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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.
Peter Thorsheim is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
"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
"Inventing Pollution is a valuable reminder that air pollution was causing environmental, medical, and political controversies long before it became a focus for protests and regulations in the 1960s. By tracing the many responses to 'smoke pollution' in the first industrial nation over the past two centuries, Peter Thorsheim has established himself as a leading environmental historian of modern Britain. His book will be of wide interest on both sides of the Atlantic."
– William Cronon, author of Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England and Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
"The chapters devoted to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries set a new standard for our understanding of how, in technological, legislative, and local regulatory terms, the behemoth of nineteenth-century smoke fog came gradually to be tamed, only to be replaced by new collective fears of invisible emissions from new industrial processes [...] and the (pages on the) final great smog crisis of 1952 are rooted in exemplary scholarship, argument, and interpretation."
– The Journal of British Studies
"Thorsheim tells us about the transition from organic effluvia as sources of ill-health to a fixation of coal smoke both in terms of scientific understandings, of the purely administrative responses and of the painfully slow progress of legislation."
– American Historical Review
"Thorsheim makes excellent use of visual material – including photographs, posters, and cartoons from Punch – to illustrate his arguments."
– Journal of Modern History
"Thorsheim's arguments are provocative and compelling [...] (He) is to be applauded for bringing this disturbing history to our attention."
– Victorian Studies