The 300-Year Party: The Industrial Revolution
This post is the third in a four-part series describing how we became so dependent on fossil fuels. The first two posts are:
(Continued from The Atmospheric Engine).
Newcomen and those who followed him did not develop these early engines merely because it seemed like a good idea. Model steam engines such as the aelophile, an early form of a steam turbine, had been invented two thousand years earlier, but had never been commercialized. The aelophile was merely a toy — the people of that time did not perceive a need for a new source of energy, so they never bothered to develop this primitive steam turbine. The engineers of Newcomen’s time developed the industrial steam engine because they had to — they needed to respond to the predicament of what could be referred to as ‘Peak Forests’.
But, as usual, one thing leads to another. The Law of Unintended Consequences is always with us. Having figured out how to remove water from the mines, these early industrialists were faced with a second challenge. The mines themselves were rarely in the same location as their customers. So, the coal had to be transported to the towns and cities where it was to be used (unlike timber that was generally used close to the place where it was harvested).
The catch was that the transportation systems of the time — wooden carts with thin wheels pulled by horses moving slowly along muddy tracks — were hopelessly inadequate for hauling coal, which is considerably denser than wood, over long distances. A new form of transport was needed. Once more, necessity being the mother of invention, the early industrialists developed a solution on the following lines.
Take the steam boiler that you have just invented (but with the power stroke coming directly from high pressure steam, not the pressure of the atmosphere).
Rotate it into a horizontal position and place it on a frame.
Put the frame and boiler on flanged wheels.
Use the steam from the boiler to drive the wheels.
Put the wheels on tracks and, lo and behold, you have invented the modern railway.
And, coincidentally, you have started the Industrial Revolution (a better name for which would be Fossil Fuel Revolution).
Improvements such as these meant that ever larger quantities of coal could be mined, so more factories could be built, which meant that more coal was produced, which meant that more factories could be built, and so on and so on.
By the beginning of the 20th century oil and natural gas started to replace coal because they are cleaner, more portable and have a higher energy density.