The Industrial Revolution

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The Coal Steam Engine

The Industrial Revolution was a time of major socioeconomic change that began in England in the latter half of the 18th century. One of the driving forces behind it was the invention of a new energy resource: a coal-powered machine devised by the British inventor Thomas Newcomen. This machine had an engine that burned coal in a boiler to create high-pressure steam. The steam drove a shaft that could pump water from coal mines, enabling the British to extract higher-quality coal for heating. With this invention, coal soon surpassed wood as the primary source of thermal energy. But the device's real impact on energy would not be truly felt until a Scottish inventor, James Watt, added improvements to the coal-powered steam engine, beginning in 1765. Watt's steam engine could be used for purposes other than pumping water, and it soon became the energy powerhouse behind the operation of silk mills and other textile factories, first in England in the 18th century and then in the United States in the 19th century. The textile industry, which previously had depended on energy from water mills and windmills, was transformed.

More and more factories sprang up in response to this new development in power-driven machinery. More and more workers settled around the factories that employed them. In this way, urban industrial centers began to develop. Steel mills, steamships, and railways also began to make great use of the coal steam engine. The invention of the coal steam engine thus represents a significant change in energy use, energy needs, and civilization itself, again showing that a civilization's advancement leads to increased energy needs and, in turn, to an increased demand for ways to meet these needs.

The Shift from Renewable to Nonrenewable Sources of Energy

The introduction of the coal steam engine was responsible, in part, for a major shift in the kinds of fuels and resources on which people primarily relied for energy. Whereas mainly renewable biological energy resources, such as water, wind, and biomass, had once dominated energy consumption, nonrenewable energy resources—specifically coal—were increasing in importance.5

To understand some of the history behind the rise of nonrenewable resources, it may first help to know a little more about what their components are. Nonrenewable resources are natural resources that are limited in supply and/or cannot be replenished more quickly than they are consumed.

Fossil fuels are one type of nonrenewable resource. They are known as fossil fuels because scientists believe that they were formed by the decomposition of plants and animals that died millions of years ago. This decomposing organic material in the Earth's crust resulted in naturally occurring compounds of carbon or hydrocarbon (hydrocarbon refers to a combination of the gases hydrogen and carbon). These naturally occurring compounds of carbon or hydrocarbon are fossil fuels. They include coal, petroleum, natural gas, oil shale, and tar sands.

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