Peak Wood Forges an Industrial Revolution

When it was no longer easy or cheap to burn trees for development, a new economy had to be forged from fossil fuel.
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When it was no longer easy or cheap to burn trees for development, a new economy had to be forged from fossil fuel.

As England entered the 18th century, manufacturers could not get enough wrought iron. The problem had nothing to do with a deficiency of ore. “In that respect,” an anonymous pamphleteer of the period observed, “nature has been very liberal.”

“But,” he added, “for lack of wood and charcoal they are not being worked.” The country’s rich supply of coal was of no help. “No art or method is known and practiced,” one familiar with the iron trade of the time attested, “of making iron from ore but with charcoal.”

Accessible wood supplies, those that could be delivered at a profit, had greatly diminished over the years; as the pamphleteer wrote, they had been “grub’d up and destroyed.”

In short, the era of peak wood had arrived. A growing population needed more land cleared for agriculture. A more affluent society demanded greater amounts of wood for an ever-increasing number of applications.

The first railroads, called wagonways, sprung up in the 18th century. Manufacturers needed wood to build their horse-drawn wagons and to construct the track on which they traveled. Canals, too, abounded as time went on. They used wood for their locks and for the boats that passed through them. The public’s thirst for beer forced hop farmers to cut down trees for poles to hold up the hop vines, for charcoal to dry their leaves after the harvest, and staves for barrels in which to hold the brew.

The first factories — textiles — that emerged during these years required wood in all aspects of operation. Wooden water wheels ran spinning machinery also made of wood. Even the fabric worked in the mill had to be heated with charcoal to keep the fibers soft, flexible and elastic.

Owners of such businesses could outbid ironmasters for the wood they all had to have. One of them, Abraham Darby, found himself competing with the other tradesmen for the charcoal to stoke the furnaces he owned at Coalbrookdale. And while veins of coal there sold at a lower rate than anywhere else on the island, charcoal in turn commanded a higher price than just about any other place in England.

So Darby tried substituting coal, a fossil fuel, for charcoal made expensive by peak wood.

The iron that resulted typically lacked sufficient quality for the commercial market. Coal’s impurities adulterated the metal. Darby recalled from his time as apprentice to a malt maker that in the brewing industry, coal was purged of its unwanted elements — the “distilled” coal was known as “coke” — before using it for fuel. He tried the same for smelting iron ore, conducting many experiments in altering the coal, but he died before fully attaining his goal.

His son continued his father’s investigations. After numerous attempts, the younger Darby came up with coal as pure as charcoal. Independent analyses found he could convert with such coal “iron brittle or tough as he pleases.” The son went on to build a full-scale furnace and produced more high-quality iron with coal than had any charcoal furnace in the history of the industry.

Had he failed, according to his wife, “the iron of our own produce would have dwindled away as cordwood and charcoal had become scarce.”

Manufactured iron soon became plentiful. In 1750, around the time of Darby’s discovery, English ironworks produced a mere 19,000 tons of the metal. Fifty years later, the amount rose to 250,000 tons. By 1850, the country turned out 2.5 million tons.

Coal production likewise rose from 5 million tons in 1750 to 10 million tons in 1800. Over the next 50 years, it jumped to 50 million tons. With sufficient quantities of iron and coal at the nation’s disposal, as many steam engines as needed could be built. The plethora of iron also provided the necessary machinery, powered by coal-fired steam engines, for factories to turn out more goods than the world had ever seen before. The limiting factor, wood, had been usurped by an apparently limitless fossil fuel.

Steam engines also revolutionized transport. Prior to the steamboat, railroad, automobile, and plane, people had traveled by land or sea at the same speed from millennia to millennia no swifter than feet, hooves or sails could move. The steam engine and its successor, the internal combustion engine, turned wheels and paddles and later propellers to convey people and goods faster than even the most prophetic could dream. England became the preeminent power in the world during the 19th and early 20th centuries as a consequence. Wars became more deadly and widespread, too. Environmental damage took on a global aspect. Peak wood pushed the developed world into this new age, separating us and our recent ancestors from the rest of history.