On this day in economic and financial history ...

Jan. 19 has been a day of great corporate triumphs -- and one staggering failure -- for four different present and former components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average . Let's run through them one by one.

Telegraph dominance
On Jan. 19, 1881, Western Union consolidated its market share as the world's largest telegraph operator by acquiring both the American Union and Atlantic & Pacific telegraph companies for a combined price of $19.1 million in stock. This added about 46,000 miles of telegraph wiring and 329 offices to Western Union's rapidly expanding operations. This same day, members of Congress began to probe Western Union to determine whether its prices were fair, in light of the fact that the company was clearly growing into a monopolistic power over the country's young telegraph industry. Three years later, as inquiries deepened in the Senate, it was revealed that Western Union controlled a total of 432,000 miles of telegraph wiring, whether owned or leased. Western Union became part of Charles Dow's earliest index in 1884 and joined the Dow proper in 1916. It was removed in 1927.


Lighting the world, one town at a time
Thomas Edison successfully lit Roselle, N.J., with the world's first overhead-wiring electrical system on Jan. 19, 1883. Wires from a central generating station connected a general store, a railway depot, about 40 houses, and 150 streetlights to the power of sweet direct current, Edison's preferred method of electricity transmission. This gave Edison's Electric Light Company a big PR boost and helped him persuade other towns to light up. By 1892, Edison's innovations had helped to create General Electric , which quickly became the country's leading purveyor of both electricity and the gadgets and gizmos that required it. GE has been part of the Dow since 1907.

Keeping up with the Fords
The postwar years were good to General Motors, which announced a massive $1 billion expansion program on Jan. 19, 1956. That was in addition to $2 billion already poured into capital expenditures between 1946 and 1953. During this period, the number of automobiles the American public owned had grown from 28 million to 46 million, and then to 54 million by the end of 1956. Later that year, President Eisenhower would sign the Interstate Highway Act into law, validating GM's big bet on the popularity of the automobile. General Motors held a place on the Dow from 1925 until its bankruptcy during the 2008 financial crisis.

A dinosaur in the PC age
IBM
had one of the worst days in corporate history on Jan. 19, 1993, and it couldn't even blame its misfortune on a recession or other macroeconomic woes. That day, the computing giant reported a $5 billion annual loss for the 1992 fiscal year, which was at the time the worst such loss in American corporate history. The loss was not unexpected in light of the floundering company's brutal layoffs and well-known financial woes, which had both come to light in 1992 following reports of IBM's first-ever annual loss in 1991. The PC price wars had devastated IBM's bottom line, as a 50% increase in unit sales during the holiday quarter had actually resulted in a revenue decline. This terrible performance, though, wasn't a total loss for IBM, which hired Louis Gerstner as CEO later in 1993. Gerstner is widely credited with transforming IBM into the successful services-focused company it is today. Gerstner's guidance was a boon to the Dow after 1993 -- IBM has been part of the index since 1979 but trailed it during the early '90s.

The peak oil myth begins
Peak oil has a longer history than you think. Although the models that define the American peak oil hypothesis were first advanced in the 1950s, predictions of the imminent depletion of American oil reserves can be found much earlier. In fact, one of the earliest known warnings that the United States would run out of oil was released on Jan. 19, 1922, when the U.S. Geological Survey warned the public that only two decades of oil remained in the ground, if present consumption patterns held steady.

That day, the survey reported that there remained 9.2 billion barrels of oil in the ground but warned that not all of it could be discovered, let alone extracted. The survey's director somberly announced:

"Unlike our reserves of coal, iron, and copper, which are so large that apprehension of their early exhaustion is not justified, the oil reserves of the country ... [appear] adequate to supply the demand for only a limited number of years. The annual production of the country is now almost 500 million barrels, but the annual consumption, already well beyond the half-billion mark, is still growing."

Of the 9.2 billion known barrels of oil, the survey estimated that all but 200 million were recoverable, with Oklahoma, California, and the Texas-led Gulf Coast region dominating the available reserves. The director claimed that the estimates were "undoubtedly the best that have ever been made for the United States, and better than have hitherto been prepared for any oil country or district of the world."

This was a world only 11 years removed from the Standard Oil breakup, and only nine years removed from Ford's first assembly line. Ford had not yet built its 10 millionth car, which would roll off the assembly line to terrific fanfare two years after the Geological Survey's report. The United States had approximately 12.3 million registered automobiles in 1922, many of which were Ford's Model T's with fuel economies ranging from 13 to 21 miles per gallon. The value of Standard Oil's successor companies had grown fourfold in the decade following its dissolution, spurred in part by a spike in oil prices that had tripled the cost of a barrel of oil between 1916 and 1920.

Oil exploration companies had managed to double the amount of oil extracted annually between 1911 and 1921, but yearly automobile registrations had increased by more than an order of magnitude (from fewer than 900,000 in 1911) in the same period. At the same time, American electric utilities had been increasing their capacity by about 12% a year from the turn of the century onward, and many of these plants were oil-fueled -- as were an increasing number of factories. America's voracious appetite for cars, electricity, and mass production seemed nearly limitless at the beginning of one of the most incredible booms in history. At the time, it seemed that these dire warnings might be worth heeding.

However, as you're well aware, this doomsday scenario did not come to pass. In the two decades leading up to World War II, from 1922 to 1941, America's total oil production would total 19.3 billion barrels, and the price per barrel declined from a nominal price of $1.61 in 1922 to $1.14 in 1941 -- the equivalent of a real price drop of 20%. America's oil production didn't reach its annual peak until 1970, during which the total oil extracted from American fields was 3.5 billion barrels, or nearly 40% of all the oil the U.S. Geological Survey thought remained five decades earlier.

In 90 years of production since this colossally wrong prediction, the United States has extracted a total of 198 billion barrels of oil, more than 20 times the amount originally thought available for extraction. In 2011, the five largest oil companies operating in the U.S., including former Baby Standards ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips , combined to generate revenues that were equivalent to more than 10% of U.S. GDP for that year. The three American-based oil supermajors alone combined for annual oil-equivalent production of 3.2 billion barrels in 2011 -- much of which was natural gas, as total U.S. oil production by itself accounted for only 2.1 billion barrels in 2011.

The peak oil hypothesis may have merit over the very long run, but it's been disproven so often on shorter time frames that we have to accept that it's folly to predict the availability of resources in the future using only the knowledge available to the present.

Global demand has pushed oil prices to a consistently higher level than we've ever seen before, peak oil or no peak oil. There's no end in sight to these higher prices, so you ought to find profits where you can. The Fool has a free report titled "Three Stocks for $100 Oil" that offers you a trio of lesser-known companies that are making big bucks off of the demand for unconventional oil exploration. Want to learn more? All the information you need is here -- click here for full access, at no cost.

The article A Big Day for the Dow and a Bigger Peak Oil Myth originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter, @TMFBiggles, for more news and insights. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron, Ford, General Motors, and Western Union and owns shares of ExxonMobil, Ford, and General Electric. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Why did you not mention that the world consumes more oil in 10 minutes than a $10,000,000.00 tight oil well in Texas or North Dakota will produce in its 29 year lifetime?

Why did you not mention the fact that they have to increase the number of active wells in the Bakken at more than 2% per month just to keep production flat? Ever heard of the red queen? The report that includes this data just came out. I'm sure you've read it.

Is it interesting to you that so many articles that sound so similar to yours popped up immediately after that report was released? It is to me.

Why did you not mention how much water the whole process uses and where that water goes afterwards?

The future looks pretty bright when you ignore select details and still appear to paint a full picture. You're pretty good at spinning fiction for financial gain.

Why did you not mention the fact that humanity consumed as much oil since 1992 than was consumed in all the years previous to 1992?

Why did you not mention the fact that global production has been flat since 2005 while price has been up nearly 100%? Isn't that the "price signal" most of you claim will lead to increased production? Yes production is increasing in some areas but not enough to make up for the 6% decline expected in conventional crude production?

Have you actually calculated how many tight oil wells would have to be drilled to reach the lofty production goals you people scream on about? I know for a fact you have all of the data available to you to do the estimation.

Once you do that estimation I doubt you'll publish the results.

Want to do your investors a favor? Tell them to spend their money on heirloom seeds and gardening equipment.

Garden as if your life depended on it. Soon, it will.

Want to do everybody a favor? Invest in frack water recycling technology. Especially the kind that attaches right to the well.

You're no more clever than yeast.

January 19 2013 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply