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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Parallel, but in reverse
December 2, 2008 - 9:07pm

No, I'm not thinking about backing up to parallel park (do drivers know how to do that any more?), although my topic is auto-related.

I was reading an article in New Scientist magazine (available online, but by subscription only I'm afraid). It spoke about the hydrogen economy -- or the lack of the one which had been predicted -- and mentioned Arnold Swarzenegger's seemingly futile aspiration for a "hydrogen highway" with 200 hydrogen refueling stations. (To date, California has 5.)

And I was listening on NPR on my drive home to a story about a San Jose entrepreneur who's trying to jump-start the electric vehicle/plug-in hybrid market by deploying electric recharging stations around his city. It reminded me of a similar print story (in the Guardian) about how the California government had similar (although, of course, more ambitious) plans for San Francisco.

And, somehow, I was reminded of the story of the demise of another, earlier, form of automotive propulsion. One which, in its day, proved itself more effective than the internal combustion engine which was both its primary competitor and its successor. For years, it out-sold any internal combustion powered car -- the Stanley Steamer. It set a world land speed record which no internal combustion-powered car broke for five years. (FWIW, the most powerful railroad locomotive built to this day was steam-powered.)

If you do a little research, you'll find a lot of different explanations for the demise of the Stanley. Disallowed from racing. Too heavy. Too pricey. Bad suspension. Design obsolescence. The development of the electric starter (hand-cranking being a previous disadvantage of internal-combustion cars). Poor management.

But what really killed the Stanley was hoof-and-mouth disease. In the 1910's and early 1920's, hoof-and-mouth raged across the country. The informal network of water troughs which had been set up to allow horses to drink was closed down, to prevent transmission of the disease through saliva. (Some still survive adjacent to town squares or small parks, but most have long-since been converted to planters.) Drivers of steam cars had depended on these same water troughs to refill their tanks. (Think of the pictures you've seen of water towers alongside railroad lines in the first half of the 20th century. Same sort of thing.)

So, with no convenient way to refill the water tank (which was required more often than gasoline/kerosene), the steam car fell out of favor. Maybe it would have died anyways, but the lack of watering-spots surely contributed to its demise.

I guess if the lack of watering-stations could kill a popular old form of propulsion, the lack of refilling or recharging stations can prevent adoption of a promising new one. Not sure that has any sort of cosmic significance, either forward or reversed. But I'm sure it goes to show ... something.


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