Hemp is one of the oldest plants known to humanity. It has been reported that the cultivation of hemp goes back more than 10,000 years having its roots in Asia. The Chinese discovered many uses for hemp including; clothing, shoes, ropes and paper. As man explored new parts of the world they brought along many different crop seeds, including hemp and soon other civilizations throughout Europe were cultivating hemp.
Due in part to the rapid increase of Europe’s navies in the exploration of new worlds, much of the hemp cultivated in Western Europe was used for ship sails and rigging. The natural characteristics of strength and durability made it a perfect choice. The clothes worn by sailors were also made from hemp and up until the 1920’s, 80% of all textiles contained hemp fiber.
The Spanish first brought hemp to Chile around 1545 and from there it migrated north reaching Virginia in 1607. By 1619 Virginia passed legislation making it illegal NOT to grow hemp and not long after other states followed passing similar laws. It soon became legal tender in much of the country and many used hemp to pay their taxes.
The cultivation and spread of hemp in the United States continued and in 1765 George Washington made reference to growing hemp in his personal diary. He was not the only US President to grow hemp however, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce were all reported to have sown the hemp seed! It is also believed that; Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag out of hemp; the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper; and later Levi Strauss used hemp for his first pair of jeans.
Thomas Jefferson bred improved hemp varieties, and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing. Shortly afterwards, Robert McCormick (father of Cyrus McCormick, who invented the first successful reaper) patented a hemp fiber-processing device.
Due to the expansion of the British Empire and the growth in the number of sailing ships, most of the hemp production was exported back to England to be used for canvas sails, ropes and rigging of these vessels. The word ‘canvas’ originated from the Arabic word for cannabis, a Latin word meaning ‘hemp‘. All of the British captains carried hemp seed in their stores to be sewn in any new lands they visited. This would provide raw materials for future explorers for when they needed new sails, ropes etc.
When the USS Constitution (named by George Washington after the Constitution of the United States) was launched in 1797 she carried 120,000 pounds of hemp in her sails, rigging and ropes. In addition, her charts were made of hemp, the fuel for her lights was made of hemp oil and her crew wore clothing made from hemp.
Prior to the Civil War, hemp production contributed much to the economies of several southern states and many slaves worked the fields producing hemp. The US census reported in 1850 that more than 8000 plantations had in excess of 2000 acres each sewn in hemp.
Farmers in Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky produced most of the hemp until the late 1800s, when demand for sailcloth and cordage began to wane as steam ships dominated the seas. By the end of the Civil War, Kentucky was the only state with a significant hemp industry until World War I.
There were other reasons why hemp production was waning. Plantation owners started using the ‘cotton gin’, invented in 1794, which made separating the cotton fibers from their seeds very easy and increased production dramatically. Processing hemp fiber however, was very labor intensive and done mostly by hand. This increase in cotton production created more of a demand for slaves to work the plantations and many historians say the cotton gin inadvertently was the cause of the Civil War! By the late 1800’s cotton had replaced hemp as a major cash crop in these southern states AND the internal combustion engine had arrived!
In fact, the internal combustion engine dates back to the early 1800’s. One problem faced by all inventors during this time was what type of fuel to use for power. Various fuels were used to power this new marvel, including ethanol (made from fermented and distilled organic matter) which had been used for centuries as lamp oil and for cooking.
Prior to the Civil War most farmers had an alcohol still to turn crop waste into free lamp oil and cooking fuel. By 1860 commercial distillers were producing more than 90 million gallons of alcohol for lighting. At $.50 per gallon it cost considerably less than the other fuels and burned brighter and with less smoke!
With the start of the Civil War, the government needed ways to pay for the war and in 1862 implemented a tax on ethanol pushing the price to over $2.00 per gallon. A new petroleum product introduced as ‘kerosene’ however was only taxed at $.10 per gallon.
In 1863, John D. Rockefeller made his first investment into the fledgling oil industry by investing into a Cleveland, Ohio oil refinery. By 1870 he had started Standard Oil and by 1880 he controlled 90% of all oil pipelines and refineries in the United States! He also invested heavily into railroads. It has been widely speculated the Mr. Rockefeller used unethical means to remove his competitors.
By the 1890’s alcohol fueled engines were being used in Europe for powering farm equipment making these countries more fuel independent. It was clear that alcohol was a much superior fuel to gasoline as it produced more power when ignited and produced far fewer emissions. And it was much cheaper to produce…except in the United States!
Because the 1862 ethanol tax was still in effect, US automobile manufacturers were developing engines to run on gasoline due to the abundance of oil and its lower cost. Henry Ford’s first automobile, the Quadricycle, was designed to be fuelled on gasoline when it was introduced in 1896. In Europe however, many were still experimenting with alcohol fuels and in 1896, Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine which he exhibited at the 1900 World’s Fair which was fueled by peanut oil.