Fraud, Failure, and Frustration:
This Is the Story of America's First Energy Transition

Americans have not always desired new sources of energy. Demand has needed to be created, and this has never been easy. 
Coal wagon

George Shoemaker knew it was time to run. Despite his willingness to give away his product simply for the cost of its transport, a group of angry Philadelphians had obtained a warrant for his arrest. They denounced him to local authorities as a swindler peddling defective wares. Rather than wait for his day in court, Shoemaker snuck out of town along back roads and did not look back. 

What suspicious good was Shoemaker trying to sell? Surprisingly, the answer is coal.

Shoemaker lived in Pottsville, Pennsylvania—about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia—where large quantities of anthracite coal could be easily obtained. But after laboriously delivering nine loads of coal over rough roads to Philadelphia in 1812, the Quaker City’s citizens could not get it to ignite. They believed Shoemaker had sold them a useless stone and wanted justice. 

Shoemaker’s story captures an essential, yet often overlooked, dynamic of energy transitions. Getting consumers to adopt a new energy source is a substantial challenge. Most potential adopters find new energy sources unfamiliar, difficult to use, and therefore undesirable. Overcoming these obstacles requires enormous efforts by energy promoters to instruct users on the proper techniques, work with businesses to adapt their production techniques and develop the associated technologies such as stoves or furnaces necessary to use new fuels. 

Americans, in short, have not always desired new sources of energy. Demand has needed to be created, and this has never been easy. 

The material characteristics of anthracite coal made this challenge particularly acute. Anthracite refers to coal that has a high percentage of carbon—often 85 percent or even higher (bituminous coal has 50-85 percent carbon; semi-bituminous 35-50 percent; and lignite less than 35 percent). It has a hard and shiny appearance, and early nineteenth century Americans frequently referred to anthracite as “stone coal.” This high carbon content has two important implications. First, anthracite has relatively few volatile gases that aid the combustion process. As a result, one cannot simply toss a chunk of anthracite coal on a fire and expect it to ignite. Burning anthracite requires specialized equipment and considerable experience. Second, anthracite is a relatively pure fuel, and it burns hotter and with less soot emissions than other coals. 

Anthracite coal is relatively rare. Nearly all of earth’s coal reserves are bituminous, semi-bituminous, or lignite. And were it not for contingencies of natural and human geography, anthracite would likely be a small footnote in America’s energy history. It turns out that the world’s most abundant source of anthracite coal is concentrated into a dense region of less than five hundred square miles in eastern Pennsylvania. This made it the largest source of fossil fuel energy in the early nineteenth century within potential reach of the most populated region of America at the time—the eastern seaboard between Baltimore and Boston. Due to this pairing of geology and population, eastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite reserves were in a unique position to power America’s first fossil fuel energy transition. When Americans first consumed coal in great quantities, they were using anthracite. 

Yet as Shoemaker’s example demonstrates, the adoption of anthracite coal was anything but inevitable. Anthracite promoters met with frequent failure. In 1806, for example, William Turnbull delivered a few loads of anthracite coal from the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia for the use of the city’s Water Works. Yet the employees of the Water Works could not get the anthracite to burn in the steam engines that pumped water. In the end, they simply broke the anthracite it into pieces and scattered it in the streets as gravel. 

After his narrow escape from the law, Shoemaker decided to take a more active role in teaching potential customers how to use anthracite. He arranged to visit an iron rolling mill in Delaware County to demonstrate the potential advantages of anthracite. Though the foreman declared the coal to be stones, Shoemaker oversaw the process of igniting anthracite, emphasizing that the fire should not be poked and that the furnace door must remain closed. After a length of time, the furnace began emitting a heat more intense than could be obtained with other fuels such as charcoal. 

Others stumbled on to the secrets of burning anthracite through luck rather than skill. Josiah White and Erskine Hazard established two iron factories along the Schuylkill River a few miles north of Philadelphia in 1810. White and Hazard possessed advanced technical skills, including knowledge of the latest techniques in Britain and France. They pioneered many innovations include building the nation’s first wire suspension bridge and an iron canal boat. Yet anthracite confounded even their considerable ability. After acquiring a batch of stone coal, they and their workers spent the morning unsuccessfully attempting to light the fire. Frustrated and ready to give up, the men shut the furnace door and left for lunch. When one workman returned thirty minutes later, he was shocked to discover the furnace door glowing with heat. Though they did not know it, closing the door had directed the air to flow through the coal rather than over it, providing the proper conditions for ignition. White later calculated that the higher heat of anthracite allowed the men to roll iron with far less labor and fuel than with imported bituminous coal. He and Hazard became so impressed with anthracite’s potential that they became active promoters themselves in 1817, initiating a series of enterprises that became the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company. 

Presented by

Christopher F. Jones is the author of Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America and an assistant professor of history at Arizona State University.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Technology

Just In