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.  To Ford’s mind, the oilmen were unprincipled speculators whose obsession with the quick strike did little to benefit the towns and farming communities that opened their land to drilling. Plus, Ford believed—presciently, it turned out—that gasoline exhaust fumes polluted the air.  To be forced to rely on such unwholesome fuel rankled, and the carmaker was intent on finding alternatives for his wildly popular Model T.  Like many others in the quickly maturing automobile business, Ford was intrigued by the prospects of alcohol.  It not only burned cleaner than gasoline but was also a renewable resource derived from grains and other annual crops.

Although Ford had scrupulously avoided the drudgery of physical labor as a boy growing up on his family’s farm outside of Detroit, gravitating instead to Detroit and its bustling, mechanized factories, throughout his career he maintained a sentimental attachment to the rural life and the welfare of American farmers.  Promoting alcohol as motor fuel would benefit not only the automobile industry, Ford thought, but also help farmers would find a ready and lucrative market for their surplus produce.  Florida, with its tropical climate and abundant, largely un-sowed acres of rich, arable land, was intriguing for Ford’s purposes, and in fact was beginning to attract the attention of Louisiana sugarcane growers.[i] And so Ford’s mission that winter was to scout the Florida landscape for working plantations and plots large enough to grow enough sugarcane to put a scare into the oil industrialists and gasoline jobbers who had cornered the market on motor fuel.

Sitting next to Ford on the Model T’s padded front seat was another American icon of 20th century progress and industry—Thomas Alva Edison. Like many Americans living at the turn of the century, as a boy and young man Ford had idolized Edison, marveling at the famous scientist’s ingenious inventions and entrepreneurial drive.  Ford had first met Edison while working as chief engineer at Detroit Edison in the mid 1890s. Invited to New York as a member of the Detroit delegation to annual convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in 1896, the then 33-year-old Ford was introduced to Edison as an up-and-coming horseless carriage pioneer and obliged the celebrated inventor by sketching out his latest ideas on the back of a menu.[ii] Later, as Ford rose to prominence as the world’s leading carmaker, the two became close friends. It was Edison, in fact, who first introduced Ford to Florida’s balmy weather, in 1915, when Ford and his wife, Clara, stayed at Edison’s summer house in Fort Myers, on Florida’s west coast.  Ford bought his own vacation home in Fort Myers, next door to Edison, and wintered there with his family until the early 1930s.  It was during an annual Florida getaway that Ford and Edison motored across the state to advance Ford’s scheme of making motor fuel from plants.

Unlike Ford, Edison had no personal stake in the matter. His bailiwick was electrical power, not liquid fuel. But the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park (the New Jersey town where Edison had his famous laboratory) was certainly aware of the growing scientific and public interest in alternatives to petroleum-derived gasoline, driven largely by what national columnist Frederic Haskin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, referred to as the “awful terror” of an impending gas shortage.[iii] The war raging in Europe was unique not only in being the first “world war” but also in being the first war fueled by oil and gas. And the thousand of airplanes, cars, trucks, tanks and other motorized vehicles consumed millions of gallons of fuel made in and imported largely from the United States.   The pressure on the American oil industry to produce ever-greater amounts of gasoline during the war prompted Haskins and other journalists to report that, according to “government experts,” oil wells—and therefore gasoline supplies—would soon peter out.  “Therefore we must now discover a permanent source of motor fuel to take the place of the temporary one upon which we have been drawing,” Haskins wrote in 1919. “Scientists seem to agree that alcohol will furnish this permanent source of motor fuel.”[iv]

[i] See John A. Heitmann, “The Beginning of Big Sugar in Florida, 1920-1945,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 77 (Summer 1998).

[ii] Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World (New York: Viking, 2003), pp. 24-26.

[iii] Frederic Haskin, “May Replace Gas as Fuel,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 20, 1919.

[iv] Frederic Hasking, “Big Future For Alcohol,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 1919.

[v] Hal Bernton, William Kovarik, Scott Sklar, The Forbidden Fuel: A History of Power Alcohol, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), p. 8.

[vi] Leonardo Maugeri, The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World’s Most Controversial Resource (Connecticut: Praeger, 2006), pp. 4-5.  Despite his initial success, Drake died penniless after a series of subsequent failures in oil drilling and stock trading.

[vii] One of the earliest such engines, a two-cylinder contraption designed by American inventor Samuel Morey in 1826, burned ethyl alcohol and turpentine.

[viii] “Auto Club Aroused Over Alcohol Bill,” New York Times, Apr. 26, 1906.

[ix] “Future of Alcohol in the Industries,” New York Times, Aug. 5, 1906.

[x] “Praises Alcohol as a Motor Fuel,” New York Times, May 24, 1914.

[xi] “What’s Coming in Fuel Drama?” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 12, 1920.

[xii] “What if Gas Supply Gives Up the Game?” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 1, 1920.

[xiii] “Insecurity of Oil Supply Held a Grave Menace,” Chicago Daily Tribune,July 31, 1922.

[xiv] “Fake Motor Fuel Swindle Charged,” The Washington Post, Nov. 2, 1920.  Motor fuel scams were rampant, during the 1920s with no end of gullible investors eager to cash in on the latest ingenious replacement for gasoline.  In hindsight, the swindles are often hilarious. An article in the New York Timesfrom 1921 reported that one fraudulent inventor who claimed to make gasoline from a mixture of water and white powder simply filled a demonstration tank with real gasoline from a pipe attached to a supply out of sight of his naïve investors. Another common ploy was for the inventor to secretly replace water with alcohol.  One swindler whose fuel consisted of water and “magic powder” was found to keep two hot water bottles filled with alcohol hidden in his coat.  “But for the interference of a strong-arm man,” the Times reported, the inventor would have gotten away with the con by dumping the water and secretly adding alcohol to the mix.

[xv] “What if Gas Supply Gives Up the Game,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 1, 1923.

[xvi] William Kovarik, “Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the ‘Fuel of the Future’,” http://www.ratford.edu/wkovarik/papers/fuel.html.

[xvii] August W. Giebelhaus, “Farming for Fuel: The Alcohol Motor Fuel Movement of the 1930s,” Agricultural History, 54 (Jan. 1980), p. 176.

[xviii] Ibid,. p. 179.

[xix] Ibid. p. 180.

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