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Minerals and the Industrial Revolution

Coal and other minerals such as iron ore had an important part to play in the Industrial Revolution which took place in Britain in the late 18th century. Coal and its by-product coke were the fuels that drove the Industrial Revolution forward, as new production techniques required more coal, coke and other ores.

Coke and Coalbrookdale

The first successful use of coke in a blast furnace was by Abraham Darby I at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire in 1709. It was an improvement over using charcoal because iron produced with coke had a higher silicon content which allowed the cast iron to remain molten for a longer period and made better castings. By 1717 when Darby died a second blast furnace had been built at Coalbrookdale. These could work for forty-four weeks a year whereas a charcoal blast furnace rarely operated for more than twenty-six weeks a year.

Four more furnaces were built in the area in the 1750s and the success of the new method of producing iron using coke led to other coke furnaces being built throughout the country. Coke furnaces improved with the use of firebricks for lining and the amounts of coke, ironstone and limestone needed could be lowered as production methods got better.

Coke to iron to mine pumps to railways

In the 1740s the casting of guns and steam engine cylinders, especially for the Newcomen engine, increased. The Newcomen engine was particularly used for pumping out water in mines, so this completed a cycle as the coke converted from the coal dug out of the mines helped fuel furnaces which smelted iron ore to produce cast iron, which built the engines to pump out mines.

In 1763 Coalbrookdale produced a 74" (1.88 metres) engine cylinder for the Walker colliery on Tyneside which sunk to 600' (183 metres) to drain the High Main seam there. These large engine cylinders helped drain High Main seam and others near Newcastle to give the deepest coal mines in the world.

In 1768 the first cast iron rails replaced oak rails on the wagonways used for horse-drawn wagons containing coal at Coalbrookdale. Abraham Darby's grandson Abraham Darby III then built the first cast-iron bridge in the world over the River Severn at what became known as Ironbridge. The importance of this is shown by the fact that the area is now a World Heritage Site, to acknowledge the importance of the Darby family's improvements on the iron smelting process and the impact it had on the Industrial Revolution.

sponsored by: The Coal Authority
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