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Coal: A Human History

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  1,458 Ratings  ·  169 Reviews
The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock has altered the course of history. Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist Manifesto, and ...more
Audio CD, 0 pages
Published June 1st 2003 by Tantor Media (first published January 1st 2000)
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Dan Walker
Aug 15, 2012 Dan Walker rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, economics
This isn't a history of coal. OK, it is about coal, but a book written by a environmental lawyer isn't a history, it's a critique.

Which really is too bad, because the history of coal is about the triumph of human ingenuity and will over scarcity and poverty. Is it always a pretty picture? Not even close. And Ms. Freese does an excellent job portraying the miseries of children working in mines, the pollution of London, etc. etc.

But one gets the feeling that the miseries of coal are portrayed, not
Leo Walsh
Mar 12, 2013 Leo Walsh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall, Coal: A Human History is a fascinating and balanced look at the enormous and often unsung impact that this little black rock has had on our lives. Without it, there would have been no British empire. Nor would there have been an Industrial Revolution. Nor would the United States, whose huge coal deposits power our electric plants to this day, have ever become the economic juggernaut it became in the 20th century.

Freese, though, is not simply a coal cheerleader. She also gives us the ba
May 15, 2014 Ryan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Decent environmental history but not really what I was hoping for. It's not really much of a "human history," except that it considers the impact of coal on civilization writ large in the UK, US, and China. It certainly doesn't spend any time on miners, the humans most directly concerned with coal, outside brief mentions of harsh working conditions and labor organization. There is almost no discussion of the actual mechanical processes involved in producing or using coal, and where that discussi ...more
Disappointed, wanted a more detailed history of coal. Got major, faulty diatribe on global warming. Hey, guess what? Snake eggs are not hard shelled, they are soft. She couldn't even get that right. what else didn't she get right?! There has got to be a better read about coal than this.
Apr 11, 2008 Johnsergeant rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook, audiblecom
Narrator: Shelly Frasier
Publisher: Tantor Media, 2003
Length: 7 hours and 18 min.

Publisher's Summary
The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock altered the course of history. Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist Manifesto, and helped the northern states win
Oct 23, 2007 Kyle rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure whether or not I'm disappointed in this book. I've bee looking for a history of the coal industry for a while, and thought this might be the ticket. It does a great job looking at pre-industrial revolution uses of coal (the books best section), but falls down somewhat as it moves to 19th and 20th century America. There's some interesting discussion of the distinction between bituminous and anthracite coal and how their different placement shaped the coal industry, but I was left fee ...more
Dec 13, 2016 Bill rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was recommended to me by a friend. Since I live in coal country and my dad was a coal miner, I decided to check out this book. I thought it was going to only focus on the history of coal, but I should've known better considering today's climate (pun intended). The history sections were well presented. However, when it came time to discuss coals effect on the environment, I found it very one-sided without even considering any other point of view. One such statement was when the author i ...more
Rebecca McNutt
Whether you're for using coal or against using coal, the glittering carbon rock undeniably has a fascinating history. From the use of child labour that was fortunately stopped decades ago, to steelmaking and coking coal, to powering entire cities, coal has a past as deep as the mines it surfaces from, and this book talks about all of it.
Mar 16, 2011 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A small book, written in an accessible, entertaining style, this is not only a comprehensive, scholarly history of coal, but also a serious assessment of the cost/benefits of its current use. Freeze has a deep, wide-ranging knowledge of her subject, seems to know everything there is to know about coal - from its early use by the Romans, both for fuel and ornament, through it indispensable modern role in the generation of electricity. And she presents the full story in a succinct, interesting man ...more
Angela Forfia
Jun 30, 2008 Angela Forfia rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: cultural and social history geeks
Shelves: social-history
I'll start by admitting that I am a sucker for these cultural histories of stuff--cod, coffee, cotton, tobacco, the potato, you name it. So, a human history of coal was appealing before I read a single page. Barbara Freese, an environmentalist and former assistant attorney general of Minnesota, provides a sweeping survey of the history of coal from the Romans carving black stones into jewelry to the open coal fires of early modern cities to American King Coal monopolies of the early 20th century ...more
Sean Betouliere
Aug 02, 2009 Sean Betouliere rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
so damn good. full of compelling little historical details--the unimaginable filth and soot of industrial cities, where smoke blocked out the sky; the way that roads looked before pavement (gigantic muddy gullies, so deep that the top of a wagon would disappear within them); a royal attempt to ban coal back in 1306, which failed as the english demand for firewood outpaced the capacity of english forests; and also the crazy descriptions of what it was like to actually live and work in a mining to ...more
Mar 04, 2013 Arlian rated it liked it
2.5 stars. While this book had some interesting tidbits of information, mostly it was incredibly boring and highly biased by the author. Not only does she state her incredibly boring and simplistic opinions regularly and repeatedly, they also (as the case with all authors and 'historians') constrain, control and define the kinds of questions she asks to get the answers she then presents. Ultimately this book was kind of a waste of time, but since I was listening to it on audiobook while filing a ...more
Christina Dudley
Mar 04, 2014 Christina Dudley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been thinking about this book lately and considering rereading it, what with the consecutive days of terrible pollution in Beijing.

A fascinating, well-researched account of our troubled relationship with coal. After reading about the environmental consequences and the hardships visited on coal miners, I was sorry to learn WA state still relies on it for a significant portion of its energy. But it's so irresistibly cheap and there for the taking that it won't be going away anytime soon.
Jan 23, 2012 Steve rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
First half of Coal was fantastic. It is written with a good sense of humor and is incredibly interesting. Second half of Coal slows down a bit as it reveals the true drive of the book: pollutants released from burning coal and the destruction they've caused.

Overall a great and educational read which wanders from hilarious to tragic.
Richie Partington
23 April 2003 COAL: A HUMAN HISTORY by Barbara Freese, Perseus, February 2003, ISBN 0-7382-0400-5

It's a complicated yet amazing game: Life on Earth:

A bug sat in a silver flower
thinking silver thoughts.
A bigger bug out for a walk
climbed up that silver flower stalk
and snapped the small bug down his jaws
without a pause
without a care
for all the bug's small silver thoughts.
It isn't right
it isn't fair
that big bug ate that little bug
because that little bug was there.

He also ate his underwear.

--Karla Ku
Feb 21, 2017 John rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The author spent about 80% of the book on various aspects of the history of coal - it's early uses and impacts over time on our ability to heat our homes and the transformative impact it had on technology. I really enjoyed these parts of the book. She showed how critical coal was the industrial revolution and was very frank about the negatives that came along with that use and progress. She told the coal story not just of the U.S., but also England and China. It was interesting and I learned a l ...more
Justin Tapp
I read this book after reading Jeff Goodell's Big Coal, which was written later. I find Freese's work to be much better, much more comprehensive, and overall better-written. It ranges from the discovery of coal burning in England by the Romans to the development of coal in Pennsylvania and Virginia in the US Colonies to the modern Chinese state's mass consumption of coal at the price of thousands of lives lost a year. Freese is an environmental lawyer and assistant Attorney General in Minnesota ...more
Nicole Kapise-Perkins
This was an interesting follow-up to 'Food in History': how the need for and production of coal and the need for and production of food for a growing world population not only parallel each other, but generally relied on each other.
I was disappointed with the book, although I should have known it would present a negative bias toward coal. Hints include the author being an environmental regulator in the United States, the subtitle: 'A Human History', and the cover art, not chosen by the author, but still indicative of bias. A few good points, however, to note:

The book is mostly about coal, and does discuss the process of it being made, and some of the early methods and problems of mining coal veins and transporting it. On t
Pat Cummings
May 18, 2015 Pat Cummings rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
In the summer of 1306, bishops and barons and knights from all around England left their country manors and villages and journeyed to London. They came to participate in that still-novel democratic experiment known as Parliament, but once in the city, they were distracted from their work by an obnoxious odor.

These nobles were used to the usual stenches of medieval towns—the animal dung, the unsewered waste, and the rotting garbage lining the streets. What disgusted them about London was somethi
Feb 04, 2014 Wendy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Highly recommended as background for understanding the pervasive impact of coal on human history and the choices that lie before us now. The book is highly readable, with citations and a bibliography to guide more in-depth study.

The author wraps up with an honest appraisal of the value of coal in human history as well as its tremendous costs and brief speculation about what the world might have been like had coal never been put to use as fuel. She also offers a brief but compelling view of the
Jun 06, 2012 Nick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting history of coal, primarily covering the British and American industrial revolutions. In spite of the subtitle, "A Human History" it reads as a basically factual overview, to the extent that the (relatively small) portions that get into discussing the human and environmental costs of coal use feel a bit forced and out of place. There is one chapter in particular that builds up to a discussion of the Kyoto Accords, which must have seemed relevant and destined to succeed when the b ...more
Dec 19, 2014 Rachela rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Barbara Freese provided great insight into both the benefits and costs of coal in her book, Coal: A Human History. This book was well researched and delivered measured analysis of coal’s mining and use with the associated toll on human health. Coal use fueled great innovations and shepherded the world into the industrial age. The problems associated with removing water drainage from mines drove inventors to form mechanized solutions the coal powered steam engine in 1792. This engine was later mo ...more
Feb 14, 2011 Richard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
Human beings need fuel, that means something has to burn, and pollution and side effects are a fact of life. The sun's going to be around a lot longer than humans (probably), and as skin cancer goes to show, is not without problems of its own. Wood is inefficient for industrial use, and anyway, nobody really wants to deforest the earth - well, I guess that's debatable. Oil is limited, more and more expensive, and drilling is more and more a disaster waiting to happen. Nuclear power? Oh yeah, we' ...more
Erica Mukherjee
While Barbara Freese does not go so far as to proclaim coal as the fundamental ingredient in creating our modern world, her book, Coal: A Human History highlights the long-term importance of this rather unromantic lump of carbon in spurring industrial development, building cities, and propelling economic growth. The book covers the history of coal mining and use in Britain, the United States, and China. Even though China's wide-spread use of coal dates back the farthest, this section is treated ...more
Tom Darrow
Aug 02, 2014 Tom Darrow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is good at a lot of things, but not excellent at any one of them. For example, as a history, it is broad and sweeping, but its methodology is somewhat sketchy. Its citations are numerous, but a professional historian would likely want more and done in a more precise way.

As an environmental or science book, it again speaks in broad strokes, but the science of how coal is created and the dangers of burning it are limited to only a few sections.

As a travel book, she takes you to some exo
Mar 18, 2007 Wyatt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history geeks
Freese offers an interesting narrative of coal that weaves through preindustrial England to present. I get the feeling reading that she researched everything from the perspective of coal and then unsurprisingly found that the world's history has been driven by coal (from the industrial revolution to the 2000 US election). That said she makes strong points about the importance of fuel and offers a very interesting minihistory.
Her writing style is easily readable and straightforward, but tries to
Jerry Smith
An interesting account of what, on the surface (no pun intended) is perhaps not the most fascinating substance. However the story of coal is indeed one that changed, and continues to change the course of history. The book charts the formation of coal from the forests of prehistoric times, all the way through its early usage and contribution to the industrial revolution. The narrative switches from the old world to the new and the price the planet has paid in the past (pollution) and is now payin ...more
Jan 23, 2010 William rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Definitely recommended to folks interested in energy, environment, and climate change. Freese does a great job recounting the history of coal use in the UK, the US, and China, and weaves the growth of industrial power in each with the social histories of life in mining regions and in areas where coal use was most prevalent before any controls were put on its use (black fogs lasting days, etc). She is an environmental lawyer, so her politics are known from the start, but she is fair in highlighti ...more
Being from a state with a rich coal mining history, I was looking forward to reading this book. Sadly, "Coal: A Human History" disappointed me on multiple levels. First of all, the book reads like a science textbook. The sentence structure is very odd & left me having to reread lines several times. Also, the chapters are painfully long. I counted one chapter.... it was 30 pages in length.

Secondly, this book should be called "An Environmental History" because it's mainly focused on the enviro
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Madison Mega-Mara...: Coal: a Human History 1 1 Aug 05, 2013 07:02PM  
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