How long has smog been a problem in cities?

Air pollution was a problem long before cars and trucks—in fact, long before the Industrial Revolution.

No doubt the tens of thousands of fires used for cooking and heating often created lung-unfriendly environments in ancient cities. Wood smoke was bad enough, but things got worse as humans discovered other sources of heat.

For example, London grew so large during the 1200s that its shrinking forests couldn’t supply enough fuel. As wood prices soared, Londoners began burning “sea-coal” from off the northeast coast to heat their homes and fuel their factories.

The soft, bituminous coal was cheap, but it produced a great deal of smoke when it burned—so much so that it actually changed the weather patterns in London, creating a near-permanent state of smoky “London fog” (it wouldn’t be called smog until the early twentieth century).

The smoke particles in the London air condensed, forming a fog of tiny chemical-laden water droplets. One of the chief components of the fog was sulfur dioxide, which attacks the lungs, making breathing difficult.

Despite attempts to deal with the problem (see below), the coal-befouled air was the hallmark of the great city for centuries. Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth even pay tribute to the city’s air: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

In 1873, one especially bad “fog” caused 268 deaths from bronchitis. In 1879 the city had a sunless winter as the smoke wrapped the city in an unremittingly gloomy darkness from November to March.

In 1902, a fog monitor wrote that the coal tar-drenched air made it difficult to see across the street some days:

“White and damp in the early morning, it became smoky later, the particles coated with soot being dry and pungent to inhale. There was a complete block of street traffic at some crossings. Omnibuses were abandoned, and several goods trains were taken off.”

About the same time, a French scientist attending a health symposium in London coined a new name for London’s affliction.

On July 3, 1905, Dr. Harold Antoine Des Voeux blended the words smoke and fog and came up with “smog.”