The Rock That Burns

Part of the Climate Change exhibition.

A little more than 400 years ago, humans took the first steps down a road that would change our lives—and our planet—dramatically. Beginning around 1550, the great forests of northern Europe were dwindling. The region's expanding population, no longer able to rely on wood for energy, began turning to another fuel that was abundant in the region. Coal.

At first, people didn't want to switch. Coal soot thickened city air with smoke and coated the insides of houses. Coal forced craftsmen to change the way they did things that required heat—glassblowing and brickmaking, for instance. But despite its drawbacks, coal was soon the fuel of choice, and the rock that burns had begun a revolution.

Lifting Coal

For centuries, people collected and burned coal in small quantities whenever they found it at Earth's surface. Underground mining began with shallow pits reached by wooden ladders. Coal would be lifted to the surface in baskets. By the late 1600s, miners were digging as deep as 50 meters (165 feet) in search of coal.

Miniature model of Newcomen steam engine.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

Putting Coal to Work

In the early 1700s, British inventor Thomas Newcomen invented a machine that changed the world. Using coal to make steam, and that steam to power an engine, he designed a device that could do the work of many men.

This simple engine opened a new chapter in Earth's history. After its invention, human activity would begin to reshape our planet—by changing its natural environment.

Newcomen Engine

At full size, this machine was large and inefficient but was as revolutionary in its day as the jet engine has been in ours. Invented in 1712, the Newcomen engine first served to pump water from deep coal mines.

Each burned large amounts of coal; in the words of one mine-owner, "the vast consumption of fuel in these engines is an immense drawback to the profit of our mines." James Watt and others improved Newcomen's design, so that by the late 1700s steam engines were using half the coal and generating at least twice the power of the original.