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Penn History

This exhibit was created in 2011 by Will Kearney, University Archives Summer Research Fellow and an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania

An energy landscape starts with an energy source – anthracite coal in the case of northeastern Pennsylvania – and includes the people and technology that take the energy source to its consumers whether they are iron manufacturers or homeowners. This landscape is distinct to its place because, in a mineral-based economy like the Coal Region, the energy source is tied into geological processes that occur in specific locations. Anthracite coal exists in the Coal Region because of the mountain building processes that compressed former swampland into coal; the infrastructure and consumption patterns of that coal conform to the geology, so the energy landscape of northeastern Pennsylvania is unique to and rooted in this specific place. Changes in energy landscapes, therefore, involve changing patterns of infrastructure and consumption.2

Development of these anthracite coal fields forced the creation of new networks for energy. Fuel for heating and for iron smelting had come from charcoal made from the prevalent forests of the eastern United States. However, while trees are a renewable resource, a sustainable and perpetual yield for an iron furnace required several thousand acres to be dedicated solely to forests. Any other use of that land, including agriculture or other forest industries such as timber, was limited by the amount of charcoal needed. Without at least that much forest set aside for charcoal production, the forest would be unable to regenerate itself quickly enough to maintain a furnace for longer than a few years. Bituminous coal had been used in Britain for almost a century starting with Abraham Darby’s method of producing coke from bituminous coal. The little coal that was used for heating and iron production in America was either imported from England or came from Virginia’s James River area. During the War of 1812, the supply of bituminous coal from Virginia and England was cut off from the iron furnaces of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, northeastern Pennsylvania sits atop a number of anthracite coal veins created during the formation of the Appalachian Mountains. Anthracite has the advantages of burning hotter and cleaner than bituminous coal or charcoal, meaning iron made with anthracite has fewer impurities. On the other hand, anthracite is almost pure carbon, the volatile compounds present in bituminous coal having been squeezed out by the immense pressure of the Appalachians over the veins. The lack of volatiles makes anthracite difficult to ignite. It was not until Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, wire makers on the Schuylkill Falls, accidentally stumbled upon ignited anthracite fuel after leaving their furnace alone for half an hour that the anthracite revolution in eastern Pennsylvania took off. As iron manufacturers realized the value of clean hot burning anthracite coal for their blast furnaces, the demand skyrocketed. This led to massive changes in the energy landscape of the region, necessitating major improvements not only in the mining operation itself but also in the transportation networks that took coal and iron from the Lehigh and Schuylkill valleys and delivered products to markets in Philadelphia and New York. Railroads, for instance, are cost-effective at bringing coal to market, and they require iron (made in an anthracite furnace) for their rails and coal to power their steam engines. The technical changes in the energy landscape built upon themselves, fueling more technical and economic development.3

Yet an energy landscape is not solely a technical system. It is rooted in its social context, which in northeastern Pennsylvania includes not only the miners, mine operators and landowners of the coal valleys but also the people down the Schuylkill and Lehigh Rivers in Philadelphia, in particular the elite of that city. Committed to a “Whiggish culture” and its “emphasis on planning and control,” the Philadelphia elites recognized the inseparability of the twin projects of economic development and scientific progress. They accordingly were major figures in both industry and the scientific institutions of their city such as the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, and the University of Pennsylvania. Furthermore, they recognized that the value of science lay not in the lone pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake but in its application to problems of economic importance – technology.4

The program of technological advancement among Philadelphians can be broadly categorized into three projects: actual technological and scientific work that produced useful knowledge for industrialists, mechanics and other interested parties such as the federal and state governments; the dissemination of that useful knowledge among those already involved in industry; and the education and training of men who could apply the latest technical advances to the broader transformation of the eastern Pennsylvania energy landscape. The Franklin Institute took the lead on the first two. Their exhibitions and associated awards encouraged the solution of real problems such as a gold medal offered at the 1825 exhibition for the production of iron in a blast furnace using only anthracite coal. Under the leadership of Alexander Dallas Bache, the Franklin Institute took on scientific projects, using the experimental knowledge of its members to solve problems of the utmost importance to the economic livelihood of Pennsylvania and the nation. The most famous of their projects was the investigation into the causes and prevention of steamboat explosions begun in 1830.5

Supporting these efforts was the Franklin Institute’s journal, according to influential Institute manager Peter A. Browne, the “grand lever with which we will raise everything.” The knowledge which was created by the Franklin and those associated with the Institute was useless without its subsequent dissemination, and the Journal did just that by publishing both scientific and technical articles and descriptions of recently patented inventions, “one of the Journal’s most popular features.” In addition, the Committee on Instruction, particularly when led by Bache, provided a lecture course for mechanics on various topics in the mechanic arts and sciences often taught by young scientists such as James Espy, a meteorologist, Henry Darwin Rogers, who would go on to lead the Pennsylvania geological survey, and James C. Booth, a future Penn professor and founder of an industrial chemistry laboratory which would educate many young chemists on the model of German laboratories like that of Justus von Liebig.6

The work of the Franklin Institute was targeted first at mechanics – those who built and operated machinery – skilled workers who learned their trade on the job. Miners, for instance, used a rule of thumb to know that every thirty-yard-wide tunnel required a ten-yard-wide pillar to support it. This craft knowledge was passed down through the generations. Technical information in the pages of the Journal of the Franklin Institute and the many mining publications such as Benjamin Bannan’s Miners’ Journal supplemented that traditional knowledge. Under Bache, the Franklin became more expressly abstract and theoretical, publishing for instance, Espy’s meteorological work. This transition skipped over a growing class of engineers who applied more scientific knowledge to industrial and commercial problems largely through surveying and planning. These new engineers occupied a place between technicians and scientists and so needed a unique educational program.7

2. Jones, 8; Dublin, Thomas and Walter Licht, The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 9.

3. Bartholomew, Craig L. and Lance E. Metz, The Anthracite Iron Industry of the Lehigh Valley (Easton, PA: Center for Canal History and Technology, 1988), 6, 8, 9.

4. Slotten, Hugh R., Patronage, Practice, and the Culture of American Science: Alexander Dallas Bache and the U.S. Coast Survey (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 16.

5. Sinclair, Bruce, Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Institute, 1824-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 87, 176.

6. Peter A. Browne to Thomas P. Jones, August 22, 1825, Letterbook, Corresponding Secretary, 1824-1826, Franklin Institute Archives, quoted in Sinclair, Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics, 57; Sinclair, Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics, 201.

7. Wallace, Anthony C., St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 50.