Ethanol and the Illusion of Inevitability

Today I'm writing a textbook chapter on transportation. As  I’m writing about internal combustion and energy,  I'm thinking about the illusion of inevitability.

The argument about energy independence, renewability, and ethanol isn’t new: it has been going on for nearly a century. Samuel Morey’s 1826 internal combustion engine burned ethyl alcohol because it was readily available. Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both expected their future cars would burn alcohol fuels. Ford saw ethanol as a way to support American farmers and use grain surpluses that were depressing prices. Kettering’s statement that alcohol was the best way to convert solar energy to fuel reflected a belief that it was better to live on annual solar “income” than to become dependent on drawing down fossil fuel “capital.” And both men worried that gasoline would involve the United States in the affairs of faraway regions. A speaker at a 1936 conference sponsored by Ford remarked that the biggest known oil reserves were “in Persia…and in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?”

Since energy is such an important and contentious issue today, why aren’t we more aware that these debates are not new? General-purpose American History textbooks have a lot to cover, it’s true. They can’t go into detail on every issue. Checking the indexes of several popular textbooks reveals that if they address the petroleum industry at all, it’s usually just to mention that Standard Oil pioneered horizontal business integration and that John D. Rockefeller eventually controlled 90% of the industry. But even respected histories of technology like Vaclav Smil’s 2005 book,
Creating the Twentieth Century, tell the story of early internal combustion as if gasoline was the only fuel used until the end of World War I, when diesel trucks began entering the market. In Smil’s history, there was no solution to the “violent knocking that came with higher compression. That is why all pre-WWI engines worked with compression ratios no higher than 4.3-1 and why the ratio began to rise to modern levels (between 8 and 10) only after the introduction of leaded gasoline.” This is simply not true, so why doesn’t an expert like Smil know the facts?


Ethyl alcohol fuels were already widely used before the beginning of the kerosene and petroleum boom dominated by Standard Oil. Engineers at both Ford and General Motors were aware that ethyl alcohol ran at high compression ratios without knocking. So how is it possible that historians, even historians of technology, seem to be unaware of the battles fought in the early years of the twentieth century over what American drivers would put in their tanks?

Part of the answer, I think, is that the winners of those battles left more records for historians than the losers. History depends on evidence. A seemingly comprehensive history of the petroleum industry can be written, based on mountains of documents in academic libraries and corporate archives. Books about companies like DuPont and Standard Oil, written by both supporters and opponents, could fill a library. Anyone who undertakes a new history of these subjects must read all this material, which leaves little time to dig for other perspectives.

The makers of ethanol in the early twentieth century, unlike the corporations, left few documents. And finding the story of alcohol in the archives of Ford or General Motors requires dedication and persistence. A good percentage of the records left by these companies, after all, are not objective accounts at all. They’re advertisements, public relations statements, and internal documents arguing not about what could be done, but about what they wanted to do.

As a result, the history we read tells the story of an apparently inevitable, unstoppable journey toward the petroleum-powered world we live in today. This type of history celebrates the winners while at the same time excusing them. When we assume the outcome was inevitable, we conclude that if it hadn’t been Rockefeller, it would just have been somebody else. And that’s the biggest problem. When we believe the present was inevitable, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. In the past, and also in the present and the future.