Alexander Graham Bell warned of man-made climate change 100 years ago
Alexander Graham Bell’s main contribution to our world may be the first practical telephone in 1876 (who knows, it may get a revival if the new Nokia 3310 sells well), but he was ahead of his time in a handful of other useful ways too. Most intriguingly in an era where the basic fundamentals of climate science are being questioned by people in authority, a century ago he went against the grain and predicted the potential for humans to change the climate.
When Bell made the prediction, other scientists believed that dirtier air would cause the Earth the get colder as the sun’s rays were blocked. Bell was more in line with recent (though lamentably not currently universal) scientific thinking: “While we would lose some of the sun’s heat, we could gain some of Earth’s heat, which is normally radiated into space,” he was quoted as saying. “I am inclined to think we would have some sort of greenhouse effect.”
While we can’t credit Bell with the term “greenhouse effect” (that was actually coined in 1909 by John Henry Poynting), it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t ahead of his time here. “The net result is that the greenhouse becomes a hot-house,” he concluded. Yep.
But this wasn’t the only area where Bell was ahead of the curve. Almost 100 years ago to the month, Bell delivered a speech to the McKinley Manual Training School in Washington, which was later revised for National Geographic. In this speech, he mused on the finality of fossil fuels, and addressed biofuel and renewables.
“Coal and oil are going up and are strictly limited in quantity. We can take coal out of a mine, but we can never put it back. We can draw oil from subterranean reservoirs, but we can never refill them again,” he wrote. “In relation to coal and oil, the world’s annual consumption has become so enormous that we are now actually within measurable distance of the end of the supply. What shall we do when we have no more coal or oil?”
What to do, indeed? Bell suggested harnessing tidal power (“which we have not yet learned to utilise”) alongside “the employment of the sun’s rays directly as a source of power”. According to Bell’s great-grandson, he had even begun sketching up rooftop solar-panel designs in 1914.
He also backed biofuel which has, to date, proved less successful. “Alcohol makes a beautiful, clean, and efficient fuel, and, where not intended for consumption by human beings, can be manufactured very cheaply in an indigestible or even poisonous form,” he wrote. “Wood alcohol, for example, can be employed as a fuel, and we can make alcohol from sawdust, a waste product of our mills.
“The world will probably depend upon alcohol more and more as time goes on, and a great field of usefulness is opening up for the engineer who will modify our machinery to enable alcohol to be used as the source of power.”
To be fair to Bell, the world kind of does depend on alcohol… just not in the way that he envisaged yet. But there’s still time: after all, he was right about much else – even if his original phone lacked foresight in the apps department.