Menus Subscribe Search

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 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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