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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

101.Far-Sighted Businessmen: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Far-Sighted Businessmen 

Coal has been used for thousands of years as domestic fuel, for most of that time only in 
the few spots where it cropped out on the surface or was washed ashore by the sea. Any 
kind of plant matter can become coal, but most of what we have is the gift of the earth as 
it existed 350 million years ago when rushes and ferns grew tall as trees. Decay, 
compression, heat, and a great deal of time make the rock that burns. As it sits in your 
cellar it continues to putrefy; all coal gives off marsh gas or methane continuously. This 
is the reason coalmines blow up, a clue to even more explosive secrets locked inside its 
shiny blackness. 

When infortuitously methane becomes mixed with 5 percent oxygen it creates a highly 
explosive mixture miners call firedamp. Any bright eight-year-old could create this 
explosive with about five minutes' training — one good reason why the mass development 



of intellect after the Coal Age became more problematic than it might appear on the 
surface. Though such a possibility was never a central cause of the rush to school, it and 
other facts like it were details of consequence in the background of the tapestry. 

Through the early years of the eighteenth century, enormous technical problems plagued 
the development of coal. Once quarrying gave way to underground mining and shafts 
went below the water table, seepage became a nightmare. And as underground workings 
extended further and further from the shaft, the problem of hauling coal from where it 
was mined back to the shaft, and from the shaft hoisted to the surface — distances between 
five hundred and one thousand feet in places — posed enormous technological challenges. 
As did the simple matter of illumination in the dark tunnels. Collections of marsh gas 
might be encountered at any turn, resulting in the sudden termination of miners and all 
their expensive equipment. 

Solving these problems took two centuries, but that effort resulted in the invention of the 
steam engine and the railroad as direct solutions to the dilemmas of drainage and haulage 
under the earth. A simple pump, "the miner's friend" patented by Savery in 1699, became 
Newcomen's steam pump powered by water boiled over coalfires, driving a piston device 
which drained British coal- mines for the next century. Priscilla Long says, "The up and 
down motion of this piston, transferred to the moving parts of machines and especially to 
the wheels of trains" changed global society. Newcomen's pump used so much coal it 
could only be used near coalmines, but James Watt's engine, which came along at 
precisely the moment the Continental Congress was meeting in 1776, was superior in 
every way: efficient and capable of delivering a source of power anywhere. 

Industries could now be located away from coal fields because the coal industry had 
invented the railroad — as a way to solve its other underground problem, moving the coal 
from the diggings to the surface. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the haulage 
problem had been partially solved by laying wooden planks along coalmine tunnels as 
two parallel tracks upon which wagons could be drawn. These tracks, it was soon 
realized, had an aboveground use, too, as a transport highway from mine to sea and 
waterway. A century later, just after the moment some former British colonies in North 
America became the United States, a coal operator tied the steam engine of Watt to the 
task of moving coal from the seam face, and other men associated with large collieries 
produced the first railroad expressly for the purpose of hauling coal. 

It couldn't have run very long before other uses suggested themselves. Passenger travel 
followed almost immediately — the world's first reliable transportation system. Once 
unleashed on an idea this powerful, the globally successful British engineering 
community had a field day extending it. By 1838, the first steamship had crossed the 
Atlantic; a short while later transatlantic travel was on a timetable, just as classrooms in 
factory schools would come to be. 

The abundance of wood in the United States slowed the development of efficient 
railroads for an interval, as, after all, wood was free. But as trains improved with dazzling 
speed, the economy that wood offered was seen as a counterfeit — wood has only half the 



punch of coal. By 1836, coal had driven wood from the infant railroads. Explosive 
growth followed at once. Trackage grew from 1,100 miles in 1836 to 2,800 miles in 1841 
to 5,600 miles in 1845, to 1 1,000 miles in 1850, to 22,000 miles in 1855, to 44,000 miles 
in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. 

Could the North have overwhelmed the South so handily without railroads? Would the 
West have developed the same way? The railroad, byproduct of the desire to gouge coal 
out of the earth, was a general's best friend. And America's first working compulsion 
schools were given to the nation by the Boston School Committee, an elite assembly 
importantly underwritten by money and influence from Peabody coal and railroading 
interests the year after Andrew Jackson left office. Far-sighted businessmen had seen the 
future before anyone else. 

Coal Gives The Coup De Grace 

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