The History of Fossil Fuels

Jennifer Moore | January 12, 2016 | Did You Know?

How did our dependency on fossil fuels begin? When did we start using fossil fuels? What did we do to cook our food or heat our homes?

The History of Fossil Fuels

Early History of Coal

Archeologists have found evidence of surface mining and household usage of coal in China dating back to 3490 BC. During the Middle Ages, small mining operations began to spread throughout Europe to supply forges, smithies, and breweries. When the British were running out of firewood to burn in the 1400’s, the invention of fire bricks made chimneys cheap to build. Thus, the market for coal was created.

Ron Reiring/Flickr

The Industrial Revolution

The growing popularity of coal decreased its availability on the surface of the Earth.  Coal miners began digging beneath the Earth’s surface, creating coal mines which would fill with water as they were dug out. Thomas Newcomen created a steam engine in 1712 that pumped water out of coal mines, combining the previous efforts of Thomas Savery and Denis Papin.

Although hundreds of the “Newcomen steam engine” were constructed during the 18th century, a good amount of energy was wasted by repeatedly cooling and reheating the cylinder.  James Watt took the innovative steam engine design and improved the power, the cost-efficiency and roughly doubled the fuel efficiency by adding a separate condenser.  Thus the recipe for the Industrial Revolution was born with finding a way to put fossil fuels to use.

Coal in the United States

During the first half of the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution spread to the United States and the use of coal became more widespread. Coal replaced low-energy firewood as the leading source to power steam locomotives and machinery.

Rails and steam engines combined to build railroads, furthering the need for coal. It didn’t take long for utility companies to discover they could burn coal to generate electricity and charge consumers for it.

Petroleum

Edwin Drake drilled the first rock oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859, marking the dawn of the age of petroleum. Its first major impact was replacing whale oil in lighting. The development of drilling technology in the mid-1800s led to mass-consumption of petroleum as a fuel. The invention of the first high-speed automobile engine by Gottlieb Daimler further pushed the use of petroleum into a place of prominence in the early 1900s.

Ed Webster/Flickr

The Great Depression

The use of fossil fuel only increased during the Great Depression. Coal, tar, and oil were turned into industrial chemicals. The Wright Brothers began oil-fueled aviation. Fertilizer and oil powered tractors were invented. The use of fossil fuels continued to grow until 1929, when a severe worldwide economic collapse began. The Great Depression was fueled by overproduction, so consumerism was invented to soak up all the excess.

Fossil Fuels Today

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo/Flickr

Today, we are completely dependent on fossil fuels. World consumption of fossil fuels has increased from 3.8 billion tons of oil equivalent in 1965 to 11.1 billion tons of oil equivalent in 2007. Of all the fossil fuels available, oil has had the most profound effect on society. It is responsible for transportation for all of us across the globe, and it is responsible for producing or enhancing consumer goods, such as ink, plastic, dishwashing liquids, crayons, eyeglasses, deodorants, tires, ammonia, and heart valves.

Each 42-gallon barrel of oil typically yields these refined products:

  • 9% gasoline for use in automobiles
  • 8% heating oil and diesel fuels
  • 5% other products, including those derived from petroleum for the manufacturing of chemicals, synthetic rubber, and plastics
  • 5% jet fuel
  • 0% asphalt

The United States was once self-sufficient in oil, but as demand increased we began importing from other countries. The top six nations to import to the U.S. in 2013 were Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, Iraq, and Russia.

The Future of Energy

Trocaire/Flickr

Before our reserves are exhausted, we collectively need to shift towards renewable energy sources and move away from our dependency on fossil fuels. Besides using more fossil fuels than the planet can replenish, we are causing environmental issues such as climate change, pollution, and species extinction. The sun, our most abundant resource, is one of the cleanest forms of renewable energy.  We are hopeful that the future looks a little brighter with the growing demand of solar power to homes and businesses around the world.

Featured photo by Agustín Ruiz/Flickr

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