Camphene to Kerosene Lamps
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.
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.”
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).
Alcohol 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).
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).
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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