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Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternativesby Edwin Black
Chapter 1 Explosions and flames suddenly shattered the quiet afternoon at Thomas Edisons West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory complex. Time and date: 5:20 p.m., Wednesday, December 9, 1914. Upon hearing the blast, a stunned Edison ran from his laboratory and into the courtyard. There the famous inventor watched with astonishment as his film repository suddenly erupted in flames. A moment later, Edisons fire-alarm gongs began clanging violently, echoing distress throughout the eighteen-structure complex. Scores of employees scrambled down the stairs of their offices, across the compound, and toward the street as intense flames raced through the “fireproof” buildings. Blast after blast, fiery outbreak after fiery outbreak, like a flaming barrage from within, spreading from the rear and then left and right, closing in from the front, and everywhere in between, most of Edisons grounds soon became an inferno. As though on an incendiary rampage, the fires systematically devoured the contents of Edisons headquarters and facilities.1
Quickly, carefully, intrepidly, Edison and his wife pulled his most important papers from their offices and raced out to safety. Everything seemed to burst into blaze in just moments. The phonograph recordings and motion-picture materials burned out of control. Wait. Not the batteries. Save the batteries. Edison dashed across the street to the storage-battery building and ordered his private fire brigade to protect that first. With bravado, Edison himself directed much of the firefighting.2
Not until midnight was most of the fire put down. Some buildings continued burning until 2:00 p.m. the next day. The flames were so intensely hot that one employee who tried to deploy a fire extinguisher was “burned to a crisp with a fire extinguisher alongside of him.”3
Few understood the voracious fires extraordinary speed and broad destruction. Ten buildings completely burned to the ground. All but Edisons lab and the storage-battery building were reduced to fire-ravaged rubble. It was hypothesized that a random spark from a switch in the film department suddenly ignited the surroundings. Yet it was as though the fire erupted all at once from everywhere across the fireproofed compound in building after building, and even across the walkways. Certainly Edisons complex was filled with every form of flammable chemical and material. But no one could explain certain “funny capers,” as they were termed.4
Reports soon documented that for some reason “in one of the little low red buildings, they found 2,000 gallons of very high proof alcohol that wasnt damaged.” Whats more, investigators “also found on some of the floors cans of gasoline that didnt even ignite. The flames swept right over the top of them. Corners in the concrete building werent even touched with fire.” Some rooms emerged without any fire damage at all.5
How did the fire spread from one fireproof concrete building to another fireproof concrete building? Everyone assumed it was the wooden window frames and their heat-broken panes. But no one could explain the massive blaze that destroyed much of Edisons life work. The majority of the $5 million property loss was not insured, precisely because the concrete buildings were considered so impervious to fire and because a private on-premises fire brigade was always on duty.6
Edisons dreamspast, present, and futurewere now reduced to char and ash. A lifetime of invention had succumbed in the twinkling of an eye. Standing amidst the scorched ruins and smoldering memories, a smoke-battered yet still strong and undefeated Edison emerged to bravely and boldly announce to gathered reporters, “Although I am over 67 years old, Ill start over again tomorrow.”7
But in truth the disaster was not only the final blow to Edison the man, but also to a bold venture by two titans of American invention and entrepreneurshipThomas Edison and Henry Ford. Their plan was to blunt the worlds irrepressible and growing appetite for oil and the internal combustion machine. If successful, Edison and Fordin 1914would move society away from the ever more expensive and then universally known killing hazards of gasoline cars: air and water pollution, noise and noxiousness, constant coughing and the undeniable rise in cancers caused by smoke exhaust particulates.8
Thus in 1914, the two great men of American innovation joined forces to give the world the gift of a cleanly powered and wirelessly energized world where every home and factory generated, and every city block transmitted, its own on-site electricity. Eventually they envisioned that all power would come from clean, renewable sources, such as wind, that would quietly churn independent of great energy companies.9
Their goal was nothing less than the death of the internal combustion machine and the birth of a clean, empowered, and independent civilization.
Why not? At the beginning of the twentieth century, thousands of clean, quiet, and easy-to-operate electric taxicabs, passenger cars, and delivery trucks coursed through city streets across Americafrom Boston to San Francisco. But electric vehicles and the batteries that made them run became ensnared in corporate scandals, fraud, and monopolistic corruption that shook the confidence of the nation and inspired automotive upstarts. This corruption infected all who came close after the nineteenth-century bicycle monopoly teamed up with the emerging twentieth-century electric-battery monopoly in league with Wall Streets most rapacious stock manipulators. Called the Lead Trust, this cartel tried to control all transportation in America and eventually the worldnot for the good of mankind, but for the betterment of their private bank accounts.10
Adventurous advocates of the rumbling, smoking, gasoline-burning internal combustion machine rebelled and claimed they could go farther and faster than most electric vehicles. They falsely argued that the noise and rattle, as well as the smoke and sensation of oil-burning cars, were proof of the innate superiority of internal combustion. The noisier, the smellier, the smokier, the better, they insisted. Whats more, gasoline and gasoline cars in the first years of the twentieth century were far cheaper than the heavy, price-fixed lead batteries and expensive, elitist electric cars produced by the Lead Trust. In some cases, gasoline was as cheap as water. A willing public impressed with the muscular nature of internal combustion in tandem with an aphasic public policy chose the smoking, choking automotive populism of gasoline cars.11
But then the upstart internal combustion industry joined its own nemesis, the affluent battery combine, to jointly kill electric vehicles and create a new monopoly of oil-burning cars that smoked like dragons to rule the roads to the exclusion of any other automobile save the ones that bore their license. Indeed, they conspired that no man, small or great, rich or poor, could buy or sell or transact in automotive commerce without their mark.12
From 1907 to 1911, Henry Ford had fought a public war of litigation against the new high-priced internal-combustion carmaking supercartel. He was determined to create his own simple and affordable version of an internal combustion automobile. Ford won. His wrenching victory allowed Ford to place a cheap, mass-produced $600 Model T in barns and garages across the country, making his rendition of the gasoline car the everyman vehicle of choice. This too helped accelerate the demise of electric cars.13
But by 1912, Ford had changed his mind about internal combustion. He saw the whole concept as a device of monopolist manufacturers dependent upon a deadly and massively polluting energy source subject to constant financial and supply manipulations.
Edison agreed. He was always fascinated by motive power and always knew electricity could prevail over internal combustion. Edison believed that only electricityindependently generated and wirelesscould ensure American independence. He wanted to literally convey all power to the peoplewhether they were stationary or moving.
A system of charging electric vehicles at home, right from the socket, along with public battery-fueling stations, was devised, this to be supplemented everywhere with curbside electrical recharging hydrants as common as parking meters. Discharged batteries would be swapped out for fresh ones at service stations in less than seventy-five seconds, enabling long-distance travel.14
The country was more than ready. True, the sound and fury of internal combustion had long been hypnotic. But the trance was rudely being interrupted by an upwardly spiraling cost of oil. By fall 1912, a shortage of refined supply had boosted gas prices some 75 percent over the previous year. Oil was no longer a “negligible” expense. The September 18, 1912, edition of Horseless Age published a three-page article exploring fuel alternatives in view of the shortage. The opening sentence set forth the problem: “The recent sudden rise in the price of gasoline, following gradual increases during the past several years, all over the world, together with the enormous number of automobiles, commercial cars and other users of this fuel, has called attention again to the fuel question in a marked manner. Whereas the previous retail price of 16 cents a gallon seemed high enough, it now retails all over New York City at from 18 to 22 cents. . . . A year ago, it could be had at 14 retail, and as low as 10 cents wholesale. This represents a rise of about 75 per cent within a year.” A gallon of gasoline that cost twenty-two cents was equal to a twenty-first-century gallon costing $5. One 1912 tank of gasoline could easily exceed two days wages of the average factory worker who assembled such cars.15
Vehicular growth was vastly outstripping gasoline production. The number of autos had increased from three hundred thousand in 1910 to seven hundred thousand in 1912. In the year before 1912 alone, some two hundred thousand cars had been purchased; that represented a one-year vehicle increase of some 66 percent. During the same time, crude oil supplies increased by less than 4 percent, from 209.5 million barrels to 217 million barrels. Prices continued to skyrocket even as automobiles became more popular.16
In many cities, a “gasoline war” was declared, that is, a battle to keep prices down. New York was particularly hard hit by increases because of its monumental auto growth and rocketing consumption. Whereas gas sold for 15 to 18 cents per gallon in Connecticut and Massachusetts, in metropolitan New York the cost was 20 to 25 cents.
The New York Times reported the problem this way: “In spite of plans and undoubted intentions to build more automobiles in the present year than ever before, it is not denied that the motor industry, as well as the motorcar owner, faces a most serious problem and possible setback in the soaring price of gasoline. It is predicted that gas will reach 40 cents or more a gallon in the coming summer.” Forty cents would equal $8 in twenty-first-century money.17
Whats more, the environmental damage was beginning to accrue in palpable ways. Billows of smoke from tailpipe exhaust combined with clouds from railroad engines and industrial smokestacks to darken the air and burn the lungs. Oil and grease effluent from garages swirled into rivers, poisoning the water. Hydrologists were concerned that groundwater was becoming irreparably toxic.18
Petroliferous runoff into the sewer systems of major cities was causing urban explosions. New Yorks Explosives or Combustible Commission declared “an absolute need to prevent the flowing of waste gasoline and oils from garages into the city sewers.” Periodically, such sewers would simply ignite. The New York Times reported one such incident under the banner sewer explosion terrifies a block. The explosive force was so great that one manhole cover was hurtled “over the roof of a five-story building.”19
Electrics suddenly became popular again. After years of stagnation, the electric vehicle industry was experiencing resurgence. In 1910, the Electric Vehicle Association of America formed to bring car manufacturers and utilities together to promote their common interest in battery-run automobiles. As the price of gasoline escalated 75 percent in the prior year, membership in the association experienced a concomitant rise, from 197 manufacturing companies in 1911 to 317 by the third annual convention on October 8, 1912. The steep increase in electric vehicle adoption was becoming obvious to many, especially in trucking. In New Jersey, the Public Service Corporation would soon announce it had seen a 1,000 percent increase in electric vehicles since 1911. In 1911, only 30 electric trucks were in use; two years later that number soared to 304, plus 206 battery-powered pleasure cars. In Massachusetts, registrations of electric trucks went from 227 to 389 the next year, a 71 percent jump. In fact, in 1913, Ford and other leading Ford Motor Company executives purchased for their wives the popular and sporty Detroit Electric. Ford bought a second Detroit Electric and presented it to Edison as a Christmas gift.20
Momentum for electric vehicles continued in 1913 as Ford and Edison posed for an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post. henry ford and thos a. edison buy the detroit electric read the banner headline ensconced above bookended pictures of each man proudly standing beside his dapper new electric car. The subhead beckoned, “How would you like to have these Master Minds Help you Choose Your Electric Car?” Three columns of copy testified to the world that both Ford and Edison believed that the electric was the best automotive choice.21
By 1913, Edison had announced the result of some fifty thousand experiments conducted during seven painstaking yearsa radical new energy-self-sufficient home. He called it the Twentieth Century Suburban Residence. Ostentatiously overstuffed with every modern gadget and appliance from a coffee percolator to a washing machine, from room heaters and coolers to phonographs and tiny movie projectors, the mansion was an electric marvel. Every device and system, basement to roof, was powered by batteries replenished continuously by a small-scale on-site household electrical generator.
The New York Times, September 15, 1912: “The Powers of Darkness have suffered another rout . . . for Mr. Edison has perfected a combination of gasoline engine, generator, and storage batteries by which, for a modest expense, every man can make his own electricity in his own cellar, utterly and for all time independent of the nearness or farness of the big electrical companies. He can buy a farm in the Middle West or New England. . . . He can erect a tent in the desert, if he is so minded, and still read himself to sleep at night under a convenient electrical chandelier, and shave himself the next morning with water heated on an electrical stove.”22
The first fully operational self-sufficient home was Edisons own grand mansion at Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. The pocket generating plant was a narrow and compact machine, designed to be situated either in the yard, in a shed, or in the basement. Its cost: as little as $500, although it came in larger and more expensive sizes capable of supplying greater-scale housing and could one day be networked to power factories. Initially, the generators would operate off a small tank of gasoline that periodically needed to be refilled. Clearly, this temporarily retained the tether to petroleum. But Edison planned to switch from dependence on a modicum of weekly gasoline to small residential windmills. Self-sufficiency would no longer be a vision for tomorrow, but a reality.23
Finally, in 1914, it was happening. The automobile revolution, which had begun as an electrical phenomenon, would return to the concept advanced nearly a generation earlier. The world could become a cleaner, quieter, more efficient place, drawing its strength from electricity. The American spirit of independence would be achieved not only by permitting mobility but by enabling stunning individual self-sufficiency.
How perfect would be the vindication if Ford and Edison now collaborated to mass-produce an automobile that would be better than internal combustion, better than lead-battery powerbetter than both.
Edison considered the replacement of both the reviled lead battery in electric vehicles and the gasoline motorcar to be his own nickel-iron Type A battery. Newspapers coast to coast hailed the achievement of nickel and iron. The Detroit Free Press typically bannered edison perfects storage battery, new battery will revolutionize car systems.24 But would Edison batteries be mass-produced cheaply enough to replace the internal combustion machine?
Fords plan was nothing less than astounding. He committed to building some 12,500 such vehicles monthly in just the first year. Moreover, to avoid any suggestion of a combine, Edison would be allowed to sell his dynamic new batteries to any electric vehicle manufacturer.25
Ford, a man of great wealth and almost no outside investments, bankrolled the ramp-up of Edisons production lines. The pioneer automaker provided Edison an immense order fortified with the certainty of cash payment. This would in essence finance the project, an undertaking so gigantic that it dwarfed all other prior electric vehicle output combined. Edison prepared a stockholder letter. His scribbled notes confirmed, “We have an order from the Ford Auto Co for about 4 million dollars worth of battery per year. They build next year 150,000 autos.” Between Edisons money and Fords infusion, an estimated $1.75 million was funneled into the new enterprisean amount that equals about $350 million in twenty-first-century moneyjust as a start-up.26
On January 9, 1914, speaking from New Yorks Hotel Belmont, the mercurial Ford told swarms of reporters about his plan to mass-produce Edison-powered electric vehicles selling as cheaply as $500 to $700. Beaming his admiration for the inventor, Ford declared, “I think Edison is the biggest man in the world today. I even live on Edison Avenue in Detroit.”27
At the same time, Ford, a man considered one of the wealthiest in America, made clear he intended to die poor. “It is a disgrace to die rich,” he told reporters. “I do not expect to leave any vast fortune to my relatives because I do not believe they would know how to use it.” Ford believed the new electric vehicle enterprise might not be profitable at first, but he did not care.28 He and Edison just wanted to change the world.
Ford went on to reveal that he and Edison had actually been “working for some years” on the vehicle to ensure it would be “cheap and practical.” He added some specifics: “The car we propose to build will contain battery equipment weighing 406 pounds, and the entire car will weigh but 1,100 pounds. It will run for 100 miles [without recharge]. The cost will be about $600 to the public,” he said, quipping, “How does that compare with the great, heavy and expensive electric cars?”29
News about the cheap Ford-Edison electric automobile streaked across America like a meteor shower. Dozens of newspapers headlines lit up brightly with the bold promise, as did every auto showroom, carmaker office, and American family household that had craved an automobile but was precluded because of high oil or battery prices or reliability problems.
Would Ford and Edison be allowed to succeed? If they did, it would overturn everything the two men had previously stood forbig internal combustion machines and big utility companiesand replace it with everything they now stood forclean, self-generated independent electricity.
The answer was seeded long before 1914, centuries earlier when timber was the greatest power in the world and therefore the protected realm of monarchs who controlled it to govern their realms and conquer the realms of others. Timber was worth killing for because it was the secret behind the earliest making of metal, the stuff of wealth and weaponry. When the trees became too scarce, the monarchs turned to monopolists and corporate scoundrels for a new burning substance, this one not green but black. It was coal.
Thus, the first private international energy cartel began in England centuries ago with a secretive Newcastle order called the Hostmen. The Hostmen powered the Industrial Revolution but poisoned the air and water as part of their bargain. The coal cartel gave rise to later generations of energy monopolists who built great steam railroads that further poisoned the environment and spread cancer to those who lived near. Anyone who stood in their way to find cleaner alternatives was ruthlessly defeated by the men of wealth and power who defended their brand of energy and transportation.
When the electric vehicle took hold at the end of the nineteenth century, circumstancesboth popular and predatorycombined to replace battery cars with internal combustion, and in the process replaced clean technology with burning oil. This oil was brought from faraway places at great risk so men could travel noisily down the street. Then the forces of internal combustion conspired against electric rail transportation within the cities and between the cities, leaving only petroleum engines and exhaust in their triumphant wake.
Now all the polluted clouds have gathered and created the petropolitical and ecocidal thunderstorms that overshadow the twenty-first century.
In their constant war with electricity, the forces of internal combustion have always won. How did it happen? How did the world choose the other way, and who chose that way for the world? How did corporations and governments addict the world to oil and subvert the alternatives? How can the multimillennial ravages of bad energy be undone today before more war, terrorism, petropolitical blackmail, and climate change collapse our way of life around us? Why has it not been done already? What can be done today to stop our high-velocity advance toward the brink?
The answer lies first in understanding the chain of explosions that constitute the past, the present, and the future of mankinds own grandly self-inflicted, never-healing wound: internal combustion.
Copyright © 2006 by Edwin Black. All rights reserved.
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