Speaker: Victor Seow
Victor Seow, Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
Abstract: The decade after the revolution of 1949 witnessed a China that was being made anew. The material transformation of society and economy that had been the goal of preceding regimes was realized to a hitherto unseen degree in the industrial edifice raised by the socialist state. This was an achievement that rested upon a bedrock of fossil fuel energy. In line with centrally directed plans, the coal that lay in abundance in multiple regions across China was unearthed in mounting quantities, as Chinese engineers led the excavation of new mines and the introduction of new technologies and techniques, from the longwall system to hydraulic mining. Yet for all the effort in pushing production, supply did not seem to be able to catch up with demand, and by the late 1950s, China seemed to be facing a coal shortage. Part of the problem was that of thermal inefficiency: for most industrial processes, Chinese engines, furnaces, and boilers were burning more coal than their British and American counterparts. This talk examines efforts by Chinese planners to expand coal output as part of what they saw as a race to outpace capitalist countries in industrial development, and shows that it was not so much a failure of technology but the fixation on sheer volume that led to a low quality of coal produced, which in turn compromised the efficiency of the socialist industrial enterprise.