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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/May 1885/A Scientific View of the Coal Question


IT is well known that our stock of coal is not an infinite quantity, and can not last an infinite period of time. Different authorities, and those who have investigated the subject, including a royal commission, have assigned different lengths of time during which our supply is likely to last; and, according to the most reliable authorities, it can not be much less than one hundred nor much more than two hundred and fifty years.

Our abundant store of coal and its application to industrial purposes have been among the largest causes of our wealth and progress. The value of coal for those purposes depends essentially upon the fact that it is combustible and evolves a large amount of beat in burning, and that this heat can be set free at any time and be readily converted into mechanical, chemical, electrical, and other forms of power. As an illustration of the great amount of energy contained in coal, it is well known to scientific men that each piece of it contains sufficient stored-up power to lift its own weight twenty-three hundred miles in height, or twenty-three hundred times its own weight a mile high. The only other common natural substances to be compared with it in this respect are wood and petroleum, and our stores of these are very small. It is by the expenditure of the energy contained in coal that comparatively valueless iron-ore is converted into valuable iron.

It has not been by the mere existence of large quantities of coal in this country, nor entirely by the sale of coal to foreign nations, that so much of our wealth has been obtained, but largely by the circumstance that we were the first nation to apply coal to industrial purposes on a large scale and in a great variety of ways. Other nations also possessing coal, perceiving the great success of this method, followed our example, have overtaken us, and have now rendered it increasingly difficult year by year for us to maintain our position as manufacturers.

As also large quantities of coal, petroleum, and inflammable gas are continually being discovered and utilized in other countries, and it is known that the United States of America alone contain nearly forty times as much coal as our entire stock, the time can not be very far distant when our chances of maintaining even our present position among nations by means of our coal will be considerably less than at present. It would be wise, therefore, boldly to face this serious prospect, and consider by what means our national prosperity can be maintained as our coal diminishes in quantity and increases in price, especially as our population is continually increasing and has to purchase greater supplies of foreign food.

There does exist another and inexhaustible source of wealth and progress, viz., new knowledge obtainable by means of scientific research. It is upon such knowledge, gained by experiments made to examine natural forces and substances, that we must sooner or later depend as a fundamental source of national prosperity. As fast as this knowledge is evolved by discoverers, it is applied in more immediately practical forms by numerous inventors, and then manufacturers and men of business use those practical realities in the production of wealth. This has been the order of events in the past and will be in the future; this was the way in which we got wealth out of coal. Persons of narrow views on the subject will consider the above proposition vague and unpractical; but this order of things is a great fact and unavoidable. We are the servants of Nature, and have no choice in the matter; we might as well hope to live without food as expect to advance in civilization without the aid of new knowledge.

The practical value of new scientific knowledge as a source of wealth and progress is incomparably greater than that of all the coal-deposits, petroleum-springs, and gold-fields of the earth. This great truth, though familiar to scientific investigators, is but little perceived or appreciated by our rulers or by the mass of their electors; and the chief reason for this is the fact that they possess insufficient knowledge of science. Even governments can only appreciate that which they understand, and can only act as circumstances and public opinion allow them, and when fettered by an ignorant population are powerless to preserve a nation from decay.

There can not be a more complete error than to suppose that new knowledge discovered by means of scientific research is not practical. Its immense practical value has been abundantly proved in a multitude of cases. It was largely by means of such knowledge respecting coal, its properties, constituents, and products gained by means of experiments, that coal was applied to so many uses. One of the most recent proofs of the practical value of such knowledge is the conversion of the heat of coal into electric current and light in the dynamo-electric machine and electric lamp; the entire existence of these instruments arose from new knowledge discovered in purely scientific researches by Davy and Faraday. It is not necessary to describe here the exact beginnings of gas-lighting, phosphorus-matches, photography, the voltaic battery, electro-plating, aniline dyes, telegraphy, the telephone, etc. These, and a multitude of other utilities in common use, had their earliest origin more or less completely, not in the labors of the inventor or of the more directly practical man, but in those of philosophical investigators whose experiments were made with the far more widely practical object—the discovery of new scientific knowledge.

It is not the mere possession of good things, but making the best and earliest use of them that most conduces to success. Our great stock of coal lay comparatively useless as a source of national wealth until philosophical investigators discovered its constituents and properties, and inventors applied these to useful purposes. Other nations also possessed coal, and our greater success than theirs was largely and essentially due to the fact that we were the earliest in applying it to important and varied uses. We must not wait, therefore, for those nations to discover for us new knowledge respecting natural forces and substances, but discover it ourselves, in order that we may have the first chance of applying those forces and substances to practical uses, and of offering the useful products for sale or in exchange for food and other commodities.

It is well known that a man who has no faith in medicine will not apply to a physician until death stares him in the face. Similarly the average politician and the ordinary elector, having but little knowledge of philosophical experiments or faith in them, will probably not believe in their great practical value until national distress and panic legislation ensue. The love of money also, and the desire of acquiring it quickly without commensurate sacrifice, fostered by our having so easily obtained it by means of our coal and science, are so strong in this nation, that probably nothing but the actual loss of wealth in the form of diminished value of properties will induce capitalists and land-owners to perceive and examine the scientific basis of their incomes. When, however, the stern reality of gradually increasing scarcity of coal, and consequent inability to pay for our great supplies of foreign food by means of that coal, and of articles produced by its aid, comes upon us, perhaps the statesmen and wealthy classes of this country will see the indispensable necessity of new scientific knowledge, and be more ready to promote experimental research, with a conviction that its practical results are vast, though not always direct or immediate.—Nature.