Seeing coal
May 14, 2024 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Coal is more than a commodity. It is 300-million-year-old life matter transformed into carbon. It performs a vital function – storing carbon underground. It is rich with meaning and portent, and it deserves our attention. Human lives are ephemeral, yet our actions in the here-and-now shape an unseen future. Through its dynamic materiality, coal connects us to Deep Time and Nature. It reminds us of our own Earth origins and helps us re-vision how to live on a fragile and finite planet.
posted by sepviva (13 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The Joggins Fossil Cliffs, a 689 ha palaeontological site along the coast of Nova Scotia (eastern Canada), have been described as the “coal age Galápagos” due to their wealth of fossils from the Carboniferous period (354 to 290 million years ago).
posted by HearHere at 9:06 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]

Coal is more than its seams.

Thanks, this is fantastic. I recently read a book written in the 1920's in which the characters discuss their fear that they'd hit peak coal, and were consequently on the precipice of civilizational collapse. (Their solution? Nuclear!)
posted by phooky at 9:21 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]

My dad hailed from coal country near Scranton, PA, and his dad was a foreman in one of the local mines around the turn of the last century. So I was very pleased to see the PA-centricness of the collection.

What a wonderfully woven collection of data points, groundbreaking theory from centuries past about the origins of coal, visual artifacts. And the site design thoughtfully leads you through it via a simple vertical scroll (at least on a desktop browser, anyway). Thank you so much for posting.
posted by rabia.elizabeth at 10:52 AM on May 14

Love the "Coal Man" drawing.
posted by chavenet at 11:18 AM on May 14

Looks like it was typical to write on those "Coal Man" postcards
posted by chavenet at 11:24 AM on May 14

Extra dead tree edition.
posted by y2karl at 11:50 AM on May 14

We invented charcoal by learning to burn trees in a low oxygen environment until all that was left was basically pure carbon. This magical material burned slowly, with little smoke and gave of lots of heat. Thus we could bake bread and other stuff in ovens. We could also bake other stuff, notably limestone for cement, or rocks with softer metals like copper and tin. Then we leaned the secret of making iron and forging it. All this time charcoal ruled. Poor people found a black rock that burned somewhat like charcoal but not nearly as well and called it “sea coal”. The sea coal was not very good for making iron or cooking when compared to good old charcoal.
One day the king of the Island of Britain nation wanted a great navy. Alas the forests they had were not even enough to support the demand for charcoal, much less to construct the great wooden ships of the day.
So they banned the making of charcoal.
The smiths and the bakers had ti turn to sea coal, now called coal to heat their furnaces, forges and ovens. To use this inferior product required updated designs to get this crap to be useful. Gradually they figured it out and they figured out that their island was practically built atop mountains of this sea coal. So even if you had to burn more of it, in larger furnaces for the same result, you had what to them seemed like an unlimited supply. And of course with those bigger furnaces, and drive for improvements eventually they figured out how to make a much more useful iron alloy — steel. And that magical material was the basis for the Industrial Revolution.
posted by interogative mood at 12:02 PM on May 14 [7 favorites]

I hope one day that I will become coal. *sigh*
posted by SPrintF at 1:38 PM on May 14 [2 favorites]

Ruth Goodman on the domestic adoption of coal; video, book The Domestic Revolution
posted by clew at 1:47 PM on May 14 [1 favorite]

Sea coal is it? In 1950, my newly married parents lived in Weymouth close to the Portland Branch Railway on the S coast of England. My father was working for the Navy in Portland. On the Winter evenings, they would walk the line with a bucket picking up lumps of coal which had bounced off the waggons heading for Portland to service the navy. Coal was rationed until 1958 . A generation later, living in Newcastle upon Tyne, we used to comb wonderfully smoothed pieces of sea-coal from the beaches. For them coal was comfort; for us art.
posted by BobTheScientist at 10:47 PM on May 14 [3 favorites]

Thanks for sharing this! My dad, both grandfathers, and several uncles all worked in coal mines. One uncle and three cousins still do. I'm off to share this with Dad now...
posted by hessie at 8:21 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

Raised in Pennsylvania outside of the coal-mining regions, my parents' home was heated by a coal furnace for much of my childhood. A coal truck would deliver a winter's worth of coal in the fall by way of a small metal chute from the coal truck to a basement window, leaving a large pile in a corner of the basement on the dirt floor.

Each night the furnace's dampers would be closed and the fire would be allowed to burn low. Dad would rise very early each morning to shake the ashes out of the coal bed, add fresh coal, and open the dampers of the furnace to warm up the house. When we rose we would gather around one of the heating vents waiting to take our turn in the bath.

The upstairs bedrooms each had a hole in the floor allowing a bit of warmth from downstairs up. It never felt like enough.

We would bake apples by wrapping them in aluminum and setting them just inside the furnace door by the coals for a bit.

Thanks for sharing this.
posted by Wilbefort at 8:43 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]

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