Scroll To Top

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Flashback to 1883: Burning coal is polluting the atmosphere

Sou | 1:05 PM Go to the first of 12 comments. Add a comment

The letter below gets some things right and quite a bit wrong. What it does show is that 133 years ago, back in 1883, the general public was reading about how burning coal is polluting the atmosphere. Other newspaper flashbacks can be seen here, including my favourite, from 1884. Weirdly, there are still a few very vocal people who think gravity is a hoax or should I say the equivalent - that climate science is a hoax.

From the Wallaroo Times, South Australia, Saturday 1 September 1883

(The paragraph breaks and emphasis are mine.)

Pollution of the Atmosphere

There was a letter in Nature some time since, calling attention to the pollution of the atmosphere by the burning of coal; and it was calculated that in the year 1900, all animal life would cease, from the amount of carbonic dioxide; but, the author had overlooked the fact that the rain is continually cleansing the atmosphere of this, and the fall of this rain on the ground, and the combination of this with various salts ; besides the oceans alone would absorb their own bulk at normal pressure, but at an increased pressure of, say half a mile deep, would dissolve more than we are likely to need for hundreds of years.

But there are other products of combustion, or rather of incomplete combustion, that are not brought down in this manner by rain, as hydrogen and the hydrocarbons, chiefly marsh gas and ethylene. The latter has, I believe, been observed by the spectroscope on the Alps, and was supposed to have come from space.

Since the year 1853 (as near as I can estimate) there has been burnt 10,000,000 tons of coal; and if we say (in its consumption by household grates, leakage by gas pipes, &c.,) 1-100th escapes, then 100 million tons of hydrogen and hydrocarbons are floating in the atmosphere, or 1-10,000,000th part in bulk; if we say the average proportion of hydrogen to be .45, and of marsh-gas .35, and of ethylene .4, we have .84 per cent of gases that are lighter than air, and it is more than probable that the law of diffusion of gases, as demonstrated with jars, does not apply to the atmosphere. The cases are not parallel: in the air we have unconfined space, pressure and temperature diminishing infinitely, conditions favourable to the lighter and the gas with the greater amount of specific heat rising and maintaining its elevation, especially as we know that in large halls carbonic dioxide is found in large quantities on the floor.

According to Professor Tyndall's researches, hydrogen, marsh-gas, and ethylene have the property in a very high degree of absorbing and radiating heat and so much so that a very small proportion, of only say one thousandth part, had very great effect.

From this we may conclude that the increasing pollution of the atmosphere will have a marked influence on the climate of the world. The mountainous regions will be colder, the Arctic regions will be colder, the tropics will be warmer, and throughout the world the nights will be colder, and the days warmer. In the Temperate Zone winter will be colder, and generally differences will be greater, winds, storms. rainfall greater.

—H. A. Phillips in Nature.


  1. What I love is stuff like "There was a letter in Nature some time since" or "According to Professor Tyndall's researches" - all so casual. Nowadays you would be obliged to cite them exactly.

  2. What is interesting about these old newspaper finds is that they are often in small town newspapers, away from the big cities.

    Wallaroo is a small town in rural South Australia, built on copper mining. Its current population of around 3,000 is probably not a lot different to what it was in 1883.

    The local paper would have been how people kept up to date with all sorts of things, including interesting bits about science. The local paper's editor must have been rather well informed, since he or she subscribed to Nature (probably - I guess they could have got the Nature letter another way).

  3. (oops! I thought you were quoting a letter to Nature :-)

    1. William, it was a copy of a Letter to the Editor in Nature, republished in a local paper in the small town of Wallaroo.

      The link to the Nature version (truncated, only the first few lines appear) is at the bottom of the article.

  4. Frankly I cannot wait to read the letters to newspapers in 100 years time (1983). Imagine the learned reasoning those pages will include after 100 years of improving education and scientific knowledge.


  5. I've just been doing some more exploring. Australian papers were very familiar with John Tyndall and frequently published articles about him and his scientific (and other) work.

    If anyone knows who "H. A. Phillips" is (the author of the Nature letter), let us know. I couldn't find anything on him or her.

  6. OT: Might be worth keeping an eye on this

    and giving it a plug assuming it turns out to be pukka. Should be - Gavin Schmidt has been promoting it on Twitter.

  7. assuming it turns out to be pukka
    Alice Bell has recently written an article in the Guardian, not sure if that makes her more or less pukka :-) But it seemed sensible and well written to me ...

  8. It is quite a coincidence that we both published posts that are so similar to each other within so short time (I wasn't aware of your post at the time I published mine):


Instead of commenting as "Anonymous", please comment using "Name/URL" and your name, initials or pseudonym or whatever. You can leave the "URL" box blank. This isn't mandatory. You can also sign in using your Google ID, Wordpress ID etc as indicated. NOTE: Some Wordpress users are having trouble signing in. If that's you, try signing in using Name/URL or OpenID. Details here.

Click here to read the HotWhopper comment policy.