Good grief! I’ve just read, in an ancient copy of the Nelson Evening Mail, the report where they have invented petrol. Cop a load of this :
“European Mail. The National Gazette, commenting on petroleum being used as fuel, says “We shall soon be able to announce a wonderful stride in the mechanical appliances for using liquid fuel generating steam in both marine and land boilers; The matter is in the hands of practical men, who will demonstrate, that they can make from 28 to 30 gallons of crude petroleum costing from 85 to 90 cents, do the work of a ton of coal costing from 4dols to 4dols 15 cents, without dirt or smoke, and when, as in the case of large steamers carrying from 40 to 45 men in the fire-room, one man in each will be abundantly able to keep up a uniform pressure of steam at all times. Liquid fuel is the intervening step between coal and electricity, which will in due season furnish motion for the world,”
Nelson Evening Mail 21 April 1882 p2
How right they were indeed. Furnishing motion for the world. I wonder if they had even the faintest idea of what they were going to unleash upon the planet Earth. Bipedal carbon-based life-forms. Mostly harmless. Mostly.
The history of the modern world is often described in terms of Ages, and mostly talks about the materials that our ancestors used to wage war and develop agriculture with. After the phenomenally successful Stone Age (on repeat viewing for some 50,000 years without change), we humans had a Bronze Age, where we made helmets and spear tips and probably cast a few bells as well. Then blow me down with a feather, we entered the Iron Age, and we’ve really only just escaped that in strict chronological terms.
But we also changed fuels as we went. The Stone Age fuel of choice was probably just wood. Perhaps the odd dried bit of dung also, but mostly, Stone meant Wood. Trees downwards were cut. Forests decimated they were. Yoda talk like for no reason.
But the Bronze Age required hotter fuel sources, and the Iron Age even hotter still. From memory, Bronze Age people used charcoal to retain their heat to cast their alloys, and the Iron Age was only possible because of the advent of coke. Things go better with Coke, so they say, but they certainly glow hotter. Of course, around this time we graduated from tallow candles made from animal fat, or beeswax candles, and discovered a marvelous resource hidden in the bulbous foreheads of Sperm Whales – pure, clean-burning whale oil (not the kind that Cameron Slater would be keen on). That was a short-lived boom, over as soon as it had started. Yet what a vast improvement in light quality. No more splutters, no more dim lights smelling of dead sheep – the use of whale oil, while outrageously detrimental to the world’s sperm whale population, cast a nice, clear, white glow over our Iron Age forebears.
And then the age of Whale Oil died out pretty quickly, not just because we ran out of whales to kill and exploit, but also because of this discovery noted above – the use of kerosene, sold in tin cans at first, and then barrels, and now pumped by the billions from vast underground reservoirs. There is a fascinating book on the birth of oil, and the coincident story of the worlds richest man, the owner of Standard Oil. John D Rockefeller was one of the original owners and originally had a quarter share in Standard Oil, which grew, and grew, and set up foreign branches in many lands (according to Wikipedia, at one stage kerosene was routinely dumped in rivers as an unwanted by-product, a practice that JD stopped, as he wanted to use all the oil instead. Good thing they invented the automobile to eat up all that petrol!). Eventually in 1911, Standard Oil was broken up, into 34 different companies, such as Standard Oil Company of New York, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, etc. a bit of successful rebranding from SOCONY into Mobil, and so you have the big oil brands we still see today – Mobil, Caltex, Exxon, Amoco, Chevron, Esso, etc – they were all, once, part of JD Rockefeller’s little Ohio baby. I’ve been to his beach house once – vast, and opulent. Makes Buckingham Palace look like amateurs at the richness game.
And so here we are in the Age of Plastics. The Age of Oil. The one means the other. Humankind is stuck on this ridiculous nightmare ride, where we are using fuels with more and more potency, more octanes stored in your tank, more power in your pocket. From petrol in cars and oil burned in furnaces to keep warm and to generate electricity, we’ve got used to a surfeit of energy, at our fingertips and at our beck and command. The next step was nuclear – at first billed as unlimited power, cheap and safe and the savior of the world. A few side effects, to be sure, but humankind could continue to enjoy energy at our unprecedented rate of consumption.
The next few years are going to be interesting. It’s make or break time. We can continue to rape and pillage the globe in search of fuel, fracking and wreaking to force those pesky octanes out of the ground and into our petrol tanks, or we invent a better fuel. Hydrogen powered cars? Solar powered households? Compressed natural gas powered from cows enormous farty bottoms? Wind power, in Wellington at least? Lithium-ion batteries, using up all that lithium that lies gathered on a dry lake bed in Bolivia, just waiting to be turned into medication, and batteries.
Actually, there is a new energy source about to come on the market, harnessing the wonderful ability of the LED light, and something so simple that we all can use it, for free, for evermore and for all time. I’m quite excited by it. Doesn’t need a solar panel. Doesn’t need a wind turbine. Doesn’t need a battery. Doesnt need a huge and unwieldy electricity lines company sucking off your monthly account. Are you getting excited yet? It’s one of the cleverest, most basic ideas I’ve seen yet, a potential game changer for millions of people around the globe. It’s one of these products of OUR age, still in development, funded by crowd-sourcing, by people like you and fish like me, who put down $100 as seed-funding for this capital venture, and it’s in production right now, due to go out to the first consumers pretty soon. Can you guess what it is yet?