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Bruin Fisher

Imagine.... if the path of history had been different...

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In the eighteenth century, people went about their business much as they always had done. There were changes, such as the canal network in Britain and other countries, and the first steel ships were changing ocean transport, but for the average man or woman, travel was mostly on foot, horseback or in some form of carriage, horse-drawn.

The steam engine changed many things. Mines could be pumped dry and therefore dug deeper. Mills could function independent of water or wind power. Eventually the steam railway was invented, and the technology of steam power advanced rapidly.

Experiments with steam powered horseless carriages started quite early on, possibly the first was built in 1771. They didn’t catch on then, though. But a hundred years later, when cities were struggling to keep their streets reasonably free of horse manure, there was an urgent need for a horseless carriage. Both steam and electricity were used to power early examples but both had their drawbacks.

Steam engines could be fuelled by any combustible fuel, and the only other supply they needed was water. But they were big and heavy, and their biggest drawback was the time they took to build a head of steam. You couldn’t just jump in your car and go.

Electricity on the other hand was clean, quiet, efficient and quite a small motor could power a carriage. Their disadvantage was that the batteries were heavy, and could only power the vehicle for a few miles before it needed recharging. In a world where an electric power grid only serviced the larger cities, this made the electric car suitable only for short distance travel.

Nevertheless it quickly became clear that electric motive power was the way forward. The steam engine had the inherent disadvantage that the power drove a piston in a cylinder – and that piston had to be stopped, reversed, and then fed a fresh burst of steam power to drive it again. This push-pull movement then had to be converted to rotary movement with a crankshaft. The electric motor on the other hand generated its power in a steady rotary stream, its torque available at all speeds, and easily connected to the wheels of the carriage.

In 1897, Karl Benz invented an internal combustion engine. Instead of heating steam outside the cylinder and feeding it into the cylinder as required, Benz’s engine burned petroleum spirit, actually inside the cylinder. It still had most of the disadvantages of the steam engine, the efficiency limitations of the piston and crankshaft arrangement, but like the electric car it did not need pre-heating before a journey. And unlike the electric car its liquid fuel could be carried on the vehicle, enough for hundreds of miles of travel.

Of course this petroleum powered vehicle was a crackpot idea. It was dangerous since the fuel was explosive. In addition the engine produced useful amounts of power and torque only within a limited range of speeds, necessitating a multi-speed gearbox and clutch. The by-products of the combustion process were poisonous gases which harmed human beings and the planet, and the fuel was refined from mineral oil which was mined from deep underground, itself a dangerous process, and the planet’s reserves of this oil are of course finite and non-replaceable. So naturally it didn’t catch on, and instead the electric car was developed into the universal transport we all use today.

Just imagine where we would be today if Henry Ford and the others had put their money behind Carl Benz instead of Gustave Trouvé. Nearly every household in the developed world owns a motor car, many have more than one. If those were all Benz internal combustion engines, the planet’s supply of petroleum or the oil to refine it from would be well on the way to being depleted, the pollution levels in the atmosphere would have risen so much that people living in cities would be suffering respiratory ailments, and the global climate would be changing, resulting in more extreme weather and destructive storms. The high CO2 content in the atmosphere would have raised the average temperature, so the polar icecaps would be melting and coastal cities would be disappearing under water.

The newly wealthy middle classes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had more sense than to fall for Benz’s stupid idea and instead bought electric cars, initially in small numbers and for use within the cities, but after Henry Ford began mass production and the number of cars on the road began to rise quickly, the power companies could see a new market for their product and began extending their grids across the country, and charging points along the routes of the major highways became commonplace. Now every motel and rest area includes ranks of chargepoints. Imagine if those were instead smelly and dangerous petroleum repositories? Unthinkable!

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Oh,  bear!

That you managed to travel across the multiverse to tell us of our insanity is proof of your innate goodness.

That you posted this excellent SFF flash in The Raccoon's Den, instead of Flash Fiction, is proof of your bearness.

Love it! But do cross-post, please.

 

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Oh, thank you dear Emu, I'll do as advised. I put it here initially, thinking it didn't really qualify as a story, more an essay. But I guess it's SFF so with your encouragement I'll cross-post it.

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