A social history of the fuels that empower and imperil—coal, oil, and natural gas, from the Industrial Revolution to the Age of Climate Change.

Photo credit - Wikimedia.org


I pump out the water in the under bottom of the pit, to keep the men’s’ rooms dry. I am obliged to pump fast or the water would cover me. I had to run away a few weeks ago, as the water came up so fast that I could no pump at all and the men were obliged to gang. The water frequently covers my legs and those of the men when they sit to pick. I have been two years at the pump. I work every day, whether men work or not. Am paid 10d. a-day: no holidays but Sabbath. I go down at three, sometimes five, in the morning; and come up at six and seven at night. I know that I work 12 and 14 hours, as I can tell by the clock. I know the hours: the minute-hand is longer than the one which points to the hour: and I can read and do a little at writing. I go to night-school when there is no work: canna gang after work, am o’er fatigued. I get flesh and kail when I return home and take my pieces of oaten bread wi’ me. Can go the length of some of the Questions: the teacher taught me. I know who made the heaven and earth; it was God: our Saviour was his Son. The Devil is sin: sin is any want of conformity to the law of God; so it says in my questions.”

Evidence given by 10-year-old Alexander Hope Gray in 1840, at Inveresk, Scotland, to a Royal Commission of inquiry into the working conditions of children in the coal mines of Great Britain. He was lucky. Many of the hundreds of children who toiled in the coal mines of Britain in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, typically starting about age seven, endured harsher and physically heavier work. Such work left many stunted and crippled men and women. Sandy’s more fortunate position seems reflected in his middle name: Hope. He worked in the New Craighall Colliery, owned by Sir John Hope, of Pinkie, Baronet, one of the few coal mine owners who spoke out in favour of legislation to ameliorate the conditions of child labour in the mines.

Alexander Hope Gray was my great-great uncle. He is my talisman in my journey of researching and writing some 260 years of fossil fuel history. It will be a social history. We will necessarily need to see how the two fossil fuel industries—coal and oil (with its sister, natural gas)—developed during this period. The focus, however, will be on the social effects, the impacts on human life.


No other natural resource has contributed as much as fossil fuels to the material improvement of life for more than two-and-a-half centuries than fossil. But that progress has been paid in the price of social conditions and human lives. Now, fossil fuels pose the great threat to human welfare, in form of global warming, caused primarily by emission of carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas.

John D. Rockefeller once claimed of his Standard Oil Trust “has done more good than harm.” He was right, and not just about his Standard Oil companies. The fossil fuel industries throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did more good than harm, beyond doubt. But those gains provide cold comfort to the millions whose health was ruined or whose family members died, to say nothing of environmental and social costs.

Fossil fuels keep people warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. They provide most of the electricity the world uses. They fuel almost every activity, from motor vehicles, to planes, trains and ships, to the manufacture of almost every good or service. They both fuel and fertilize the food we eat. Without fossil fuels, we might still be in the horse-and-buggy age: no motor vehicles, no aircraft. Our homes would lack asphalt roof shingles, insulation, carpeting, much of the plumbing, and even electricity, since there would be no insulation for the electrical wires. Without petrochemicals, the world lose tens of thousands of different products, including the computer used for this document. Home computers became possible because plastics helped make them affordable. Plastics and petroleum are cornerstones of modern economics, making more people more productive.

If fossil fuels have cost millions of lives, they have saved even more. Yet the benefits of fossil fuels have not always outweighed the cost, and certainly not for everyone.


 Here are some of the elements to be examined in Fossil Fire.

A brief history of prehistory. Professional football is rugged, not just for players but also rugged on the uniforms they wear. That’s why the uniforms millions of people see when players trot out onto the field for the globally televised annual Super Bowl, are made from what were once weeds and other organisms that grew on seabeds hundreds of million years ago. A look at the history of fossils that became fossil fuels.

Coal and iron, blood and muscle of the Industrial Revolution, planted the era of fossil fuels in the fertile soil of progressive eighteenth century England. It was a long time coming. Wood was the predominant fuel, from prehistoric to industrial times. The final challenge was to replace wood, in the form of charcoal, as the fuel in smelting iron ore into iron and steel. It was a difficult challenge.

Sowing wealth and poverty. An agricultural revolution was the precursor that enabled England to produce the Industrial Revolution and the era of fossil fuel. Fewer people produced much more food. That resulted in the greatest increase in wealth in more than a thousand years. It was shared by only a few, the aristocracy and the gentry of the landed classes who owned and ruled most of Britain, most of the land, the farms, the coal. and the iron. They ruled Britain. The king answer to Parliament, and the aristocracy controlled parliament. Britain’s chasm of wealth and poverty plumbed to perhaps its greatest depth. The luxuries of the aristocracy dazzled; their extravagances stupefied; the poorest lived and died in little better than gutters. It was the first chapter of industrializing pain that has extended into the twenty-first century.

How Canada invented the oil industry. First, by inventing kerosene, the premium lamp fuel for half a century, and the fuel for jet aircraft. Initially refined from coal; later refined from crude oil from an oil field discovere in Ontario, creating the world’s first sustained crude producing, refining and marketing business. Edwin Drake’s better-known first U.S. oil discovery, which marked the start of the U.S. oil industry, followed more than a year later.

Lucille and the automobile. “Come way with me Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile… You can as far as like with me, in my merry Oldsmobile.” The joyous social impact of the automobile. (Song, In Merry Oldsmobile.” Lyrics by Vincent P. Bryan, music by Gus Edwards, 1905.)

The fuel of world wars.

The resource curse. Tyrants steal petroleum’s wealth, their citizens suffer, and the World Bank ponders whether oil windfalls are a blessing or a curse.

Warnings and denials. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius sounds the first scientific warning that carbon dioxide emission from burning fossil fuels will cause global warming. For more than 120 years, critics denied repeated scientific warnings as fraud and hoax. Floods, droughts and storms, meanwhile, became more frequent and more severe, as average annual world temperatures climbed to the highest levels ever recorded.