By Barbara Freese
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Additional resources for Coal: A Human History
In the late 1100s, historians ﬁnally ﬁnd references to coal as a fuel. The English didn’t call it “coal,” though, since that was the name they used for charcoal, a fuel that had by then been used for many centuries. What we call “coal,” the English knew as “sea coal,” a surprising label for such a deeply terrestrial product, and one that stuck until the 1600s. Why they called it sea coal is disputed. Some think it’s because the North Sea actually carved coal from exposed outcrops and yielded it up onto the beaches with the sand, where it was ﬁrst gathered and used by the locals.
Even today, estimating the effect of coal smoke on public health is difﬁcult. Estimates are largely based on sophisticated analyses of detailed death and illness statistics. Seventeenth century Londoners were a long way from being able to perform such statistical analyses, and yet they were taking important ﬁrst steps in that direction. As it happened, just as Evelyn was publishing Fumifugium in 1661, a man whom many would later consider the founder of statistics was conducting the ﬁrst methodical analysis of London’s mortality records.
At the same time, the complaints of the poor were “great and unspeakable,” and many of them reportedly died from lack of fuel. When coal came back to the city, Londoners snapped it up, willing to watch the city’s gardens wither again as long as they could keep their home ﬁres burning. three Launching a Revolution after controlling fire for a few hundred thousand years, our ancestors had devised many clever ways to use its power to transform natural materials into everything from metals, pottery, bricks, and glass to salt, soap, and ale.