Thomas Sowell

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.

What is 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 time.

Rockefeller 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.

That is 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 of it.

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.

Today, 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.

Before 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.

Here again, 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 Americans.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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