Chapter Excerpts

Ford, Edison and Alcohol Fuel

In the winter of 1917, as American troops sailed for Europe to join the bloodiest war in recorded history, automobile magnate Henry Ford steered a specially built Model T through the humid backwoods roads of rural Florida, on the lookout for sugar plantations and farmland suitable for growing crops that could be turned into motor fuel.  As much as anyone in America, Ford was responsible for ushering in a modern, fast-paced, motorized era increasingly dependent on gasoline and oil.  But, an agrarian at heart, he disdained the profit-driven oil barons and wildcatters whose motor fuel business both enabled and depended on the stratospheric growth of the automobile industry.

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The Rise of Alcohol Fuel

In 1861, newly elected president Abraham Lincolnunwittingly dealt the alcohol fuel industry another major blow when he authorized a $2.00 per gallon sales tax on alcohol—drinking and industrial—to fund the Union cause in the recently erupted Civil War.  Lincoln had nothing against alcohol as spirit or fuel; it was merely one commodity among many—Kerosene included—caught in the sweep of widespread taxes to fund the war. But at only 10 cents a gallon, the Kerosene tax gave the oil-based fuel a big advantage over its more heavily taxed, plant-based rival.  Virtually overnight, kerosene became the fuel of choice for lamps and other devices requiring a relatively safe fuel for burning.  And because the alcohol tax remained on the books until the first decade of the 20th century, alcohol simply couldn’t compete with gasoline for the lucrative and fast growing automobile market.

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Gas Lines and Gasahol

Some time in the early 1970s, McDonald’s ran a commercial called “Gas Line”  (You can watch it on You Tube).  Set to jaunty music, the spot opens on what viewers of the time would instantly recognize as a familiar and depressing scene: a long train of cars lined up down the block, waiting for hours to fill their tanks with gas made suddenly scarce by a devastating Middle East oil embargo against the United States.  The resulting gas lines and ubiquitous filling station signs reading “Out of Gas” were demoralizing, but McDonald’s played the crisis for laughs.  “Excuse me,” a guy in the commercial says to his disgruntled neighbor. “Would you watch my place in line?  I’m just going to run over to McDonalds.”  The neighbor agrees, on the condition that the guy brings him back a Big Mac.  As he makes his way down the line, other gas line dwellers call out orders for fries, shakes, and Cokes.  The catchy, relentlessly upbeat McDonald’s jingle “You deserve a break today!” plays as our hero returns, fast food in hand, eliciting smiles and cheers from the hungry crowd as they happily push what appears to be an AMC Gremlin up alongside a gas pump.

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Solar on the White House Roof

On June 20, 1979, the White House press corps was led up a back stairway, through an unmarked door, and onto the roof of the West Wing. It was a bright, sunny day, and the reporters to squint as they found seats, shielding their eyes with handouts that had been placed earlier on folding chairs facing the familiar presidential podium.  The handouts described, in impressive scientific detail, the specifications and inner working of the strange objects looming behind the lectern: a row of four large thermal solar collectors bolted to the roof, slanted at a roughly 45 degree angle to the sun blazing overhead.

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Frank Shuman’s Solar Arabian Dream

On a clear, blazing hot day in June of 1913, the cream of British colonial society in Egypt—including journalists, ranking civil servants, and diplomats—gathered in Maadi, a small farming village on the banks of the Nile several miles south of Cairo, for the grand opening of a most unusual irrigation plant.  Sipping champagne and snacking on cheese and caviar, mustachioed men in Panama hats and pith helmets and elegant ladies carrying parasols strolled the grounds, marveling at the long, gleaming rows of trough-shaped mirrors concentrating sunlight onto cast-iron boilers running the length of each trough.  Heated to just more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, water in the boilers turned to low-pressure steam to drive a specially designed, 75 horsepower engine.  As if by magic, running on nothing more than sunlight, the engine pumped thousands of gallons of water from the Nile, saturating the arid landscape.

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Charles Brush’s Electrifying Wind Dynamo

It was the summer of 1887, and Charles Brush was at it again.

Which in itself was no great surprise. In the 1880s, Clevelanders out for an evening stroll along Euclid Avenue–home to many of the city’s most palatial dwellings–were used to strange goings on at the Brush mansion.  Most nights, passersby could glimpse sudden, bright flashes through the windows of Brush’s basement laboratory, where the esteemed inventor tinkered with dynamos, electromagnet, and other accouterments of electricity–the seemingly magical force transforming modern life.

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