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How the Rich Improved Our Lives

Posted: Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

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.

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