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Inventing Pollution

Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800

Peter Thorsheim

Publication Year: 2006

Britain’s supremacy in the nineteenth century depended in large part on its vast deposits of coal. This coal not only powered steam engines in factories, ships, and railway locomotives but also warmed homes and cooked food. As coal consumption skyrocketed, the air in Britain’s cities and towns became filled with ever-greater and denser clouds of smoke. In this far-reaching study, Peter Thorsheim explains that, for much of the nineteenth century, few people in Britain even considered coal smoke to be pollution. To them, pollution meant miasma: invisible gases generated by decomposing plant and animal matter. Far from viewing coal smoke as pollution, most people considered smoke to be a valuable disinfectant, for its carbon and sulfur were thought capable of rendering miasma harmless. Inventing Pollution examines the radically new understanding of pollution that emerged in the late nineteenth century, one that centered not on organic decay but on coal combustion. This change, as Peter Thorsheim argues, gave birth to the smoke-abatement movement and to new ways of thinking about the relationships among humanity, technology, and the environment.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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1 Coal, Smoke, and History

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pp. 1-9

Around the world, a growing number of people are asking questions about how technology is affecting the natural world, human health, and society. Fierce debates rage over whether current levels of consumption and pollution are sustainable, and whether it is possible to both protect the environment and create material...

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2 The Miasma Era

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pp. 10-18

IN 1800 MOST PEOPLE in Britain blamed impure air not on technological processes, but natural ones. They believed that the most serious contaminant in the environment was miasma, an airborne substance thought to be produced by decomposing biological material. Miasma was considered dangerous because it was thought capable of causing the bodies of people who inhaled it to decompose or ferment.When this happened, individuals were said to suffer from a...

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3 Pollution Redefined

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pp. 19-30

DURING THE FINAL DECADES of the nineteenth century a new understanding of air pollution began to develop in Britain. Instead of seeing nature as dirty and civilization as a source of cleanliness, many people began to assume that nature was inherently pure and only became unhealthy as a result of technological processes. Important as this change was, significant continuities connect...

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4 The Balance of Nature

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pp. 31-40

WRITING IN 1772, the Unitarian minister Richard Price asserted that numerous processes, most of them biological, depleted the air of its healthy components, but that other biological processes undid this damage. As he put it, “There must be causes in nature, continually operating, which restore the air” when it becomes spoiled.2 Price’s understanding of the workings of the natural world was...

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5 Pollution and Civilization

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pp. 41-67

IF MOST OF THE Victorian age was characterized by an optimism about technology and a faith in progress, the fin de si

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6 Degeneration and Eugenics

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pp. 68-79

H. G. WELLS’S SCIENCE fiction masterpiece The Time Machine, published in 1895, centers on the idea of degeneration. The protagonist of the novel, having traveled thousands of years into the future, discovers that humanity as we know it no longer exists. Instead, it has evolved into two distinct species, whose struggle against each other mirrors the class conflict of nineteenth-century Britain...

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7 Environmental Activism

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pp. 80-109

DURING THE FINAL DECADES of the nineteenth century, a growing number of reformers in Britain sought to protect and improve the environment of both cities and the countryside. Much of this activity took place within existing voluntary associations. These groups,which expanded rapidly during Victoria’s reign, provided...

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8 Regulating Pollution

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pp. 110-131

FOR MOST OF THE nineteenth century the right to vote in Britain was restricted to adult male property owners. Women did not gain the right to vote until 1918; even then, it was initially restricted to women aged thirty and over. Both houses of Parliament were dominated by the upper classes, and politicians across the ideological spectrum believed that one of the principal roles of government was to protect private property. As a result, most were extremely hesitant to...

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9 Pollution Displacement

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pp. 132-158

BY THE LATE NINETEENTH century many people had come to believe that the production of large quantities of coal smoke was the inevitable price of “progress.”3 While the majority viewed this state of affairs as unfortunate, some, including John Ruskin, regarded it as proof that modern society was spiritually and environmentally bankrupt. The air would not be pure, they believed, until urban-industrial society was rejected. Others believed that environmental...

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10 Death Comes from the Air

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pp. 159-172

ON 1 SEPTEMBER 1939, just under twenty-one years after the end of what was sometimes simply called “the World War,” warfare returned to Europe on a massive scale.2 As had happened between 1914 and 1918, the pressures of wartime production led to heavy coal use and the tabling of smoke restrictions. In some...

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11 Smokeless Zones

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pp. 173-195

ALTHOUGH MANY PEOPLE INITIALLY viewed the Beaver Committee as engaged in little more than a disaster investigation, its mandate was in fact much broader: to conduct a comprehensive study of “the nature, causes and effects of air pollution,” to examine the effectiveness of existing efforts to prevent it, and to suggest improvements. The committee’s efforts ultimately led to the...

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Conclusion: Reinventing Pollution

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pp. 193-201

FOR MUCH OF THE nineteenth century, Britain had the strongest industrial economy, most advanced technology, largest cities, and biggest factories of any country on the planet—all of which consumed enormous quantities of coal.Virtually every household in the country had a coal-fed kitchen range that was used year-round to cook food and heat water, and people who could afford them used additional coal fires to warm their homes during cold weather...


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pp. 203-255


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pp. 257-291


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pp. 293-307

E-ISBN-13: 9780821442104
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821416815

Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Air -- Pollution -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Smoke prevention -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Environmentalism -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Air -- Pollution -- Social aspects -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Coal -- Combustion -- Health aspects -- Great Britain -- History.
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