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The Boy and the Fire

by Anonymous

Sunshine, vol. 1, issue 1 (1862)

Pages 14-16

A sample page from The Boy and the Fire by Anonymous
From "The Boy and the Fire." Used by permission, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.

Introductory Note: “The Boy and the Fire” was published in the first issue of Sunshine, edited by Reverend W. Meynell Whittemore.  While there is no author listed, it is possible that the story was written by Whittemore himself, as it has a similar tone and theme to his other writings. The story is an informational tale aimed to educate children. In its short span, a boy talks to a piece of coal in order to convey new and interesting facts to the story's young, restless audience. The story conveys new scientific information while maintaining the religious tone of the overall journal.

WHAT a bitterly cold day it is! Frost on the ground, frost on the window-panes, and frost in my poor fingers and toes! How pleasant it is to see such a good blazing fire when one comes into the room. I only wish every poor person was as well off as I am this morning!

“Now, Mr. Coal, what did you tumble off that front bar for? I must reach the tongs and put you back, for such a fine large piece as you are ought not to be wasted. There, you look quite bright and comfortable again. What do you call yourself, Mr. Coal?”

“What do you think I am?”

“Are you a mineral?”

“I am, and I am not.”

“Explain such an apparent contradiction, if you please.”

“I look like a mineral, and I possess all the external characters of one, but I certainly used to be a vegetable.”

“A vegetable! You must be joking!”

“Never more serious, I assure you.”

“Well, I cannot believe that.”

“You can do as you please about believing it, but it is quite correct.”

“How shall I know it is correct?”

“If you were to examine me by the microscope, and by chemistry, you would find that I should turn out to be vegetable matter, and nothing else, only changed in a very slight degree.”

“What sort of vegetable were you, then?”

“I was part of a tree which grew long, long ago, in a huge forest.”

“And how did you turn into coal?”

“In process of time these trees decayed, sank into the ground, and the pressure above them, and the heat of the earth around them, slowly transformed them into coal.”

“It would not be polite to doubt what you say, but what proof is there of this?”

“The coal itself reveals this wonderful fact. If you could go down into a coal-pit, you would be surprised to find that the roof was covered with vegetable remains partially converted into coal; leaves, branches, and stems of the most elegant forms are embedded in the dark, shining surface, hundreds of feet below the top of the ground. Professor Buckland, who visited the coal-mines in Bohemia, says that the most careful imitations of living foliage upon the painted ceilings of Italian palaces, are not to be compared to the beautiful profusion of vegetable forms with which these coal-mines were overhung.”

“What kind of tree did you come from, Mr. Coal?”

“From the Lepidodendron. It had a tall, scaly, branched trunk, and was seventy or eighty feet high.”

“I never heard of such a tree before!”

“Which does not greatly surprise me.”

“Does it grow here now?”

“Oh no; some people say that not any of the plants belonging to the period when I was born, are now alive. But others will tell you that some of them bear a resemblance to plants still in existence, only that they were very gigantic in size. There are no traces of grass, or of the innumerable herbs and shrubs which now make the earth so beautiful; and the size, the form, and the whole character of the coal-plants, lead the learned to suppose that the climate of this part of the world was much hotter than it is now.”

“Well, you have told me strange things, Mr. Coal! I shall often think of them as I look at my pleasant fire, and remember how much I am indebted to you for such a winter comfort.”

“Yes, I am a good friend to you. I help to make you warm this cold weather, and to preserve you in health by keeping your houses dry. And my bright fire gladdens you with its cheerful blaze, and also enables you to prepare your food nicely. What would you do without me?”

“Now don’t be conceited, Mr. Coal. I suppose I could burn wood.”

“You could. And in all new countries where the ground is covered with forests, wood furnishes the inhabitants with fuel; and in older countries, where coal has not yet been found, extensive woods are preserved and planted for this purpose. But this occupies ground which might otherwise grow corn. And as the people multiply, the wood, as in many parts of Germany, becomes scarce and dear every year, and the poor suffer sadly in consequence.”

“Ah, I did not think of that.”

“Besides, you have forgotten how you depend upon me for your gas, your steam-engines, your steam-boats, and your railways.”

“So I had, Mr. Coal. Why, the steam-engine never could have been invented but for you! What shall we do, then, when we have burned you all up, as we must in time.”

“I don’t think you need trouble yourself about that. There is sufficient coal, it is said, in South Wales alone, to last you for the next two thousand years.”

“That is a good thing. I suppose there are several coal-mines in our country?”

“They are generally spoken of in England as coal-fields.”

“Why is that?”

“Probably because they were originally vast fields or forests of vegetable growth. Coal-fields are found in Northumberland and Durham, and the midland counties of Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester. Besides these, there are others of vast extent in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Somersetshire, and in North and South Wales.”

“Any in Scotland and Ireland?”

“Yes, in both. But in Scotland it is not so abundant, nor of as good quality as in England.”

“What is it in the Emerald Isle?”

“In Ireland the coal is excellent, but it has not yet been worked with the same amount of industry and skill.”

“Any coal abroad?”

“Coal exists in many parts of the Continent; in France, Belgium, Spain, Bohemia, some parts of Russia, in Greece, and north of Constantinople. It has long been obtained and burned in China, though it is said not to be of first-rate quality there. It is found in many parts of India, in Australia, and Van Diemen’s Land.1Tasmania was formerly called Van Diemen’s Land. And the vast continent of America abounds with rich coal-fields.”

“Has coal always been got in England?”

“Whether the ancient Britons made use of it or not, I do not know; but the Romans were evidently acquainted with our family, because ancient coal-cinders have been found in the walls of some of their buildings still remaining in this country. The first discovery of coal at Newcastle-on-Tyne is supposed to be about 1234; but so great was the general prejudice against it, that its use was forbidden in and near London, as being ‘prejudicial to health,’ so that smiths even were obliged to use wood. In 1400, in spite of the general complaint against coal as a public nuisance, it was generally burned in London; but it was not in common use in England until the reign of Charles I., 1625.”

“Thank you, Mr. Coal, for this information. I always thought very highly of you, but now that I know what a great blessing you are to the world, I shall value more than ever.”

“And as you think of me, think how God’s wonderful providence is shown in preparing such large coal-fields for the future wants of mankind. He not only opens his hand, and satisfies the desire of every living creature, but He arranges things beforehand, which He knows will be needful for their comfort and happiness.”

“Your daily life His goodness shows:

From his kind hand all blessing flows;

For all your needful wants He cares,

And future bliss for you prepares.

Then should not you delight to raise

To Him your joyful song of praise?”

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Diane Walker
Cosenza Hendrickson
Alexandra Malouf


29 December 2020

Last modified

30 August 2021

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1 Tasmania was formerly called Van Diemen’s Land.