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February 10, 2020

Sahm Adrangi Discusses the History of the Coal Industry

At Kerrisdale Capital, a research-based hedge fund, we take a great interest in a range of industries. I’ve had occasion to write about the coal industry in the course of my work with Kerrisdale Capital. In this article, I’m examining the history of coal mining, which has a long and complex story.

 Sahm Adrangi on the Role of Coal in the Industrial Revolution (News - Alert)

Coal is often credited with fueling the Industrial Revolution. During the 18th and 19th centuries, coal was the fuel most widely used to power factories across the United States and Europe. At the time, it was relatively cheap and plentiful. Coal made it possible to produce enough energy to fuel the wide-scale industrialization and automation that was spreading across the western world in that period.

At the same time, the widespread industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries made it ever-easier to mine for coal. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, mining technology increased along with it. Coal mining and the industrial revolution can truly be said to have moved forward hand in hand.

Sahm Adrangi on the Earliest Uses of Coal

We tend to associate the widespread use of coal with the Industrial Revolution. In fact, though, human beings were using coal thousands of years ago. The Greek philosopher Aristotle mentions coal in his writings, referring to it as “combustible bodies.” Archaeologists have also discovered what seem to be coal cinders in Roman settlements dating back to 400 BC. Hopi Indians in North America seem to have used coal by the 12th century. Marco Polo also wrote about seeing coal used in China during his travels, in the late 13th century.

Sahm Adrangi on Coal Mining

Coal mining, as we know it today, was not developed until the Industrial Revolution. But ancient and medieval civilizations were able to gather coal from outcroppings. Early coal users picked the fuel from the outcroppings of existing coal seams. There is, though, some evidence that the early Chinese were able to do some underground mining. And in England, it appears that people were able to gather coal which had broken off of underground outcroppings and washed ashore.

By the late Middle Ages, the known outcropping sites in Europe had almost all been used up. That’s why people began to develop ways to mine for coal underground. Of course, the first underground mining was very different from the shaft mining that we know today. Early underground mines were simply deep wells, which miners cautiously widened, little by little, to avoid collapse.

 Sahm Adrangi on Improvements to Coal Mining

 At Kerrisdale Capital, we research a number of industries. The coal industry is certainly one which has undergone a great number of changes. Early coal mining was often dangerous and not very efficient. As the shallow mines became exhausted, people had to find ways of digging deeper and deeper for the precious coal. Digging deep, wide shafts was a risky business. At the same time, coal miners had to find ways to safely ventilate the mine shafts, since many of them contained dangerous, noxious fumes.

 Technological advances soon made it relatively easy to ventilate underground shafts. By the 18th century, rotary fans made it possible to ventilate mine shafts. Over the years, people found means of automating more and more of the coal mining process. Pickaxes were replaced by mechanical and eventually electric tools. Coal hauling was eventually done by machine as well. Little by little, what was once a dangerous activity became safer.

Today, coal mining and exploration are fields that involve geologic mapping, aerial photography, drilling, and other advanced techniques. The search for new coal seams involves more and more technology and human endeavor.


Sahm Adrangi is the founder of Kerrisdale Capital, a research-based hedge fund. He has been at the helm of Kerrisdale Capital since 2009. He is known for short-selling and for publishing research on a range of companies and industries.

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