I’m always intrigued when someone spends time to write a book bending the span of human history through the proverbial lens of a particular substance. I thought Salt: A World History was actually rather good, so when I saw Coal: A Human History for $5 at the MIT Press loading dock sale, I knew my proverbial ship had come in at long last!
The book documents, as you might imagine, the history of coal, and how, hidden away in boilers 30 stories tall, it continues to drive much of our society even today. The Chinese first burned coal centuries before the west did, but never got the steam engine/industrial revolution thing figured the way the British finally did. After an initial false start (the rich hated the smell and got it’s burning banned for a couple of centuries, finally relenting when all the forests were chopped down), coal “ignited” the industrial revolution via the need to drain deep coal mines, resulting in the steam engine, then a whirling vortex of synergy between iron, steam engines, transportation and coal.
The book is very readable, written in a smooth conversational tone that goes down easy even in T-ride-sized nibbles. Any person moderately interested in history will appreciate the way coal is weaved into so much of modern western history.
It turns out there are numerous one-topic books of this nature – check out this Amazon list someone created a list of books about one thing.