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Coal Miners

History

Even before the development of agriculture and weaving, Stone Age people mined for minerals buried in the earth: flints for weaponry, mineral pigments for picture and body painting, and precious metals and stones for ornamentation. Early miners carved out open pits to reach the more accessible materials. Then they dug primitive tunnels underground, using sticks and bones to remove soft or broken rocks. As time went on, early miners learned to break hard rocks by driving metal or wooden wedges into cracks in the surface. An early method for dealing with particularly large, stubborn rocks was to build fires alongside them until they became thoroughly heated and then to dash cold water against them. The sudden contraction would cause the rocks to fracture.

No one knows when coal was first discovered and used for fuel; even ancient peoples in several areas of the globe seem to have known about it. There is evidence that coal was burned in Wales during the Bronze Age about three to four thousand years ago, and by the early Romans in Britain. The first industrial use of coal was in the Middle Ages in England, and the English were far more advanced in mining methods than other nations for many years.

The earliest method of coal production was strip mining, which involves gathering deposits near the earth's surface. Early strip mining did not produce large amounts of coal because methods of removing soil that lay over the coal were crude and slow. Beginning in 1910, this type of mining became more practical as powered machinery came into use.

Commercial mining started in the United States around 1750, near Richmond, Virginia, with the first recorded commercial shipment of American coal: 32 tons from Virginia to New York. Most of the coal produced was used to manufacture shells and shot for the Revolutionary War.

The coal industry played a vital role in the rapid industrial development of the United States. Its importance increased dramatically during the 1870s, as the railroads expanded and the steel industry developed, and during the 1880s, when steam was first used to generate electric power. The production of bituminous coal doubled each decade from 1880 to 1910, and by 1919 production was more than 500 million tons.

Coal is the country's third-largest source of energy. Its use declined after World War II, when natural gas and oil became economically competitive, but rising petroleum prices and worries about the availability of oil have made coal a major energy source again. Coal production in the United States reached one billion tons for the first time in 1990. Today, nearly half of the nation's electricity is generated by burning coal.

Modern technology and improved management have revolutionized coal mining in the last century. Specialized machinery has been developed that replaces human effort with electric, pneumatic, hydraulic, and mechanical power, which are remotely controlled in some applications by computers. This means that highly skilled technicians and workers are needed to direct, operate, maintain, modify, and control the work performed by very expensive machinery. However, with the growth of the coal mining industry has come concern about the environmental impact of mining and burning coal. In the coming years, the introduction of clean-coal technologies may alter some of the day-to-day operations of coal mines (although environmentalists have serious concerns about the effectiveness of these new technologies). Proposed methods for making the coal-extraction process more environmentally friendly include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, treating the gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide, capturing carbon dioxide from the gas so it does not reach the atmosphere, and dewatering lower rank coals (like brown coals) to improve the calorific value, which makes the conversion to electricity more efficient.

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