A Plea for Less Coal
GEO. ETHELBERT WALSH
From Lippincott’s Magazine
EVERY time the fire is shaken and replenished with coal, or the dusty ashes are removed from the grate, a great cry of human discontent arises in the land, and an old protest is recorded anew against one of those “necessary evils” of which there seems to be no end. Why did nature—so perfect and accommodating in most of her beneficent creations —stumble so lamentably in the fuel problem? Could she not have invented some product of land or water that would yield us light and heat without unlocking all this dust and soot and smoke and ashes ? Even the oldfashioned wood-pile, with its clean, sweet pine logs and hickory sticks, was better than the dirty coal-bin, but, as if grudging us this simple solace, nature shortens the wood supply, so that we are forced back upon the refuse of the carboniferous period. And now is sounded among us the tocsin reminding us that it is our duty to plant trees for the next generation. If somebody 'had only thought of this earlier, what an amount of clean, spicy wood we might burn in place of the black, sooty coal !
But, to return to nature’s shortcoming in not providing us with a suitable and accommodating fuel ; it is a question that must be considered in the light of present-day discoveries and transitions. The problem is as ancient as the story of Prometheus and his fire stolen from heaven,.receiving the attention of each succeeding generation, but in no two countries is it alike. It may mean the growth and extension of peat bogs in Ireland, the general supply of dried bones and mummies in Egypt, the probable depth of the coalseams in Europe and America, and the growing of corn-cobs and grain in the western part of our country. The Eskimo considers the whale and seal fisheries, and counts his fuel problem solved if the one blows and the other bellows on the ice before his hut. The Indians of British Columbia lay up their dried salmon for food and fuel, and give no thought to coal or wood. It is recorded by travelers that on the coast of Scotland the petrels are turned into lamps and stoves for heating and illuminating purposes, and in the suggestive words of one, “They burn well and diffuse around a delightfully appetizing odor.” In the Black Forest the pine-cones provide fuel for a large population ; but the benighted inhabitants of India, Peru, and Asia Minor utilize dried offal and manure for heating and lighting purposes.
We have reached the age of reason now, when old superstitious fears can no longer frighten us. Fortified with scientific truths, we do not cringe before the manifestations of Nature. We know—crafty old dame that she is—that she cannot altogether starve, or freeze, or drown us out. Her most violent moods can be rendered ineffective ; we may suffer a little from them, but they cannot universally kill and destroy. Moreover, we know that she is bound to support all the population that care to be born on the globe, and that she has latent forces in her that will add tremendously to our comfort and pleasure. So we do not look the future in the face with dread, and lament the coming of the age when man must starve or freeze to death. People who tell us of the probable failure of the coming crops to support the teeming millions are answered pertinently.'“When the time comes, we shall find some new way to increase the food supply.” And those wh© predict a fuel famine in the near future are answered likewise : “When the coal gives out, we shall not need it anv more; we shall have other fuel.”
England had her spasm of fear years ago. The alarm was spread broadcast throughout the land that the coal mines would probably be exhausted in the near future. Royal commissions were appointed to investigate, and they variously estimated the duration of the coal supply from two hundred to twelve hundred years. Then what?—well, everybody was congratulating everybody else that they were not born two hundred years later. Mother earth is a good place to live on under present conditions ; but without coal it might be a little too chilly and uncomfortable for our blood.
But this first fear of a coal famine in England was before the days of modern steam manufacturing—before ten thousand steam-engines began to consume coal at the rate of millions of tons per annum. The sudden expansion of steam-power manufacturing alarmed the people once more. The consumption of coal leaped upward at a tremendous pace—from 27,000,000 tons in 1816 to over 50,000,000 in 1850, to 84,000,000 in i860, to 112,000,000 in 1870, to 147,000,000 in 1880, and to 200,000,000 gross tons in 1894. In 1905 the coal mined in Great Britain reached the enormous total of nearly 240,000,000 tons. Once more royal commissions investigated the question, and alarmists proclaimed loudly that the coal famine was approaching. It looked very much as if such a state of affairs was coming to pass. People looked upon a scuttle of coal with more concern ; the black, sooty fuel had assumed an importance in their minds never before attained. The conclusion of the discussion was finally announced, and people turned pale at it ; the worst seemed to be at hand. At the same ratio of increase in consumption, it was said, the coal would be exhausted in a few centuries. Here was a definite limit placed upon the fuel, which every living person could grasp; it might not interfere with their comfort—for few would live a century—but their descendants would receive an inheritance of coal more limited than our inheritance of wood. It was not a pleasant outlook for the future of manufacturing England.
True, there were coal seams and mines in other countries—in Australia, the United States, South America, Africa, and Russia ; but these were not England. Besides, many of these countries were forging rapidly to the front as users of coal. In order to supply the demand for coal in our own country, the output of the mines kept pace with that of England. In 1880 it was over 71,000,000 net tons; in 1889 it had risen to 141,000,000; in 1893 to over 182,000,000. and in 1905 to over 350,000,000. The demand for coal to supply heat and power increased nearly as much in Germany, Belgium, France, Russia, and Austria. The consumption presented the unpleasant aspect of enlarging rapidly all over the civilized world, while the supply remained fixed —a certain definite quantity.
But why is there less concern and less fear about the coal famine to-day than back in the sixties and seventies? England’s coal mines have reached a depth of over 3.400 feet already, and the cost of mining will increase proportionately as the fuel is taken from lower seams and strata. Already the expense of mining has reached a point where it pays American shippers to send some of their surplus coal across the ocean. In the face of such adverse conditions, the wonder is that we hear less fear expressed about the coal famine, especially in manufacturing England, the country that will first feel the pinch.
The reason for this is not far to seek. It is the difference in the teaching of science that has slowly developed among us in the last quarter of a century. It is the optimism of science. We have just learned to take courage at Nature’s teachings, and to read her aright. The spirit of the age is to hope and expect more—not less. Nature provides enough for all, if we can only find it. She may be cunning enough to hide it from us for many decades ; but, knowing that it is here somewhere, every one takes courage and pursues the search.
Fuel for light, heat, and power! There will be enough for thousands of generations yet to come. The coal mines may become exhausted, but the fuel will be around us in the form of gas, solar heat, or atmospheric changes. The coal epoch is merely preliminary to another grander, cleaner, and more comfortable period of utilizing Nature’s stored-up forces of heat, power, and light. For coal, after all, is merely stored-up energy— the surplus power of the carboniferous period, laid down in the bowels of the earth for us to utilize. And even as we are making use of these vast deposits, Nature is wisely secreting new power and energy; it may be in the gases of the air or in the invisible electricity of the earth and clouds, but it is here somewhere. When it is finally unlocked we shall have occasion to laugh at our fears of a coal-famine.
This optimism of science is a superb thing! It gives us courage on the very brink of disaster. No one yet knows the truth of the fuel problem ; we have only inklings of it ; we see flashes of great discoveries that may revolutionize the future. But so far we are dependent upon the coal mines, and for aught we know it may be centuries before we can discard this dirty, clumsy product of the earth for making heat, light, and power. There is even the possibility of its being the one essential for the comfort of the human race, and our teachings of science may be all wrong. But so confident has science made us that it would be difficult to convince anybody of it. We have grown too bold to let fears of this nature trouble us. \\ e believe in the future tenancy of the earth ; and, hence, instead of worrying about getting enough out of it for the bare necessities of life, we plunge in and demand pleasures and luxuries that never before seemed possible.
It was feared at one time that the rate of coal consumption would soon outgrow the rate of production, and there was talk of curtailing the use of coal in many industries. But the inventor proceeded to make coal-mining machinery which lessened the labor of extracting the raw product from the earth and increased the output tenfold. England to-day bases her hope of extending the period of her profitable coal-mining upon the invention of machinery that will compensate for the added cost of deeper mining. In America coal-mining machinery has doubled and tripled the output. A coal-digger cuts and extracts the coal from its bed as fast as three or four skilled miners could formerly do; it falls automatically upon cars, which swing upward like elevators to the light of day, and deposit their contents into chutes. Down the sooty mass tumbles to the breakers, where it is pounded and broken into sizes suitable for commerce. Thence it slides on to the washery, and comes out at the other end to be dumped on cars. The cars quickly cross the country to some river or bay where canalboats are waiting. The transference from cars to the boats, and from the boats to the wholesale and retail dealers’ coal-yards, is performed automatically. Even when the coal comes into our homes it is shot down chutes into the cellar, and not carried therein buckets and baskets as of old.
And yet for all this simplifving of labor, this invention of machines to reduce the dust and ashes, nobody likes coal, and we all pray for the time to come when its use may be abolished. It is not a popular article of commerce ; it is clumsy and dirty fuel, and in.this age of invention and discovery it seems wofully out of date. It is not new machinerv to increase the output that we are longing for, but the discovery of some new method of obtaining heat and power.
Over ninety per cent, of the coal Miat we use goes into smoke and ashes, and less than ten per cent, of its energy is utilized—some say five per cent. At any rate, we are inclined to agree with the figures when we see the smoke rolling up from a factory town, or watch the clouds of dust and ashes that sweep from the basement of our own houses when the wind is at an unfavorable quarter. Surely, so long as we must use coal, something must be done to abate this nuisance. Science has been telling us that much of this waste can be avoided, and that the smoke and dust can be consumed. The waste problem has been attacked seriously and successfully. More perfect combustion has been obtained ; improved appliances have been invented for saving and transmuting heat into energy; and machinery has been made that recuperates and utilizes the so-called exhausted energy. These improvements alone are worth millions of dollars to the industrial world, and they reduce the consumption of coal by many millions of tons throughout the world for the performance of a given amount of work.
But the coal dust, the soot, the ashes, the stifling smoke still remain. In part we have solved the problem by steam-heating and electrical plants, which conduct the heat and energy a long distance under the streets of our homes and public buildings. The amount of nuisance has been reduced, and its area restricted. Nevertheless, for the majority of humanity there is coal still to be used, and there are ashes to be taken up, much to the detriment of our tempers and of the appearance of our home.
All these improvements are encouraging ; they point to an amelioration of present fuel nuisances. But we belong to an age that demands magical performances. Nobody is satisfied with these attainments. The optimism of our science leads us to believe that greater things will soon happen. \\ e are bent upon abandoning the dirty coal for some cheaper, cleaner, and more suitable fuel. We believe that Nature gave us the coal mines for a temporary use—merely to carry us over a period when we were learning to harness the tides and the v. inds, and to unlock the secret of gases. Shall we ever realize that utopian age when a silent, secret agent will enter all our houses and yield us power, heat, and light by the turning of a knob? Very few doubt it. And that agent will not be coal, nor will its power be derived directly or indirectly from coal. When it comes, the vast coal mines will become as useless and valueless as clay pits—more so, for clay will still be made into bricks.
Our optimism should not carry us too far, however ; we should halt and consider facts. The time may be far distant when such expectations can be realized. The sources of our power and heat are the same to-day as they always were ; but we are gradually learning to utilize them. Water is still the great primitive power ; but we change its form and call it electricity. The contraction and expansion of the air were simple problems to the ancients ; but we use power, derived from coal, to contract it mightily and call the resultant stored-up energy "compressed air." The winds of the heavens have always played an important part in the commerce of the world, and so eminent an authority as Lord Kelvin predicted that when the coal-fields of England and other parts of Europe were exhausted, large wind engines, driving electrical generators, would be in general use, storing up energy in batteries to be drawn on as needed. We know not what the winds may yet yield in the way of power, energy, heat, and light.
Then there is the great eternal, widespread solar heat—a power so great and general that we cannot measure it. Can this energy be collected and distributed at will? Can it be harnessed as we have harnessed Niagara, and be made to labor for us like any menial? This leads us to the consideration of the gases of the air and earth and water—tremendous powers for good or evil, temporarily imprisoned in forms that are rendered harmless and ineffective. Once loosen them, and they become our friends or enemies.
It is_ commonly said that animal power for work and locomotion has had its day, and that the horse is soon doomed to disappear, except for pleasure. May we not with equal cogency predict that coal has also nearly had its day as a fuel, and that it will soon disappear from our mechanical and industrial life, leaving our homes brighter, cleaner, and more cheerful, and our cities purer and healthier, by the absence of our present vitiated and gas-befouled atmosphere ?
THE Indomitable Man.—Genius is really only the power of making continuous efforts. The line between failure and success is so fine that that we scarcely know when we pass it-so fine that we are often on the line and do not know it. Many a man has thrown up his hands at a time when a little more effort, a little more patience, would have achieved success. As the tide goes clear out, so it comes clear in. In business, sometimes, prospects may seem darkest when really they are on the turn. A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success. There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose.