Congressmen Wanted to Control Gasoline (Parable about atomic power)
On April 17, 1958 the Brownsville (TX) Herald published an editorial titled “Congressmen Wanted to Control Gasoline.” It was aimed at actions by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission to maintain nearly total control of all aspects of atomic power generation.
As described by Snopes, excerpts from this ancient editorial have become part of urban legend as a story about the “Horseless Carriage Committee” and used in a number of disparate situations.
I thought the editorial is worth sharing. (Note: I have computed a high likelihood that copyrights on this piece have long ago expired; it was printed before I was born.)
From April 17, 1958 Editorial Features Brownsville Herald (page 5-C)
Congressmen Wanted to Control Gasoline
Individually, we tend to learn from experience. Collectively, if mankind can be viewed as a collective, we tend to repeat the same old mistakes.
The differences between the government of Julius Caesar and of Dwight Eisenhower are minor and of academic interest. The parallels are startling and numerous.
To illustrate just how the same old fallacies repeat year after year, we reproduce here a special report by a Joint Congressional Committee on the subject of the horseless carriage. This report was made as a result of the “emergency” occasioned by the development of the internal combustion engine in the year 1875.
“A new source of power, which burns a distillate of kerosene called gasoline, has been produced by a Boston engineer. Instead of burning the fuel under a boiler, it is exploded inside the cylinder of the engine. This so-called internal combustion engine may be used under certain circumstances to supplement steam engines. Experiments are under way to use such an engine to propel a vehicle.
“This discovery begins a new era in the history of civilization. It may some day prove to be more revolutionary in the development of human society than the invention of the wheel, the use of metals or the steam engine. Never in history has society been confronted with a power so full of promise for the future of man and for the peace of the world.
The dangers are obvious. Stores of gasoline in the hands of the people interested primarily in profit, would constitute a fire and explosive hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline engines might attain speeds of 15 or even 20 miles per hour. The menace to our people of vehicles of this type hurtling through our streets and along our roads and poisoning the atmosphere would call for prompt legislative action even if the military and economic implications were not so overwhelming. The Secretary of War has testified before us and has pointed out the destructive effects of the use of such vehicles in battle. A few of them, with a small cannon mounted behind a steel shield, could destroy infantry, break up a calvary charge, and even seriously threaten field artillery by lightning-like flank attacks. Furthermore, our supplies of petroleum, from which gasoline can be extracted only in limited quantities, make it imperative that the defense forces should have first call on the limited supply.
Furthermore, the cost of producing it is far beyond the financial capacity of private industry, yet the safety of the nation demands that an adequate supply should be produced. In addition, the development of this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck our agriculture. We therefore earnestly recommend that Congress set up a Horseless Carriage Commission which shall have complete control of all sources of gasoline and similar explosive elements and all activities connected with their development and use in the United States.
“These measures may seem drastic and far-reaching, but the discovery with which we are dealing involves forces of a nature too dangerous to fit into any of our usual concepts.”
As a precise modern parallel, today’s government controls all atomic power. Until such time as our nation’s businessmen can get their hands on this tremendous source of energy without government regulations, ownership or control, this power will be used principally for destructive purposes. Only individual free men can and will convert energy into useful channels. Governments are political and war-making entities and as such will inevitably follow the same old collectivist road.
From my point of view, the editorial writer was overlooking the primary reason that governments tend to try to control new products and capabilities — they are designed and powerfully motivated to protect incumbent interests from upstart competitors.
Rod, it is good to “look back” in order to pave the way forward. In a hundred years what will we say as we look back at the ridiculousness in which we treated atomic energy? Will it resemble the attitude we had in the early 20th century about the combustion engine and gasoline powered engines? What will the new “horseless carriage” euphemism be 100 years from now? Time will tell.
Welcome to Atomic Insights, old friend!
It would be nice if we can look back at the ridiculousness with which we treated atomic energy. As my little time machine today illustrates, however, our collective approach to the subject has lasted for longer than both you and I have been alive and that is getting too darned close to 60 years.
The parallels between the discussion of the internal combustion engine/horseless carriage and atomic power are numerous and stark. Very nice find, Rod.
Interesting. I guess none of you see the parrallel to how you discuss wind and solar.
There isn’t any comparison between the concentrated, clean power from actinide fission and the weak, weather dependent power from the sun and wind.
Would you compare the material properties of tissue paper to that of fine hardwoods as raw materials for your craft?
We’ve done the math and have good reasons to criticize. Solar and wind energy are not exactly unknowns; humans have been using them for tens of thousands of years.
The saddest example, in my opinion, is illustrated by Turner’s painting, of “The Fighting Téméraire being Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken.”
It is a prime symbol of the replacement of wind power by coal-driven steam. There is nothing in the slight improvements (obtained with quite impressive amounts of ingenuity and cleverness) in windmill power production, that could imaginably enable wind driven ships to do better than sail, and certainly not compete with a tugboat, Mississippi paddle steamer, or the USS “United States”.
Here’s a thought: imagine a wind turbine powered ballista or trebuchet arrayed against a fleet of sailboats. Better still, a battery of them. Who’d win?
I have to admit that I am not sure what parallels you are referring to. I find myself often enjoying the takes that you bring to the comment stream here.
Wind and solar are inherently intermittent. To attempt to argue that they aren’t would be beyond absurd.
“Energy storage will solve all the intermittency problems.” – that statement often shouted from the rooftops by many folks is all-too-often not accompanied by the critical thoughts regarding all the extra capital expenses that would be required by a build-out of a system that would allow the intermittencies of wind and solar to be smoothed out into a useful product of a reliable electricity supply.
CNN has a positive piece on Iran’s medical isotope program.
Refreshing seeing such a piece in our compliant and subservient media. Certainly there are powerful players on the right that would prefer such articles are left unseen by our citizens. You can bet that such articles will be followed by a litany of “Yeah buts…” by those whose interests are served by demonizing all things Iranian. Perhaps Israel and its mewling syncopantic underlings in our Congress will advocate bombing this nuclear facility into oblivion. After all, its obviously a facility designed to create a doomsday weapon.
Thank you for the link.
I need some help. Is the following line true? If so, why?
By comparison, he says, the reactor at Bushehr — now turned off — was 1,000 megawatts.
I haven’t been able to confirm the line in question. It is not clear from context whether it was Mr. Saeed who actually made such a statement, or whether it was story reporter Mick Krever, who may have confused Bushehr with Arak and added the qualification to assuage potentially distraught readers.
Mr. Google reports much ongoing with respect to Bushehr II – V, and potential builds on Iran’s Caspian and Persian Gulf coasts, but nothing to suggest Bushehr I is not online and expected to deliver 7 TWh/yr. WNA’s Nuclear Power in Iran page was updated just last month; I’d think we’d have heard if anything were amiss.
“Increasingly, part of the rationale for sites on the Gulf is desalination (for ‘sweet water’), giving them priority in planning.”
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