American Radio Works recently released a new audio documentary called “Power and Smoke: A Nation Built on Coal.”

Regular followers of energy news won’t find anything groundbreaking here about the current energy debate. But the value of the piece is the historical context about coal’s evolution as a power source.

For instance, at the time the Americas were settled by Europeans, it was wood – not coal – that was considered the luxury fuel choice.

People would have preferred to burn wood to keep warm and cook food. Wood smoke smelled sweeter. But they had cut down the forests of England. Only rich people could have roaring wood fires.

So it’s no surprise that when Europeans arrived in America, the natural resource they were excited about wasn’t coal; it was wood. America had vast expanses of forest. Puritan minister Francis Higginson wrote about it:

Though it be somewhat cold in the winter, yet here we have plenty of fire to warm us, and that a great deal cheaper than they sell billets and fagots in London; nay, all Europe is not able to afford to make so great fires as New-England. A poor servant here, that is to possess but fifty acres of land, may afford to give more wood for timber and fire as good as the world yields, than many noblemen in England can afford to do.

The piece goes on to follow the history of industrial expansion, including the vast benefits it’s brought to modern life, as well as the deadly effects of unchecked pollution.

A downloadable audio file is available at the link above, or you can go to the Minnesota Public Radio site to listen online.

Image: Engine House and Bunkers by Austin Mecklem, 1934, via Smithsonian

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.