From kerosene to gasoline

In the mid-19th century certain chemicals were proven capable of distilling the dense and dark liquid that springs forth from certain parts of the earth.

Among the various products that resulted from this process, there was one that was ideally suited for the task of illumination. Kerosene, by contrast to vegetable and animal oils, or to tallow and stearin, offered greater luminosity and gave off no unpleasant odors. Initially the precious liquid was sold loose, in bulk. And though it later came to be packaged, the old sales method survived for decades in the form of travelling vendors who went about in wagons laden with barrels or tanks. Seeking to simplify this system, the American Sylvanus F. Bowser contributed, in 1885, an ingenious idea: to the barrel or the tank was applied a lever-action piston pump with a faucet, not much different from that used to draw water from a well. Bowser’s invention is documented, but one can imagine that others as well had imagined devices for simplifying the life of the kerosene vendor – travelling or otherwise. After a short time, in order to reach a broader clientele, the vendors of kerosene and other petroleum products such as lubricants organized complex distribution networks linked by means of transport and storage. These were decentralized to the greatest degree possible, in order to limit the risk of damage caused by fire. In the service of this network were born companies that built the tank wagons, storage tanks, and pumping and measuring facilities, whose main task was for a long time that of perfecting safety and security methods.

The automobile did not appear in a brief shining instant. The earliest precursor of the internal combustion engine (the igneo-pneumatic device of Luigi De Cristoforis, 1841) utilized a liquid hydrocarbon (naphtha) vaporized by a carburetor, while the subsequent inventions of Barsanti and Matteucci (1856), Hugon (1858), Lenoir (1860), Otto and Langen (1867) preferred a combustible mix already prepared: lamp fuel. These first motors were most often used for static functions, to drive pumps and other fixed machinery, in which case the fuel did not present a tremendous hazard. Mounting it on a moving vehicle, however, was tantamount to carrying a lethal bomb, and this brought with it a certain discomfort. To eliminate the danger, inventors turned their attention to combustible liquid and confronted the complications of the carburetor, choosing among the available substances a petroleum by-product, familiar to industry as a solvent and to the average household as a stain remover. Karl Benz’s motorized tricycle (1886) was not the first gasoline vehicle per sé, but by comparison with earlier attempts it was far more functional. Together with the other “automobile” devices that followed, it helped give rise to the transportation revolution and thereby offered new prospects to the petroleum industry.

Although Thomas Alva Edison was already fabricating light bulbs by 1880, the kerosene market would remain in good health for some decades yet, for the electricity network was slow to expand. But in the long run, kerosene was destined for extinction. The advent of the automobile, however, offered the prospect of a new petroleum product that could gradually substitute it. At first a minor by-product, gasoline would become the principal fruit of oil refining. Over time, the manufacturers modified the process, privileging gasoline above all other by-products; to market it, they simply used the existing kerosene distribution network.

As the number of automobiles grew, one began to find gasoline in the same stores that sold kerosene, and in other places as well: grocery stores, pharmacies, markets, garages, weigh stations, and stables. As sales volume increased, the need to improve the methods of supply and distribution became ever more apparent.

The automobile, in the meantime, had passed through its infancy. Inventors from various parts of Europe had conceived it, the French had given it a successful debut, and the United States of America had opened up the doors of its vast market. That which is considered the first American automobile hit the roads in 1893; by the end of the century there were already thirty car manufacturers and more than eight thousand motor vehicles on the road; within a decade Henry Ford had transformed the automobile into an “everyday” means of transport, while in Europe it remained the luxury of few. Thanks in part to the great distances that the average citizen was required to travel, the motorization of America was precocious in its development. Consequently, the problems associated with gasoline and its distribution became rather urgent and the Americans, by necessity, had to solve them first.