Happy birthday gasoline engine! You're 135 years old today! OK, I made that up.
The internal combustion engine, where the fuel burns inside the cylinder as opposed to the external combustion engine, where the fuel burns outside under a boiler had been around as a concept or poorly working model some time before.
As early as 1678 there was a design proposing an engine that used gunpowder to power a pump to lift water. A few were made but they were inefficient and most likely dangerous.
In 1794 a gas engine was built that actually worked though the inefficient and unreliable design still left much to be desired. Notice that I said "gas", not gasoline.
For the first 50 years of their existence, these early engines burned either natural gas or the illuminating gas used in street lamps. Liquid fuels would require as little more work.
These early engines were an attempt to replace the heavy steam engines that were then powering industry. A steam engine requires not only the power cylinder that does the work but also a massive boiler and firebox to burn the fuel and turn water into steam. Of course the real work was done by the energy locked up in the wood or coal the engine burned and all the mechanical contraption did was allow that energy to be harnessed. Simple idea, complicated execution!
In 1864, a German named N. A. Otto teamed up with some investors to form a company to build gas engines to power industry. Enough innovations had occurred and the new efficiency that made it profitable. That company is still in existence today as Deutz AG and they build heavy-duty industrial engines. That's an amazingly long time for a single business model to succeed!
Back to my original quote of 135 years, that's when Otto patented the 4-stroke engine that most modern engines trace back to. One of Otto's original partners an engineer named Gottlieb Daimler wanted to build transportation wagons. Otto's interest lay in engines to power pumps and stationary agricultural equipment. Otto wasn't interested in transportation so Daimler quit and started a company with another backer named Karl Benz.
Their first creation was a wooden framed, .5 horsepower motorcycle called the Einspur. Built in 1885, it could do all of 12 mph but was impractical and only a stepping-stone to the transportation wagon concept, so they then concentrated on 4-wheel vehicles. Still in business today, many Mercedes Benz transport wagons still cruise the island roads. This is really where I want to start this story.
Right now, the automobile's star is in decline. Machinea Non Grata with environmentalists, it is the root of all evil, the fount of greenhouse gases. Cars are supposed to have changed humanity for the worse, removed us from a more natural and purer state. We would be so much better off if not for the car... or so the rant goes. And electrics will soon take over and a battery-powered hearse will carry the last internal combustion vehicle to a rusty grave. Really?
Let's look at some of the assumptions. Take Greenhouse gases... please! Cars and trucks burn gasoline and diesel and they contribute 14% to the total. That's right, only 14% now it could be argued that the lifestyle that cars encourage drives much of the rest of the total and I won't argue that. I also won't argue that manmade greenhouse gases contribute to global warming though to what extent and to what end is still open to interpretation, but what is the alternative?
We live in the Oil Age. We use petroleum to move things, lift things, pump things, and grow things. What will replace oil? Petroleum represents stored sunlight. For many millions of years, ocean plankton settled to the bottom of prehistoric seas. Covered with silt and mud, heated by the earth, it slowly changed to the mix of chemicals we call crude oil. In some places it was trapped and we are able to tap into it and pump it out of the ground for our own use.
Over the last century we have been making massive withdrawals from that petroleum account. When we do this, we are really drawing on prehistoric sunshine. In fact, in the past century, we've used about a million years worth of this stored sunshine!
OK, build all the windmills you want, lay out solar panels over every sunny square foot of land, and grow massive amounts of corn all over what's left. You still can't make up for all the energy contained in the oil we use.
Let me state that a different way: there is not enough sunlight falling on the earth in a given year to furnish all of the energy we need to run our current worldwide economy. Now this is a "really bad thing" because it's not just a matter of taking fewer trips in the SUV or buying a bicycle. These are minor inconveniences that we could adjust to.
The major problem is hunger. We can't grow, harvest, or transport enough crops using wind, solar, and bio-fuels to feed the world. We need petroleum for fuel AND fertilizer. If the oil is gone then people will starve. When people are starving, they don't act rationally and they don't play well with others!
We'll come back to the energy problem in a later column, but for now, let's continue with our birthday celebration. the charge is that cars have changed society. Yup.
They've done it rapidly too. We are so cock sure of how cool and modern we are, of how fast things change in the digital age yet 1900 to 1920 makes us look like we are stuck in molasses.
In 1900, New York City had 2 million pounds of horse manure dumped in its streets every day. In the summer, a fine brown dust contaminated every surface including the lungs of the cities residents.
By 1920, cars replaced the horses and pollution, while still present, was in a different and less deadly form. In 1900 cities were compact and if you wanted to go anywhere, you went where the captains of industry decreed that mass transit would take you... on their schedule, not yours!
Consider social mores. In 1900 most dates were chaperoned affairs at local churches or civic clubs. By 1920, the backseat was replacing the front porch. Now just among friends here, really, which would you prefer, the front porch with Mom looking out the window or the back seat of your buddy's Model T? Yeah, thought so.
The profound change in our moral values starts right here in the back seat. Roaring 20s flappers to hip hop raves, it's a straight-line folks. Meanwhile, cars allowed suburbs, sprawl, and individual interstate travel.
On the farm, changes were even more profound. In 1900, one farmer could feed 2 or 3 people. Today, one farmer feeds 50 to 75 people. We romanticize rural life but the actual work of farming was long and hard and today we want the Norman Rockwell part of life in the past, not the sweaty, dirty part. Now, internal combustion engines do that hard work and if it weren't for those tireless engines chugging away, billions would be hungry and the world would be a meaner and far more uncertain place.
Finally, cars, and of course, motorcycles are the perfect expression of the American spirit. You can go when you want, where you want. You are free to "do your own thing in your own time! Far out man!" as the old Hippy bikers used to say.
Cars and bikes have reshaped our landscape. Sure, I hate a freeway tangle but can you travel Chuckanut Drive and not love it? I love my road trips across the West. I love to hike the wilderness but I get there by car and enjoy that trip too.
So happy birthday my V-8 friend. Keep on pulling V-twin buddy. I'm a lucky man and have lived in a special time when freedom was sold by the gallon. I am a credit card carrying member of the Oil Age. The road ahead may be bumpy and a little uncertain but it's been a great ride so far.
There are challengers around but the 4-stroke engine's got legs... or in this case wheels. New improvements, new innovations make it more efficient than ever. I think that the gasoline engine will be around in some form for at least a century more. Gasoline will be a different mix, certainly more expensive but there will be filling stations of some sort available.
One of my motorcycles is a 1947 Harley. I bought it in 1969 and was tickled that it was the same age as me. On our 100th birthday, I intend to fire it up and go for a ride. I bet I'll still be able to buy gasoline.
Maybe I'll head up Chuckanut, maybe Mt. Baker. As I twist the throttle, the old Harley's internal fire will push me down the road just as it's done for much of my adult life. I'll go where I want. I'll do my own thing in my own time. Far out man:-)
- The Old Squid