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Coal And Petroleum

( Originally Published 1918 )

Nature of coal. Coal is what was originally a vegetal deposit, laid down ages ago and subjected to great pressure ; its existence and use remained unknown to man up to relatively recent times. European travelers in the early Middle Ages reported that the Chinese burned black stones, which smoldered and remained alight all night. There are two kinds of coal in common use : the bituminous, or soft, and the anthracite, or hard. The former contains from 85 to 88 per cent of carbon, lights easily, and burns with a bright flame. The latter is much denser in structure ; it contains up to 95 per cent of carbon, lights with considerable difficulty, and burns with a bluish flame while kindling. Another variety, called lignite or brown coal, is of much less use in industry than either soft or hard coal ; it contains only about 70 per cent of carbon. Soft coal is used for the generation of steam, while hard coal is used for domestic heating and cooking, especially in the eastern part of this country.

Soft and hard coal. Soft coal is mined chiefly in Pennsylvania, but a good deal is produced by West Virginia, Illinois, and Ohio. The largest field, called the Appalachian, extends 900 miles, from New York to Alabama, with a width of from 30 to 180 miles. A second field runs through Virginia and North Carolina, and a third across Indiana, Illinois, and western Kentucky. Hard coal is mined in Pennsylvania, where there is an anthracite area of nearly 500 square miles. The largest vein, called " The Mammoth," was once 40 feet thick, but has been almost mined away. It is necessary now to work the thinner veins, and the coal, unless carefully picked over, is likely to be full of slate and other stone.

Early use of coal. The colonists, of course, got most of their fuel from the forests. It was not till 1750 that coal was discovered, near Richmond, Virginia, and not much was done with coal-mining until after the Revolution, when there were shipments made to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Coal was found near Pittsburgh before 176o and was in general use in the regions near the mines, both for manufacturing and household purposes, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Anthracite was discovered near Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania, in 1762, but there was great difficulty in getting it into the market. The people of the time could not make it burn, and the first successful users were blacksmiths. Later on it was the invention of especially adapted grates, as well as the discovery that an anthracite fire ought not to be poked all the time, that helped its progress. Yet 365 tons from the Lehigh district were enough, even as late as 1820, to meet the demand. By 1831 the shipments from this region reached 40,000 tons. The use of coal to smelt iron. Thus the production of coal for commercial purposes goes back, in this country, scarcely a hundred years. The Virginia deposits, near Richmond, were the first to be regularly mined ; 48,000 tons were taken out in 1822, and 140,000 tons in 1833. Since coal is a bulky and heavy article for its price, only the mines which were near natural or artificial transportation facilities could be developed. It was not until coal was used in smelting iron on a large scale, and until the railroads had been built to carry coal to iron-smelting works, that the production of coal, especially of soft coal, received an impetus. The anthracite variety got a start over the bituminous because the companies which first produced anthracite were also building the first railroads and canals. Until about 1840 the only fuel used in our blast furnaces was charcoal ; although England had discarded it early in the century, our abundant forests and the relative ease of transporting wood caused us to retain it. When we first began to use coal in the manufacture of pig iron the iron industry was at once revolutionized. But anthracite was the principal coal used at first ; the year 1855 was the one when anthracite first surpassed charcoal. Bituminous coal overtook charcoal in 1869 and anthracite in 1875.

Coal and the railroads. The other great factor which caused the remarkable growth of the bituminous-coal industry was the rapid development of American railways, especially after the Civil War. This affected, in the first instance, the eastern and central coal states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It increased the demand for iron in railroad construction, thus involving the need of more coal, and it also opened up the westward shipment of coal, both for the railroads themselves and also for the industries that sprang up with the advent of the railroads. The close connection between the growth of our railway system and that of the coal industry is easily seen. In a country like this, where distances are very great, the fact that coal constitutes the largest item of railroad expenditure causes railways to become interested from the very beginning in getting fuel at the cheapest possible cost. The great development of the iron and steel industry in the latter years of the nineteenth century, and its continued advance since the opening of the twentieth century, have greatly stimulated the demand for coal. The amount of iron manufactured by the use of anthracite has continued to decline, while the use of bituminous has steadily increased. This change was greatly stimulated by the use of coke, a residue of hard carbon left after heating certain grades of soft coal in ovens under a limited air supply. There are certain of our grades of coal, especially those of the Connellsville region of western Pennsylvania, which show superior coking qualities. Coke has come to be used more and more in the manufacture of pig iron, until over 90 per cent of this product is thus made.

Development of our coal production. The total amount of coal extracted from our mines up to and including 1845 is estimated to have been 27,700,000 tons, but 1846 saw a product of 5,000,-000 tons; 185o, one of 7,000,000; 1875, one of 52,000,000; 1900, one of 270,000,000 ; and the present period a yearly out-put of over 500,000,000 tons, of which less than 100,000,000 are of anthracite. The total amount extracted from coal mines up to 1914 was 2,537,517,000 short tons of anthracite and 7,820,-167,000 of bituminous, and the quantity still remaining to be mined is estimated as about 99.5 per cent of the original supply.

Our consumption of coal. The per capita increase in the consumption of coal in the United States has proceeded at a rapid, not to say a spendthrift, rate. It was less than a quarter of a ton per year in 185o, while it is now, despite the increase of population, more than five tons.

Waste and conservation of coal. We have been and are still wasteful in our employment of this great and never-to-be-replaced natural resource, both in the mining and in the use of it. There is great waste in mining : pillars of coal are left to hold up the walls, and thinner layers are disregarded ; and it is even worse when the pillars are robbed of their coal without being replaced by other supports. For every ton of coal mined and marketed, perhaps as much as half a ton is lost through waste in mining. Some of this is inevitable, however. The so-called " beehive " coke ovens are wasteful, and there are, all along the line, other leakages from this store of resources. The consumer is wasteful also : imperfect combustion is common ; the full utilization of the energy stored in the coal is neglected. The feeling has been that there is an exhaustless plenty of this stuff and that it is cheap — so cheap, in fact, that it is more economical to save the time and effort necessary to realize economies of material. This sort of thing can continue in a new land with abundant natural resources, but there are unmistakable signs that our country is no longer a new one and that we have to give up some of the happy-go-lucky habits of our past. We shall presently be obliged to imitate certain of the ways of people of older countries, which we have viewed with amused and lofty contempt. Over the coal fields, and over the coal bins as well, there is being extended that movement for the conservation of natural resources of which we have spoken from time to time.

Coal is indispensable. For if one looks about him with a seeing eye he will observe that coal is something that stands, in a very real way, between modern nations and national decline — yes, national annihilation. Practically all our industries, by which we prosper, and even live, would be impossible without this natural substance. We can never hope to carry on our big industrial operations with wood as a fuel, even if we had the wood, which we have not. On the wood supply we could not even, for many years, keep ourselves warm enough to live. But the only other fuel is coal. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in climates where fire is needed for living, coal has a large fraction of the indispensable quality which we usually associate with air and water. Once the race got along without coal and did not absolutely need it, but later on people got it and proceeded to build upon it as a necessity of life, until conditions have become such that it is indispensable for life. Once, too, early man did not know how to make fire ; but later he learned how, and the result has been that men are now living in many places on the earth where they could not exist without fire. It is impossible now to go back to the fireless age — even the " fireless cooker" needs fire to begin on. Coal made possible the development of a whole industrial and social system which was impossible without it. The size of population has increased in dependence upon this system. The system could not persist without the coal, and so the population and the living could not go on without it.

The need of economy in the use of coal. This is what we mean when we say that the failure of coal would mean, as things now are, national decline and annihilation. But coal, thus important for human life, is a substance limited in quantity on the earth ; there may be huge deposits of it, but when used up it is not renewed, thus differing from air and water in a very serious respect. Therefore it behooves human beings, in the interest of future generations, to use this priceless commodity, cheap though it seems to be, with the least possible waste. It is already clear that the future is going to be less easy-going with us than the past has been ; as the big coal veins are used up and the smaller ones have to be mined, the cost of coal, especially anthracite, must steadily rise. The realization of these facts may serve as a hint to a well-meaning but thoughtless people.


Early uses of petroleum. It is highly probable that petroleum (" rock oil ") in some forms was in common use two or three thousand years before Christ. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans appear to have been familiar with some forms of petroleum, such as bitumens. " Sicilian oil " was used for illumination by the beginning of the Christian Era, having been formerly employed for burning in the lamps of the temple of Jupiter. In the Far East also bitumens have been in use for ages ; the Baku deposits of petroleum have been known and utilized, in one form or another, for a very long time. Oil from the ground; which was capable of burning brightly, would have impressed any primitive people as something supernatural, and it is not at all surprising that it should early have figured in religious ceremonies.

A medicine and a nuisance. There is evidence that petroleum was known and used by the Indians before the Discovery ; at any rate there are legends to this effect. It is characteristic of savages and half-civilized people that such a substance should be adopted as a medicine. The Seneca Indians gathered small quantities of petroleum, which they found in the springs ; and since the white settlers became acquainted with this substance through the Senecas, they knew it, for more than a century, by the name of Seneca oil." Attempts were made to introduce it among the whites as a medicine, but in spite of the prevalent idea that a medicine, to be effective, must smell and taste abominably the bad odor and taste of petroleum made against its popularity. Then came the salt-makers, who were troubled more or less with petroleum in their brine. They had to dig deeper and deeper for salt as the demand increased with population, and finally began drilling wells. This was over a century ago.. Some of these wells yielded more oil than brine, but it was regarded as a nuisance by the well-owners, who used all sorts of devices to get rid of what turned out to be a new natural resource. '

Early steps in the industry. Attempts to bottle petroleum and sell it as a medicinal water, as well as projects to sell it as an illuminant, were failures — the evil odor and other disagreeable qualities worked against it. In the meantime, however, attempts were being made to distill oil from coal and shale, such oils not having the repulsive qualities of petroleum ; the results of these attempts suggested the possibilities of purifying the rock oil. But as there were no real oil wells the supply of crude oil was insufficient to lend much encouragement. Skimming water surfaces or deriving a small amount from brine wells was a discouraging process.

The coming of the oil era. It was 1854 before there was an oil company —the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company—which made the petroleum industry its business. Incorporated in New York, its property consisted of one hundred and five acres of Watson's Flats, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, including an island where Oil Creek and Pine Creek joined. For eight or nine years oil had been gathered on this island from surface pits. In 1857, after the expenditure of considerable money by the original promoters, these properties were taken over by a company organized in Connecticut, and a plan was soon developed of increasing the yield of crude oil by well-drilling. Edwin L. Drake,. a conductor on the New Haven Road, was put in charge. After a year of conflict with great difficulties he managed to reach petroleum in the first sand, thirty-three feet through rock and almost seventy feet below the surface. When the pump was applied, it was found that the well produced at the rate of twenty-five barrels a day. This was in August, 1859, which date marks the beginning of the real petroleum era in this country and in the world at large.

The oil craze. There followed a period of great excitement, recalling the gold strike in California ten years earlier. About 186o western Pennsylvania was the scene of immense activity and speculation. Adventurers from all parts of the country hurried there and sunk wells in great numbers. Camps and towns rose out of the primeval forest all through this so-called " oil region."

Some of the wells promptly gave out and the population shifted elsewhere, so that certain towns which had sprung up as if by magic vanished almost as quickly as they had appeared. Pithole City, which in 1865 was the largest post office in the state, next to Philadelphia, has now disappeared altogether ; its site became a farm.

Rapid development. For about fifteen years after the successful driving of Drake's well Pennsylvania produced almost all the crude oil for the country, but about 1885 the first important development outside of this state took place — in the Lima field of northwestern Ohio. Men were searching for natural gas when they discovered oil. The development was rapid ; four years later millions of barrels were being turned out annually. One by one other fields were opened up, each contributing its share in the development of a huge industry. An increase of a hundredfold or a thousandfold in a few years has been typical of the development, but it has not been possible to rest content at any stage. The oilman's creed, we are told, is to drill unceasingly in new fields and old.

Grades of oil. The oil areas of the United States are grouped in certain fields, largely on the basis of geographical position, but the grouping is coming to be based more and more on fundamental differences in the type of oil produced. The oils of the Appalachian field are mainly of paraffin base and free from asphalt and other undesirable elements. They yield by ordinary refining methods high percentages of gasoline and illuminating oils. The Lima-Indiana oils and those of Illinois contain greater quantities of undesirable elements, while the mid-continent variety varies within wide limits. Oils from the Gulf field are likely to have more asphalt, while the Wyoming and Colorado product is, in the main, of paraffin base and submits to the ordinary refining methods.

Oil production. This country contributes about 6o per cent of the world's product. Of our production the Appalachian field accounts for about 9 per cent, the Illinois for about 8.25 per cent, the mid-continent for nearly 7 per cent, and the California for over 37 per cent.

Developments connected with the industry. The development of the petroleum industry has had a marked effect on the economic and social life of this country and on that of the whole civilized world. The various commercial products of petroleum — such as kerosene, gasoline, benzene, naphtha, lubricating oils, paraffin, asphalt, and various by-products such as vaseline and candles — are now in common use, and many of these products are considered to be necessities ; yet about- half a century ago they were not to be had and the need of them had not been dreamed of. Our country is the great exporter of petroleum products to all parts of the world. The oil lamp is an example of an invention summoned into being by the industry, and now going out as other illuminants have superseded it. This lamp was largely an American product. Kerosene, when used as sperm oil had been, gave off a red flame, much smoke, and an offensive odor, but American ingenuity developed the burner and chimney to clarify the flame and avoid the smoke and odor ; it was perfected by 186o, part of the work of perfecting it being due to Austrians.

Pipe lines and Standard Oil. There is another aspect of the influence of the petroleum industry on our national life, connected with its transportation. Special tank-cars and oil-containers had to be developed. The barrel was soon outgrown, even as a container at the wells. Then came the development of pipe lines conducting the crude oil hundreds of miles to the refinery. But this enabled the discoverers of this method — which demanded much capital and, after being built; constituted a monopoly — to squeeze out the smaller producers and to form one of the most powerful trusts in the world — the Standard Oil. Immense- gains have been made by this corporation, but, with all its profits, it has over and over again reduced the price of oil.

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