AUSTRALIA’S HISTORY DURING the past 150 years has often revolved around fossil fuels. They have affected not only daily life but the rise and fall of Australian states. They have shaped turning points in local politics and international relations. Thus, the outbreak of war between Australia and Japan in December 1941 was influenced by fossil fuel; so, too, was that major landmark in politics, the election victory of R.G. Menzies in 1949 – the start of the longest reign in federal politics.
In the early British history of Australia, firewood was the important fuel. The timber cutter was more important than the coalminer. By the 1850s, with Australia entering the age of steam, coal became vital. Gasworks were built in Sydney and Melbourne, foundries and factories appeared here and there; and all these ventures burned lots of coal. The first short-distance railways were built in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1850s and they preferred coal to firewood. At the same time, a few steamships, competing with fleets of sailing ships, plied the long route between England and Australia, and they burned so much coal in each twenty-four hours that they were in danger of running out of it in mid-ocean. Therefore, they combined sail power and coal power on the long stretches between coaling ports. When the winds blew strongly the steam engines were idle.
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