The Story of Fossil Fuels, Part 1: Coal

The Story of Fossil Fuels, Part 1: Coal

An Ancient Find

Around 4,000 years ago, someone in northern China came across an odd black rock. It was one of many. Then this person discovered something. Somehow this person discovered that the rock could burn.

Drawing of a lump of coal burning.

Life was harder back then. Keeping warm and getting food were big worries. With no electricity or gas for heating or cooking, everyone burned wood. The strange rock that burned like a log must have been very exciting back then.

This rock was coal. Archeologists think this was the first time a human used a fossil fuel.

Slow to Pick up Steam

For many years, only a few places with easy access to coal used it. Outside China, one such place was Britain. It was hard to miss there. People could go to the beach and pick up lumps of coal. They called it “sea coal.”

During the years of Roman rule in the British isles, they used coal to heat water for the public baths. The Romans liked coal so much that they brought it back to Rome with them. Traces of British coal can be found all around the Roman ruins in Italy.

What does
CE mean?

CE stands for "Common Era." It’s the time that we’re counting in years. When we say it’s 2015, we’re saying it’s the 2,015th year in the Common Era. We put “CE” after a year that was so long ago you might not even realize it’s a year.

But when the western part of the Roman Empire disintegrated around the year 410 CE and the Dark Ages overtook Europe, coal was nearly forgotten.

Coal became popular again in the 1200s, especially in London. The growing population made it harder to find firewood. The stage was set for one of the most important events in human history.

Drawing of a castle from the 1200s.