The first European to explore the region was Lt. John Shortland in 1797, and in 1798, coal mined from the area was the New South Wales colony's first export. An attempt to establish a permanent settlement in the area (then called Coal River) failed but in 1804 the current city (briefly called King's Town) was established. Initially this was a penal settlement, with agriculture the only industry.
Coal mining began in earnest in the 1830s. In the 1890s a zinc smelter was built by Cockle Creek and in 1915 the BHP steelworks opened. From then Newcastle began a period dominated by heavy industry and coal mining, however with the steel works closing in 1999 and the expected closure of the Sulphide Corporation works by 2006 the era of heavy industry is passing.
In 1989 an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale killed 13 people. Coincidentally, a small island now known as Nobby's Head was joined to the mainland, a distance of about 50 metres, with rubble from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Newcastle is also widely recognised by outsiders as having a similar culture to that city.
Newcastle has a thriving sports culture centred on the Newcastle Knights Rugby League team. Other major spectator and participant sports include Netball, Basketball, Soccer, AFL, Rugby Union, Hockey and Surfing.
The annual surfing contest 'Surfest' is held in Newcastle.
Newcastle has a large youth music culture. Bands and groups produce in both guitar based and computer based music for a pub based concert scene. Ironically Newcastle's youth culture is underwritten by appallingly high levels of youth unemployment.
Like those of its British namesake, residents of Newcastle call themselves "Novocastrians", a word not widely understood elsewhere.
See also: List of cities in Australia