Good information. Thanks for posting the article.
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Right now coal’s biggest “enemy” is natural gas.
Those darn frackers are driving the supply up so fast that nat gas is super competitive for electric power generation.
Actually, the story of the practical steam engine goes back to 1712 with Thomas Newcomen, the first to invent a steam engine to serve the mines by pumping water out and fresh air in. Most coal was in seams that went far below the water table, thus the mines had to be continually emptied of water. Before mechanical pumping means were found, deep mines were impractical.
James Watt came along and during his long career made a number of tremendous improvements on the primitive Newcomen design, culminating in advanced models, produced with his business partner Matthew Boulton late in the 18th century.
Now, factories such as grain and textile mills could be built with less concern about location near waterways for the exploitation of water power, or the uncertainties of wind power.
As a result, the Industrial Revolution began to take off.
Further refinements in the beginning of the 19th century made possible more compact and powerful steam engines, enough to where they could be freed from their stationary duties and applied to locomotion on sea and land (but, alas, not air!).
Now, all the major elements for the full flowering of industry were in place, all synergistic with one another.
The newly established railroads needed access to the mines for coal and the smelters for iron and (soon) steel.
The smelters needed access to the coal and iron mines, and needed the railroads to ship raw and finished materials.
All industry needed fuel, metal, wood, and countless other materials, supplied by the railroads. Along with agriculture, industry also needed the railroads to take their products to market.
Now, many bright men followed in the footsteps of James Watt in puzzling through the nature of heat; exactly how did it turn into mechanical work through the mechanism of the steam engine? It was a theoretical problem with immediate practical application: Understand heat, and you will understand how to make a better steam engine.
The world was experiencing a scientific revolution in the making (whether they knew it or not); one that would be a revolution in almost every other way, as well. Carnot in France, Rumford and Faraday in England, and finally the Clausius in Germany finally got a handle on the laws of what became known as thermodynamics. By about 1850 they could say what the maximum attainable efficiency of any heat engine would be.
And they made a discovery with literally cosmic implications. Namely, that any closed thermodynamic system with heat processes occurring would eventually run down, like a windup clock, when those processes eventually eliminated all difference in temperature among the various regions of the system. A compact way of saying this is that the entropy (a word coined at that time) would tend to increase to a maximum, at which point no further work due to heat engines could take place.
And the system might be as large as the Universe itself. And the 'heat engine' included virtually every kind of phyiscal process imaginable. Thus (with the cosmology of the 19th century) these new thermodynamicists could predict that some time in the very far future, the entire Universe would run down and there would be no more physical process, including life of any kind, possible from that point forward to eternity.
Of course, this view was controversial then, and remains so today. Not just on theological grounds, but also according to certain very recent cosmological theories as well. But it's remarkable that this all came about due to people interested in the behavior and improvement in steam engines.
The thermodynamicists weren't done, by the way.
The laws of thermodynamics had been derived by a close study of the behavior of gases; the way that the pressure, temperature, and volume of a gas interrelated.
But some physicists decided on a new route by taking up the idea that matter was made of "atoms," an idea first expressed by Leucippus and Democritus in ancient Greece, advocated by Isacc Newton, and recently (at that time) resurrected by chemist John Dalton.
They pursued the idea that if a gas is made of atoms or molecules, you could (in principle) apply Newton's laws of motion to them; the pressure that a gas exerted on the walls of its container would come about from the average of extrememly small impacts of the molecules on the container wall, but also extremely large in number both per unit time and per unit area.
Since they couldn't observe or mathematically treat the individual molecules, they had resort to averages, and probability distributions. This was a revolution in physics in its own right.
Their first iteration, accomplished by about 1860, came to be known as the Kinetic Theory of Gases. Actually, the theory was yet to handle certain complexities that took another generation of researchers to solve, by considerably increasing the complexity of the mathematics.
At this point, the new breed of theoretical physicist took over, exemplified by the Scot James Clerk Maxwell (he of the electromagnetic theory) and the Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann, who completed work on the new, alternative formulation of the theory of heat which they called Statisical Thermodynamics.
And the mathematical concepts they developed were much of what was to be needed in the early twentieth century by the pioneers of Quantum Mechanics.
Not at all shabby for some guys who just wanted to get at deeper coal.
We have a government of special interests run by the gods that would be. The arguments for small government should be obvious.