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Coal: A Human History

3.69 of 5 stars 3.69  ·  rating details  ·  1,115 ratings  ·  136 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
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Published June 1st 2003 by Tantor Media (first published January 1st 2000)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,583)
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Dan Walker
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
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
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
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
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.
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 12, 2009 Angela Forfia rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
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
Sean Betouliere
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
Pat Cummings
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
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
Tom Darrow
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
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
Christina Dudley
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.
Freese takes the reader through coal's history and its impact on human civilization, health, and the environment.

I found myself telling friends about what I had learned reading this book; Freese does a great job tying it all together and keeping the momentum until the last page.

Things I found especially interesting:
--Coal as stored energy; humans are choosing to release that potential (and damn the consequences). "It's almost as if the lepidodendron of old had found a way to use humanity to re-c
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.
Jan 13, 2015 Lenore rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lenore by: saw it on a library shelf
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
This was a fascinating read and very well written in clear language that is engaging. A tremendous historical narrative about coal and a scary and urgent look at the current problems of climate change and what can be done to prevent further damage. I really think everyone today should read this book (although an update will be important to seek out because this book was published over 10 years ago).
Although environmental groups and science and environmental reporters have written on these theme
Jan 31, 2008 Amber added it
a VERY good read. I never thought I would be interested in the history of coal, but I couldn't put this book down.
Skuli Saeland
Barbara Freese kemur hreint fram strax í upphafi bókarinnar og segir sig hafa fengið áhuga á áhrifum kola á mengun og mannkynssöguna þegar hún starfaði sem lögfræðingur fyrir samtök umhverfssinna. Þrátt fyrir það er hún merkilega hlutlaus þegar hún rekur sögu kolanotkunar í sögunni og hve mikilvæg kolanotkunin var fyrir tæki og iðnað. Hins vegar beinir hún sjónum að menguninni sem varð af mikilli kolanotkun við iðnað og upphitun húsa og bendir á hvernig SO2 loftmengun drap fólk í stórum stíl í s ...more
a book about coal...surely the most boring premise of any book?..actually no this is a interesting book which traces the rise and fall of a fuel source we may now take for granted and which also points to a way ahead.
the premise that the nation that begat the industrial revolution will work towards establishing a green revolution seems unlikely given the financial crash and the current coalition governments downgrading of the whole green agenda..austerity has hit green projects as hard as anythi
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
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
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
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
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
Mar 21, 2007 Wyatt rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
It is too boring. I didn't even get past the sixth chapter. But , it does have historic events. I hate it so much. It makes me feel so bad for the author. She wrote it all nice and neat. But, it still stinks (worse than my baby brother's diapers). It will put you to sleep (in a hour or so). You might want to read this book to your kids or grandchildren. It will put them to sleep faster than usual. Trust me, it will put them to sleep.
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A bit of a disappointment. It's historical focus is narrow, only on the US, UK and, to a much lesser extent, China. What starts out as a history of coal use/production transforms ends up spending nearly a third of the book talking about contemporary climate change politics not directly tied to coal. Obviously this is relevant and would be welcome in a larger book, but historical portions of the book feel unfinished and leaves out the vast majority of the world. Africa, Eastern Europe, the former ...more
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