Monday, October 25, 2010

The Wonder Fluid: And I Don't Mean Wine

A 1910 car ride. This weekend we drove to Ogunquit in a Chevy Malibu (an average person's car -but so comfortable) so I could sit by Perkins' Cove, below, and sip wine.

The trip from our Montreal suburb takes 6 hours, omitting border wait times. We stop but once for a bathroom break, usually at a Macdonald's.

It is a comfortable trip, in our Malibu with the great heated seats on smooth highways, and the cost is just 40 dollars or so of gas for the car gets about 30 miles to the gallon on such roads.
When I was a child, in the 60's, we'd take the same trip in a cramped Austin Cambridge, stopping as often as possible for bathroom breaks and to stretch our legs at Mom and Pop diners with great home-made pies and beyond filthy bathrooms

Oqunquit is an artsy village that takes Hallowe'en seriously.

On the Saturday, we drove to Newton, Massachusetts, to see for ourselves where Dr. Henry Watters lived. Flo (of Flo in the City) visited him in 1908 and took a ride in a Stanley Steamer from Newton Centre to Wellesley, stopping at Framingham to see Mrs. Coy, who was all in a kerfluffle, because she was cleaning house and not in a state to receive guests. (The Stanley Steamer was invented by two Newton brothers.)

In the 1910 era there were steam, electric and gasoline driven cars. The Stanleys thought their cars would catch on, without advertising. (Clean! Powerful! Noisy) And electric cars (clean, not noisy, but less powerful) were being targetted in advertising at women drivers (kiss of death.) The gasoline car, (filthy and somewhat noisy but easy to work and the favorite on the 'glamorous' car racing circuit) caught on about 1910. See

Here are two snippets from 1910 era articles, the second article on gasoline is from Maclean's. The first from Busy Man's Magazine.

(As we drove to Maine, we listened to podcasts of the BBC's Radio 4 History of the World in 100 Objects series. One of the later episodes is about a Victorian Tea Pot. The narrator explains how the British appetite, in the 1700 and 1800's, for that most genteel of drinks, tea, caused social upheaval around the world. Everything we consume has consequences and it has always been thus. The trade in tea caused the Opium Wars in China and promoted huge migrations of Tamils and such to work on new tea plantations in Ceylon, etc. And just scan the news to see what human suffering our appetite for cars and gasoline has wrought.

Here are the 1910 articles:

It is a matter of common knowledge that there are in use in the United States at the present time more than 300,000 automobiles and the demand still seems almost unlimited. When the additional 300,000 to be made this year are included, it will be seen that at the close of 1910 one person out of every 150 in the country will have an automobile, or one family out of every forty or fifty. Obviously, the number of families capable of maintaining an automobile is comparatively limited, although the average is brought up by those who are able to support two or more. One family out of twenty seems about the ultimate limit, even considering the utmost possibilities of the 500 dollar car.

The population of the country is increasing pretty rapidly, but not in proportion of keep pace with the automobile product.

When the million and a half mark (of sales) has been reached, this will imply the owning of a car on every farm of even moderate size and by most of the salaried workers in the country.

“Gasoline: The Wonder Fluid"

In the year 1910, the total production of the world was three hundred and thirty five million barrels of forty-two gallons each. Of the total, two hundred and sixteen million barrels were produced in the United States. Those three hundred and thirty five million barrels, each less than four feet in height, if they could be strung end to end, would reach from the earth to the moon, besides winding two or three times around that satellite.

As for the gasoline, that amounts to eight per cent of the crude oil. The world’s gasoline production for the year 1910 was one billion one hundred and twenty five million gallons. It is hard to realize that enormous power lies in such an amount of gasoline. The output for 1910 would send a touring car forty-five thousand times the distance that lies between the earth and the moon.

And yet there is not gasoline enough. If the supply were several times as great, the age of steam would pass away like morning mist before the new age of gasoline. Gasoline would run the railroads, the ocean liners, the factories, everything. It would become the world conqueror, and perhaps it will if the oil prospectors are lucky enough.

PS. The 100th 'artefact' in the BBC Radio Four's History of the World in 100 Objects was just unveiled (unmuted?) and it is a solar panel, that uses 5 hours of sunlight to make 100 hours of light, that is cheap and once paid for doesn't cost anything to run, that can be used to empower sun-rich Sub Sahara and South Asian communities, especially the women within these poorer than poor communities, and allow them 'to join the global conversation' powering cell phones and computers. The episode invokes Edison, as well. Of course, this episode wasn't history, it was prediction. And new technologies seldom have the (happy or sad) consequences people (optimists or pessimists) predict.

Hmm. A new invention that takes us back to the beginning. But no one makes money on it, so it is the opposite of a consumer product...