Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Peak Wood Forges an Industrial Revolution

• April 19, 2010 • 8:00 AM

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.

A Series From Miller-McCune

The author of “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization”, writes a series for Miller-McCune on the world’s first energy crisis: peak wood.

Part I: The Tree That Changed the World. Read it here.

Part II: Wood and Civilization. Read it here.

Part III: Peak Wood and the Bronze Age. Read it here.

Part IV: Peak Wood Brings on the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Fossil Fuels.

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.

John Perlin
An international expert on solar energy and forestry, John Perlin has lectured extensively on these topics in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Perlin is the author of A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization as well as From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. Perlin mentors those involved in realizing photovoltaic, solar hot-water, and energy-efficiency technologies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and coordinates the California Space Grant Consortium as a member of UCSB’s department of physics.

More From John Perlin

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be To Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.