The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy

Jeremy Shere

St. Martin's Press

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 had been responsible for ushering in a 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 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 automobile maker was intent on finding alternative fuels 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 the city and its bustling 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 maintained, but also farmers, who would find a ready and lucrative market for their surplus produce. Florida, with its tropical climate and abundant, largely unplanted acres of rich, arable land, was intriguing for Ford’s purposes and in fact was beginning to attract the attention of Louisiana sugarcane growers. And so Ford’s mission that winter was to scout the Florida landscape for working plantations and unfarmed 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 twentieth-century progress and industry—Thomas Alva Edison. Like many Americans living at the turn of the century, as a boy and a young man Ford had idolized Edison, drawing inspiration from the famous scientist’s ingenious inventions and entrepreneurial dash. 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 the annual convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, in 1896, the then thirty-three-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. Later, as Ford rose to prominence as the world’s leading automaker, 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 one 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 less 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 the “awful terror” of an impending gas shortage. The war raging in Europe was unique not only in being the first world war but also as the first war where armies relied heavily on airplanes, cars, trucks, tanks, and other motorized vehicles—all of which consumed millions of gallons of fuel made in and imported largely from the United States. The pressure put on the American oil industry to produce ever greater amounts of gasoline during the war prompted Haskin 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.”

Copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Shere