|MadSci Network: Science History|
First off, let's not underestimate the ingenuity of "simple" farmers! Some phenomenal inventions have come from farmworkers trying to make their jobs a bit easier. It has been known since about the 1600's that methanol was produced when wood was burned into charcoal. One of these farmers may have known this, or might have had a son or daughter in university. No one will ever know how a farmer happened to think of the idea; all we do know is that necessity is the mother of invention. Simply heating wood in an oxygen-starved atmosphere will produce some methanol. The farmers, perhaps already accustomed to collecting ethanol from fermenting corn-squeezings, could easily distill this material out -- crudely, but effectively enough to make a bit of fuel for when the petrol ran out.
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