The gasoline service station with the first gas pump can trace its roots to a pump that dispensed kerosene at an Indiana grocery store in the late 1880s.

first gas pump

A U.S. patent resulted from the popularity of a pump designed for “such liquids as kerosene-oil, burning-fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum” and sold two years earlier.

first gas pump

Gas pumps with dials were followed by calibrated glass cylinders. Meter pumps using a small glass dome with a turbine inside replaced the measuring cylinder as pumps continued to evolve.

S.F. (Sylvanus Freelove) Bowser sold his newly invented kerosene pump to the owner of a grocery store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on September 5, 1885.

Less than two decades later, the first purposely built drive-in gasoline service station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Bowser’s invention, which could reliably measure and dispense kerosene – a product much in demand for half a century – soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.

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.

TX-ALLIANCE-AD-AOGHS

Originally designed to safely dispense kerosene as well as “burning fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum,” early S.F. Bowser pumps held up to 42 gallons.

first gas pump

The S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” soon became known as “filling stations.” An upper clamshell closed for security when left unattended.

Bowser kerosene pumps used marble valves, a wooden plunger and an upright faucet. With the pump’s popular success at Jake Gumper’s grocery store, Bowser formed the S. F. Bowser & Company and patented his invention in late October 1887.

Within a decade – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful.

First Gas Pump brings First Service Station

By 1905, the S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” was known to motorists as a “filling station.”

The original Bowser pump consisted of a square metal tank with a wooden cabinet equipped with a suction pump operated by hand-stroke lever action.

Beginning in 1905, Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into the automobile fuel tank. The popular Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its secure “clamshell” cover followed. Also see the 1920 Diamond Filling Station in Washington, D.C.

With the addition of competing businesses such as Wayne Pump Company and Tokheim Oil Tank & Pump Company, the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, became the gas-pump manufacturing capital of the world.

first gas pump

Manufactured in 1911, an S.F. Bowser Model 102 “Chief Sentry” pumped gas on North Capitol Street in Washington D.C., in 1920. The Penn Oil Company’s pump’s topmost globe, today prized by collectors, survived only as a bulb. Photo from the Library of Congress.

 first gas pump

Penn Oil Company filling stations were the exclusive American distributor of Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product made up of “50 percent gasoline and 50 percent of chemicals, the nature of which is secret.” The secret ingredient was likely alcohol.

First Drive-In Service Station

Although Standard Oil will claim a Seattle, Washington, station of 1907, and others argue about one in St. Louis two years earlier, most agree that when “Good Gulf Gasoline” went on sale, Gulf Refining Company opened America’s first true drive-in service station.

The motoring milestone took place at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1913.

Unlike earlier simple curbside gasoline filling stations, an architect purposefully designed the pagoda-style brick facility offered free air, water, crankcase service, and tire and tube installation.

first gas pump

Gulf Refining Company’s decision to open the first service station (above) along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was no accident. By 1913 the boulevard had become known as “automobile row'” because of the high number of dealerships.

“This distinction has been claimed for other stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis and elsewhere,” notes a Gulf corporate historian. “The evidence indicates that these were simply sidewalk pumps and that the honor of the first drive-in is that of Gulf and Pittsburgh.”

HOUSE-AD-AOGHS

The Gulf station included a manager and four attendants standing by. The original service station’s brightly lighted marquee provided shelter from bad weather for motorists.

first gas pump

Spitlers Auto Supply Company, 205 Commerce Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia, closed in 1931. It was an example of curbside pumps used before Gulf Refining Company established covered, drive-through stations.

“On its first day, the station sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon. On its first Saturday, Gulf’s new service station pumped 350 gallons of gasoline,” notes the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

“Prior to the construction of the first Gulf station in Pittsburgh and the countless filling stations that followed throughout the United States, automobile drivers pulled into almost any old general or hardware store, or even blacksmith shops in order to fill up their tanks,” the historical commission explains.

The decision to open the first station along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh was no accident.

first gas pump

Until about 1925, Gulf Refining Company was the only oil company to issue maps. Gulf was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family of Pittsburgh. Map image courtesy Harold Cramer.

first gas pump

This 1916 Bowser gasoline pump operated by a hand crank. A “clock face” dial let the consumer know how much gas had been pumped. Photo from the Smithsonian Collection.

By 1913 when the station was opened, Baum Boulevard had become known as “automobile row” because of the high number of dealerships that were located along the thoroughfare.

“Gulf executives must have figured that there was no better way to get the public hooked on using filling stations than if they could pull right in and gas up their new car after having just driven it off the lot,” notes a commission historian.

In addition to gas, the Gulf station also offered free air and water – and sold the first commercial road maps in the United States.

“The first generally distributed oil company road maps are usually credited to Gulf,” says Harold Cramer in his Early Gulf Road Maps of Pennsylvania.

“The early years of oil company maps, circa 1915 to 1925, are dominated by Gulf as few other oil companies issued maps, and until about 1925 Gulf was the only oil company to issue maps annually,” Cramer notes.

The Gulf Refining Company was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family, along with other investors, as an expansion of the J. W. Guffey Petroleum Company formed earlier the same year –  to exploit the Spindletop oil discovery in Texas.

first gas pump

Collectors value service station memorabilia, including this pump and globe exhibited at the Northwoods Petroleum Museum outside Three Lakes, Wisconsin, established in 2006 by Ed Jacobsen, retired owner of six Shell and Amoco stations.

While the Gulf station in Pittsburgh may have been the first “modern” service station, kerosene and gasoline “filling stations” helped pave the way.

“At the turn of the century, gasoline was sold in open containers at pharmacies, blacksmith shops, hardware stores and other retailers looking to make a few extra dollars of profit,” notes Kurt Ernst in a 2013 article.

“In 1905, a Shell subsidiary opened a filling station in St. Louis, Missouri, but it required attendants to fill a five gallon can behind the store, then haul this to the customer’s vehicle for dispensing.

“A similar filling station was constructed by Socal gasoline in Seattle, Washington, opening in 1907,” Ernst explains in his The Modern Gas Station celebrates its 100th Birthday.

“Today, 152,995 gas stations dot the landscape, including 123,289 convenience stores,” Ernst reports. On average, each location sells about 4,000 gallons of fuel per day, “quite a jump from the 30 gallons sold at the Gulf station in Pittsburgh on December 1, 1913.”

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