1895: When Smoke was a "Healthy Disinfectant" for Cities

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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2009: The world's climate and energy experts are gathered this week in Copenhagen to debate the righteousness of an international deal that would cap carbon dioxide emissions. The idea is to make carbon-intensive industrial processes more expensive, discouraging the creation of electricity by burning coal, and instead making cleaner options like natural gas, solar, and wind power the profitable enterprises. The United States Congress is debating a deal that aims to do roughly the same thing. There is hope in the air, largely as a result of President Barack Obama's stances on energy and the climate. Unlike his predecessor, he wants to cap the nation's carbon emissions. His speech at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology made his plans clear.

And all of this must culminate in the passage of comprehensive legislation that will finally make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy in America. John Kerry is working on this legislation right now, and he's doing a terrific job reaching out across the other side of the aisle because this should not be a partisan issue. Everybody in America should have a stake—(applause)—everybody in America should have a stake in legislation that can transform our energy system into one that's far more efficient, far cleaner, and provide energy independence for America…It is a transformation that will be made as swiftly and as carefully as possible, to ensure that we are doing what it takes to grow this economy in the short, medium, and long term. And I do believe that a consensus is growing to achieve exactly that.

1895: An environmental problem plagued the growing Midwestern cities at the turn of last century: the Smoke Nuisance. The cheapest coal, the soft, bituminous variety, burns dirty—and the boilers of the day were not exactly high-efficiency. Smoke billowed out of boilers, soiling clothes and making cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh look like modern-day Beijing. But burning coal then, like burning coal now, tended to support profitable businesses. A Southern wit traveling through Pittsburgh remarked, "he whose are the most sooty, handles the most money, and it reasonable to infer is the richer man.” Unfortunately, it was the poor of the inner city who bore the brunt of the smoke. A doctor who treated Teddy Roosevelt was led to question, "whether any manufacturer or corporation should be allowed to produce such an amount of evil."

Ultimately, though, compromises started to get hammered out by a special class of regulators, the Bureau of Smoke Inspection. Inspectors, hard-scrabble types no doubt, trolled the city looking for those whose boilers created the most nuisance and worked with them to increase the efficiency of their boilers. Higher efficiency means a cleaner burn and ergo, less fuel used and less smoke. A little more money spent upfront on the boiler saved fuel down the line. The overall economy of the situation enticed many formerly recalcitrant manufacturers to get with the anti-smoke religion. Here's the good news on smoke abatement from the Chief Smoke Inspector of Chicago in 1895, F.U. Adams.

Viewed from the standpoint of the Smoke Inspector, the 1,600,000 people of Chicago are divided into two classes—First, those who create a smoke nuisance; Second, those who are compelled to tolerate a smoke nuisance. One class has radical champions who maintain that smoke is an irrepressible necessity; a concomitant of the commercial and manufacturing supremacy of Chicago; that smoke not only is not unhealthy, but that it is an actual disinfectant, and that the low death rate of the city can be largely attributed to the prevalence of smoke; that the smoke ordinance and its enforcement are aimed at the interests of the Illinois coal operators; that the advocates of smoke abatement are visionary sentimentalists, and in a general way they are emphatically opposed to any agitation on the subject.

The other side has partisans no less radical, and equally emphatic in voicing the story of their wrongs. They declare that the enforcement of the smoke ordinance is a farce; they demand that soft coal be excluded from the city; they insist that its consumption entails an annual damage greater than the difference in cost between soft and hard coal; they declare that the smoke nuisance is a positive menace to the health of citizens, that it has resulted in an alarming increase in throat, lung and eye diseases; they point to ruined carpets, paintings, fabrics, the soot-besmeared facades of buildings and to a smoke-beclouded sky, and demand that the Smoke Inspector do his plain duty under the law.

It is impossible to reconcile the radical partisans of these two classes. It is fortunate that not many of our citizens are so radical on either side of this most important question. There exists a growing contingent, around which is crystallizing a sentiment that it is practical and possible to abate the smoke nuisance without endangering the stupendous interests involved. The most intelligent and active members of this contingent are drawn from the ranks of those formerly largely responsible for the smoke nuisance. They now oppose smoke for the same reason that they once defended it.

They have made the discovery that it is cheaper to abate a smoke nuisance than to maintain one. And by reason of this discovery the smoke nuisance in Chicago will be a relic of the past before the close of the present century.