Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, the airplane aileron and the three-wheel airplane undercarriage, among other things, predicted the coming energy crisis in 1917. He also proposed a solution.
The prediction was unearthed (last week) by scholars at the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. who recalled that a Washington scientist, W. King Hurbert, won a Rockefeller Public Service Award for his prediction of an energy crisis. Hubbert made his prediction in 1948, 31 years after Bell made his.
"There is one obstacle to further advance" of society, Bell had told the graduating class at the District of Columbia's McKinley Manual Training School on Feb. 1, 1917. "The increasing price of fuels necessary to work machinery.
"Coal and oil are going up and are strictly limited in quantity. We can take coal out of a mine, but we can never put it back. We can draw oil from subterranean reservoirs but we can never refill them again. We are spendthrifts in the matter of fuel and are using our capital for our running expenses.
"In relation to coal and oil, the world's annual consumption has become so enormous that we are now actually within measurable distance of the end of the supply. What shall we do when we have no more coal or oil?"
Bell, who died in 1922 at the age of 75, answered that question with a proposal that is causing increasing controversy and interest today. Burn alcohol, he said.
"Alcohol makes a beautifully clean and efficient fuel . . . we can make alcohol from sawdust, the waste product of our mills . . . from cornstalks, and in fact from almost any vegetable matter capable of fermentation. Our growing crops and even weeds can be used. The waste products of our farms are available for this purpose, and even the garbage from our cities."
Hubbert, told of Bell's remarks, called it 'beautiful.Of course," he added, "I never claimed responsibility for the idea of a coming shortage, which was common at that time. I just put the figures together and they turned out to be fairly accurate. I haven't been embarrassed yet."