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Author: Jevons, William Stanley


Title: The Coal Question: An

Inquiry Concerning the Progress

of the Nation, and the Probable

Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines

Published: London:

Macmillan and Co., 1866.

(Second edition, revised)

First published: 1865

Chapter I


DAY by day it becomes more evident that the Coal we happily possess in excellent quality and abundance is the mainspring of modern material civilization. As the source of fire, it is the source at once of mechanical motion and of chemical change. Accordingly it is the chief agent in almost every improvement or discovery in the arts which the present age brings forth. It is to us indispensable for domestic purposes, and it has of late years been found to yield a series of organic substances, which puzzle us by their complexity, please us by their beautiful colours, and serve us by their various utility.


And as the source especially of steam and iron, coal is all powerful. This age has been called the Iron Age, and it is true that iron is the material of most great novelties. By its strength, endurance, and wide range of qualities, this metal is fitted to be the fulcrum and lever of great works, while steam is the motive power. But coal alone can command in sufficient abundance either the iron or the steam; and coal, therefore, commands this age—the Age of Coal.


Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.

CQ: The Coal Question

CQ: Chapter 16 in paragraph XVI.2

But as we are, unfettered commerce, vindicated by our political economists, and founded on the material basis of our coal resources, has made the several quarters of the globe our willing tributaries. “Though England,” it has been truly said, “were one vast rock, where not an acre of corn had never waved, still those four hundred millions of men, whose labour is represented by the machinery of the country, would extort an abundance of corn from all the surrounding states.”*76 The plains of North America and Russia are our corn-fields; Chicago and Odessa our granaries; Canada and the Baltic are our timber-forests; Australasia contains our sheep-farms, and in South America are our herds of oxen; Peru sends her silver, and the gold of California and Australia flows to London; the Chinese grow tea for us, and our coffee, sugar, and spice plantations are in all the Indies. Spain and France are our vineyards, and the Mediterranean our fruit-garden; and our cotton-grounds, which formerly occupied the Southern United States, are now everywhere in the warm regions of the earth.

CQ: Chapter 16 in paragraph XVI.3

But great as is our own system, it is not the whole. Commerce is undoubtedly making its way by its own subtle force, and is uniting the parts of the globe into a web of interchanges, in which the peculiar riches of each are made useful to all. The sum of human happiness is thus being surely increased, but we should be hasty in assuming that the growth of general commerce ensures for this island everlasting riches and industrial supremacy.

CQ: Chapter 16 in paragraph XVI.35

Of course at the worst we shall not be devoid of many resources. Our position, “anchored by the side of Europe,” and close to the terrestrial centre of the globe, gives us a claim to the carrying and trading business of the world, which previously belonged to our close neighbours the Dutch. And our manufactures, though they must diminish in size and importance, may improve in finish and artistic merit. Our work will be that of the trinket and the watch rather than that of the Herculean engine—handiwork rather than machine work. We shall probably approximate to the manufacturing condition of Western Europe, and the extreme elegance of our earthenware, glass, and many small manufactures raises the hope that we may attain a high rank in artistic manufactures.

CQ: Chapter 8 in paragraph VIII.42

Petroleum has of late years become the matter of a most extensive trade, and has even been proposed by American inventors for use in marine steam-engine boilers. It is undoubtedly superior to coal for many purposes, and is capable of replacing it. But then, What is Petroleum but the Essence of Coal, distilled from it by terrestrial or artificial heat? Its natural supply is far more limited and uncertain than that of coal, its price is about 15l. per ton already, and an artificial supply can only be had by the distillation of some kind of coal at considerable cost. To extend the use of petroleum, then, is only a new way of pushing the consumption of coal. It is more likely to be an aggravation of the drain than a remedy.

CQ: Preface in paragraph P.21

As regards the supremacy of coal as a source of heat and power, and the impossibility of finding a substitute, I have again only interpreted the opinions of Professor Tyndall. He has kindly allowed me to extract the following from a recent letter with which he favoured me:—

“I see no prospect of any substitute being found for coal, as a source of motive power. We have, it is true, our winds and streams and tides; and we have the beams of the sun. But these are common to all the world. We cannot make head against a nation which, in addition to those sources of power, possesses the power of coal. We may enjoy a multiple of their physical and intellectual energy, and still be unable to hold our own against a people which possesses abundance of coal; and we should have, in my opinion, no chance whatever in a race with a nation which, in addition to abundant coal, has energy and intelligence approximately equal to our own.

“It is no new thing for me to affirm in my public lectures that the destiny of this nation is not in the hands of its statesmen but in those of its coal-owners; and that while the orators of St. Stephen’s are unconscious of the fact, the very lifeblood of this country is flowing away.”

CQ: Chapter 3 in paragraph III.14

Now, when all these disturbances took place, the surface of the ground must have been affected as well as the underground strata. We might expect to find on the south side of the ninety fathom dyke at Newcastle, a perpendicular rocky cliff of corresponding height. But no such thing is known on any of the coal-fields. The surface of our English coal-fields is either quite flat, or only swelling in one direction into round topped hills, showing no conformity to the underground disturbances. We cannot mistake the reason. While earthquakes and intrusions of lava were breaking up the strata, winds and rains and streams, or perhaps the tides of a shallow estuary, were wearing away all prominences, and carrying off great masses of rock. It has been shown, for instance, by Professor Ramsay, that the whole body of the coal measures between the South Wales field and that of the Forest of Dean, has been swept away; and the missing portion, far larger than mountains in mass, is conjecturally restored in the plates to one of the earlier memoirs of the Geological Survey.

CQ: Chapter 8 in paragraph VIII.8

The tides arising from the attractions of the sun, earth, and moon, present another source of power, which is, and often has been, used in one way or another, and shall be considered.

CQ: Chapter 8 in paragraph VIII.35

The application of the tides to machine labour is rendered difficult on account of their variation from day to day. To gain a constant head of water always available we must either construct elaborate and costly high and low tide basins, or else we must use the variable tidal wheel to pump up water into a great reservoir. The estuary of the Dee is one of the places best adapted to give a vast tidal power, and an anonymous but apparently able engineer has calculated what power might be utilised there.*33 He considers that the equivalent steam power might be had at a capital cost of £4,000,000, a sum wholly insufficient to provide the tidal works. Hence he concludes that the tidal scheme would be at least commercially impracticable, and he doubts whether it would be at all possible mechanically speaking to construct embankments and tidal basins on loose sands.

William Stanley Jevons (September 1, 1835August 13, 1882)

The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines

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