“Drop the coin in the slot…Mr. Robot delivers the correct amount of gasoline.”

 

Almost as soon as gas stations appeared, inventors began experimenting with ways to make user-friendly pumps for consumers. The revenue possibilities of self-service gasoline pumps prompted a number of innovators to develop coin-operated systems in the early 20th Century.

Self-measuring pumps once used to dispense kerosene were adapted for gasoline (see Wayne’s Self-Measuring Pump), even as inventors sought ways to automate payment at the pump.

Scientific American and Popular Mechanics featured some of the early designs for coin-operated gasoline pumps, noting that manufacturers had taken their cue from “the fortunes that have resulted from the harvest of pennies dropped into chewing gum slot machines.”

Garage Dealer and Motor Age magazine ad for Coin-Operated Gas Pumps

Trade magazines like Garage Dealer and Motor Age featured advertisements for coin-operated gas pump technologies of the 1920s.

But a coin-operated pump had risks, noted editors at Scientific American: “It is evident that a vending machine liable to hold fifty or a hundred half-dollars would be a magnet for thieves.”

The Anthony Liquid Vending Machine Company designed its “Anthony Automatic Salesman,” which the company marketed to garage owners. promising a savings of $5 in overhead costs for every dollar invested in the automatic, coin-operated pumps.

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In Minnesota, William H. Fruen received the first U.S. patent for a coin-operated liquid dispensing apparatus in 1884. The inventor from Minneapolis designed an innovative “Automatic Liquid-Drawing Device,” according to Canadian historian K.J. Zeoli.  

The “Starky” Coin-Operated Pump

One of the better known coin-operated pump manufacturers originated with the Starkey Oil and Gas Company of Fort Collins, Colorado. Lewis P. Starkey, who first filed an application in October1920, received his U.S. patent on November 29, 1927 (patent no. 1650882), which used electricity instead of a manual cranking system.

“Self-Operating Filling Station,” patent drawing by Lewis Starkey of Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1927.

Patent drawing of “Self-Operating Filling Station,” the coin-operated gasoline pump invented by Lewis Starkey of Fort Collins, Colorado.

According to Zeoli, the L.P. Starkey Pump Company, which was later sold to Gas-O-Mat Inc. of Denver, produced two models of coin-operated pumps.

“Starkey and his wife ran a service station in Fort Collins. Starkey was constantly being awakened during the night by tourists who wanted gasoline. His wife actually came up with the idea of Starkey making a gas pump that would dispense gas without Starkey having to get out of bed and service the tourist. This gave Starkey the idea for the coin operated pump.”

“Unfortunately, Starkey allowed his patent to expire on one of the key components in his pumps,” Zeoli reported. The component, a “silent mercury switch” that prevented electrical circuits sparks, “went on to be used by thousands in the construction business.”

Although coin-operated pumps at gas service stations would prove impractical, there were notable attempts in the early 20th century, according to Zeoli. The October 18, 1913, issue of Popular Mechanics featured “The Gasoline Slot Machine,” reporting how an automatic pump did not require an attendant. Motorists could insert a half dollar coin into a slot and turn a crank.

The automatic pump was “touted as one of the first consumer friendly slot gas machines of the era,” Zeoli explains at the website Vintage Gas Pump & Oil History, adding, “The pump was so advanced, if a customer dropped a coin into an empty pump by mistake, the pump would return the coin after the first crank of the pump.”

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Meanwhile, gasoline filling stations with uniformed attendants continued to expand nationwide following Gulf Oil’s example in Pittsburgh (see First Gas Pump and Service Station). Starkey Pump Company and other examples of the gas pump slot machines survive today in museums.

End of Gas-O-Mats

Gasoline dispensing automation seemed like a good idea simply lacking technology to make it work. Attempts continued as commercial names like Beacon, Gas-O-Mat, and others disappeared in a flurry of patents that could not overcome challenges of coin-operated pumps.

“You can sell gasoline 24-hours a day and 365-days a year, without effort on your part,” one company proclaimed, adding that paying was a simple process for consumers. “Drop the coin in the slot — a quarter, half-dollar, or a silver dollar, and Mr. Robot delivers the correct amount of gasoline.”

By 1915, an article in National Petroleum News reported a key drawback of unattended, coin-operated pumps: “One gasoline vending outfit tried out recently in a middle western city returned about $2 in real currency and $37 in lead slugs, buttons and counterfeit coins for its first 500 gallons of gasoline.”

Nonetheless, as a system for numbered highways was established, and U.S. 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles approved in 1926 (learn more in America On the Move), some coin-operated machines survived into the 1930s.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Coin Operated Gas Pumps.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/coin-operated-gasoline-pumps. Last Updated: November 28, 2022. Original Published Date: July 11, 2018.

 

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