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Coal: A Human History

3.70  ·  Rating details ·  1,662 ratings  ·  199 reviews
In this remarkable book, Barbara Freese takes us on a rich historical journey that begins hundreds of millions of years ago and spans the globe. Prized as “the best stone in Britain” by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, expanded frontiers, and sparked social movements, and still powers our electric grid. Yet coal’s world-changing ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published January 27th 2004 by Penguin Books (first published January 7th 2003)
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3.70  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,662 ratings  ·  199 reviews

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Dan Walker
Aug 15, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: economics, history
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
SoManyBooks SoLittleTime
Dec 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Coal can't be galvanized. But people sure can be, about the topic.

This is a fascinating journey through the story of coal from discovery, to resource, to modern political issue. This is a history book, rich in science, facts, and interesting human anecdotes while describing major socio-economic shifts and cultural changes wrought as a result of one unassuming mineral compound. One that somehow is STILL polarizing opinion.
Leo Walsh
Mar 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 13, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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
May 15, 2014 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
Oct 23, 2007 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
Mar 16, 2014 rated it it was ok
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.
Beth Cato
Mar 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is an interesting overview of the complex relationship between coal and humankind, how the natural resource propelled people into the industrial age and many technological advancements even as it kills with both intimate and widespread forms of poison. The focus is on the zones: Britain, western Pennsylvania, and China. Freese's approach is even-handed, blunt in her descriptions of coal as a blessing and a curse.
Apr 11, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 04, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
T.B. Lutz
Aug 21, 2017 rated it liked it
This is worth reading, but in reality, it provides a very superficial overview of sometimes random aspects of the history of mankind's use of coal. I found the first half to be more interesting than the second, mainly because when discussing the history of coal prior to the mid 20th century, it is difficult to become too politically biased- the record simply is what it is. The latter half of the book displays the author's background as an environmentalist and global warming advocate, which certa ...more
Apr 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
What an amazing book. I want to thank JJ Lehmann, who handed me a beat-up copy, from a little used book store, I believe, earlier this year. What a gem. And, surprisingly for me, nonfiction!

The author manages to tell the story of how humans have used coal, and its effect on society, which is much larger than I suspected, in an easy engaging manner. She describes how coal enabled the industrial revolution, the rise and spread of the British empire, the industrialization of the north and the ensu
Nathaniel Horadam
Aug 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Outstanding story that chronicles the rise of coal in Britain, America and China, and doubles as a history of industrialization.
Mar 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Vel Veeter
Aug 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: cbr-9
My life was neither created nor destroyed by coal. So much of this book talks about the balance between cost and benefit/harm, but it also spends a lot of time focusing on the industries that built up around coal: iron, transportation, heating/engines. I grew up not in coal country, but adjacent to it in Virginia, where I would see thousands of coal trains over time.

The history itself focuses on the development of coal as a fuel source, it’s other more ornamental uses in history, and eventually
Angela Forfia
Jun 30, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 rated it really liked it
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
Christina Dudley
Mar 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it liked it
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
Jul 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Quick easy read.
Coal obviously has been around for a very long time. Coal during the Middle Ages was thought to be associated with disease, death and the devil. As Europe began to experiment with coal, mining was done by the poorest and often time youngest members of the community. In Scotland families were bonded for life to a specific coal mine.
The Chinese became the first society to use coal. China was many centuries ahead of Europe when it comes to coal mining, however they are using coal mo
Oct 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Uma quase 'biografia' do carvão

O livro começa muito bem e dá a impressão que será uma 'biografia' do carvão nos moldes do livro "The Prize" (O Prêmio) de Daniel Yergin (que pode ser considerada uma 'biografia' do petróleo).

Pontos positivos:
1) Bem escrito. De leitura fácil e interessante;
2) Foca nos primórdios do uso do carvão na industria nascente da Grã-Bretanha e EUA;
3) Conta anedotas interessantes dos empresários, políticos e população pobre. Em relação a esta última, descreve vividamente c
Dec 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
I recently finished The Race Underground which is about building subways in Boston and New York. That book reminded me that I have some history books I've been meaning to get around to. After reading Coal I decided I'm going to learn American history through books that focus on some historical event or thing. By reading Coal, I learned about unions, ancient Chinese history, the origin of the Mollie McGuires, steam engines, the Kyoto protocol and what coal IS. Fas. Cin. A. Ting!
If you haven't app
John Dougall
Sep 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this history of coal as it covered more than just what I have known about the U.S. coal industry. I enjoyed learning about the history of England and coal and its impact on English life, and more so, about the history of China and coal, of which I knew nothing.
This book has challenged me to study the topic further, and this is one of the things I look for in my reading.
Good job.
Bobby Jones
Oct 24, 2018 rated it did not like it
This book had a lot of promise, especially with the rise of microhistory in general. However, it failed to deliver, underperforming even in the eras where the place of coal in history is well-accounted for. I would love to read another book about the place coal played in human history because this book just didn't do it for me.
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
Laura Eggen
Dec 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
An eye-opening, thought-proving book that provides a quick overview of a substance that has so shaped the way our society (and, in fact, our world) works today. It touches briefly on many other related topics, including child labor, pollution (then and now), climate change, technological advancements, and much more.
Nov 15, 2018 rated it liked it
While I loved the chapters about the history of coal in England and the United States, I was far less interested in the section on China and the author’s seeming obsession with global warming — which come across as dated since the book was published fifteen years ago.
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