Inventing Pollution — 2006

Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800

By Peter Thorsheim

“I have no doubt that Inventing Pollution will remain the best text in its field for many years.”

Mark Cioc, author of The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, 1815–2000

“Drawing on an impressive range of source materials, including some excellent photographs, cartoons and advertisements, this concise and clearly-written study explores public understandings of air pollution in Britain over the past two centuries.”

Journal of Social History

“A well crafted and engaging book...Thorsheim demonstrates a level of knowledge about the relevant policies, technologies, and industries that is first rate.... Anybody interested in the story of how an industrial society learned to manage its interactions with the physical environment would benefit from reading Inventing Pollution.

Business History Review

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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.

Picture of Peter Thorsheim

Peter Thorsheim is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Cover of 'Inventing Pollution'


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