Claims about coal

by on January 23, 2014 at 3:25 pm in Data Source, Economics, History | Permalink

Counterfactual estimates of city population sizes indicate that our estimated coal effect explains at least 60% of the growth in European city populations from 1750 to 19o0.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Alan Fernihough and Kevin Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke.  There is an ungated version of the paper here.

john personna January 23, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Heh, I’m sure this does prove something very narrow, that if you live in a European between 1750 and 1900, you and your economy are better off with coal than without. You’ll die of a more straightforward disease before the smog gets you, and anyone who might ingest “your” coal-effluent mercury a few hundred years later isn’t in the equation.

Chip January 23, 2014 at 8:38 pm

And, sure, water may be necessary but eventually it gets people killed.

prior_approval January 23, 2014 at 11:23 pm

Well, clean water not so much. Dirty water like this? –

‘The death of her husband was a great shock to Queen Victoria. How could one of the most important people in Britain die from a disease like this? Was this common? Were rich and poor just as likely to die from diseases like this at the time of the Great Exhibition?

The big killer disease of the mid-nineteenth century was CHOLERA which was caused in a similar way to the disease Prince Albert had died of. Cholera had arrived in Britain for the first time in 1831, probably arriving on ships bringing imports from China.

Doctors had little idea about the causes of cholera. Most accepted the miasmatic (read on!) theory of disease. They believed that diseases were caused by the air somehow being polluted by waste. This came about because severe outbreaks of disease often happened in hot summers when there was a great deal of rubbish lying in the streets. As the rubbish rotted, it gave off a stronger and stronger smell. This, many doctors believed, caused disease.

Cholera was most dangerous in the new industrial towns of the north or in the centre of big cities like London. Here people lived in crowded housing. Most people got their water from a tap in the street and often the supply was pumped out of a nearby river. This river could easily be used for sewage disposal at the same time. In London, one water company drew water out of the River Thames from a point right next to the outlet of the Great Ranelagh Sewer.

In the new industrial towns, cholera was even more dangerous because many of the houses had been built quickly with no attempts at planning. Often there was no sanitation and no fresh water. In one street in Bolton the people used a trench at the back of the houses as a toilet, which was cleared out and the mess stacked up against the end wall of the last house. The mess was taken away every six months.

There was a second big outbreak of cholera in 1848, a third in 1853 and a fourth in 1866. Each time thousands of people died swiftly and in terrible pain. They suffered violent vomiting and diarrhoea, coupled with very bad stomach pains. The actual cause of death was often dehydration (not enough water).’

XVO January 24, 2014 at 8:44 am

So warding off the modern age indefinitely by not taking advantage of the only cheap and plentiful energy source is a better idea?

If not for coal most of those people wouldn’t have been alive to die in the first place….. The population growth rate would be severely stunted due to lack of production of basic staples. Is letting people die from starvation and exposure morally superior to dying of cholera?

john personna January 24, 2014 at 5:42 pm

My point was that the coal benefits do not translate so well to a cleaner, safer, age. See WV.

TMC January 26, 2014 at 12:52 pm

“In one street in Bolton the people used a trench at the back of the houses as a toilet, which was cleared out and the mess stacked up against the end wall of the last house. The mess was taken away every six months.”

Occupy Bolton!

JWatts January 23, 2014 at 6:49 pm

“For many economic historians trained in history departments, the Industrial Revolution was a switch towards coal, above all else.”

Well you can’t ignore the effects of trains, or more broadly the steam engines, either.

Roy January 23, 2014 at 9:35 pm

You can’t power a steam engines for long on wood, you run out of wood very quickly. You also can’t build many railroads without steel and you need at least charcoal to make steel and that will run through your firewood even faster. The energy density and abundance of fossil fuels made the modern world possible. And coal is a lot more easily extracted and used than petroleum, and I doubt you could develop nuclear power or build many massive dams without coal or petroleum.

Steve Sailer January 23, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Fifty years it ago, it was a commonplace among intellectuals that progress was fundamentally measured in energy expended per capita.

XVO January 24, 2014 at 8:46 am

+1 coal was required for trains, JWatts you derp. Most of us would be serfs without coal.

Marie January 24, 2014 at 10:13 am

I read that as “yes, coal is important, because it powered trains, and trains made a huge difference.”

Which I found interesting, the idea of the Industrial Revolution being driven by trains rather than factories, so much.

But maybe my reading comprehension is below my literacy level. . . ..

JWatts January 24, 2014 at 11:07 am

“+1 coal was required for trains, JWatts you derp.”

LOL, you might want to check your history on that one. ;)

“A steam locomotive is a railway locomotive that produces its pulling power through a steam engine. These locomotives are fueled by burning combustible material, usually coal, wood or oil, to produce steam in a boiler, which drives the steam engine.”

You’ll notices the large amount of trains in these images with wood tenders attached to them.

Indeed, many trains in developing countries, the US West, Africa, India, etc ran wood burners through most of the 19th century.

But my point wasn’t that coal wasn’t required for trains, my point was that without trains the production/transportation of coal was extremely limited. Have you ever read the history of coal mines and coal mining regions? In almost every case, a coal mine wasn’t economic until a rail line was built to haul the coal away and water pumps were installed to lower the ground water.

There was very much a symbiotic relationship between steam power and coal. And particularly steam powered trains and coal.

XVO January 24, 2014 at 1:35 pm

“The energy density of wood chip is 870 kwh/m² and coal is 10000 kwh/m²”

Coal was required for trains….to be useful (I thought that would be implied by what Roy commented)! Steam power required coal in order to become economically viable. No coal, no industrial revolution, we would be serfs and steam power would be a fun distraction. I rest my case.

JWatts January 24, 2014 at 4:11 pm

“The energy density of wood chip is 870 kwh/m² and coal is 10000 kwh/m²”

Lignite coal=15-19 GJ/t (almost all German coal, for example, is Lignite coal)
Dry wood = 18-22 GJ/t
anthracite coal = 27-30 GJ/t


“Coal was required for trains”

Except for all those trains that ran on wood of course. But that’s really beside the point, because regardless of how you powered them, trains were needed to economically extract the coal. So, as I stated previously, both trains and coal were symbiotic. Neither one would have been nearly as beneficial without the other.

Bob Knaus January 23, 2014 at 7:28 pm

The abstract could have been 3 words: “Coals to Newcastle.” Do these researchers have nothing better to do?

Ray Lopez January 23, 2014 at 9:22 pm

But “carrying coal to Newcastle” is a shibboleth for a futile gesture*, so your analogy is inapt. In fact, economics is or should be the verification of truisms. That’s why we need more research into stuff like sticky prices, Keynesian multipliers, money illusion, and the like, to verify whether these things actually exist. For example the only empirical test I ever saw of the money illusion was a college experiment involving a small group of students who were given real money (probably not that much money either) and it was found to exist, but we need more such studies. *BTW in actual fact Newcastle could well be a coal importer, even though they mine coal there, since often such areas import and reexport the very stuff they make, for example Texas imports petroleum, adds value through refinery, and exports the oil again, it’s quite common.

Roy January 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm

I think you probably just think all economic history is pointless, or history in general.

Norman Pfyster January 23, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Did sex explain the other 40%?

Finch January 24, 2014 at 9:38 am

I could not quickly figure out if the city population growth was from immigration from the countryside or additional births.

Anybody know the mix?

Marie January 24, 2014 at 10:15 am


Marie January 24, 2014 at 10:16 am

+1 on the Norman Pfyster comment, made me laugh.

Finch January 24, 2014 at 10:21 am

Should I be hurt that you felt the need to clarify? God forbid, I get a plus one…

Marie January 24, 2014 at 10:40 am

How do you make that little laughing face thing? Nevermind, too girly.

I’m sorry to have ruined your day, I’m sure it rises and falls on my opinion, but it was very important to me that everyone know I found the joke about sex making babies very funny.

JWatts January 24, 2014 at 11:09 am

“God forbid, I get a plus one…”


Finch January 24, 2014 at 11:54 am

All the best Marie. I just found it funny.

Rocky January 23, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Limits to growth is an execellent read which predicted slower growth rates.

Philip Neal January 26, 2014 at 4:25 pm

The authors use proximity to Carboniferous rocks of all ages as an index of proximity to coal. In fact coal is found almost entirely in Upper Carboniferous rocks, the Lower Carboniferous consisting largely of marine limestone. The map in their paper shows large regions of Ireland and France as dating to the Carboniferous, which is true, but the Lower Carboniferous is meant and those countries are very poor in coal. If the authors had used proximity to the Upper Carboniferous only, I think their thesis would have been even more strongly confirmed.

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