A Free-Market Energy Blog

W. S. Jevons (1865) on Coal (Memo to Obama, Part III)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 31, 2009

Each renewable energy, Jevons explained, was either too scarce or too unreliable for the new industrial era. The energy savior was coal, a concentrated, plentiful, storable, and transportable source of energy that was England’s bounty for the world.

There was no going back to renewables. Coal–and that included oil and gas manufactured from coal–was the new master of the master resource of energy in the 18th and 19th centuries. As Jevons stated in the introduction (p. viii) of The Coal Question (1865):

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.

Jevons drew attention to one remarkable new use of the new fuel (ibid., p. 100):

Perhaps the most wonderful mode of employing coal is in the ice-machine, two kinds of which, of French and English invention respectively, were at work in the Exhibition of 1862. By such machines, we may make fire, in the hottest climate, produce the cold of the Polar Regions! With fuel and fire, then, almost anything is easy.

Another writer of the day appreciated what coal meant for all:

Coal is everything to us. Without coal, our factories will become idle, our foundries and workshops be still as the grave; the locomotive will rust in the shed, and the rail be buried in the weeds. Our streets will be dark, our houses uninhabitable. Our rivers will forget the paddlewheel, and we shall again be separated by days from France, by months for the United States. The post will lengthen its periods and protract its dates. A thousand special arts and manufacturers, one by one, then in a crowd, will fly the empty soil, as boon companies are said to disappear when the cask is dry. We shall miss our grand dependence, as a man misses his companion, his fortune, or a limb, every hour and at every turn reminded of the irreparable loss. Wise England will then be the silly virgin without the [coal] oil in her lamp.

   – Anonymous, The Times, April 19, 1866, p. 10; reprinted in Sandra Peart, ed., W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses, 4 vol. (New York: Routledge, 2003), vol. 4, p. 196.

Today, scholars recognize the wisdom of Jevons’s appreciation for the energy upgrade from (dilute) renewables to (rich) fossil fuel. Vaclav Smil has written (Energies [Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999], p. 134):

By providing energy flows of high power density, fossil fuels and electricity made it possible to embark on a large-scale industrialization creating a predominantly urban civilization with unprecedented levels of economic growth reflected in better health, greater social opportunities, higher disposable incomes, expanded transportation and an overwhelming flow of information.

Today, some radical environmentalists want to ban coal in favor of renewable energies.  But I must wonder: what would have powered the Industrial Revolution without coal, and what will our future be without the most abundant fossil fuel in a primary role?


  1. Ed Reid  

    “and what will our future be without the most abundant fossil fuel in a primary role”

    We will likely either “freeze in the dark” or “glow in the dark”.

    “we may make fire, in the hottest climate, produce the cold of the Polar Regions”

    Kinda like “firetoice”.


  2. W. S. Jevons (1865) on Energy Efficiency (Memo to Obama, Part IV) — MasterResource  

    […] the case that renewables (windpower; waterpower, biomass, and geothermal) could not substitute for coal. (Jevons underestimated the possibilities of crude oil and natural gas as substitutes for coal, but […]


  3. quanticle  

    In Jevons’ day, the technology was not there to effectively concentrate dilute sources of renewable energy into forms that were usable for large scale industrial use. Most notably, neither the electric generator nor the electric motor had been invented then. That meant that the only easy way to transmit power was by either steam or by physical belts and pulleys.
    The development of electric power changes all this. Now, we don’t have to generate power where it needs to be used – you don’t have a steam engine in your garage, do you? Instead, we rely on remote generating capacity to power most of our needs.
    More importantly, electricity makes transparent whether the source of energy is distributed or concentrated. Electrons are electrons, and its the total number that counts, not whether they’re generated from a coal power plant, wind turbine, solar panel, or nuclear power station. Its this transparency that will allow us to replace the fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable infrastructure.


  4. W. S. Jevons and UK Coal Revisited (worth re-reading weekend) — MasterResource  

    […] an earlier post at MasterResource, W. S. Jevons (1865) on Coal (Memo to Obama, Part III), the hall-of-fame-economist explained how coal was a godsend to Britain, powering the industrial […]


  5. King Global Coal (NYT article parsed) - Master Resource  

    […] “Coal, in truth, stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities,” he stated in the introduction to The Coal Question […]


Leave a Reply