“Load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt… ” — Tennessee Ernie Ford
Coal is very low on the scale of subjects for ballads or charming folklore. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it just doesn’t get any respect. What does a naughty boy get in his Christmas stocking? A lump of coal. As a career, few brave souls outside Appalachia would have a goal in life of riding a rail car several miles — down several thousand feet below the surface — to attack the “face” of a coal seam. The thought terrifies me — and probably many others.
Coal is not the most pristine mineral in the world. Yet, more than any other mineral on Earth, this ugly, dirty little rock deserves credit for the greatest material prosperity mankind has ever known.
Coal and the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution marked a great leap forward in the human condition. In the years preceding 1760, circumstances of the English peasantry were appalling: infrequent and inadequate hygiene, poor diet, rampant disease from poor sanitation and close quarters, and a life expectancy of fewer than 35 years. While social reformers such as Charles Dickens have criticized the conditions in factories, the Industrial Revolution gets credit for the unprecedented population boom of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Encyclopædia Britannica reports Europe’s population quadrupled from 100 million in 1700 to 400 million in 1900. Infant mortality decreased, birth rates and life expectancies increased, and food became more plentiful, all from an improvement in living conditions brought on by wealth the factory system created.
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