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Coal and the European Industrial Revolution

Alan Fernihough
Kevin Hjortshoj O'Rourke

IIIS Discussion Paper No. 439

We examine the importance of geographical proximity to coal as a factor underpinning comparative European economic development during the Industrial Revolution. Our analysis exploits geographical variation in city and coalfield locations, alongside temporal variation in the availability of coal-powered technologies, to quantify the effect of coal availability on historic city population sizes. Since we suspect that our coal measure could be endogenous, we use a geologically derived measure as an instrumental variable: proximity to rock strata from the Carboniferous era. Consistent with traditional historical accounts of the Industrial Revolution, we find that coal exhibits a strong influence on city population size from 1800 onward. Counterfactual estimates of city population sizes indicate that our estimated coal effect explains at least 60% of the growth in European city populations from 1750 to 1900. This result is robust to a number of alternative modelling assumptions regarding missing historical population data, spatially lagged effects, and the exclusion of the United Kingdom from the estimation sample.

JEL-Classification: N13, N53, O13, O14, J10
Keywords: Coal, Historical Population, Geography

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Last updated 28 August 2014 by IIIS (Email).