Old King Coal Getting a Makeover?

In his recent article in the Rachel Carson Center’s new open-access publication Springs, Franz-Josef Brüggemeier opens with the great line: “Oil is sexy. Coal, on the other hand, is boring.” As a historian of energy I can vouch for coal’s lack of sex appeal; more often than not, petroleum grabs both the historical and contemporary headlines. And why not? Oil allowed humans to move faster and even fly through the air. Oil created business empires like Standard Oil and allowed for the rapid rise of petrostates such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, while coal plodded along with its steam engines and smoky fires.

Brüggemeier opens with this assumption as well, but then does a great job of demonstrating the value of coal to twentieth-century Europe. During World War II, coal still employed millions of Europeans and eventually provided the basis for synthetic fuel, rubber, and even margarine. In peacetime, the collective need for coal triggered the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which eventually led to the EU four decades later. So Brüggemeier concludes with the argument that while coal might not capture our imagination, it certainly is significant and worthy of attention.

The Brüggemeier piece deals with Europe, but I think that a similar argument could be made for the United States. While the nation’s coal industry is actually floundering as a result of market forces, its abundance in America continues to enflame political imaginations. Although “clean coal” is more theory than reality in today’s economy, it often rears its political head as a solution to all our energy problems. As for history, well, I think that the 19th century case is proof enough that “King Coal” had a pretty strong grip on American society. But that could just be my personal bias at work here.

So here’s to coal’s new image. It may be low on sex appeal, but, but it still merits a look. And that’s all that we fossils–both fuels and historians–should expect these days.

About Sean Adams

I'm the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of History at the University of Florida. At UF, I teach courses on the Early American Republic and the History of American Capitalism. I've published books and articles on the history of the coal trade, and recently completed a book that examines the origins of America's fossil fuel dependency in the 19th century.
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