CfP: Early encounters with coal

Early encounters with coal: Retrieving views from below

The rise of coal and steam-power in the nineteenth century is now widely recognised as an epochal historical event. It put the world-economy on a path to large-scale, climate-shattering combustion of fossil fuels. While these trajectories have been intensely studied in recent scholarship, we know far less about how coal and steam were perceived from subaltern positions. How did people react to this novel fuel and the technologies it animated when they slammed into their lives? Did they admire or fear them, wish to escape and eliminate them, or rather emulate and acquire their powers? Through what cultural filters were coal and steam viewed when each first began to take hold? While the stories of early coal and steam have been told from the perspective of inventors, manufacturers, merchants, colonial administrators and other agents of their dissemination, the voices from the other side have yet to be heard: colonised people; workers in mines and ports, on fields, boats and railroads; those who were dispossessed and displaced by the onrush of the first fossil economy. Most of these voices will inevitably be lost to the historical record. Some, however, might be retrieved by studying sources spanning a spectrum from oral traditions and folk songs via travelogues and popular science magazines to pamphlets and novels, to mention only some. We need to examine technologies of extraction as well as use, and thus set the histories of mining and supply alongside those of trade and consumption. A more focused effort to reconstruct the variety and tensions of early encounters with coal, especially as seen from below, is, we believe, not only possible but potentially valuable. It might illuminate creatively the power relations of fossil-fuelled development, potentials for resistance, tendencies of accommodation and embrace and many other aspects of the historical process.

For this workshop we invite contributions about encounters with coal anywhere in the world, up until the Second World War. Building on the recent emergence of literatures examining the development of coal technologies in radically different environments and regions – Asia, the Middle East, South America as well as Britain and Europe – we ask how the histories of those who dug, wrought, fired and laboured for coal and steam can be enriched by the perspectives of historical industrial psychology, environmental history, science and technology studies, history of technology and conceptual history of energy, folklore, religious studies, gender and sexuality in industrial history/history of technology, socioeconomic history, labour history, anthropology, ecocriticism, history of urban environment/pollution, colonial/empire history, rural change and industrialization, energy humanities, maritime history, infrastructural history.

We invite proposed contributions for a hybrid workshop to be held in Cambridge and online on 13-14 December, with 300 word abstracts due on 29 August, accepted contributors informed on 12 September and draft papers (up to 8,000 words) to be circulated by Friday 2 December.


Proposed abstracts due: Monday 29 August 2022 (sent by email to Richard Staley <>

Programme circulated: Monday 12 September

Draft papers to be circulated: Friday 2 December

Workshop: Tuesday and Wednesday 13 and 14 December (with a meeting held in Cambridge for those able to attend in person and hybrid participation online for those more distant).

Amr Ahmed, Andreas Malm, Simon Schaffer, Richard Staley

CfP: Building Ecosystems/Selling Natures

Proposals are invited for the conference

Building Ecosystems/Selling Natures: At the Edge of Environments and Economies

Friday, October 28, 2022

Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society

Hagley Library, Wilmington, Delaware

In everyday life we are embedded in ecosystems and economic systems that interact with one another, and indeed, are mutually constitutive. For a conference, “Building Ecosystems/Selling Natures,” we invite proposals that interrogate the interaction of various dualities: commerce and nature, firms and the earth’s resources, productive activity and the built environment. Our notion of ecosystems is expansive. It includes the many interactions among water, minerals, and geophysical features; biological systems within and between animals, plants, and microorganisms; and human-made settings such as buildings, cities, and transportation networks. We welcome papers that seek to blur the binary dualism between the many forms of nature and the institutions and social relations generated by economic activity.

We hope for proposals from a range of disciplinary perspectives, inspired as we are by scholars researching agriculture, mining, energy, water, enviro-tech, the built environment, evolution, and the biosphere (to name a few). Their scholarship explores the shared spaces that we hope to interrogate through this conference. In particular, we hope to create panels that bring together scholars working in different subjects, themes, and disciplines to see how they can cross-fertilize each other’s work, including researchers engaged with concepts like “Anthropocene” and “Capitalocene” and their efficacy. 

We are interested in original, unpublished, empirical papers that are conceptually informed and historically framed addressing the above and related topics. We hope to consider proposals that may benefit from engagement with collections and experts from Hagley, an institution that has a wealth of resources from the mid-1800s to the recent past. However, we also welcome papers that span earlier time periods, use collections from other institutions,  and encompass international cases. We particularly encourage proposals that consider the following questions:

  • How have economies and technologies generated new capacity to alter and exploit the environment?
  • How are features of nature turned into capital?
  • How is nature marketed and sold?
  • How do human creations, such as buildings, become ecosystems?
  • How has the materiality and/or human understanding of nature framed economic behavior?

Please submit proposals of no more than 500 words and a one-page C.V. to Carol Lockman at by June 15, 2022. Conference presenters will be asked to submit complete versions of their conference papers by Oct. 7, 2021. The conference is planned as an in-person event but will adopt a virtual format if necessary. Presenters will receive lodging in the conference hotel and compensation for their travel costs. The conference organizers are planning an edited volume based on a selection of revised conference papers. The program committee is comprised of Tim LeCain, Nicole Welk-Joerger, Greg Hargreaves, and Roger Horowitz.