Lecture 22 - From Oil to the American Dream

For this lecture...

1) Why was there a need for Petroleum in the mid-1800ís?

2) Why was the internal combustion engine inherently more efficient than the steam engine?

3) What were Henry Fordís two major contributions to American Industry?

Oil: While coal was useful as a source of heat (to melt iron, produce steam, or warm a cabin), it was not useful as a source of light. With the movement away from an agricultural lifestyle, the need to see (and work!) at night increased. At first, the colonists were able to rely on candles and whale-oil lanterns. However, by the mid-1800ís, the number of whales were beginning to decline, but the demand for their oil continued to increase. Thus, in 1858, Edwin Drake dug the first well, in Titusville, PA, to extract petroleum from the rock and started a new industry.

Energy: Energy generates and is generated by heat, light, and motion. However, every time energy is converted into a new form, at least one-third of it is lost in the conversion. Although petroleum was soon being burned to boil water for steam engines, it did not achieve its maximum potential until the internal combustion engine was invented in Germany in the 1880ís. In a steam engine, a burning fuel boils water: this converts the heat into steam pressure. This pressure is then used to push a piston and generate motion. In an internal combustion engine, this process is simplified because the burning of the fuel (gasoline or diesel fuel) pushes the piston directly, thus generating the motion. Because the costly conversion to steam is eliminated, the internal combustion engine is much more efficient (more motion for the same amount of fuel) than a steam engine. This high efficiency allowed very small, but powerful, engines to be built. These engines were mounted on carriage-frames and became the first automobiles. Of course, a few years later, the Wright brothers mounted their own engine on their first airplane, the Flyer, in 1903.

Click here for images

Efficiency, pollution, and electrically-powered vehicles : Are electric cars a solution to urban woes resulting from current cars? Think about what we learned about efficiency: a significant amount of energy (at least one-third ... 33%) is lost by converting it from one form to another. Electric cars are not powered by "naturally-occurring" electricity...electricity must be, in effect, manufactured or "generated ".

Although some electricity is generated by "clean" sources, like solar, wind, or hydro (water), most is produced by burning oil, natural gas, or coal. These fuels are usually used to create steam, which is then used to turn the electrical generator. How many conversions of energy is this? 1.) fuel to 2.) steam to 3.) motion to 4.) electricity! Thus, the use of electricity is currently much less efficient than most other methods...and this does not count any losses through the wires from the plant to your home! Thus, an electric car, in effect, burns up to three times as much fuel as a car with an internal combustion engine. The main benefit of electric vehicles (low emissions) is similarly deceptive: if an electric car needs three times as much fuel, it is potentially generating three times as much pollution, much of it from very dirty-burning coal. However, in intensely-developed setting, like big cities, the local effect of pollution could over-shadow these other issues.

Assembly Line: Henry Ford demonstrated other ways that American values differed from European values. Because Europeans favored high hand-made quality, production remained low and costs remained high. Thus, only the wealthy could afford to buy many things (which helped to demonstrate that they were upper-class). In America, because the amount of skill required was low, goods were produced faster and there were more available. Thus, the price became more affordable to the lower classes. Ford further reasoned that, ideally, they people manufacturing the cars should be able to afford them: if your workers buy your product, they are simply returning their pay to the company. First, he decreased the cost of his product, the Model T, by making the manufacturing process more efficient. He limited the number of tasks that each person performed ("the man who puts in the bolt doesnít put on the nut, and the man who puts on the nut, doesnít tighten it."). This made each worker a specialist, and allowed them to develop skills, in one particular task (can you say "repetitive-motion disorder"?). Then, he arranged to have the cars move through the factory rather than having the workers move around the cars. Thus, the assembly-line made production was about 16-times faster than before! Finally, by increasing his workers pay, not only was he able to hire the best workers, but they were able to buy more of his product. Thus, over 16,000,000 Model T Fords were produced; an introduction which revolutionized the American lifestyle.

Key Terms:


Energy Conversion

Internal Combustion Engine

Rudolf Diesel

Nicholas Otto


Henry Ford