Who was that muse? Props to Polyhymnia

This illustration — from the Congress des Applications de L’Alcool Denature, Dec. 16 – 23, 1902 (published by the Automobile Club de France) — popped off the cover of a book I happened to pick up at the National Agricultural Library archives in Beltsville, MD while I was a grad student in the 1980s. At the time I was reading Leo Marx’s “Machine in the Garden,” and I was instantly struck by the beauty of the visual correspondence to that metaphor.

Recently, students at the University of Nebraska who are interested in the history of biofuels asked me about this image, as they are apparently using it in a publication. It seems that this muse of biofuels is probably an adaptation of the image of Polyhymnia, the muse of agriculture and lyric poetry, one of the nine muses of Greek mythology. Of course, the hair style and the cog-wheel brooch are modern for the year 1902, but the diadem and the robe would be typical of depictions of a Greek muse through the ages.

She is holding an overflowing bouquet of roses, looking down over a steering wheel with a rather serious expression, which is typical of Polyhymnia. She is a portrait of wisdom and beauty, firmly in control of a gentle machine located in some lush flower garden.

The printed program of the Congress where the muse appears on the back cover has no explanation, but I interpret the image as a depiction of the potential for harmony between agriculture and industry. It is a suggestion of the prospect for humanizing industrial machinery by bringing together the two major theaters of civilization (agriculture and industry) in a new synthesis.

The idea of balance between these theaters of civilization has held a fascination for generations, and the potential for ethanol and biofuels has been seen as only one small part of that larger theme.

For example, Benjamin Franklin wrote of his concern for uniting city and country through better transportation and communication systems. He was especially concerned with cleaning up Dock Creek and making it a small river port to help farmers carry goods into the city of Philadelphia.

Many engineers in the 1880s – 1920s, such as Henry Ford and Harry Riccardo, expressed the idea that agriculture and biological resources could be primary sources of energy, and that humankind could live on solar “income” rather than fossil fuel “capital.”

Ford hoped that a rural renaissance would replace farm depression if science could find ways to use farm products for industrial purposes. Russell Anderson wrote “Biological Paths to Self Reliance” in 1982 called that expressed some of this idea in scientific form.

It’s not easy to say how much currency this idea gained in Europe in the years before and after World War I — many of the historical
records have been lost in the intervening years. One indicator of the scope of the vision is the work of various research organizations.

For example, the Pasteur Institute searched for ways to make biofuels from ocean kelp in 1918, according to the US publication Scientific American. Yet today, the Pasteur Institute itself has no record of the experiment. Similarly, almost nothing is known about the French Institute for Natural Fuels located in the African nation of Mali in the 1920s and 30s.

The Congress of 1902 was opened by the French minister of
agriculture and was one of a series that had been held in France
since 1899 often accompanied by auto races and exhibits. In 1901 the congress also had an exhibit of alcohol motors, stoves, coffee
roasters, irons, water heaters and other household appliances. I
believe that the exhibit was first assembled in Germany in the 1895 – 1900 period. The exhibit was in Paris in 1901, in Germany in Feb. 1902, back in Paris in Dec. 1902, stayed there for a few more months and then traveled to Italy, Spain and other European nations. In 1907 it was shipped to the US and was part of the 300th anniversary of Jamestown, and then went to several Grange meetings, including one in Baltimore in 1908. We dont know what happened to it afterward. We don’t even have photos of the exhibit at this point.

Many cars ran on alcohol at the time but these were primarily racing and demonstration cars. Racing cars used alcohol
because it had less knock in higher compression engines, a quality
that was later called “octane.”

Alcohol was more expensive than gasoline and far less abundant, since of course there was an existing kerosene distribution system for lamp fuel all over the US and Europe, and gasoline was just a refinery byproduct of the kerosene industry. However, official German and French policy was to provide an alternative to petroleum so that the countries would not be subject to the whims of the oil industry, and this was done through research support, support for these exhibits, and (in Germany at the time) through tariffs on imported oil.


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