I just watched John Huston’s 1956 film version of Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick. I first saw the film when I was a teenager, and I now consider it an “iconic” film because I can still remember even minor characters and scenes with great vividness. The film had a great director, a fine cast, and awesome cinema effects for the time.
It is a magnificent film but somewhat hard to watch today because of the whale hunting scenes. Since 1956 the advent of television and innumerable nature shows have sensitized us to the killing of animals especially whales. We might feel differently, however, if we had lived 200 years ago in what was a veritable dark age.
Back then whales, especially sperm whales, were hunted not for sport or food but for their oil. The oil was used to light the lamps that did a much better job of illuminating homes than candles. Before that time, you were basically in the dark when the sun went down. Just consider what it is like when we have a power outage today and have to rely on candles for light. It’s doable but hard to endure for more than an hour or two.
Fortunately, the discovery and use of underground oil in the 19th century was a tremendous improvement in home lighting. The subsequent harnessing of electricity finally took us into the modern world. We no longer had to kill whales and that industry is virtually banned today.
When I was a child in the 1940s I still remember watching with fascination as the coal delivery truck emptied a load of coal through a small basement window into a room size coal bin. We loved the coal and never considered that the dust stirred up in delivery might be harmful. I can remember my father or mother going down into the basement on winter mornings to shovel some coal from the bin into the burner. It was hard work but it heated our home beautifully.
We lived in a crowded borough of New York city and there was no way we could have heated our homes with wood. Actually, the advent of coal meant that just as we no longer had to kill whales, we no longer had to chop down forests.
Eventually, oil derived from petroleum replaced coal in our household. What a blessing! No more shoveling, no more messy coal bin, and no more ashes to discard. You just had to turn up the thermostat every morning and the heat came up. Eventually the coal trucks disappeared from our streets.
Nevertheless, fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas still play a major role in our energy system. Even green power advocates still use them for heat and light as well as to power up their cell phones every night, as well as charge up the batteries of their hybrid and electric vehicles.
Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1850, and oil began to replace coal in homes around 1950. I won’t live to see it but I suspect that by 2050 human ingenuity and technology will have found cost-effective ways to heat and light our homes even without government laws and subsidies. A friend of mine, who is an expert on the matter, told me that bio-fuels (but not ethanol) are the wave of the future.
Francis P. DeStefano, Ph.D., of Fairfield, is a writer, lecturer, historian and retired financial planner.
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