Monday, April 25, 2011

George C. Marshall and the World's First Gas Station

John Mclean's Plaque
On June 5, 1947, two seemingly unrelated events occurred on either side of the country.  In Seattle, a group of Standard Oil of California executives, a couple of reporters and a photographer gathered on the waterfront.  They stood before a plaque commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the world's first service station and talked about how remarkable the accomplishments had been, how far they had come and how bright the future was.

Seattle Times ad for opening of Standard Oil's
Newest Gasoline Station in Seattle, 1947

They thought about tomorrow, when they would go up to Sixth and Olive streets where their new, state of the art service station would open and wondered whether they should have rented the spotlight after all.  They thought of their late friend, John Mclean, head of sales for Washington state, who set up that first station just south of Safeco Field and had touted it as the first ever, though some people continued to claim that the first service station really belonged to St. Louis and, even worse, to a competitor, two years earlier.

"Hell," he might have said, "I'm just a salesman."

The price of gasoline at the hundreds of service stations then located in 1947 Puget Sound was about 15 cents a gallon. 

The other event was just getting underway in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  General George C.  Marshall, the Secretary of State, would soon speak at the Harvard University commencement.  He would unveil what came to be called the Marshall Plan, an enormous public investment to fund reconstruction of Europe through purchases of fuel, equipment and supplies that would avoid chaos in Europe and ensure its future prosperity, and ours. 

Sixty-one years later, the world economic order and the service station seem even more closely related.  Gasoline prices are surging.  If only inflation were at work on the price of gasoline, it would cost about $1.50/gallon today.  But the realities of oil's supply, demand and its myriad political considerations have a gallon of gas today at nearly four dollars. 

We are at the edge of a fundamental crisis that is driving a core change in our basic transportation fuel from petroleum to cleaner electricity, but we also see that the change is coming far to slowly to move us beyond the reach of old, autocratic men in otherwise irrelevant places.

While slow, we can sense it is very big and that it will help define the future of our planet as well as our own prosperity and national security.  We're impatient to move in this new direction because it affects our own well-being and that of our country.

But all we can do now is note how violently the center of the oil universe is shaking and find in Marshall's brief remarks the unveiling of a truly big idea at the time all of Europe was shaking even more.  Like all big ideas, it speaks across time and addresses the landscape in front of us as clearly as it addressed the broken images in front of him.

"The consequences to the economy of the United States should be apparent to all.  It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.  Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.  Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. 

"We are remote from the scene of these troubles.  It is virtually impossible at this distance by reading, or listening, or even seeing photographs and motion pictures, to grasp at all the real significance of the situation.  And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment."

Read the text of Marshall's Harvard speech or listen to it. 

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