What is Charcoal? - History of Science
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What is Charcoal?


August 2016 - Charcoal is a certain kind of half-burnt wood. People use charcoal for fires because it burns hotter and cleaner than wood (less smoky), and more slowly. Your house or workplace stays cleaner. You need charcoal to melt copper and tin ore to make bronze, too.

People have been making charcoal since about 4000 BC in both China and West Asia. North and South American people, Africans, and Europeans also made and used charcoal. The way people made charcoal was generally by piling wood up and covering it with dampened dirt, and then lighting the wood on fire, so that it burned very slowly without much oxygen. The best charcoal comes from burning hard wood like oak or beech. The result is mainly carbon, like coal.

Charcoal hut
Charcoal hut (from The Knowledge Library,
1919, first printing 1915)

The picture on the left shows a charcoal-burning pile. Charcoal burners piled up the wood in carefully planned ways so it would burn slowly and turn into charcoal.

charcoal pile
Charcoal pile cross-section
(from The Knowledge Library,
1919, first printing 1915)

The picture on the right shows a cross-section of the same pile of wood, so we can see how the wood is stacked up and then covered with dirt to keep out oxygen and ensure a slow fire.

Charcoal burning was usually a specialized job, done by expert charcoal-burners who sold their charcoal to other people. Making charcoal was a hard and dirty job, and most charcoal burners were very poor, but independent (not slaves). Many people were charcoal-burners, because every village needed charcoal. Charcoal-burners appear in a play, the Acharnians, written by the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes.

Most people used charcoal just to cook their dinners on or heat their houses. But there were more specialized uses too. Blacksmiths needed charcoal to be able to smelt bronze and iron, because you need a hot fire to melt most metals. You also needed charcoal to make glass. Artists used charcoal as a cheap drawing and writing material, like a pencil. Egyptian artists used charcoal to make black paint for wall-paintings. Writers mixed powdered charcoal with water to make ink. Doctors all over the world gave activated charcoal - charcoal that has been ground up extra-fine - as a medicine to absorb poisons and bad smells. Sailors used charred water barrels to filter their drinking water. And finally, charcoal is an important ingredient of gunpowder.

If you can make small fires where you live, you could try making charcoal yourself (with an adult), or compare the cooking speed of wood fires and charcoal fires (just buy charcoal briquettes at the store). Or try drawing with charcoal, or making your own ink.

More about blacksmithing

Bibliography and further reading about charcoal:

Making Charcoal, by William Rollinson (1998).
Engineering in the Ancient World, by John Landels (Revised Edition 2000).

Or check out this article on charcoal from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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