February 11, 1808 — Anthracite coal was first burned as an experiment today in Wilkes-Barre, PA, by Judge Jesse Fell. He placed it on an open grate in a fireplace as an alternative to wood. It lit, warmed the room, and thus became a viable heating alternative.
A hard, compact variety of coal that has a sub metallic luster, anthracite has few impurities, high carbon content, and also has the highest calorific content of all types of coal — more than bituminous coal and lignite.
By the Spring, entrepreneurs John and Abijah Smith shipped the first commercially mined load of anthracite to the Susquehanna River from Plymouth, Pennsylvania, marking the birth of commercial anthracite mining in the US. From that first mine, production rose to an all-time high of over 100 million tons in 1917.
Anthracite usage was inhibited by the difficulty of igniting it. This was a particular concern in smelting iron using a blast furnace. But with the invention of hot blast in 1828, which used waste heat to preheat combustion air, anthracite became a preferred fuel, accounting for 45% of US pig iron production within 15 years.
From the late 19th century until the 1950s, anthracite was the most popular fuel for heating homes and other buildings in the northern US, until it was supplanted by oil burning systems and more recently natural gas systems. Many large public buildings, such as schools, were heated with anthracite-burning furnaces through the 1980s.
Words of Wisdom
Coal, oil and gas are called fossil fuels, because they are mostly made of the fossil remains of beings from long ago. The chemical energy within them is a kind of stored sunlight originally accumulated by ancient plants. Our civilization runs by burning the remains of humble creatures who inhabited the Earth hundreds of millions of years before the first humans came on the scene. Like some ghastly cannibal cult, we subsist on the dead bodies of our ancestors and distant relatives.