In 1861, newly elected president Abraham Lincoln unwittingly dealt the alcohol fuel industry another major blow when he authorized a $2.00 per gallon sales tax on alcohol—drinking and industrial—to fund the Union cause in the recently erupted Civil War. Lincoln had nothing against alcohol as spirit or fuel; it was merely one commodity among many—Kerosene included—caught in the sweep of widespread taxes to fund the war. But at only 10 cents a gallon, the Kerosene tax gave the oil-based fuel a big advantage over its more heavily taxed, plant-based rival. Virtually overnight, kerosene became the fuel of choice for lamps and other devices requiring a relatively safe fuel for burning. And because the alcohol tax remained on the books until the first decade of the 20th century, alcohol simply couldn’t compete with gasoline for the lucrative and fast growing automobile market.
In mid 19th century Europe, meanwhile, in the absence of crippling taxes, alcohol remained a popular fuel and the obvious choice for early prototypes of the internal combustion engine.[i] In 1860, German inventor Nicholas Otto designed his four-cylinder engine to run on alcohol. And although German engineer Rudolf Diesel’s eponymous engine did not burn alcohol, crowds at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, where the French government put a working Diesel engine on display, were later surprised to learn that the motor ran on pure peanut oil. Lacking domestic oil production or significant reserves, France and Germany were especially motivated to explore alcohol as a viable fuel. In 1901, the Automobile Club of Paris sponsored a 50-vehicle race across France for cars running on pure alcohol and alcohol-gasoline blends. A year later, the French government hosted the Paris Alcohol Fuel Exposition, featuring alcohol-powered cars, farm equipment, lamps, stoves, heaters, and dozens of other industrial and household products. In Germany, the official Office of Alcohol Sales used tariffs and subsidies to keep alcohol on equal footing with gasoline. The German Emperor, Kaiser William II, offered prizes for the most ingenious alcohol engines.
In the United States, as gasoline prices rose during the first decade of the new century, farmers and automobile clubs took note of the success of alcohol fuel in Europe and began to openly agitate for Congress to lift the long-standing alcohol tax. “Gasoline is growing scarcer, and therefore dearer, all the time,” Dave Hennen Morris, president of the Automobile Club of America, was quoted in the New York Times in 1906. “Automobiles cannot use gasoline for all time, of that I am sure, and alcohol seems to be the best substitute that has yet appeared.”[ii]
After several aborted attempts, Congress did abolish the alcohol tax later in 1907, giving rise to speculation that alcohol would soon trump gasoline as the preferred fuel for cars. In a publicity stunt celebrating the event, Joe Tracy, a famous champion of the new and popular (not to mention very dangerous) sport of racecar driving, drove his 30 horsepower “Dragon car” from New York City to Philadelphia using alcohol for fuel. Meanwhile, dozens of well-known scientists, chief among them famed inventor Elihu Thomson, who partnered with Thomas Edison to found General Electric, touted the benefits of alcohol compared to gasoline. “It is found by actual experiment that a gallon of alcohol will develop substantially the same power in an internal combustion engine as a gallon of gasoline,” Elihu told a reporter. “This is owing to the superior efficiency of operation when alcohol is used.”[iii] Alcohol not only burned cleaner than gasoline but also, unlike oil, came from abundant, reliable and renewable sources. As J.A. Anglada, chairman of the Society of Automobile Engineers, opined, “the sources of alcohol are inexhaustible, or, as it has been otherwise expressed, alcohol can be produced as long as the sun shines and the rain falls.”[iv] Speaking on behalf of American farmers before the Committee of Ways and Means, Nahum Batcheider, Master of the National Grange of the Patrons of Industry, testified that “for lighting, motor fuel, and household purposes alone there should be a demand for at least 100,000,000 gallons of alcohol in the near future, and with the steady increases in the use of the farm engine and the alcohol lamp the quantity used for these purposes would soon greatly exceed this great amount.” Such demand for alcohol, Batcheider added, would benefit the nation’s hard-working farmers by significantly increasing the market for corn, potatoes, sorghum, beet sugar, molasses, and other crops. Henry Ford, in an early effort to support American farmers, built early Model T engines with adaptors to allow them to run on alcohol.
In short, alcohol seemed poised not merely to compete with gasoline but to potentially replace it. But only potentially. First, scientists and engineers would have to overcome several economic and technological hurdles. Chief among them was cost. Although numerous newspaper articles and editorials written during the first decade of the 20th century bemoaned rising gasoline prices, alcohol was even more expensive. A study published in Scientific American in 1907 noted that running a car with a regular engine on alcohol cost more than twice as much as fueling it with gas. Plus, for alcohol to work efficiently as motor fuel, it had to be used in high-compression engines—engines designed to more forcefully compress the mixture of fuel and air in the cylinder. Most cars already on the road were made to run on gasoline, and so had relatively low-compression engines.
[i] One of the earliest such engines, a two-cylinder contraption designed by American inventor Samuel Morey in 1826, burned ethyl alcohol and turpentine.
[ii] “Auto Club Aroused Over Alcohol Bill,” New York Times, Apr. 26, 1906.
[iii] “Future of Alcohol in the Industries,” New York Times, Aug. 5, 1906.
[iv] “Praises Alcohol as a Motor Fuel,” New York Times, May 24, 1914.