May 2012

Energy Issues

How lucky we are

 Vol. 233 No. 5



How lucky we are

Dr. William J. Pike

I recently traveled to Washington D.C., to give a presentation to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. Per our plans, after the Thursday morning presentation, my wife and I headed south into Virginia. Our aim was to visit Civil War battlefields between D.C. and Richmond, Virginia. While we did visit the National Civil War Museum and the Confederate White House, in which Jefferson Davis resided as president of the Confederacy, we rapidly became distracted by the rich American Colonial and Revolutionary War history in the area.

We had visited Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, a couple of years earlier.  We now had the opportunity to visit his boyhood home at Ferry Hill Farm, in addition to his mother, Mary’s, his brother, Charles’, and his sister, Betty Lewis’, homes in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We also found time to see St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the site of Patrick Henry’s stirring “give me liberty or give me death” speech, as well as Henry’s house in the countryside. The history was impressive. What really registered with me, however, is how far we have come since the 18th century, or since the turn of the 20th century, for that matter.

When Henry traveled the approximately 40 miles from his country home to Richmond, to deliver his famous speech, the trip took two days by horseback. When Washington visited his mother, brother or sister in Fredericksburg—again some 40-plus miles from Mount Vernon—he had to make a similar two-day trip on horseback.  Twenty five miles a day was about the best you could do on horseback then. The wife and I made the trip in less than an hour.

Even more revealing were the tours of the old homes. Most begin in a large parlor. In April, it is a large, and cold, parlor. The room will also be fairly dark, despite large windows. There is no electricity for heat and light. To remain even moderately comfortable, one had to stand or sit near a fireplace, generally with one’s feet on a foot warmer, if it was an affluent household. The wooden floors were cold. No carpets or synthetic flooring were available to the ordinary household, while only pricey wool rugs were available to the affluent. Light, when available, came from candles. The “well-off” might have had beeswax candles, a clean-burning light with little noxious smoke. The less-fortunate (nearly everyone) made do with tallow candles made from melted animal fat. The flame was intense, and the smoke thick and noxious. More than a few poor souls were burned to death, when their clothing was ignited by tallow candles.

The contrasts between colonial life and modern life were more stark in the kitchens, most of which were in separate buildings, because of the danger of fire. It was not unusual to lose a kitchen or two over the working life of a colonial dwelling. Again, there was no electricity or gas and, thus, there was no refrigeration, no power utensils, no vented exhaust, no gas or electric oven or stovetop, and on and on. The kitchen was truly a workhouse. Most of the food, it turned out, was not created from the fresh ingredients to which we are accustomed. The vast majority of what was eaten was obtained locally, and only in season.

In general, most of the food was cooked early in the day, with the main meal occurring about 2:00 p.m. By that time, it had been setting out for a while. The evening meal consisted of leftovers from 2:00, which had set out even longer. Spices, which were understandably expensive, were used to hide the increasingly gamey taste of the food.  Dishes might be washed after every meal in an affluent home, but for most, they were simply wiped up with the last pieces of bread and left out for the next meal. Food-borne disease, as you might imagine, was not an idle threat.

If you did get sick in colonial days from the food, or the alarming number of other diseases that we have now conquered and mostly forgotten, good luck. Medicines consisted almost entirely of herbal remedies. Nothing as simple as aspirin existed. Of course, you might become ill, because you were simply unclean. Fresh water was not easy to come by. It generally was not heated for a bath. Bathing occurred (as opposed to wiping up of hands and face, which might be done on a weekly basis) only in the summer months, when the water temperature was bearable, and then only once or twice a year.

Given the above, surely some distraction would have been in order back then. Board and card games did exist, as did music and art for the upper class. But, as travel was limited and communications spotty at best, interaction with remote friends and family was difficult for the average colonist. There were, of course, no telephones, telegraphs, internets, or the numerous other communication devices we enjoy today. There was mail, but only about a third of the mail sent was ever delivered to its addressee. And the mail that did reach its destination was not delivered, for the most part, in a timely manner.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with oil and gas? Everything. We have it. They did not. Oil and gas, and the fuels and power we derive from them, not to mention thousands of other products—from medicines to plastics to clean running water—that they provide, have given us the world in which we live. Without them we would be, to a large extent, mirror images of our colonial brethren. It is something we all take for granted, but something we should not. wo-box_blue.gif

William.Pike@CONTR.NETL.DOE.GOV / Bill Pike has 43 years’ experience in the upstream oil and gas industry and serves as Chairman of the World Oil Editorial Advisory Board. He is currently a consultant with Leonardo Technologies and works under contract in the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a division of the U.S. Department of Energy. His role includes analyzing and supporting NETL’s numerous R&D projects in upstream and carbon sequestration technologies.



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