Kerosene Rocket Fuel

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.

kerosene powers Saturn V engines at liftoff

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.

Coal Oil Rocket Fuel Saturn V engines

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.

Robert Goddard with the first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926

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.

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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 will replace kerosene lamps and gasoline dominate 20th century demand for a transportation fuel, kerosene’s ease of storage and stable properties attract rocket scientists. Decades of 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 burned highly volatile liquid hydrogen (liquid oxygen was used in all three stages). The five-engine main booster held 203,400 gallon of RP-1. After firing, the engines emptied the giant fuel tank in 165 seconds.

"Rocket grade" kerosene fueled the Saturn V - and today's rockets.

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 Robert H. 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. His rocket was powered by liquid oxygen and gasoline.

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 latest SpaceX rockets. Last launched in 1972, the Saturn V remains the most powerful rocket ever built.

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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.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 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: July 12, 2021. Original Published Date: July 12, 2015.

Asphalt Paves the Way

American mobility would soon depend on a petroleum product at bottom of refining process.

 

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 A Century of Progress: The History of Hot Mix Asphalt, published in 1992 by National Asphalt Pavement Association.

asphalt

Pennsylvania Avenue was first paved bitumen imported from Trinidad bitumen in 1876. Thirty-one years later, a better asphalt derived from petroleum distillation was used to repave the famed pathway to the Capitol, above.

“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.” (more…)

Standard Oil Whiting Refinery

Standard Oil scientists would patent a process they invented 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 whiting refinery at sunset.

In 2013, BP completed a multi-year, multi-billion dollar modernization project at the Whiting refinery. Photo courtesy Hydrocarbon Processing magazine.

Using advanced refining processes introduced by John D. Rockefeller, it would become the largest in the United States. Today, the 1,400-acre complex is owned by BP.

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.

More Americans put out their tallow candles as lamps fueled with whale oil, lard, or camphene gave way to a new fuel, kerosene; the “rock oil” soon brought skyrocketing public demand (learn more in First American Oil Well). 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. The automobile would soon arrive. See Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.

whiting refinery Standard Oil of Indiana logo

The Standard Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, became the company’s most productive. Now owned by BP, it remains the largest U.S. refinery. Whiting has been home to the Northwest Indiana Oilmen since 2012.

“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” notes historian Mark R. Wilson in the Encyclopedia of ChicagoInitially it consisted of just a single facility, adds a company history on the Amoco website. 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” notes 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.”

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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.

Meanwhile, 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. The 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 soon 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.

Building Midwest Refineries

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,” he concludes. “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 today also process oil in the Chicago area: the Citgo refinery in Lemont processes 167,000 barrels of oil a day; the Joliet refinery owned by ExxonMobil process 238,000 barrels a day; and the Robinson refinery of Marathon Petroleum Company processes 206,000 barrels a day.

A fourth refinery is in southern Illinois – and is almost as historic as Rockefeller’s Whiting plant. Constructed in 1918 – during WW I – the Wood River Refinery remains north of St. Louis on the bank of the Mississippi River.  The refinery, owned in 2013 by ConocoPhillips, was the company’s largest. It processed 300,000 barrels of oil daily into more than nine million gallons of gasoline/fuel and 42,000 barrels of asphalt during peak season. It also boasted 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 officially became Amoco Corporation in 1985 and merged with British Petroleum (now BP) in 1998. It was the world’s largest industrial merger at the time.

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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.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 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: January 3. 2021. Original Published Date: June 15, 2013.

 

The Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes

Oilfield paraffin created petroleum jelly — Vaseline — and Maybelline cosmetics.

 

Few associate 1860s oil wells with women’s eyes, but they are fashionably related. 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 wagons sell Vaseline in New York City.

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 the curses of riggers who had to stop drilling to scrape away the stuff.

Detail of circa 1900 Vaseline bottle from Drake Well Museum.

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.

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.”

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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.

Old Vaseline ad for Woman's Magazine

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 patent extolled Vaseline’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. 

Circa 1930 Maybelline mascara case with mirror with brush.

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.

Mabel’s Eyelashes

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.

“What a Difference Maybelline Does Make” magazine ad from 1937.

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.

Three magazine ads for Vaseline used for mascara of silent screen star Theda Bara

Silent screen stars like Theda Bara, right, helped glamorize Maybelline mascara, which by the 1930s 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.”

Vintage mascara brush and case.

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 Hsitorical Society’s 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.

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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.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2021 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, 2021. Original Published Date: March 1, 2005.

 

Making a Two-Wick Camphene Lamp

Prior to the Civil War, the most popular lamp fuel in the country was a “burning fluid” called camphene, a volatile combination of turpentine and alcohol with camphor oil added for aroma. Until replaced by kerosene and its much safer lamps, two-wicked camphene lamps provided a cheap, bright light.

The fuel camphene’s explosive nature required a double burner, according to Ron Miller, a self-taught tinsmith and “hands-on historian.” He became so fascinated by America’s early illuminating lamps that recreated them.

Reproduction camphene, kerosene, and whale oil lamps.

Jim Miller’s 19th century lamp tin recreations, left to right: a whale oil burner; an 1842 patented lard oil burner; a “Betty Lamp” fueled by fat; and a typical camphene two-wicked lamp.

“This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in early America,” explained Miller in his 2012 For the love of History blog. “Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.”

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The key to learning about early to mid-19th century oil lamps was to study their burners, Miller noted (see Camphene to Kerosene Lamps), adding, “each type of fuel needed a specific style of burner to give the best light.”

Although most of the fuels have become obsolete, Miller “wanted to faithfully replicate the burners, in order to understand how they evolved,” he said, adding, “For the time being, substitute fuels would have to do.”

Miller fashioned tin into period lamp designs, including one fueled by fat – a “Betty Lamp” that “has an ancestry extending clear back to the Romans but had been improved on over time.” He also recreated a whale oil lamp, circa 1850, and a patented lard oil burner of 1842 (the lard needed to be warmed, to improve its fluidity).

After completing his first three tin lamp reproductions, the amateur tinsmith tackled the two-wicked camphene lamp. According to Miller, lamps fueled by camphene needed the two tapered, tubed burners angled out from each other to dissipate heat of the flames.

“These tubes never extend down past the mounting plate and never have slots for wick adjustment. Apparently, any heat added to the fuel caused an accumulation of gases and the possibility of an explosion,” he noted. Most surviving original burners have little covers to snuff out the flame and keep the fuel from evaporating.

“The style of lamp I chose to replicate is sometimes called a petticoat lamp by collectors for the flared shape of the base. Camphene lamps are often mislabeled as Whale Oil lamps but the difference is obvious once you know your burners,” Miller concluded about his replica.

“In case you wondered, my lamp burns modern lamp oil as I don’t need to kill myself in the pursuit of history,” the tinsmith added.

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Recommended Reading:  Oil Lamps The Kerosene Era In North America (1978). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Making a Two-Wick Camphene Lamp.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/two-wick-camphene-lamp. Last Updated: May 24, 2021. Original Published Date: March 11, 2018.

 

Carbon Black & Oilfield Crayons

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. The partners earlier had invented a “dustless chalk” popular with teachers, a red oxide for paint, and Staonal — stay-on-all — the blackest black marker. 

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…)

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