New Heroes vs. Old
by Thomas Sowell
by Thomas Sowell: Budget
When I mention
that my family used kerosene lamps when I was a small child in the
South during the 1930s, that is usually taken as a sign of our poverty,
though I never thought of us as poor at the time.
ironic is that kerosene lamps were a luxury of the rich in the 19th
century, before John D. Rockefeller came along. At the high price
of kerosene at that time, an ordinary working man could not afford
to stay up at night, burning this expensive fuel for hours at a
did not begin his life as rich, by any means. He made a fortune
by revolutionizing the petroleum industry. Although we still measure
petroleum in barrels, it is actually shipped in railroad tank cars,
in ocean-going tankers and in tanker trucks.
a legacy of John D. Rockefeller, who saw that shipping oil in barrels
was not as economical as shipping whole railroad tank cars full
of oil, eliminating all the labor that had to go into shipping the
same amount of oil in numerous individual barrels.
That was just
one of his cost-cutting innovations. If there was a better way to
extract, process and ship petroleum products or more products
that could be made from petroleum Rockefeller was on top
Before he came
along, gasoline was considered a useless by-product that petroleum
refineries often simply dumped into the nearest river. But Rockefeller
decided to use it as a fuel in the refining process, which made
it valuable, even before automobiles came along.
we tend to think of John D. Rockefeller as just one of those famous
rich people. But Rockefeller didn't just "happen to have money."
How he got rich is the real story and it is a story whose implications
reach far beyond that one particular individual.
Rockefeller's innovations reduced the price of kerosene to a fraction
of what it had once been, there wasn't a lot for poor people to
do when nightfall came, other than go to bed. But the advent of
cheap kerosene added hours of light and activity to each day for
people with low or moderate incomes.
It was much
the same story with the advent of the automobile, which gave millions
of people more range in space, as kerosene (and, later, electricity)
gave them more range in terms of hours of daily activity.
automobiles and electric lights were truly luxuries of the rich
when they began. Only after ways were developed to cut their costs
drastically were such things brought within the reach of ordinary
mass production methods cut in half the cost of producing the famous
Model T Ford in just five years. People who had once lived their
entire lives within a narrow radius of a relatively few miles could
now go see places they never knew about before. The automobile expanded
who complain about the automobile's pollution have no idea how much
more pollution there was before the automobile came along. In New
York City, for example, the 40,000 horses that were the backbone
of the city's transportation, before the automobile, produced 400
tons of manure per working day, along with 20,000 gallons of urine.
time, people like Rockefeller, Edison, Ford and the Wright brothers
were regarded as heroes, for having opened vast new possibilities
for other human beings. The fact that they got rich doing it was
an incidental part of the story.
still have people revolutionizing our lives. Just think of the computer
and the pharmaceutical drugs that have not only lengthened our lives
but made them more healthful, so that being 80 years old today is
like being 60 years old in times past.
we seldom even know the names of those who have made these monumental
contributions to human well-being. All we know is that some people
have gotten "rich" and that this is to be regarded as some sort
the people we honor today are people who are skilled in the rhetoric
of grievances and promises of new "rights" at someone else's expense.
But is that what is going to make a better America?
Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University. His Web site is www.tsowell.com.
To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other
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2011 Creators Syndicate