Weaning consumers off fossil fuels is no quick fix
The history of transportation is studded with discovery and mishap
Oil, cars and guilty feelings about carbon exhaust were not always powers in the land. The culture of mobility and its addiction to liquid fossil fuels – and the side-effects from liberated youth and long-distance family vacations to suburbs and traffic jams – evolved slowly.
It took nearly four decades after the first commercial oil well was drilled in the United States in 1859 for history to record the first American automobile accident. In 1896, New York City motorist Henry Wells opened the road carnage era by colliding with bicycle rider Evylyn Thomas. She broke her leg. Wells went to jail.
Canadians boast priority on both of those historical scorecards: discovery and mishap.
The 150th birthday party for the first oil well in North America was held at its southern Ontario site near Sarnia in mid-2008. American custodians of their pioneer drilling legacy at Oil City in western Pennsylvania acknowledged the claim by attending the Canadian festivities last year.
The unhappy record of the first known traffic accident belongs to a Prince Edward Island priest, Father Antoine Belcourt. While showing off a steam-powered car that he imported from the U.S. at a parish picnic in 1866, he lost control. The vehicle ran off the road, smashed through a fence and rolled over. The only harm done was to his pride and the early reputation of the horseless carriage. Belcourt quit driving on the spot. The vehicle’s engine was turned into a stationary water pump, reports automotive history buff Austin Bowman.
While little noticed outside the communities closest to the discovery sites where the celebrations were held, the 150th anniversaries of the first Canadian and American oil wells generated an outpouring of entertaining and often enlightening historical research. Some has been posted for free viewing on Internet sites like and www.oil150.com.
Among the lessons taught by the research are central points that industry participants try to make in current environmental and political debates.
Requirements for natural resources and energy do not change overnight. Society is pervaded with a wide range of uses for oil.
In its early years, oil was used as much for medicinal purposes as for fuel. The oldest recognizable modern oil product is Vaseline. The brand name entered the market for lotions, salves, ointments, skin care preparations and numerous recipes used by pharmacists in 1871.
The jelly was just one item made from petroleum wax that at first annoyed early oil developers but soon became a valuable sideline. The byproduct’s uses included candles, matches, chewing gum, food and leather preservatives, garment waterproofing, and insulation for telegraph lines and electrical wiring.
Petrochemicals came into widespread use long before the age of plastics and synthetic garments, derived from oil and natural gas by complex manipulation of their hydrocarbon molecules, dawned during the Second World War. Early petroleum products in heavy use by the time of the First World War included synthetic toluene, the T in TNT. Another early refinery byproduct – isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol – was a fixture in health care, preservatives, shampoo, perfume and cosmetics. In the American Prohibition era, determined drinkers used the synthetic stuff as a more toxic but less regulated substitute for ethyl alcohol distilled from crops.
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