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You are here:  Educational Activities > Energy Lessons > Coal-Introduction > Coal History

Fossil Energy Study Guides

A Brief History of Coal Use

Steam Locomotive -

In the 1800s, one of the primary uses of coal was to fuel steam engines used to power locomotives.

Coal is the most plentiful fuel in the fossil family and it has the longest and, perhaps, the most varied history. Coal has been used for heating since the cave man. Archeologists have also found evidence that the Romans in England used it in the second and third centuries (100-200 AD). 

In the 1700s, the English found that coal could produce a fuel that burned cleaner and hotter than wood charcoal. However, it was the overwhelming need for energy to run the new technologies invented during the Industrial Revolution that provided the real opportunity for coal to fill Its first role as a dominant worldwide supplier of energy.

In North American, the Hopi Indians during the 1300s in what is now the U.S. Southwest used coal for cooking, heating and to bake the pottery they made from clay. Coal was later rediscovered in the United States by explorers in 1673. However, commercial coal mines did not start operation until the 1740s in Virginia.

The Industrial Revolution played a major role in expanding the use of coal. During the first half of the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution spread to the United States. Steamships and steam-powered railroads were becoming the chief forms of transportation, and they used coal to fuel their boilers.

In the second half of the 1800s, more uses for coal were found.

During the Civil War, weapons factories were beginning to use coal. By 1875, coke (which is made from coal) replaced charcoal as the primary fuel for iron blast furnaces to make steel.

The burning of coal to generate electricity is a relative newcomer in the long history of this fossil fuel. It was in the 1880s when coal was first used to generate electricity for homes and factories.

Long after homes were being lighted by electricity produced by coal, many of them continued to have furnaces for heating and some had stoves for cooking that were fueled by coal.

Today we use a lot of coal, primarily because we have a lot of it and we know where it is in the United States. To find out more about how coal is mined....

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 Page owner:  Fossil Energy Office of Communications
Page updated on: February 12, 2013 

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