Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas

General Motors scientists discovered amazing anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead gasoline in 1921.

 

By 1923, many American motorists would be driving into service stations nationwide and say, “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl.” 

Early internal combustion engines often suffered from a severe “knocking,” the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. The constant shock added to exhaust valve wear and frequently damaged engines. In November 1900, gasoline-powered autos were the least popular (see Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show).

General Motors chemists Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles F. Kettering.

General Motors chemists Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles F. Kettering.

On December 9, 1921, after five years of lab work to find an additive to eliminate pre-ignition “knock” problems of gasoline, General Motors researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead. Their early experiments had examined the properties of knock suppressors such as bromine, iodine and tin – and compare these to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead.

Gas pump with "Ethyl" logo for tetraethyl lead gasoline

Halth concerns resulted in the phase-out of tetraethyl lead beginning in 1976.

The two GM chemists synthesized tetraethyl lead and tried it in their one-cylinder laboratory engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared and fuel economy improved. “Ethyl” vastly improved gasoline performance.

Although being diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand, the lead additive yielded gasoline without the loud, power-robbing knock. With other scientists watching, the first car tank filled with leaded gas took place on February 2, 1923, at the Refiners Oil Company service station in Dayton, Ohio.

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In the beginning, GM provided Refiners Oil Company and other service stations special equipment, simple bolt on adapters called “Ethylizers” to meter the proper proportion of the new additive.

“By the middle of this summer you will be able to purchase at approximately 30,000 filling stations in various parts of the country, a fluid that will double the efficiency of your automobile, eliminate the troublesome motor knock, and give you 100 percent greater mileage,” Popular Science Monthly reported in 1924.

Ohio service station sells Ethyl gas for the first time.

“Ethyl” gasoline goes for the first time at this Dayton, Ohio, gas station. In foreground pump, GM’s bolt-on “Ethylizer” is visible, running vertically alongside the visible reservoir. Photo courtesy Kettering/GMI Alumni Foundation.

Anti-knock gasoline containing a tetraethyl lead compound also proved vital for aviation engines during World War II, even as danger from the lead content increasingly became apparent.

Powering Allied Victory in World War II 

Aviation fuel technology was still in its infancy in the 1930s. The properties of tetraethyl lead proved vital to the Allies during World War II. Advances in aviation fuel increased power and efficiency, resulting in the production of 100-octane aviation gasoline shortly before the war.

Phillips Petroleum – later ConocoPhillips – was involved early in aviation fuel research and had already provided high gravity gasoline for some of the first mail-carrying airplanes after World War I.

Phillips Petroleum WWII ad for tetraethyl lead aviation gasoline.

Phillips Petroleum produced tetraethyl leaded aviation fuels from high-quality oil found in Osage County, Oklahoma, oilfields.

Phillips Petroleum produced aviation fuels before it produced automotive fuels. The company’s gasoline came from the high-quality oil produced during the Osage County oil boom, which began in 1917.

Although today still an ingredient of 100 octane “avgas” for piston-engine aircraft, tetraethyl’s danger to public health was underestimated for decades.

Tetraethyl lead’s Deadly Side

Leaded gasoline was extremely dangerous from the beginning, according Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer. “G.M. and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation,” she noted in a January 2013 article. Research focused solely on improving the formula, not on the danger of the lead additive.

1932 magazine ad Eythl gas additive.

A 1932 magazine ad promoted wildly improved high-compression engine performance.

“The companies disliked and frankly avoided the lead issue,” Blum wrote in “Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History” at Wire.com. “They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.”

In 1924, dozens were sickened and five employees of the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, died after they handled the new gasoline additive. By May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, Blum reported, and an investigative task force was formed. Researchers concluded there was ”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.

So great was the additive’s potential to improve engine performance, the author notes, by 1926 the federal government approved continued production and sale of leaded gasoline. “It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive,” Blum added.

By the early 1950s, American geochemist Clair Patterson discovered the toxicity of tetraethyl lead; phase-out of its use in gasoline began in 1976 and was completed by 1986. In 1996, EPA Administrator Carol Browner declared, “The elimination of lead from gasoline is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.”

Learn more about high-octane fuel in Flight of the Woolaroc and and early engines in Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Join AOGHS and help maintain this energy education website, expand historical research, and extend public outreach. For annual sponsorship information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All right reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/tetraethyl-lead-gasoline. Last Updated: December 7, 2020. Original Published Date: December 7, 2014.

 

Kerosene Rocket Fuel

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.

kerosene powers Saturn V engines at liftoff

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.

Coal Oil Rocket Fuel Saturn V engines

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.

Robert Goddard with the first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926

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.

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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.

"Rocket grade" kerosene fueled the Saturn V - and today's rockets.

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.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

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.

The Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes

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.

vaseline maybelline new york city sales wagon

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.

detail of old Vaseline bottle from museum

Robert Chesebrough consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96. This early bottle from the collection of the Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

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.

old Vseline ad for Woman's Magazine

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. 

 vaseline Maybelline mascara case with brush

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.

Mabel’s Eyelashes

Vaseline history Maybelline ad

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.

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“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.

vaseline used in mascra of silent screen star Theda Bara

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.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

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.

 

Carbon Black & Oilfield Crayons

Petroleum product of 1903 got its name from French word for chalk, craie, and English adjective meaning oily, oleaginous.

 

The worldwide oil and natural gas industry supplies countless varieties of petroleum products, some often hiding in plain sight.

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.

oilfield paraffin patent drawing for carbon black device

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.

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.”

Box of the dustless chalk made by Benny and Smith Co.

Teachers loved dustless chalk, shown here circa 1904.

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.

Mrs. Binney’s Classroom Chalk (more…)

Diamond Filling Station

As more Americans took to the road, inventor S.F. Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into automobile tanks in 1905. His popular Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its secure “clamshell” cover followed.

The man wearing overalls and a bowler hat pumps gas at the Diamond Filling Station in 1920 at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street near Union Station in Washington, D.C.

The Library of Congress photograph of the scene (with the station’s owner?) includes an S.F. Bowser Pump Company Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with a hand lever that pumped Penn Oil Company lightning Motor Fuel. A quart of Penn Oil motor oil sells for 20 cents.

diamond filling station and attendant on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C., in 1920.

Manufactured in 1911, an S.F. Bowser Model 102 “Chief Sentry” is pumped by the station attendant on North Capitol Street in Washington, D.C., in 1920. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“This is so cool. So, when you had to pump your gas, you literally had to hand pump the equipment to get the gas to come out?” asks one vintage photographs website blogger. “I’ve honestly never thought about the literal meaning of a phrase that I say all the time. And I feel like a total whippersnapper by asking the question.”

diamond filling station

The small “filling station” sold Penn Oil Company’s Lightning Motor Fuel. Four quart of Penn Oil motor oil sold for 80 cents.

According to the blog Shorpy.com, the photograph and others were taken in the Washington, D.C., area by the National Photo Company, whose archive of thousands of negatives (mostly glass plates) and prints was donated by proprietor Herbert E. French to the Library of Congress in 1947.

The popular Bowser “Chief Sentry” pump included an upper clamshell that closed for security when the filling station was left unattended. Showing its wear and tear, the nine-years-old pump’s topmost globe (prized by collectors) survived only as a bare bulb.

Sylvanus Freelove Bowser of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, in 1885 sold his first accurate pump that could reliably measure and dispense kerosene – a product much in demand.

diamond filling station

S.F. Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into automobile tanks in 1905. His popular Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its secure “clamshell” cover followed.

Later, as America’s enthusiasm for “horseless carriages” soared, so did demand for gasoline. Bowser refocused his business on gasoline pumps to serve increasing numbers of customers driving automobiles. Bowser’s Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pumps soon became known as “filling stations.”  Also see Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.

Penn Oil Company was the exclusive American distributer of Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product that reportedly consisting of “50 percent gasoline and 50 per cent of chemicals, the nature of which is secret.”

Lightning Motor Fuel was promoted as offering up to 35 percent more mileage thanks to its secret ingredient, which was likely alcohol. Some writers of the day believed alcohol would eventually replace gasoline refined from petroleum.

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“The advantage of alcohol over petrol for this purpose lies principally in the fact that whereas the world’s supplies of petroleum, and therefore of petrol, are being gradually exhausted, the supply of Power Alcohol is practically inexhaustible,” proclaims one 1925 trade journal, Romance of the Fungus World.

The journal added that alcohol’s fuel potential was “only limited by the earth’s capacity of producing plant growths whose products are amenable to the fermentative processes which yield alcohol.”

Today, ethanol is a common additive, but neither Bowser Pump Company, Penn Oil Company, nor Lightning Motor Fuel survived. The last vestige of Bowser Pump Company disappeared from Ft. Wayne in 1969. Learn more in First Gas Pump and Service Station.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information: Article Title – “Diamond Filling Station.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://www.aoghs.org/products/diamond-filling-station. Last Updated: January 07, 2020. Original Published Date: July 9, 2014.

Camphene to Kerosene Lamps

A popular but dangerous mixture was replaced by a less volatile future rocket fuel.

 

In the early 19th century, lamp designs burned many different fuels, including rapeseed oil, lard, and whale oil rendered from whale blubber (and the more expensive spermaceti from the head of sperm whales), but most Americans could only afford light emitted by animal-fat, tallow candles.

By 1850, the U.S. Patent Office recorded almost 250 different patents for all manner of lamps, wicks, burners, and fuels to meet growing consumer demand for illumination. At the time, most Americans still lived in almost complete darkness when the sun went down.

Camphene to Kerosene lamp two-wicked lamo

Before kerosene, two-wicked “burning fluid” lamps were popular but dangerous sources of light.

In the years leading to the Civil War, the most popular lamp fuel by far was the “burning fluid” called camphene, a dangerous mixture of turpentine, alcohol, and camphor oil extracted from the wood of camphor trees. It was inexpensive but volatile; camphene lamps could explode.

In 1835, Henry Porter of Bangor, Maine, patented his camphene mixture and opened a business to sell it in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. The concoction combined one part turpentine with four parts alcohol, and a small amount of camphor for aroma.

“Porter’s Burning Fluid” became a popular lamp fuel. It burned bright and smelled good, but was dangerous, according to the Boston Mattapan Register, which reported that house fires and injuries were common. The newspaper noted on September 10, 1859:

There are different kinds of lamps and of lamp oil, adapted to different tastes and circumstances; and there is one at least, most abominable invention under the name of Camphene Oil, or Burning Fluid, which were better denominated a Swift and Ready Means of Destruction for Private Families; for this designation would convey a true idea of its nature and effects.

Despite the risks, consumer demand for camphene grew. By 1856, Rufus H. Spalding had taken over Henry Porter’s Boston business as the “Sole Manufacturer of Porter’s Patent Composition.”

Camphene to Kerosene lamp

Circa 1855 advertisements for camphene manufacturer Rufus H. Spalding also promoted “Portable and Steady Lamps of every description.”

Spalding offered many ornamental lighting devices, including girandoles and candelabra, along with lanterns and lamps for all kinds of fuels. Spalding’s downtown Tremont Row offices and “manufactory” on Adams Street supplied camphene to Boston’s expanding population.

The cost of whale oil ranged from $1.30 a gallon to $2.50 a gallon (about $35.70 a gallon to $68.70 a gallon in 2017 dollars). Lard oil was about 90 cents a gallon. More popular was the manufactured “coal oil,” a fuel refined from coal that cost about 50 cents a gallon, but it was sooty and yielded a low quality light.

Rock oil had been patented in 1854 by a Canadian physician and geologist, Abraham Gesner, who named his lamp fuel kerosene. Most people called it coal oil. A factory in Long Island, New York, soon began producing and selling Gesner’s new product.

In larger cities, public street gaslights had already been burning a “manufactured gas” made by distilling tar and wood. Baltimore, Maryland, had lit the first U.S. public gas street lamp in 1817 during a ceremony a block from city hall. In 1836, the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works operated a “gasification” plant that manufactured illuminating gaslight from refined coal that was piped to 46 street lamps.

But for cheap, bright household lighting, many Americans still bought a two-wick lamp fueled with camphene. The unusual lamps had burners with long wick tubes set at angles to burn separately, a design many believed helped lower the risk of an explosion. Metal caps were placed over the tubes to extinguish the flames (considered safer than blowing them out).

Camphene to Kerosene lampAlcohol used in camphene was an important mainstay for distilleries, with many selling 30 percent to 80 percent of their output to the lamp fuel market. Taverns aside, by 1860 distilleries were delivering at least 90 million gallons of alcohol per year to the lighting industry.

Camphene’s production and distribution systems were well established and, with whale oil becoming increasingly expensive, the future of camphene looked bright, despite explosions. Then on August 27, 1859, Edwin L. Drake drilled America’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Investors in “Drake’s Folly,” including George Bissell of the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, had learned from a Yale professor that oil could be refined into kerosene.

Simple distillation of crude oil yielded kerosene that sold for about 50 cents a gallon, about the same price as camphene. Pennsylvania refineries sprang up to produce kerosene made from oil, many using basic “tea kettle” stills with 40 gallons to 4,000 gallons per day capacity. As inexpensive oil-based kerosene began overwhelming makers of camphene (and coal oil) at the start of the Civil, a tax on alcohol extinguished the camphene lighting business.

To help fund the Union Army, the Internal Revenue Act imposed a $2.08 per gallon tax on alcohol between 1862 and 1864. Intended as an excise tax on beverage alcohol only, the law did not specifically exempt industrial uses, including camphene, which was about 75 percent high-proof alcohol. Camphene, once favored, was soon forgotten in American households (Congress repealed the alcohol tax in 1906).

Carbon Oil

Today the home of an oil museum and park, the Drake well yielded hundreds of gallons of high-quality crude oil. Each gallon could be distilled into about three quarts of lamp fuel. The new product became interchangeably known as rock oil, coal oil, carbon oil, or kerosene (the 19th century product is still used as rocket fuel).

Camphene to Kerosene lamp

An ad seeking agents to sell Aladdin brand of kerosene lamps, circa 1900.

Following Drake’s 1859 historic discovery, Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh was his first customer – and the first person in the United States to refine oil for a lamp fuel. He sold his higher quality “Carbon Oil” at $1.50 per gallon.

After a drilling slowdown during the Civil War, the first oil boom towns appeared in northwestern Pennsylvania. Barges began moving 42-gallon oil barrels down Oil Creek to the Allegheny River and on to newly build refineries in Pittsburgh. Thousands of  wooden derricks appeared, many with two-wicked oilfield lanterns called yellow dogs fueled with crude oil.

Within a few years, kerosene lamps illuminated almost every American home. Many new exploration, production, and transportation industries prospered thanks to kerosene. Then, beginning in the 1880s, kerosene suddenly became obsolete as a new technology entered the marketplace.

Thomas Edison’s electric lights steadily began to replace kerosene lamps. Almost as quickly as kerosene had extinguished camphene 20 years before, electric lighting dimmed kerosene’s future as consumers switched on electric lights. The loss of its principal product could have doomed America’s young petroleum industry.

Then, another radical invention became incredibly popular with consumers, not for lighting, but for transportation. “Horseless carriages” with internal combustion engines fuel by a petroleum product provided a new opportunity for the oil business (see Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show). With diminishing demand for kerosene, demand for gasoline transformed America’s oil exploration, production, and transportation companies.

The need for a formerly discarded by-product of kerosene distillation came at an especially good time for Texas wildcatters. In 1901, the giant Spindletop Hill oilfield was discovered near Beaumont. The modern petroleum age had arrived.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Camphene to Kerosene Lamps.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/camphene-to-kerosene-lamps. Last Updated: January 6, 2020. Original Published Date: April 29, 2017.

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