Today’s highly refined propellant began as “coal oil” for lamps.
A 19th century petroleum product made America’s 1969 moon landing possible. On July 16, 1969, kerosene rocket fuel powered the first stage of the Saturn V of the Apollo 11 mission.
Four days after the Saturn V launched Apollo 11, astronaut Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” His historic achievement rested on new technologies – and tons of fuel first refined for lamps by a Canadian in 1848.
Powered by five first-stage engines fueled by “rocket grade” kerosene, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever built.
During launch, five Rocketdyne F-1 engines of the massive Saturn V’s first stage burn “Rocket Grade Kerosene Propellant” at 2,230 gallons per second – generating almost eight million pounds of thrust.
The F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Photos courtesy NASA.
Saturn’s rocket fuel is highly refined kerosene RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or Refined Petroleum-1) which, while conforming to stringent performance specifications, is essentially the same “coal oil” invented in the mid-19th century.
Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner began refining an illuminating fuel from coal in 1846. “I have invented and discovered a new and useful manufacture or composition of matter, being a new liquid hydrocarbon, which I denominate Kerosene,” he noted in his patent.
The father of American rocketry, Robert Goddard, in 1926 used gasoline to fuel the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket, seen here in its launch stand. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
By 1850, Gesner had formed a company that installed lighting in the streets in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1854, he established the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company at Long Island, New York.
Although he had coined the term kerosene from the Greek word keros (wax), because his fluid was extracted from coal, most consumers called it “coal oil” as often as they called it kerosene.
By the time of the first U.S. oil well drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859, a Yale scientist (hired by the well’s investors) has reported oil to be an ideal source for making kerosene, far better than refined coal. Demand for kerosene refined from petroleum launched the nation’s exploration and production industry.
Although electricity would replace kerosene lamps and gasoline dominate 20th century demand for a transportation fuel, kerosene has remained a power fuel choice.
Jet Car Racers
On November 7, 1965, California race car driver Art Arfons set the land-speed record at 576.553 miles per hour at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. The Ohio drag racer’s home-made Green Monster was powered by JP-4 fuel (a 50-50 kerosene-gasoline blend), in an afterburner-equipped F-104 Starfighter turbojet jet engine.
A kerosene-gasoline blend powered the F-104 jet engine of the Green Monster to world records,.
Nathan Ostrich, who built of the first jet car in 1962, reached a speed in excess of 330 mph on the famous one-mile strip in his Flying Caduceus. His racer used a General Electric J47 engine originally designed for the North American F-86 Sabre jet fighter. Arfon set the world land-speed record three times between 1964 and 1965, in what became known as “The Bonneville Jet Wars.”
Record challenger Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America Sonic 1 in 1965 used a jet engine from a an F-4 Phantom II to defeat the Green Monster and set a record of 600.601 mph, which lasted until 1970, when the Blue Flame Natural Gas Rocket Car reached 630.388 mph.
Kerosene’s ease of storage and stable properties attracted early rocket scientists like America’s Robert H. Goddard and Germany’s Wernher von Braun. During World War II, kerosene fueled Nazi Germany’s notorious V-2 ballistic missiles.
Decades of post-war rocket engine research and testing led to the Saturn V’s five Rocketdyne F-1 engines. “The F-1 remains the most powerful single-combustion chamber liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed, according to David Woods, author of How Apollo Flew to the Moon, 2008.
The Rocketdyne F-1 engines, 19 feet tall with nozzles about 12 feet wide, include fuel pumps delivering 15,471 gallons of RP-1 per minute to their thrust chambers. The Saturn V’s upper stages burn highly volatile liquid hydrogen (and liquid oxygen in all three stages). The five-engine main booster hold 203,400 gallon of RP-1. After firing, the engines can empty the massive fuel tank in 165 seconds.
Kerosene fueled the Saturn V – and today’s latest rocket engines. NASA photo detail.
The Apollo 11 landing crowned liquid-rocket fuel research in America dating back to Goddard and his 1914 “Rocket Apparatus” powered by gasoline. In March 1926, Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket from his aunt’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts.
Although gasoline will be replaced with other propellants, including the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen used in the space shuttle’s external tank, RP-1 kerosene continues to fuel spaceflight.
Cheaper, easily stored at room temperature, and far less of an explosive hazard, the 19th century petroleum product today fuels first-stage boosters for the Atlas, Delta II, Antares, and the latest SpaceX rockets. Reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets have nine Merlin engines burning kerosene fuel and generating 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
Last launched in 1972, the Saturn V remains the most powerful rocket ever built.
Recommended Reading: Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (2003). As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
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 email@example.com. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Kerosene Rocket Fuel.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL:https://aoghs.org/products/kerosene-rocket-fuel. Last Updated: February 3, 2022. Original Published Date: July 12, 2015.
American mobility would soon depend on a petroleum product at bottom of refining process.
As the U.S. centennial neared, President Ulysses S. Grant directed that Pennsylvania Avenue be paved with Trinidad asphalt. By 1876, the president’s paving project covered about 54,000 square yards, according to the National Asphalt Pavement Association.
Pennsylvania Avenue was first paved in 1876-77 with bitumen imported from Trinidad. Thirty-one years later, a better asphalt derived from petroleum distillation was used to repave the famed pathway to the Capitol, above. Photo courtesy the Asphalt Institute.
“Brooms, lutes, squeegees and tampers were used in what was a highly labor intensive process. Only after the asphalt was dumped, spread, and smoothed by hand did the relatively sophisticated horse-drawn roller, and later the steam roller, move in to complete the job,” NAPA noted in its 1992 publication, A Century of Progress: The History of Hot Mix Asphalt. (more…)
Oilfield paraffin created petroleum jelly — Vaseline — and Maybelline cosmetics.
Few associate 1860s oil wells with women’s eyes, but they are fashionably related. From paraffin to Vaseline, this is the story of how the goop that accumulated around the sucker rods of America’s earliest oil wells made its way to the eyelashes of women.
In 1865, a 22-year-old Robert Chesebrough left the prolific oilfields of Pithole and Titusville, Pennsylvania, to return to his Brooklyn, New York, laboratory. He carried samples of a waxy substance that clogged well heads. He already had dabbled in the “coal oil” business with experiments on refinery processes.
Robert Chesebrough will find a way to purify the waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged oil wells in early Pennsylvania petroleum fields. Photo courtesy Unilever Corp.
Chesebrough’s laboratory expertise included distilling cannel coal into kerosene, a lamp fuel in high demand among consumers. He knew of the process for refining oil into kerosene, so when Edwin L. Drake completed the first U.S. oil well in August 1859, Chesebrough was one of many who rushed to northwestern Pennsylvania oilfields to make his fortune.
Scientific American magazine reported, “Now commenced a scene of excitement beyond description. The Drake well was immediately thronged with visitors arriving from the surrounding country, and within two or three weeks thousands began to pour in from the neighboring States.”
Chemist Robert Chesebrough’s fortune was out there somewhere. He just had to find it.
Sucker Rod Wax
In the midst of the Venango County oilfield chaos, the young chemist noted that drilling was often confounded by a waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged the wellhead and drew curses from riggers who had to stop drilling to scrape away the stuff.
Robert Chesebrough consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96. This early bottle from the collection of the Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The only virtue of this goopy oilfield “sucker rod wax” was as an immediately available first aid for the abrasions, burns, and other wounds routinely afflicting the crews.
Paraffin to Vaseline
Chesebrough eventually abandoned his notion of drilling a gusher and returned to New York, where he worked in his laboratory to purify the troublesome sucker-rod wax, which he dubbed “petroleum jelly.” By August 1865, he had filed the first of several patents “for purifying petroleum or coal oils by filtration.”
Chesebrough experimented with the purported analgesic effect of his extract by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his purified petroleum jelly. He gave it to Brooklyn construction workers to treat their minor scratches and abrasions.
After refining oilfield wax, Chesebrough experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his petroleum balm.
On June 4, 1872, Chesebrough patented a new product that would endure to this day – “Vaseline.” His paraffin to Vaseline patent extolled new balm’s virtues as a leather treatment, lubricator, pomade, and balm for chapped hands. Chesebrough soon had a dozen wagons distributing the product around New York.
Customers at first used toothpicks to mix Vaseline with lamp black. By 1917, Tom Williams was selling premixed “Lash-Brow-Ine” by mail-order. Photo courtesy Sharrie Williams.
Customers used the “wonder jelly” creatively: treating cuts and bruises, removing stains from furniture, polishing wood surfaces, restoring leather, and preventing rust. Within 10 years, Americans were buying it at the rate of a jar a minute
An 1886 issue of Manufacture and Builder even reported, “French bakers are making large use of vaseline in cake and other pastry. Its advantage over lard or butter lies in the fact that, however stale the pastry may be, it will not become rancid.”
Flavor notwithstanding, Chesebrough himself consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day. He lived to be 96 years old. It was not long before thrifty young ladies found another use for Vaseline.
As early as 1834, the popular book Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion had suggested alternatives to the practice of darkening eyelashes with elderberry juice or a mixture of frankincense, resin, and mastic. “By holding a saucer over the flame of a lamp or candle, enough ‘lamp black’ can be collected for applying to the lashes with a camel-hair brush,” the book advised.
Chesebrough’s female customers found that mixing lamp black with Vaseline using a toothpick made an impromptu mascara. Some sources claim that Miss Mabel Williams in 1913 employed just such a concoction preparing for a date. Williams was dating Chet Hewes.
Women were using Vaseline to make mascara by 1915. Cosmetic industry giant Maybelline traces its roots to the petroleum product. “What a Difference Maybelline Does Make” magazine ad from 1937.
Perhaps using coal dust or some other readily available darkening agent, she applied the mixture to her eyelashes for a date. Her brother, Thomas Lyle Williams, was intrigued by her method and decided to add Vaseline in the mixture, noted a Maybelline company historian.
A more reliable version of the story — told by Williams’ grandniece Sharrie Williams — has Mabel demonstrating “a secret of the harem” for her brother.
“In 1915, when a kitchen stove fire singed his sister Mabel’s lashes and brows, Tom Lyle Williams watched in fascination as she performed what she called ‘a secret of the harem’ mixing petroleum jelly with coal dust and ash from a burnt cork and applying it to her lashes and brows,” Sharrie Williams explained in her 2007 book, The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It.
“Mabel’s simple beauty trick ignited Tom’s imagination and he started what would become a billion-dollar business,” concluded Williams. Inspired by his sister’s example, he began selling the mixture by mail-order catalog, calling it “Lash-Brow-Ine” (an apparent concession to the mascara’s Vaseline content). Women loved it.
Silent screen stars like Theda Bara, right, helped glamorize Maybelline mascara. By the 1930s, the paraffin to Vaseline to mascara concoction was available at five-and-dime store for 10 cents a cake.
When it became clear that Lash-Brow-Ine had potential, Williams, doing business in Chicago as Maybell Laboratories, on April 24, 1917, trademarked the name as a “preparation for stimulating the growth of eyebrows and eyelashes.”
In honor of his sister Mabel (she married Chet Hewes in 1926), Williams renamed his mascara “Maybelline.”
An unlikely petroleum product for women’s eyes.
Whatever its petroleum product beginnings, Hollywood helped expand the Williams family cosmetics empire. The 1920s silent screen had brought new definitions to glamour. Theda Bara – an anagram for “Arab Death” – and Pola Negri, each with daring eye makeup, smoldered in packed theaters across the country.
Maybelline trumpeted its mail-order mascara in movie and confession magazines as well as Sunday newspaper supplements. Sales continued to climb. By the 1930s, Maybelline mascara was available at the local five-and-dime store for 10 cents a cake.
Today, both Vaseline, now part of Unilever, and Maybelline, a subsidiary of L’Oréal, continue with highly successful products, distantly removed from northwestern Pennsylvania’s antique derricks and oil wells.
Unilever’s Park Avenue public relations agency, M Booth & Associates of New York, proclaims: “From Vaseline Petroleum Jelly – the ‘Wonder Jelly’ introduced in 1870, to Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion…Vaseline products have helped deliver healthy, moisturized skin for 135 years.”
Special thanks to Linda Hughes, granddaughter of Mabel and Chet Hewes, who reviewed the American Oil & Gas Historical Society’s paraffin to Vaseline to Mascara article. She asked AOGHS add that Mabel was dedicated to her brothers work –- and helped run the Maybelline company in Chicago.
Paraffin from early U.S. oilfields also proved key the phenomenal success of business partners Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith, who in 1891 patented an “Apparatus for the Manufacture of Carbon Black.” Their company mixed carbon black with oilfield paraffin and other waxes to introduce a paper-wrapped black crayon marker for crates and barrels.
By 1903, the Binney & Smith Company of Easton, Pennsylvania, was adding colors for a new product, “Crayola” crayons. Learn more about their petroleum products in Carbon Black & Oilfield Crayons.
Recommended Reading: The Maybelline Story: And the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It (2010). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “The Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/vaseline-maybelline-history. Last Updated: April 17, 2022. Original Published Date: March 1, 2005.
1903 petroleum product named for French word for chalk, craie, and English adjective oily, oleaginous.
Petroleum has provided countless products worldwide, with some hiding in plain sight. For Benny & Smith Company, common oilfield paraffin changed the company’s future by coloring children’s imaginations. Before inventing Crayola crayons, the partners had patented a red oxide for paint, a “dustless chalk” popular with teachers, and Staonal — “stay-on-all” — the blackest of black markers.
Three decades after America’s first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania, Crayola crayons began in 1891 thanks to a petroleum refining patent by Edwin Binney to make an intensely black pigment — carbon black. Binney and partner C. Harold Smith had launched their company selling inks, black polishes, and a chalk for schoolroom blackboards. (more…)
Standard Oil scientists patented a process they called “thermal cracking.”
Beginning in the 1890s, the Whiting refinery of Standard Oil Company of Indiana first produced kerosene for lamps and later gasoline for autos to meet growing consumer demand.
Seventeen miles east of Chicago, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey began construction on a massive refinery complex in early May 1889.
BP completed a multi-year, multi-billion dollar modernization project at the Whiting refinery in 2013. Photo courtesy Hydrocarbon Processing magazine.
Using advanced refining processes introduced by John D. Rockefeller, it would become the largest in the United States. The 1,400-acre complex, once operated by Amoco, was acquired by the British Petroleum Company in 1998.
After acquiring Amoco and the refinery, British Petroleum became BP Amoco. That name was shorted to BP in 2001 after mergers with ARCO and Castrol. In 2021, the company brand changed to BP in lower-case type, often with the tagline “Beyond Petroleum,” and a stylized yellow and green sun.
The Whiting plant refined 152,000 barrels of oil per day in 2021.
Refining “Sour Crude”
About one month after construction of the then 235-acre refinery began, Rockefeller established a locally based subsidiary by incorporating Standard Oil Company of Indiana on June 18, 1889. The new company began processing oil at its Whiting refinery within a year.
The Indiana refinery processed a sulfurous “sour crude” from the Lima, Ohio, oilfields — transported on Rockefeller controlled railroads.
Most Americans, already putting out their tallow candles to buy lamps fueled with whale oil, lard, or the less costly but volatile camphene, embraced a new fuel — “rock oil” soon brought skyrocketing public demand.
Rockefeller had earlier purchased considerable amounts of production from the Lima oilfield at bargain prices. Most experts in the new petroleum industry believed the thick oil virtually worthless. It could not be refined for a profit.
The Whiting refinery, using a newly patented method, efficiently processed Ohio sour oil into high-quality kerosene. Although gasoline was a minor by-product, two brothers in Massachusetts were building a gasoline-powered horseless carriage at about the time the refinery produced its first 125 railroad tank cars filled with kerosene.
Meanwhile, the gas-powered automobile arrived, relaunching the petroleum exploration industry — see Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.
“By the mid-1890s, the Whiting plant had become the largest refinery in the United States, handling 36,000 barrels of oil per day and accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. refining capacity” noted historian Mark R. Wilson in the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Initially it consisted of just a single facility, adds a company history on the Amoco website.
The Standard Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, became the company’s most productive. Owned by BP since 1998, it has remained the largest U.S. refinery. Whiting has been home to the Northwest Indiana Oilmen since 2012.
Crude oil was processed into products that people and business needed: axle grease for industrial machinery, paraffin wax for candles, kerosene for home lighting.
“The company grew. By the early 1900s it was the leading provider of kerosene and gasoline in the Midwest” noted Wilson on the website. “Kerosene sales would eventually falter. But with car ownership booming across the United States, demand for gasoline would only go up and up.”
More Midwest Refineries
By 1910, the refinery is connected by pipeline to oilfields in Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as Ohio and Indiana. The Whiting facility employs 2,400 workers. In 1911, when Rockefeller was forced to break up his oil holdings, Standard of Indiana, with its main offices in downtown Chicago, emerged as an independent company.
Rockefeller’s Whiting scientists had patented a process they invented called thermal cracking, notes the Amoco website. It doubled the amount of gasoline that could be made from a barrel of oil and also boosted the gasoline’s octane rating.
Standard Oil’s process, which became standard practice in the refining industry, helped avert a gasoline shortage during World War I. To find its own oil supplies, Standard Oil of Indiana began its own exploration and production business, Stanolind.
In 1922, Standard Oil absorbed the American Oil Company, founded in Baltimore in 1910, and began branding products as Amoco, which later would become its company name. By 1952, Amoco was ranked as the largest domestic oil company.
During the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. refining industry became more concentrated in Texas, Louisiana, and California.
“The Chicago region became somewhat less important as an oil-processing center than it had been during the previous 60 years,” historian Mark Wilson concluded. “Still, the area remained home to some large refineries. The largest of these plants was the one at Whiting – the same facility that had brought refining to Chicago in 1890.”
Across the border from Indiana, three major Illinois refineries also process oil in the Chicago area. At the end of 2021, the Citgo refinery in Lemont processed 177,000 barrels of oil a day; the Joliet refinery owned by ExxonMobil processed 248,000 barrels of oil a day; and the Robinson refinery of Marathon Petroleum Company processed 192,000 barrels of oil a day (with a reported capacity for 253,000 barrels).
Wood River Refining History Museum
A fourth refinery located in southern Illinois — and is almost as historic as Rockefeller’s Whiting plant — was constructed in 1918 by Shell. The giant Wood River Refinery has operated north of St. Louis along the Mississippi River.
The refinery, owned since 2013 by ConocoPhillips, has continued to be company’s largest — processing 380,000 barrels of oil daily into millions of gallons of gasoline/fuel and thousands of barrels of asphalt. The Whiting refinery also has its own museum.
“The Wood River Refinery History Museum is located in front of the Conoco-Phillips Refinery on Highway 111 in Wood River, Illinois,” the museum notes on its website. “There are four buildings in our complex, so to see most of our collection, plan on spending some time.”
Whiting fielded a baseball team in 2012. The Northwest Indiana Oilmen is one of eight teams in the Midwest Collegiate League, a pre-minor league. To learn more about other petroleum history related baseball teams, see Oilfields of Dreams.
By 1982, Standard of Indiana refineries produce 1.2 million barrels of gasoline daily and serve 18,000 domestic gasoline retail outlets. Standard’s two largest refineries are located in Whiting and Texas City, Texas. Standard Oil of Indiana became Amoco Corporation in 1985 and three years later merged with British Petroleum (BP), the world’s largest industrial merger at the time.
Recommended Reading: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (2004); Whiting and Robertsdale – Images of America (2013). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
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 email@example.com. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Standard Oil Whiting Refinery.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/standard-oil-whiting-refinery. Last Updated: August 15, 2022. Original Published Date: June 15, 2013.
Popular but dangerous mixture replaced by brighter, less volatile lamp fuel.
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.
Before kerosene, two-wicked “burning fluid” lamps were popular but dangerous sources of light.
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.”
Circa 1855 advertisements for camphene manufacturer Rufus H. Spalding also promoted “Portable and Steady Lamps of every description.”
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.
Whale Oil, Rock Oil, and Gaslight
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 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).
Kerosene fuels Petroleum Industry
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).
An ad seeking agents to sell Aladdin brand of kerosene lamps, circa 1900.
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. Consumer demand 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.
Recommended Reading: Oil Lamps The Kerosene Era In North America (1978); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Camphene to Kerosene Lamps.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/camphene-to-kerosene-lamps. Last Updated:March 20, 2022. Original Published Date: April 29, 2017.