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Coal: Its Value and Power page 2


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The rapidly increasing consumption of coal in the United Kingdom in the present century was a phenomenon which had, from time to time, arrested the attention of practical and scientific men; amongst whom Robert Bald, a Scotch writer, and Dr. Buckland, in his Bridgwater Treatise, clearly perceived the national importance of the question of the limits and probable duration of the future coal supply. But it was only in the second half of this century that the question received the attention it deserved. In 1860 Mr. E. Hull estimated the total available contents of the known coal-beds of Britain at about seventy-nine thousand eight hundred and forty-three millions of tons, and showed that at the rate of consumption prevailing in the year 1859, the whole of this store would be exhausted in 1,100 years. "Yet," he added, " we have no right to assume that such will be the actual duration, for the history of coal-mining during the last half century has been one of rapid advance." Between 1840 and 1860 the consumption had doubled, and if it went on doubling itself every twenty years in future, he anticipated that " our total available supply would be exhausted before the lapse of the year 2,034, so that if we had reason to expect that the consumption of future years was to progress in the same ratio, we might well tremble for the result, for that would be nothing less than the utter exhaustion of our coal-fields (with its concomitant influence on our population and on our commercial and national prosperity) in the short space of 172 years." Mr. Hull, however, did not anticipate so rapid a rate of, consumption, and added, " I am inclined to place the possible maximum of production at one hundred millions of tons a year; and yet it has been shown that with this enormous output there is enough coal to last eight centuries."

In an address delivered before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1864, Sir William Armstrong fairly brought the question before the public. "The greatness of England," he said, " much depends on the superiority of her coal in cheapness and quality over that of other nations; but we have already drawn from our choicest mines a far larger quantity of coal than has been raised in all other parts of the world put together, and the time is not remote when we shall have to encounter the disadvantage of increased cost of working and diminished value of produce. Estimates have been made at various periods of the time which would be required to produce complete exhaustion of all the accessible coal in the British Islands. The estimates are certainly discordant, but the discrepancies arise not from any important disagreement as to the available quantity of coal, but in the enormous difference in the rate of consumption at the various dates when the estimates were made, and also from the different views which have been entertained as to the probable increase of consumption in future years." And then, estimating the future increase at the rate prevailing during the eight years up to 1861., which was 2,750,000 tons annually, Sir William computed that, with their total contents of eighty thousand million tons, the coal-beds of Britain would only supply the country for 212 years. "It is clear," he continued, "that long before complete exhaustion takes place, England will have ceased to be a coal-producing country on an extensive scale; and other nations, and especially the United States of America, which possess coal-fields thirty-seven times more extensive than ours, will then be working more accessible beds at a smaller cost, and will be able to displace the English coal from every market. The question is not how long our coal will endure before absolute exhaustion is effected, but how long will those particular coal-seams last which yield coal of a quality and at a price to enable this country to maintain her present supremacy in manufacturing industry. So far as the Newcastle coal-field is concerned, it is generally admitted that 200 years will be sufficient to exhaust the principal seams, even at the present rate of working. If the production should continue to increase as it is now doing, the duration of these seams will not reach half that period." And he added, that in regard to other districts, he found that the same rapid exhaustion of the most valuable seams was everywhere taking place.

At this point the subject was taken up by Mr. W. Stanley Jevons, a young writer, up to that time unknown, who, in 1865, published his memorable treatise on " The Coal Question." This work - whose author soon afterwards became a professor at Owen's College, Manchester - at once arrested the attention of the leading thinkers of the time. In the House of Commons Mr. John Stuart Mill and Mr. W. E. Gladstone acknowledged the deep impression the book had made upon their minds, and the result was the appointment, in 1866, of a royal commission, "to inquire into the several matters relating to coal in the United Kingdom." The principal points which the arguments of Professor Jevons went to prove were - that coal was the foundation of the manufacturing and commercial supremacy, and, therefore, of the prosperity of the country; that there was no probability of any efficient substitute being discovered for it when exhausted; that neither the discovery of a substitute nor greater economy in the consumption of coal would avail to maintain the manufacturing and commercial preponderance of Britain over other nations; that the increase in the consumption of coal was progressing in a geometrical ratio, like compound interest, and that if this- rate be maintained, the whole of the available contents of the ascertained coal-fields would be exhausted in 110 years; that a reduction in the ratio of increase of the consumption meant a check to the manufactures and prosperity of the country; that this reduction must inevitably come within a comparatively short period, and that, therefore, probably within a lifetime, England must be prepared to enter on a future of comparatively diminished prosperity, and to see the manufacturing and commercial pre-eminence she had hitherto enjoyed in the world pass to other nations - probably the United States of America. It was to ascertain, as far as could possibly be done by the examination of all available authorities, how far these positions were well founded that the Coal Commission was appointed. The report of the commissioners was published in 1871, and, in the most essential particulars, bore out the positions advanced by Professor Jevons.

"In coal," writes Professor Jevons, "we pre-eminently have, as the partner of Watt said, ' what all the world wants - Power.' All things considered, it is not reasonable to suppose or expect that the power of coal will ever be superseded by anything better. It is the naturally best source of power, as air and water, and iron and gold, are, each for its own purposes, the most useful substances, and such as will never be superseded. If our coal were gone, or nearly so, and of high price, we might find wind and water and tidal mills a profitable substitute for coal. But this would only be on the principle that half a loaf is better than no bread. It would not enable us to keep up our old efficiency, or to compete with nations enjoying yet undiminished stores of fuel.

" Comparative cheapness of fuel, moreover, cannot be produced or retained by inventions and modes of economy which are as open to our commercial competitors as to ourselves, and which have in many cases been introduced by them and are more readily adopted by versatile foreigners than by English manufacturers, bound by custom and routine. Even our superior capital will not avail us against dear fuel, because nothing more readily flows abroad in search of profitable employment than capital.

" Among the residual possibilities of unforeseen events it is just possible that some day the sunbeams may be collected, or that some source of force now unknown may be detected. But such a discovery would (in all probability) simply destroy our peculiar industrial supremacy."

These views of Professor Jevons are supported by the highest scientific authorities. Thus Professor Tyndall says, " I see no prospect of any substitute being found for coal as a source of motive power. We have, it is true, our winds and streams and tides, and we have the beams of the sun. But these are common to all the world. We cannot make head against a nation which, in addition to these sources of power, possesses the power of coal. We may enjoy more than their physical and intellectual energy, and still be unable to hold our own against a people which possesses abundance of coal; and we should have, in my opinion, no chance whatever in a race with a nation which, in addition to abundant coal, has energy and intelligence approximately equal to our own. It is no new thing for me to affirm in my public lectures that the destiny of this nation is not in the hands of its statesmen, but in those of its coalowners; that while the orators of St. Stephen's are unconscious of the fact, the very life-blood of this country is flowing away."

The amount of coal produced in the seventy-two years from 1781 to 1853 was, according to Professor Jevons, estimated to have been 1,436,991,000 tons. But in the ten years alone from 1854 to 1863 it was more than half this amount, namely, 726,751,516 tons. In the ten years from 1862 to 1871, as is now known, there were more than a thousand millions of tons produced (1,003,351,971 tons); while the previous eighty years, from 1781 to 1861, there were but 1,995,811,963 tons raised; so that in the ten years, 1862 to 1871, there was more than half as much coal used as in the whole of the eighty previous years.

Comparing the increase which had taken place in the most recent years before he wrote, Professor Jevons found that each year's production of coal was greater by about per cent, than each preceding year. Calculating our future consumption upon the basis of this geometric rate of increase, he arrived at the startling result that the whole of our coal under the ascertained coal-fields would be gone in little more than a century.

Assuming, he said, the present rate of growth, 3J per cent, per annum, to hold, it is easy to calculate the amounts of coal to be consumed in the undermentioned years, starting from the actual consumption of 1861: -

Predicted consumption of coal in tons

186183,600,000
1871117,900,000
1881166,300,000
1891234,700,000
1901331,000,000
1911466,900,000
1921658,600,000
1931929,000,000
19411,310,500,000
19511,848,600,000
19612,607,500,000

And on this supposition the total aggregate consumption for the period of 110 years (1861 - 1970) would be 102,704 millions of tons, which would more than exhaust all the available coal under the ascertained coal-fields of the kingdom, the most recent estimate of which places it at 90,207 millions of tons.

It was in view of such results as these that Professor Jevons said, "We cannot long continue our present rate of increase of consumption. We cannot advance to the higher amounts of consumption supposed. But this only means that the check to our progress must be perceptible within a century from the present time (1865); that the cost of fuel must rise, perhaps within a lifetime, to a rate injurious to our manufacturing and commercial supremacy, and the conclusion is inevitable that our present happy progressive condition is a thing of limited duration."

The Coal Commissioners found that the rate of increase between 1859 and 1869 was even higher than that taken by Professor Jevons; that it was, in fact, 4 per cent, per annum; and that, therefore, the period when, on the supposition of the continuance of that rate in the future, the available coal in question would be exhausted was even less than that estimated by that writer. The commissioners, however - as Professor Jevons had expressly laid down before them - held that this rate could not be maintained, and admitted that diminished prosperity would probably be the result to the nation at large.

One of the most interesting and valuable results of the inquiries instituted by the Coal Commissioners refers to the probable quantity of the mineral contained in the coal-beds of the United Kingdom, and the quantity of it which may be expected to prove available. In order to determine the quantity of coal we may expect to obtain from the coal-measures of the United Kingdom, it is not sufficient simply to calculate the contents of the coal- measures; we must distinguish how much of those contents is accessible and how much is beyond human reach. For there is no question that a vast quantity of coal lies at depths from which it appears with our present knowledge impossible to extract it. The lowest depth at which it would be possible or profitable to extract coal is generally assumed to be 4,000 feet. The temperature of the earth at that depth is so great that labour is all but impossible. In our coal mines the heat is found to increase one degree Fahrenheit for every sixty feet of depth. At 3,000 feet from the surface the temperature of the earth would be about 98. The air under the long-wall system of working is, however, some 7 cooler than the earth, so that at a depth of 3,420 feet the air would have a temperature of about 98. This is the normal heat of the blood of a healthy person. At 100 to 112 we have what is called fever heat. And according to Dr. Thudicum, who experimented on himself in order to satisfy himself on the matter, no man can perform labour at all in an atmosphere of 140, and can do only a small quantity of work at a heat of between 130 and 140. There is a mine in Cornwall where the atmosphere is heated by a hot spring to 1144 Fahrenheit, and there it is found impossible for the workmen to do more than three hours' work in the twenty-four.

Within the extreme working limit of 4,000 feet from the surface it is estimated that beneath the known coalfields of the United Kingdom there are 90,207 millions of tons, while the quantity conjectured to exist outside the area of these coal-fields within the same depth is 56,273 millions of tons. Thus the quantity of workable coal in the United Kingdom is computed to amount in the aggregate to 146,480 millions of tons. Such, according to the judgment of the royal commission, founded as it was upon data supplied by the highest practical and scientific authorities, is the whole store of available coal which existed in 1869 within the limits of the British Isles.

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