A Brief History Of Gasoline: How Gas Got Into Our Lives

A Brief History Of Gasoline: How Gas Got Into Our Lives

This is the second story in a series of stories on the history of gasoline. So far, Jalopnik’s tech coverage has been focused primarily on the emergence, or reemergence of the electric vehicle. One of the primary arguments levied against electric cars and electric charging infrastructure has been that bringing both into the mainstream would take significant investment from private and public actors, and that this has not generally been politically palatable in the United States.

In this ten part series (here is the prelude from last week), award-winning journalist Jamie Kitman will lay out how American corporate and government entities have been cooperating on a vastly more costly, complex and deadly energy project for well over a century: gasoline.


How did gasoline get into our lives?

And how did the former Standard Oil Company and its descendants, including today’s ExxonMobil, come to be — for a century and a half, generation upon generation — not only the biggest name in gasoline and not just a giant among corporate multinationals, but also the long-reigning king of world environmental degradation?

We start at the beginning because the beginning is always a good place to start. That and all of the things we’ll consider here – including the addition to gasoline of additional toxins like lead, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, isoparaffins, methyltert-butylether, MMT, and other tasty carcinogens — turn out to be entirely of a piece with the sort of seat-of-the-pants chemical engineering and indiscriminate mess-making that characterised the petroleum industry since its inception around the time of the Civil War. It’s the same story with its mightiest player, Standard Oil.

So, too, does the rise of one company above all others ring true, for the modern corporation has always gravitated towards monopoly and cartel and, with this, the tendency to overlook the common weal as a matter of standard operating procedure, no pun intended. As one’s familiarity with the oil industry’s history and its practices grows, and one’s knowledge of the life and times of Standard Oil expands, the question becomes less “How could they?” and more “How could they not?” In each case — whether putting extra poisons into gasoline, itself poison, or covering up what they knew about air pollution, global warming, health hazards and their products’ singular roles in creating them — the corporation’s uniquely anti-social personality, history of willingness to foist grave risk upon the public and the corporeal world, along with a distinct, profit-above-all-else state of mind, play starring roles.

Petroleum is one of the three fossil fuels (coal and natural gas being the other two) formed during the Carboniferous Period of the Paleozoic Era, which ran from about 360 to 286 million years ago. When tree and plant life died, their remains decomposed. Undisturbed for countless millennia, the ancient flora became peat. Then, over the millions of years that followed and under extreme pressure from the sediment and rock which would collect on top of the peat on land and beneath the ocean floor, any remaining water would be expelled, creating the carbon-rich substances, which lay waiting silently for that time in the distant future when they’d be extracted to light our lamps, heat our homes and, in time, power our cars, jet skis, and leaf blowers.

The petroleum industry, one of the most colossal enterprises the world has ever known, began gathering speed midway through the 19th century. From there, it would become one of the most momentous economic and environmental forces in the history of humankind. But its emergence then actually marked the world’s second go-round with petroleum. Few realise today that the Mesopotamians were enthusiastic consumers of the stuff 5,000 years earlier, back in the cradle of civilisation days.

Sometime before 3,000 BC, the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians used petroleum that seeped from the earth in a related form, asphaltic bitumen. (Think LaBrea tar pits.) The Dead Sea, near modern Israel, was once known as Lake Asphaltites, on account of the asphaltic oil deposits that would wash up on its shores, where they would be harvested for commercial use. A basic element of the Mesopotamian economies, asphalt was employed to build roads, to waterproof ships, and work as a mastic in construction. It was also as a component ingredient in paints, medicines, and what we now call beauty care products.

Given the way things seem to have gone with oil since then, some might say we should be thankful for the Persian conquest of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom, c. 600 BC. In the centuries that followed, most awareness of petroleum evaporated from the western world.

It’s difficult to say what would have happened if this had not been the case. This effective informational blackout assured at least a good two millenia before the West unleashed its last century and a half of intensive petroleum burning and virulent oil-related pollution. That’s along with its more than two dozen centuries’ of attendant product development and often consternating chemical achievement to which we were later treated. In the meantime, we’d been burning coal, its own environmental nightmare.

History tells us ancient Greece largely avoided the topic of oil, while the Romans viewed it as a matter of mild curiosity. The Chinese used it for heating, on occasion, and the Arabic populations of Alexandria and elsewhere retained a fair interest, developing early petroleum distillation technologies. Their focus was less on petroleum as a construction material and more on its use as an illuminant and burning fuel.

Some knowledge of these uses would spread to Europe, in the descriptions of Arab and Mongol warriors and those of Marcus Graecus — “Mark the Greek,” to you — a likely pseudonymous writer whose volume Liber Ignium captivated Europe when its Latin translation hit the streets in the middle of the 13th century, outlining several dozen incendiary recipes. For their part, Westerners were invited to reconsider life as petroleum studies’ dropouts during the Crusades, when exposed to firebombs, grenades and flamethrowers of unimagined ferocity in exchanges with Muslim armies. They were, so to speak, cooking with gas.

Although petroleum would not be used in the West as an illuminant for hundreds of years to come, relevant techniques in distillation began to enter the European skill set in the Middle Ages. Both The American Petroleum Industry by William Daum in 1959 and Fifteen Centuries of Bitumen by R.J. Forbes in 1937 point out the invention of a tabular condenser used in the distillation of wine, by Thaddeus Alderotti, around 1300. The trick, the Florentine hacker discovered, was storing the vapour outside rather than inside the still head, knowledge that would come in handy in a different context more than five hundred years later.

For significant petroleum demand didn’t materialise until well into the 19th century. It came first from the pharmaceutical industry, a smaller and arguably shadier business then than it is today. Typically, those who sold pharmaceutical petroleum byproducts like liniments, anesthetics, and tonics of dubious efficacy were often the self-same freelance individuals who had drawn the oil from the ground and then loudly pronounced its virtue.

Native Americans had also been using oil that would seep to the surfaces of lakes and soil to waterproof canoes and for medicinal uses; George Washington’s troops were reportedly encouraged by sympathetic indigenous peoples to treat their frostbite with oil. Petroleum products would be prescribed for some time by country doctors and promoters spanning the grade from honest healers to outright hucksters, as an aid for suffering caused by rheumatism, chronic coughs, and burn wounds.

Petroleum was frequently discovered by accident at this time, by those mining for salt. As boring and drilling methods evolved to recover more salt brine from ever-greater depths, drillers often bumped into petroleum. They’d sometimes call it “rock oil,” as Daum notes in The American Petroleum Industry, deriving from the Latin words “petra” for rock and “oleum” for oil.

During the middle of the 19th century, a growing number of opportunity-oriented individuals started to feel certain there had to be a use for this funny slippery stuff that could be extracted from the ground at little or no charge.

In 1833, a physician reported in the American Journal of Science that owing to petroleum’s “great and extensive demand, a small vial of it would sell for 40 or 50 cents ($0.64). It is at this time in general use among the inhabitants of the country for saddle bruises and that complaint called the ‘scratches’ in horses. It seems to be peculiarly adapted to the flesh of horses and cures many of their ailments with wonderful certainty and celerity.”

In the 1840s and 1850s, Samuel Kier, a canal boat operator who plied the manmade waterways between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, did much to commercialize these sorts of applications while also promoting the use of salt-drilling techniques to extract oil from the hills of western Pennsylvania.

But as the 1833 report noted, there were still other uses for petroleum. “In neighbourhoods where it is abundant it is burned in lamps in place of spermaceti [whale] oil, affording a brilliant light, but filling the room with its own peculiar odor. By filtering it through charcoal much of this empyreumatic smell is destroyed and the oil greatly improved in quality and appearance. It is also well adapted to prevent friction in machinery, for, being free of gluten, so common to animal and vegetable oils, it preserves the parts to which it is applied for a long time in free motion.”


The modern oil industry’s ascendance began humbly enough in the 1850s, when petroleum’s value as a lubricant for machinery and as a possible illuminant came to be more widely appreciated. For centuries, whale oil had been the preferred lamp fuel, and later lard, tallow and vegetable oils had been called upon to provide light, though, like rendered whale blubber, each came with notable drawbacks pertaining to their cost, safety, supply or ease of recovery and use, or some combination thereof. Whale oil, which made many a New Englander’s fortune, for instance, became impossibly expensive as demand grew and the whale population became scarce due to over-hunting.

But it was coal gas, created when coal is heated to produce coke, and, later, coal oil, derived from bituminous shale, a waxy hydrocarbon relation of coal and petroleum (also known as asphaltum or mineral wax,) that provided the key links to our modern petroleum world.

The first sale of coal gas, by the Gas Light Company of Baltimore in 1816, marked, as Daum states in his well-regarded history, “the first important use of a mineral as a source of illumination.” But while European coal gas enterprises prospered, they were short-lived in the United States. The American coal gas and coal oil pioneers remain significant, however, because they laid the groundwork for the distillation and refining techniques as well as the distribution methods that would be critical to the growth of the petroleum industry.

In the decades immediately preceding petroleum’s great new popularity, an illuminating fluid made from a turpentine/alcohol blend, and known as camphene, would be the dominant lighting fuel in the U.S. This would not be the last time that alcohol fuels would loom large as an energy source. But, as would later, too, be the case with alcohol fuels, government policies intervened. Camphene lost its predominance practically overnight when a huge tax imposed during the Civil War on all alcohols – industrial and recreational — drove the market to a new fuel made from coal oil. It was called kerosene and it boasted other advantages besides cost.

For this epoch-making fuel, credit Abraham Gesner, coal oil’s earliest adherent and likely one of the first souls to have his spirit broken by the new energy source. Trained in London as a surgeon, Gesner repatriated to his Canadian homeland to practice medicine in the 1820s but would be credited with several remarkable accomplishments in the unrelated fields of geology, mineralogy and refining, including authoring 1836’s regarded page-turner “Remarks on the Geology and Mineralogy of Nova Scotia,” which earned him a brief assignment as Provincial Geologist for New Brunswick. But his genius’ ultimate expression – and the proximate cause of his emotional ruin – was a refined product he called kerosene — “keros” for wax, “ene” because it was volatile like camphene, in fact, often too volatile; lamp fires were disturbingly frequent occurrences in the 19th century. (The British, incidentally, call kerosene “paraffin.”)

As recorded in Kendall Beaton’s 1955 article in The Business History Review, Dr. Gesner’s Kerosene: The Start of American Oil Refining, Gesner introduced potential customers to kerosene’s promise with a circular letter, enthusing, “No material has hitherto been offered to the public capable of producing such a light as Kerosene oil. It gives a better and more brilliant light than any other substance known, at less than one-half the cost of candles or camphene … burns extremely cleanly, gives no odor, will not congeal in any climate, and is perfectly safe in any hands … In consequence of the economy and safety of its use, and brilliancy of the light which it emits, [it] must soon be used in every house in the country.”

Derived from bituminous shale and, we now know, capable of being rendered from any of the fossil fuels, kerosene’s future was bright (it remains, for instance, the basis of jet fuel, through this day,) even if it wasn’t as clean and harmless as its boosters promised. Gesner’s future, however, would be rather less luminous.

Despite several attempts, including one which saw him moving to New York to get in on the ground floor of a new industry in fossil fuel-based illuminants, he failed over the remainder of his relatively short lifetime to capitalise on his discovery, dying poor, broke and, though outwardly philosophical, feeling totally ripped off. He had isolated the product and the broad requirement of treating it, along with many of the essential techniques to do so, and he’d outlined in detail the wisdom of and methods for making use of a fuel stock’s many possible byproducts. But his reward was a footnote in some of the history books, as well as the comforting knowledge, in his own phrase, that he’d saved the whales, enabling “a long and lasting holiday … for … the finny monsters of the sea.”

Just like petroleum, crude coal oil requires distillation to separate its valuable components. It needs distillation and chemical treatment to remove impurities, such as carbon and ammonia, which cause foul odours, imperfect colour and burning irregularities. As with almost all developments in the history of the oil business, the new product’s infirmities were revealed to its creators the old-fashioned way, in the field, by consumers, whose discoveries were often accompanied by discomfort, illness, and, in the worst cases, death.

Profiting where Gesner failed to do so were early industry pioneers, James Young of Scotland and the Samuel Downer organisation of New York City. The latter would in 1857, thanks to the efforts of a young salesman and lubricating engineer in its employ named Joshua Merrill, come up with the process of destructive distillation, or “cracking.” Cracking occurs when an oil is superheated to temperatures above 600-degrees F, a process that alters the molecular structure of heavy oils, breaking up or “cracking” smaller molecules out of larger ones. As fuels with different molecular structures have different characteristics, cracking is done with an eye to achieving optimal molecular structures and boiling points, so as to make certain fuels ideally suited for a particular use, such as, in these early days, illumination.

On the strength of their “cracking” discovery, the Downer organisation would take over the New York Kerosene Co., one of the early entrants in the field and, ironically, the company Gesner founded in 1853 as the Asphalt Mining & Kerosene Gas Company, (later the North American Gas Light Company,) along the banks of the Newtown Creek, which runs between the borough of Queens, in New York City, and Brooklyn.

(Historical note: this same plant would pass into the control of Standard Oil in 1876. Illustrating the longevity of the fundamental techniques Gesner had isolated, as well as the industry’s lackadaisical attitude towards costly technological upgrades, they would operate it well into the next century, with pieces of its original equipment still intact. Declared a Superfund site by the federal government in 2010, the Creek – an East River estuary between Brooklyn and Queens– is known to have absorbed massive quantities of oil, including from a giant spill discovered in 1978 which it is estimated saw between 17 and 30 million gallons collect in a multi-million gallon plume occupying aquifers depleted of groundwater under Brooklyn’s international hipster capitols of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Compare that to the more infamous but smaller Exxon Valdez tanker disaster which spilled 11 million gallons.)

Needless to say, given a life of hard luck, Gesner lost control of the refinery he helped erect. But, by 1859, the technology his discovery had launched –refining – was becoming widespread, with some 33 businesses set up to refine coal oil. As the Scientific American would observe in that same year, “The manufacture of coal oil has become somewhat extensive in our country and the subject at this time is one of great importance.”

The coal gas and coal oil folk might not have been fully aware of it, but as promising as their prospects looked, conditions were just as right now for petroleum to be extracted from the earth on a grander scale than it ever had been, and for somebody to have an idea of what to do with it – thanks primarily to processes Gesner and other leading coal refiners had developed. Nevertheless, the first commercial petroleum drilling came about through a series of coincidences and surprised many.

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