January 29,  1886 – First Gasoline Powered Auto

petroleum history january 25

Karl Benz’s wife Bertha was the first person to drive his gas-powered motorwagen over a long distance – bringing worldwide attention.

German mechanical engineer Karl Benz applied for a patent for his Benz Patent Motorwagen – a three-wheeler with a one-cylinder, four-stroke gasoline engine. His “Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb” (vehicle with gas engine operation) patent was the world’s first patent for a practical internal combustion engine powered car.

Although there had already been “auto-mobiles” powered by steam or electricity, Benz used the internal combustion engine as the drive system for a “self-mover,” notes a Mercedes Benz historian. “On January 29, 1886, he presented his stroke of genius at the Imperial Patent Office – the car was born.” See First Car, First Road Trip.

The first U.S. auto show took place in November 1900 in New York City.  America’s highways and travel history are on exhibit at the National Museum of American History’s America on the Move.

January 31, 1888 – Death of a Pennsylvania Oil Scout

petroleum history january 25

Oil scouts like Justus McMullen of Bradford, Pennsylvania, braved harsh winters to gather intelligence about oil wells.

In the winter of 1888, a famous oil scout died. Thirty-seven-year-old Justus McMullen succumbed to pneumonia contracted while scouting production data from a well near Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania.

McMullen, publisher of the trade publication “The Petroleum Age,” contributed much to America’s early oil industry as an oilfield detective. Called “riders of the hemlock,” these scouts debunked rumors and demystified oil well production reports – sometimes despite armed guards. Learn more in Oil Scouts – Oil Patch Detectives.

January 31, 1946 – Houston Petroleum Club founded

petroleum history january 25

Founded in 1946, the Petroleum Club of Houston began meeting on the top floor of the Rice Hotel in 1951.

Texas independent producers founded the Petroleum Club of Houston. The group began meeting on the top floor of the Rice Hotel in downtown Houston in 1951.

The club members hosted countless energy industry events and lunchtime business meetings where deals were made on handshakes alone. The club included a 21-foot-tall tapestry created to represent a geological cross-section of Texas.

In 1963, the club moved into the Exxon Mobil Building, where it occupied 45,000 square feet on floors 43 and 44 for more than 50  years before moving into the top floor of the nearby Total Plaza in 2015. Also learn about Dallas Petroleum Club History.

February 1, 1868 – Oil Prices Quality weighed

For the first time, crude oil price quotations began to be based on specific gravity – the heaviness of a substance compared to that of water. In the new oil regions of Pennsylvania, independent producers frequently met to sell shares of stock, argue prices and enter into refining contracts that depended on the oil’s quality.

Before the Titusville Oil Exchange was established in 1871, producers gathered in convenient establishments, such as Titusville’s American Hotel or along Centre Street in Oil City – known as the “Curbside Exchange.” Learn more End of Oil Exchanges. The American Petroleum Institute’s API gravity, adopted in 1921, has become the worldwide standard. Oil is classified as light, medium or heavy, according to its measured gravity.

February 2, 1923 – First Anti-Knock Gas goes on Sale

petroleum history february

“Ethyl” gasoline goes for the first time at this Dayton, Ohio, gas station. Photo courtesy Kettering/GMI Alumni Foundation.

“Ethyl,” the world’s first anti-knock gasoline containing a tetra-ethyl lead compound, was first sold in 1923. Discovered two years earlier by General Motors scientists, the vastly improved gasoline was sold at the Refiners Oil Company service station in Dayton, Ohio.

In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” was the name applied to the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. In the 1950s, chemist Clair Patterson discovered the toxicity of tetra-ethyl lead; its phase out began in 1976. Learn more about Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas.

February 3, 1868 – Oil Producers seek End of Civil War Tax

Angry refiners from Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, met in Petroleum Center and passed a resolution demanding an immediate end to the “war tax” of one dollar per barrel of refined petroleum products.

Seeking ways to pay for the war as early as 1862, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase had advocated taxes as high as $10.50 per barrel on refined petroleum products. He was responsible for the introduction of federal paper money that was printed on green paper; they were soon called “Greenbacks.”

Chase, who once sought the presidency, would not succeed with his massive petroleum tax, despite the Union’s need for revenue during the war. Instead, the one-dollar excise tax was imposed in 1864.

February 4, 1910 – “Buffalo Bill” looks for Wyoming Oilfields

petroleum history february

W.F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, center in black hat, and other investors at an oilfield on the Shoshone Anticline near Cody, Wyoming, around 1910. Photo courtesy the American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s legacy extended beyond his world-famous Wild West Show. It reached into the Wyoming oil patch.

Cody, who in 1896 founded the town that bears his name, in February 1910 bought 7,500 shares of Shoshone Oil Company. It was not his first attempt to strike oil.

Cody and several partners, including Wyoming Rep. Frank Mondell, in 1902 had begun exploring near Cody. They drilled one 500-foot dry hole and ran out of money when a second well also failed to find oil.

In 1910 Cody and the congressman once again ventured into the oil business by forming Shoshone Oil. During a visit to New York City, “Buffalo Bill” carried pocket flasks of oil to interest investors. Some of his eastern friends started calling him, “Bill, the Oil King,” notes one historian, adding, “with what degree of seriousness we cannot know.”

Unfortunately for Shoshone Oil, the state’s major oil strikes came south of Cody, and the company’s drilling funds ran out. By the early 1920s, the Salt Creek oilfield would become one of the most productive in the country. Learn more in First Wyoming Oil Well.


Recommended Reading: Bertha Takes a Drive: How the Benz Automobile Changed the World (2017); The Oil Scouts: Reminiscences of the Night Riders of the Hemlocks Hardcover (1986); The Finest in the Land: The Story of the Petroleum Club of Houston (1984); Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West (2016). 


Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of each month. AOGHS welcomes sponsors to maintain this website and preserve U.S. petroleum heritage. Please support our energy education mission with a donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of sponsorships. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.