How the Internal Combustion Engine Saved the World 


Al Gore wants to tax us $90 trillion dollars, eliminate automobiles, and create easily governed and controlled population centers. This is the same Al Gore who said, “The internal combustion engine is the greatest enemy of mankind.” Gore also said, “I wrote in . . . Earth in the Balance that we should set as a strategic goal the phasing out of the internal-combustion engine over a 25-year period. I accept now that was a mistake. Twenty-five years is far too long for a goal like that. I think we can do it quicker.”1

The internal combustion engine has saved millions of lives in ways that many of us never consider. The engines of the future will be internal combustion engines. Sure, there will be electric cars. There will be emissions in the production of the batteries, waste problems, and the power to manufacture the cars. There is no free energy, unless we’re talking about the sun and wind. There will never be wind-driven cars. Solar power is getting better.

How can the Goreans say such things about the internal combustion engine given its history and what life was like when the mode of transportation was by horse-drawn carriage? Let’s be honest: Gore’s in it for the money, and so are those pushing the government “to do something.”

“In some respects, the car — often identified by the ecolobby as the chief villain of growth — has led to less pollution, since a 1972 United States study shows that the average-size car emits 6 grammes of pollutants per mile, while a horse emits 600 grammes of solid and 300 grammes of liquid pollutants per mile.”2

The above was written in 1977. Engines have gotten a lot better since then.

Great pains are being taken to rid our air of exhaust pollutants. This is certainly a good thing. Compared to the donkey and horse the automobile is a non‑polluter. The late Dixy Lee Ray (1914–1994), Washington state’s first female governor, recalled that as a child, the world in which most Americans lived “was a very smelly place. The prevailing odors were of horse manure, human sweat, and unwashed bodies. A daily shower was unknown; at most there was the Saturday night bath.”3

Indoor plumbing was a luxury. Only a few main streets were paved, usually with cobblestone or brick. Automobiles were few and far between. Long-distance travel was by rail. Refrigeration was unheard of. If you wanted to get around, you had to have literal horse power and the pollution that went with it.

Sanitary experts in the early part of the twentieth century agreed that the normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty pounds of manure a day, with the average being something like twenty‑two pounds. In a city like Milwaukee in 1907, for instance, with a human population of 350,000 and a horse population of 12,500, this meant 133 tons of manure a day, for a daily average of nearly three‑quarters of a pound of manure per person per day. Or, as the health officials in Rochester calculated in 1900, the 15,000 horses in that city produced enough manure in a year to make a pile covering an acre of ground 175 feet high and breeding sixteen billion flies.4

The horse population of Chicago was 83,000, and this was after the automobile and electric streetcar had caused a decline in the number of urban horses. In 1880, the cities of New York and Brooklyn had a combined horse population somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000. As one can imagine, keeping the streets clean was a major problem. Some suggested that epidemics of cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, and typhoid were caused by “‘a combination of certain atmospheric conditions and putrefying filth,’ among which horse manure was a chief offender.”5

The cost of keeping the streets clean was expensive. Some cities tried to recoup the cost by selling the manure for fertilizer. This caused another unforseen problem since collecting manure was more profitable than collecting regular trash. Daily refuse often remained in the streets along with the leftover manure. What they wouldn’t have given for a garbage truck and a landfill back then.

Streets turned into cesspools during inclement weather. Women with long skirts suffered the worst of it. Dodging street cleaners was another hazard. There was no relief during the summer when people had to endure breathing pulverized horse manure. Modernized roads were of little help. “The paving of streets accelerated this problem, as wheels and hoofs ground the sun‑dried manure against the hard surfaces and amplified the amount of dust.”6 And there was the problem that the Atlantic Monthly described in 1886 to the theater-going public in New York City as “dead horses and vehicular entanglements.”

It’ technological challenges that spark inventive genius. If innovation is always going to be challenged because of the inevitability of downside issues, we might as well curl up in a ball and die.

  1. Ramesh Ponnuru, “The Attack Man,” National Review, February 21, 2000. []
  2. Paul Johnson, Enemies of Society (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 91–92. []
  3. Dixy Lee Ray with Lou Guzzo, Trashing the Planet: How Science can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things) (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 14. []
  4. Joel A. Tarr, “The Horse—Polluter of the City,” The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron, OK: University of Akron Press, 1996), 323–324. []
  5. Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, 325. []
  6. Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink, 326. []
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