coke, that burned cleanly and could be used to smelt iron. As a result, iron production increased on a vast scale. Iron could then be used to make many things, such as boilers and pumps.

Steam enginesNewcomen's engine

The steam engine utilized all of England's resources: coal, iron, and water. Boilers were built of iron, and coal was used to heat the water in the boiler to make steam. Inventors like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt perfected the techniques of building steam engines, basing their designs on formulas for steam distillation derived from whiskey distilleries in Scotland.

Steam power was revolutionary. Unlike water power, it could be used anywhere, and did not rely on the weather. Hooked up to spinning machines and power looms, it could create huge factories with huge output. Hooked up to water pumps (its first use), it could be used to pump water out of coal mines to make lower reaches of coal more accessible. Hooked to a wheeled carriage, it could make a locomotive that moved goods along iron tracks.

Even today, steam power is basic. A nuclear power plant uses the splitting of the atom to create heat to boil water in a boiler, to create steam, to turn a turbine (which looks like a water wheel).

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