Today’s highly refined propellant began as “coal oil” for lamps.
A 19th century petroleum product made America’s 1969 moon landing possible. On July 16, 1969, kerosene rocket fuel powered the first stage of the Saturn V of the Apollo 11 mission.
Four days after the Saturn V launched Apollo 11, astronaut Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” His historic achievement rested on new technologies – and tons of fuel first refined for lamps by a Canadian in 1848.
Powered by five first-stage engines fueled by “rocket grade” kerosene, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever built.
During launch, five Rocketdyne F-1 engines of the massive Saturn V’s first stage burn “Rocket Grade Kerosene Propellant” at 2,230 gallons per second – generating almost eight million pounds of thrust.
The F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Photos courtesy NASA.
Saturn’s rocket fuel is highly refined kerosene RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or Refined Petroleum-1) which, while conforming to stringent performance specifications, is essentially the same “coal oil” invented in the mid-19th century.
Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner began refining an illuminating fuel from coal in 1846. “I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene,” he noted in his patent.
The father of American rocketry, Robert Goddard, in 1926 used gasoline to fuel the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket, seen here in its launch stand. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
By 1850, Gesner had formed a company that installed lighting in the streets in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1854, he established the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company at Long Island, New York.
Although he had coined the term kerosene from the Greek word keros (wax), because his fluid was extracted from coal, most consumers called it “coal oil” as often as they called it kerosene.
By the time of the first U.S. oil well drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859, a Yale scientist (hired by the well’s investors) has reported oil to be an ideal source for making kerosene, far better than refined coal. Demand for kerosene refined from petroleum launched the nation’s exploration and production industry.
Although electricity will replace kerosene lamps and gasoline dominate 20th century demand for a transportation fuel, kerosene’s ease of storage and stable properties attract rocket scientists. Decades of rocket engine research and testing led to the Saturn V’s five Rocketdyne F-1 engines.
“The F-1 remains the most powerful single-combustion chamber liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed, according to David Woods, author of How Apollo Flew to the Moon, 2008. The Rocketdyne F-1 engines, 19 feet tall with nozzles about 12 feet wide, include fuel pumps delivering 15,471 gallons of RP-1 per minute to their thrust chambers.
The Saturn V’s upper stages burned highly volatile liquid hydrogen (liquid oxygen was used in all three stages). The five-engine main booster held 203,400 gallon of RP-1. After firing, the engines emptied the giant fuel tank in 165 seconds.
Kerosene fueled the Saturn V – and today’s latest rocket engines. NASA photo detail.
The Apollo 11 landing crowned liquid-rocket fuel research in America dating back to Robert H. Goddard and his 1914 “Rocket Apparatus” powered by gasoline. In March 1926, Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket from his aunt’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. His rocket was powered by liquid oxygen and gasoline.
Although gasoline will be replaced with other propellants, including the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen used in the space shuttle’s external tank, RP-1 kerosene continues to fuel spaceflight.
Cheaper, easily stored at room temperature, and far less of an explosive hazard, the 19th century petroleum product today fuels first-stage boosters for the Atlas, Delta II, Antares and latest SpaceX rockets. Last launched in 1972, the Saturn V remains the most powerful rocket ever built.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Kerosene Rocket Fuel.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL:https://aoghs.org/products/kerosene-rocket-fuel. Last Updated: July 11, 2020. Original Published Date: July 12, 2015.
American mobility would soon depend on a petroleum product from the bottom of the distillation process.
President Ulysses S. Grant directed that Pennsylvania Avenue be paved with Trinidad asphalt. By 1876, the president’s paving project covered about 54,000 square yards, according to A Century of Progress: The History of Hot Mix Asphalt, published in 1992 by National Asphalt Pavement Association.
Pennsylvania Avenue was first paved bitumen imported from Trinidad bitumen in 1876. Thirty-one years later, a better asphalt derived from petroleum distillation was used to repave the famed pathway to the Capitol, above.
“Brooms, lutes, squeegees and tampers were used in what was a highly labor intensive process. Only after the asphalt was dumped, spread, and smoothed by hand did the relatively sophisticated horse-drawn roller, and later the steam roller, move in to complete the job.” (more…)
Standard Oil scientists would patent a process they invented called thermal cracking.
Beginning in the 1890s, the Whiting refinery of Standard Oil Company of Indiana first produced kerosene for lamps and later gasoline for autos to meet growing consumer demand.
Seventeen miles east of Chicago, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey began construction on a massive refinery complex in early May 1889.
In 2013, BP completed a multi-year, multi-billion dollar modernization project at the Whiting refinery. Photo courtesy Hydrocarbon Processing magazine.
Using advanced refining processes introduced by John D. Rockefeller, it would become the largest in the United States. Today, the 1,400-acre complex is owned by BP.
About one month after construction of the then 235-acre refinery began, Rockefeller established a locally based subsidiary by incorporating Standard Oil Company of Indiana on June 18, 1889.
The new company began processing oil at its Whiting refinery within a year. The Indiana refinery processed a sulfurous “sour crude” from the Lima, Ohio, oilfields – transported on Rockefeller controlled railroads.
More Americans put out their tallow candles as lamps fueled with whale oil, lard, or camphene gave way to a new fuel, kerosene; the “rock oil” soon brought skyrocketing public demand (learn more in First American Oil Well). Rockefeller had earlier purchased considerable amounts of production from the Lima oilfield at bargain prices. Most experts in the new petroleum industry believed the thick oil virtually worthless. It could not be refined for a profit.
The Whiting refinery, using a newly patented method, efficiently processed Ohio sour oil into high-quality kerosene. Although gasoline was a minor by-product, two brothers in Massachusetts were building a gasoline-powered horseless carriage at about the time the refinery produced its first 125 railroad tank cars filled with kerosene. The automobile would soon arrive. See Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.
The Standard Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, became the company’s most productive. Now owned by BP, it remains the largest U.S. refinery. Whiting has been home to the Northwest Indiana Oilmen since 2012.
“By the mid-1890s, the Whiting plant had become the largest refinery in the United States, handling 36,000 barrels of oil per day and accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. refining capacity” notes historian Mark R. Wilson in the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Initially it consisted of just a single facility, adds a company history on the Amoco website. Crude oil was processed into products that people and business needed: axle grease for industrial machinery, paraffin wax for candles, kerosene for home lighting.
“The company grew. By the early 1900s it was the leading provider of kerosene and gasoline in the Midwest” notes the website. “Kerosene sales would eventually falter. But with car ownership booming across the United States, demand for gasoline would only go up and up.”
By 1910, the refinery is connected by pipeline to oilfields in Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as Ohio and Indiana. The Whiting facility employs 2,400 workers. In 1911, when Rockefeller was forced to break up his oil holdings, Standard of Indiana, with its main offices in downtown Chicago, emerged as an independent company.
Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s Whiting scientists had patented a process they invented called thermal cracking, notes the Amoco website. It doubled the amount of gasoline that could be made from a barrel of oil and also boosted the gasoline’s octane rating. The process, which became standard practice in the refining industry, helped avert a gasoline shortage during World War I.
To find its own oil supplies, Standard Oil of Indiana soon began its own exploration and production business, Stanolind.
In 1922, Standard Oil absorbed the American Oil Company, founded in Baltimore in 1910, and began branding products as Amoco, which later would become its company name. By 1952, Amoco was ranked as the largest domestic oil company.
Building Midwest Refineries
During the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. refining industry became more concentrated in Texas, Louisiana, and California. “The Chicago region became somewhat less important as an oil-processing center than it had been during the previous 60 years,” he concludes. “Still, the area remained home to some large refineries. The largest of these plants was the one at Whiting – the same facility that had brought refining to Chicago in 1890.”
Across the border from Indiana, three major Illinois refineries today also process oil in the Chicago area: the Citgo refinery in Lemont processes 167,000 barrels of oil a day; the Joliet refinery owned by ExxonMobil process 238,000 barrels a day; and the Robinson refinery of Marathon Petroleum Company processes 206,000 barrels a day.
A fourth refinery is in southern Illinois – and is almost as historic as Rockefeller’s Whiting plant. Constructed in 1918 – during WW I – the Wood River Refinery remains north of St. Louis on the bank of the Mississippi River. The refinery, owned in 2013 by ConocoPhillips, was the company’s largest. It processed 300,000 barrels of oil daily into more than nine million gallons of gasoline/fuel and 42,000 barrels of asphalt during peak season. It also boasted its own museum.
“The Wood River Refinery History Museumis located in front of the Conoco-Phillips Refinery on Highway 111 in Wood River, Illinois,” the museum notes on its website. “There are four buildings in our complex, so to see most of our collection, plan on spending some time.”
Whiting fielded a baseball team in 2012. The Northwest Indiana Oilmen is one of eight teams in the Midwest Collegiate League, a pre-minor league. To learn more about other petroleum history related baseball teams, see Oilfields of Dreams.
By 1982, Standard of Indiana refineries produce 1.2 million barrels of gasoline daily and serve 18,000 domestic gasoline retail outlets. Standard’s two largest refineries are located in Whiting and Texas City, Texas. Standard Oil of Indiana officially became Amoco Corporation in 1985 and merged with British Petroleum (now BP) in 1998. It was the world’s largest industrial merger at the time.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Standard Oil Whiting Refinery.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/standard-oil-whiting-refinery. Last Updated: May 3. 2020. Original Published Date: June 15, 2013.
How oilfield paraffin led to petroleum jelly – Vaseline – and the founding of Maybelline cosmetics.
Few associate 1860s oil wells with women’s smiling faces, but they are fashionably related. This is the story of how goop that accumulated around the sucker rods of America’s earliest oil wells made its way to the eyelashes of women.
In 1865, a 22-year-old Robert Chesebrough left the prolific oilfields of Titusville, Pennsylvania, to return to his Brooklyn, New York, laboratory and experiment with a waxy substance that clogged well heads. He already had dabbled in the “coal oil” business.
Robert Chesebrough will find a way to purify the waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged oil wells in early Pennsylvania petroleum fields. Photo courtesy Unilever.
Chesebrough’s expertise included distilling cannel coal into kerosene, a lamp fuel in high demand among consumers. He knew of the process for refining oil into kerosene, so when Edwin L. Drake completed the first U.S, commercial oil well in 1859, Chesebrough was one of many who rushed to northwestern Pennsylvania oilfields to make his fortune.
Scientific American magazine reported, “Now commenced a scene of excitement beyond description. The Drake well was immediately thronged with visitors arriving from the surrounding country, and within two or three weeks thousands began to pour in from the neighboring States.”
Robert Chesebrough’s fortune was out there somewhere. He just had to find it.
Sucker Rod Wax
In the midst of the Venango County oilfield chaos, the young chemist noted that drilling was often confounded by a waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged the wellhead and drew the curses of riggers who had to stop drilling to scrape away the stuff.
The only virtue of this goopy oilfield “sucker rod wax” was as an immediately available first aid for the abrasions, burns, and other wounds routinely afflicting the crews.
Chesebrough eventually abandoned his notion of drilling a gusher and returned to New York, where he worked in his laboratory to purify the troublesome sucker-rod wax, which he dubbed “petroleum jelly.” By August 1865, he had filed the first of several patents “for purifying petroleum or coal oils by filtration.”
Chesebrough experimented with the purported analgesic effect of his extract by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his purified petroleum jelly. He gave it to Brooklyn construction workers to treat their minor scratches and abrasions.
After refining oilfield wax, Chesebrough experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his petroleum balm.
On June 4, 1872, Chesebrough patented a new product that would endure to this day – “Vaseline.” His patent extolled Vaseline’s virtues as a leather treatment, lubricator, pomade, and balm for chapped hands. Chesebrough soon had a dozen wagons distributing the product around New York.
Customers at first used toothpicks to mix Vaseline with lamp black. By 1917, Tom Williams was selling premixed “Lash-Brow-Ine” by mail-order. Photo courtesy Sharrie Williams.
Customers used the “wonder jelly” creatively: treating cuts and bruises, removing stains from furniture, polishing wood surfaces, restoring leather, and preventing rust. Within 10 years, Americans were buying it at the rate of a jar a minute
An 1886 issue of Manufacture and Builder even reported, “French bakers are making large use of vaseline in cake and other pastry. Its advantage over lard or butter lies in the fact that, however stale the pastry may be, it will not become rancid.”
Flavor notwithstanding, Chesebrough himself consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day. He lived to be 96 years old. It was not long before thrifty young ladies found another use for Vaseline.
Women were using Vaseline to make mascara by 1915. Cosmetic industry giant Maybelline traces its roots to the petroleum product. “What a Difference Maybelline Does Make” magazine ad from 1937.
As early as 1834, the popular book Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion had suggested alternatives to the practice of darkening eyelashes with elderberry juice or a mixture of frankincense, resin, and mastic.
“By holding a saucer over the flame of a lamp or candle, enough ‘lamp black’ can be collected for applying to the lashes with a camel-hair brush,” the book advised. Chesebrough’s female customers found that mixing lamp black with Vaseline using a toothpick made an impromptu mascara.
The story goes that in 1913, Miss Mabel Williams employed just such a concoction preparing for a date. Williams was dating Chet Hewes.
Perhaps using coal dust or some other readily available darkening agent, she applied the mixture to her eyelashes for a date. Her brother, Thomas Lyle Williams, was intrigued by her method and decided to add Vaseline in the mixture, noted a Maybelline company historian.
Another version of the story, written by his grandniece Sharrie Williams, has Mabel demonstrating “a secret of the harem” for her brother.
“In 1915, when a kitchen stove fire singed his sister Mabel’s lashes and brows, Tom Lyle Williams watched in fascination as she performed what she called ‘a secret of the harem’ mixing petroleum jelly with coal dust and ash from a burnt cork and applying it to her lashes and brows,” Sharrie Williams explained in her 2007 book, The Maybelline Story.
“Mabel’s simple beauty trick ignited Tom’s imagination and he started what would become a billion-dollar business,” concluded Williams. Inspired by his sister’s example, he began selling the mixture by mail-order catalog, calling it “Lash-Brow-Ine” (an apparent concession to the mascara’s Vaseline content). Women loved it.
Silent screen stars like Theda Bara, right, helped glamorize Maybelline mascara, which by the 1930s was available at five-and-dime store for 10 cents a cake.
When it became clear that Lash-Brow-Ine had potential, Williams, doing business in Chicago as Maybell Laboratories, on April 24, 1917, trademarked the name as a “preparation for stimulating the growth of eyebrows and eyelashes.”
In honor of his sister Mabel (she married Chet Hewes in 1926), Williams renamed his mascara “Maybelline.”
An unlikely petroleum product.
Whatever its petroleum product beginnings, Hollywood helped expand the Williams family cosmetics empire. The 1920s silent screen had brought new definitions to glamour. Theda Bara – an anagram for “Arab Death” – and Pola Negri, each with daring eye makeup, smoldered in packed theaters across the country.
Maybelline trumpeted its mail-order mascara in movie and confession magazines as well as Sunday newspaper supplements. Sales continued to climb. By the 1930s, Maybelline mascara was available at the local five-and-dime store for 10 cents a cake.
Today, both Vaseline, now part of Unilever, and Maybelline, a subsidiary of L’Oréal, continue with highly successful products, distantly removed from northwestern Pennsylvania’s antique derricks and oil wells. Unilever’s Park Avenue public relations agency, M Booth & Associates of New York, proclaims: “From Vaseline Petroleum Jelly – the ‘Wonder Jelly’ introduced in 1870, to Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion…Vaseline products have helped deliver healthy, moisturized skin for 135 years.”
Editors Note – Special thanks to Linda Hughes, granddaughter of Mabel and Chet Hewes, who notes that Mabel was dedicated to her brothers – and helped run the Maybelline company in Chicago.
Citation Information – Article Title: “A Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/vaseline-maybelline-history. Last Updated: June 1, 2020. Original Published Date: March 1, 2005.
The newest petroleum product of 1903 got its name from the French word for chalk, craie, with an English adjective meaning oily, oleaginous.
Crayola crayons began in 1891 with a refining patent by Edwin Binney for manufacturing an intensely black pigment – carbon black. The Pennsylvania-based schoolroom chalk maker, Binney & Smith Company, would soon add oilfield paraffin and colors to create an iconic petroleum product.
The worldwide oil and natural gas industry supplies countless varieties of petroleum products, some often “hiding in plain sight.”
Binney & Smith Company received an 1891 patent for an “Apparatus for the Manufacture of Carbon Black,” which produced a fine, soot-like black pigment – far better than any other in use at the time.
Teachers loved dustless chalk, shown here circa 1904.
For Binney and C. Harold Smith, early Pennsylvania oilfields proved to be the key for success, which began with invention of an “Apparatus for the Manufacture of Carbon Black.”
Binney & Smith Company already had found success manufacturing dustless chalk and a red iron oxide for the red paint farmers used on barns. The company’s carbon black refining process produced a fine, soot-like substance of incredible blackness – a better pigment than any other in use at the time.
Binney & Smith then took common oilfield paraffin and changed the company’s destiny by adding color to children’s imaginations.
Phillips Petroleum chemists invented a new plastic, but transition from lab to market proved difficult. Enter Wham-O.
In 1954, the Oklahoma-based oil and natural gas company’s scientists developed high-density polyethylene. Marketing executives named their latest petroleum product Marlex, but searched in vain for buyers of the plastic. Then the Wham-O toy company found the plastic ideal for making hoops and flying platters.
To make Hula Hoops and Frisbees, Arthur Melin, right, and his Wham-O Company partner Richard Kerr, left, chose Marlex – the world’s first high-density polyethylene plastic.
In the 1950s, few companies knew what to do with a revolutionary plastic invented by Phillips Petroleum. Demand for “Marlex” would come from “the great obsession of 1958 – the undisputed granddaddy of American fads.”
Prompted by a post World War II boom in demand for plastics, Phillips Petroleum invested $50 million to bring its own miracle product – Marlex – to market in 1954.
The company gambled that the new plastic would be perfect for all manner of emerging products trying to keep up with consumer demand.
With millions of dollars already committed, investors expected immediate results from the Phillips lab product.
A New Plastic
Marlex, a high-density polyethylene, was developed by Phillips chemists Paul Hogan and Robert Banks – who were researching gasoline additives. In their experiments, Hogan and Banks began to study catalysts.
“In June 1951, they set up an experiment in which they modified their original catalyst (nickel oxide) to include small amounts of chromium oxide,” notes the American Chemical Society. Their work was expected to produce low-molecular-weight hydrocarbons.
“As Paul Hogan recalls it, he was standing outside the laboratory when Banks came out saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got something new coming in our kettle that we’ve never seen before.’
Running inside, they saw that the nickel oxide had produced the expected liquids. But the chromium had produced a white, solid material. Hogan and Banks were looking at a new polymer – crystalline polypropylene.” (more…)