General Motors scientists discover anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead gasoline in 1921.
By 1923, many American motorists would be driving into service stations nationwide and saying, “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl.”
Early internal combustion engines often suffered from a severe “knocking,” the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. The constant shock added to exhaust valve wear and frequently damaged engines.
Automobiles powered with gasoline had been the least popular models at the November 1900 first U.S. auto Show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
General Motors chemists Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles F. Kettering tested many gasoline additives, including arsenic.
On December 9, 1921, after five years of lab work to find an additive to eliminate pre-ignition “knock” problems of gasoline, General Motors researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the anti-knock properties of tetraethyl lead.
Early experiments at GM examined the properties of knock suppressors such as bromine, iodine and tin — comparing these to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead.
The world’s first anti-knock gasoline containing a tetra-ethyl lead compound went on sale at the Refiners Oil Company service station in Dayton, Ohio. A bolt on “Ethylizer” can be seem running vertically alongside the visible reservoir. Photo courtesy Kettering/GMI Alumni Foundation.
When the two chemists synthesized tetraethyl lead and tried it in their one-cylinder laboratory engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared. Fuel economy also improved. “Ethyl” vastly improved gasoline performance.
“Ethylizers” debut in Dayton
Although being diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand, the lead additive yielded gasoline without the loud, power-robbing knock. With other automotive scientists watching, the first car tank filled with leaded gas took place on February 2, 1923, at the Refiners Oil Company service station in Dayton, Ohio.
In the beginning, GM provided Refiners Oil Company and other service stations special equipment, simple bolt on adapters called “Ethylizers” to meter the proper proportion of the new additive.
“By the middle of this summer you will be able to purchase at approximately 30,000 filling stations in various parts of the country, a fluid that will double the efficiency of your automobile, eliminate the troublesome motor knock, and give you 100 percent greater mileage,” Popular Science Monthly reported in 1924.
By the late 1970s, public health concerns resulted in the phase-out of tetraethyl lead in gasoline, except for aviation fuel.
Anti-knock gasoline containing a tetraethyl lead compound also proved vital for aviation engines during World War II, even as danger from the lead content increasingly became apparent.
Powering Victory in World War II
Aviation fuel technology was still in its infancy in the 1930s. The properties of tetraethyl lead proved vital to the Allies during World War II. Advances in aviation fuel increased power and efficiency, resulting in the production of 100-octane aviation gasoline shortly before the war.
Phillips Petroleum – later ConocoPhillips – was involved early in aviation fuel research and had already provided high gravity gasoline for some of the first mail-carrying airplanes after World War I.
Phillips Petroleum produced tetraethyl leaded aviation fuels from high-quality oil found in Osage County, Oklahoma, oilfields.
Phillips Petroleum produced aviation fuels before it produced automotive fuels. The company’s gasoline came from the high-quality oil produced from Oklahoma’s Seminole oilfields and the 1917 Osage County oil boom.
Although the additive’s danger to public health was underestimated for decades, tetraethyl lead has remained an ingredient of 100 octane “avgas” for piston-engine aircraft.
Tetraethyl lead’s Deadly Side
Leaded gasoline was extremely dangerous from the beginning, according Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer. “GM and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation,” she noted in a January 2013 article. Research focused solely on improving the formula, not on the danger of the lead additive.
A 1932 magazine ad promoted wildly improved high-compression engine performance.
“The companies disliked and frankly avoided the lead issue,” Blum wrote in “Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History” at Wire.com. “They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.”
In 1924, dozens were sickened and five employees of the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, died after they handled the new gasoline additive.
By May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, Blum reported, and an investigative task force was formed. Researchers concluded there was ”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.
So great was the additive’s potential to improve engine performance, the author notes, by 1926 the federal government approved continued production and sale of leaded gasoline. “It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive,” Blum added.
By the early 1950s, American geochemist Clair Patterson discovered the toxicity of tetraethyl lead; phase-out of its use in gasoline began in 1976 and was completed by 1986. In 1996, EPA Administrator Carol Browner declared, “The elimination of lead from gasoline is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.”
Learn more about high-octane fuel in Flight of the Woolaroc and and early engines in Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show.
Recommended Reading: An Illustrated Guide to Gas Pumps (2008); Unleaded: How Changing Our Gasoline Changed Everything (2021). 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 (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website, expand historical research, and extend public outreach. For annual sponsorship information, contact email@example.com. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All right reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/tetraethyl-lead-gasoline. Last Updated: December 2, 2023. Original Published Date: December 7, 2014.
Making “wet gas” in early 20th century Oklahoma oilfields.
When Robert Galbreath and Frank Chesley completed their Ida Glenn No. 1 well on November 22, 1905, they revealed another giant oilfield south of Tulsa. The discovery well, drilled with cable-tool technology, struck oil-bearing sands at depth of only 1,450 feet. (more…)
The world’s first synthetic fiber was the petroleum product “Nylon 6,” discovered in 1935 by a DuPont chemist who produced the polymer from chemicals found in oil.
DuPont Corporation foresaw the future of “strong as steel” artificial fibers. The chemical conglomerate had been founded in 1802 as a Wilmington, Delaware, manufacturer of gunpowder. The company would become a global giant after its scientists created durable and versatile products like nylon, rayon and lucite.
“Women show off their nylon pantyhose to a newspaper photographer, circa 1942,” noted historian Jennifer S. Li in “The Story of Nylon – From a Depressed Scientist to Essential Swimwear.” Photo by R. Dale Rooks (1917-1954).
The world’s first synthetic fiber — nylon — was discovered on February 28, 1935, by a former Harvard professor working at a DuPont research laboratory. Called Nylon 6 by scientists, the revolutionary carbon-based product came from chemicals found in petroleum.
Chemists called the man-made fiber Nylon 6 because chains of adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine each contained six carbon atoms per molecule.
Professor Wallace Carothers had experimented with artificial materials for more than six years. He previously discovered neoprene rubber (commonly used in wet suits) and made major contributions to understanding polymers — large molecules composed in long chains of repeating chemical structures.
Carothers, 32, created fibers when he combined the chemicals amine, hexamethylene diamine, and adipic acid. His experiments formed polymer chains using a process in which individual molecules joined together with water as a byproduct. But the fibers were weak.
A PBS series, A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries, in 1998 noted Carothers’ breakthrough came when he realized, “the water produced by the reaction was dropping back into the mixture and getting in the way of more polymers forming. He adjusted his equipment so that the water was distilled and removed from the system. It worked!”
DuPont named the petroleum product nylon — although chemists called it Nylon 6 because the adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine each contain six carbon atoms per molecule.
“Until now, all good toothbrushes were made with animal bristles,” noted a 1938 ad.
Each man-made molecule consists of 100 or more repeating units of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, strung in a chain. A single filament of nylon may have a million or more molecules, each taking some of the strain when the filament is stretched.
There’s disagreement about how the product name originated at DuPont.
“As to the word nylon, it’s actually quite arbitrary. DuPont itself has stated that originally the name was intended to be No-Run (that’s run as in the sense of the compound chain of the substance unravelling), but at the time there was no real justification for the claim, so it needed to be changed,” noted Chris Nickson in a 2017 website post, Where Does the Name Nylon Originate?
The first commercial use of this revolutionary petroleum product was for toothbrushes.
On February 24, 1938, the Weco Products Company of Chicago, Illinois, began selling its new “Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft” — the earliest toothbrush to use synthetic DuPont nylon bristles.
First used for toothbrush bristles, nylon women’s stockings were promoted in a DuPont 1948 ad.
Americans will soon brush their teeth with nylon — instead of hog bristles, declared an article in the New York Times. “Until now, all good toothbrushes were made with animal bristles,” explained a 1938 Weco Products advertisement in Life magazine.
“Today, Dr. West’s new Miracle-Tuft is a single exception,” the ad proclaimed. “It is made with EXTON, a unique bristle-like filament developed by the great DuPont laboratories, and produced exclusively for Dr. West’s.”
Pricing its toothbrush at 50 cents, the Weco Products Company guaranteed, “no bristle shedding.” Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, New Jersey, will introduce a competing nylon-bristle toothbrush in 1939.
Although DuPont patented nylon in 1935, it was not officially announced to the public until October 27, 1938, in New York City.
A DuPont vice president unveiled the synthetic fiber — not to a scientific society or industry association — but to 3,000 Women’s Club members gathered at the site of the upcoming 1939 New York World’s Fair.
During WWII, nylon was used as a substitute for silk in parachutes.
“He spoke in a session entitled ‘We Enter the World of Tomorrow,’ which was keyed to the theme of the forthcoming fair, the World of Tomorrow,” explained DuPont historian David A. Hounshell in a 1988 book.
The petroleum product was an instant hit, especially as a replacement for silk in hosiery. DuPont built a full-scale nylon plant in Seaford, Delaware, and began commercial production in late 1939.
The company purposefully did not register “nylon” as a trademark – choosing to allow the word to enter the American vocabulary as a synonym for “stockings.”
Women’s nylon stockings appeared for the first time at Gimbels Department Store on May 15, 1940. World War II would remove the polymer hosiery to make nylon parachutes and other vital supplies.
Nylon would become far and away the biggest money-maker in the history of DuPont. The powerful material from lab research led company executives to derive formulas for growth, according to Hounshell in The Nylon Drama.
“By putting more money into fundamental research, Du Pont would discover and develop ‘new nylons,’ that is, new proprietary products sold to industrial customers and having the growth potential of nylon,” Hounshell explained in his 1988 book.
Carothers did not live to see the widespread application of his work — in consumer goods such as toothbrushes, fishing lines, luggage and lingerie, or in special uses such as surgical thread, parachutes, or pipes — nor the powerful effect it had in launching a whole era of synthetics.
Devastated by the sudden death of his favorite sister in early 1937, Carothers committed suicide in April of that year. The DuPont Company would name its research facility after him.
As the DuPont website notes, the invention of nylon radically changed the way people dressed worldwide — and rendered the term ‘silk stocking’ obsolete (and once an epithet directed at the wealthy elite).
Nylon’s success encouraged DuPont to adopt long-term strategies for products developed from basic research.
Recommended Reading: The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History (2019); Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon (2005); The Nylon Drama (1988). Your Amazon purchases benefit 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. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Nylon, a Petroleum Polymer.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/petroleum-product-nylon-fiber. Last Updated: February 26, 2023. Original Published Date: February 23, 2014.
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) 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’s five main engines used for getting Apollo astronauts to the moon. 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 (AOGHS) preserves oil 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. © 2023 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 5, 2023. Original Published Date: July 12, 2015.
American mobility improved, thanks to a petroleum product at bottom of the 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…)
A 1903 petroleum product named for the French word for chalk, craie, and English adjective oily, oleaginous.
Petroleum has provided products worldwide, with some hiding in plain sight. For Pennsylvania’s Benny & Smith Company, common oilfield paraffin changed the company’s future by coloring children’s imaginations. Before inventing Crayola crayons, the partners patented a “dustless chalk” popular with teachers, a red oxide for paints, and Staonal — “stay-on-all” — the blackest of all markers.
In 1881, three decades after America’s first oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania, Crayola crayons began with a petroleum refining patent by Edwin Binney to make carbon black, an intensely black pigment.
Binney and his partner C. Harold Smith had launched their company selling inks, black polishes, and a chalk for schoolroom blackboards. Pennsylvania’s booming oilfields would prove key to their success, beginning with using natural gas in a patented “Apparatus for the Manufacture of Carbon Black.”
Binney & Smith Company later would add oilfield paraffin — the bane of oil producers since it clogged wells — and mix in colors to create a petroleum product named Crayola®.
Fifth-grader’s skillful use of crayons to illustrate oil production. Image courtesy Pioneer Oil Museum of New York, Bolivar.
Manufacturing Carbon Black
On May 28, 1891, Binney received a patent for the company’s method to efficiently produce a fine, soot-like substance more intensely black than any other pigment in use at the time.
“The objects of my invention are to manufacture lamp-black from oil in an improved and economical manner, whereby waste of the product and unnecessary expenditure of labor are avoided,” Binney noted in his patent application.
His patent (No. 453,140) proclaimed a process to “manufacture carbon-black from gas in such a manner as to obtain improved quality of black which shall have the soft flaky texture of lamp-black made in ordinary ways.”
Binney & Smith Company received an 1891 patent for an “Apparatus for the Manufacture of Carbon Black,” which produced a fine, soot-like black pigment – far better than any other in use.
The young U.S. petroleum industry, rapidly expanding its refineries to fuel kerosene for lamps, supplied Binney & Smith Company the oil and natural gas feedstock for the company’s carbon black. The heat and smoke resulting from the burning gas was directed to cool in revolving metal drums.
The company refining process produced a fine, soot-like substance of incredible blackness — a better pigment than any other then used. Binney & Smith’s carbon black received an award at the 1900 Paris Exposition, a world’s fair of the century’s achievements.
It was not long before the inventors mixed their carbon black product with oilfield paraffin and other waxes to introduce a paper-wrapped black crayon marker for crates and barrels. The marker was promoted as being able to “stay on all” and accordingly named “Staonal.”
Resulting from an 1891 carbon black patent, Binney & Smith added oilfield paraffin to produce a black marker. Staonal is still sold.
Staonal became a highly successful company product, but was too laden with carbon black to be safe for use by children. Earlier, the company had found success manufacturing “dustless chalk” for schoolrooms and a red iron oxide for a red paint farmers used on barns.
Although they longed for color, students in Alice Stead Binney’s classroom had to settle for dustless chalk. In fact, An-Du-Septic dustless chalk was so popular among turn-of-the-century teachers that it won a Gold Medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Teachers like Alice loved the tidy new product, but their choices were limited. Pencils of the day were primitive, with square “leads” made from a variety of clays, slates, and graphite. Color writing implements were the toxic and expensive imports of artists, best kept away from schoolchildren.
Experiments in 1902 produced An-Du-Septic, a white dustless chalk soon popular with teachers. Photo courtesy Benny and Smith Company.
Alice’s husband Edwin, and his cousin, C. Harold Smith, created An-Du-Septic chalk as a consequence of expanding their pigment business into the sideline production of slate pencils for schools.
In Easton, Pennsylvania, the Binney & Smith Company, formerly the Peekskill Chemical Works, was best known for its production of red iron oxide and carbon black for paints, inks, and stove and shoe polishes. That would change.
Slate pencils and the very successful An-Du-Septic dustless chalk nonetheless put Binney & Smith salesmen into America’s classrooms. The company’s sales force listened to teachers and learned there would be a ready market for inexpensive, non-toxic, brightly colored crayons.
“Crayola” from Oilfield Paraffin
By 1903, Binney & Smith was ready to launch a new product that would change childhood forever. Alice Binney provided the historic name by combining the French word for chalk, craie, with an English adjective meaning oily, oleaginous, creating Crayola®.
Manufacturing was based on small batches of carefully measured and hand-mixed pigments, paraffin, talc and other waxes. Paper labels were individually rolled by hand and pasted onto each crayon.
The finished products were hand packed into individual boxes and shipped in wooden crates. Sixteen Crayola crayons sold for 10 cents; eight for 5 cents: red, yellow, orange, green, blue, violet, black, and brown. Crayola was an instant hit.
Binney and Smith produced the first box of eight Crayola crayons in 1903 — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, and black.
The company’s proprietary formulas remain a closely guarded secret as demand for its crayons has continued to grow around the world. Production capacity reportedly is more than four million crayons every day, thanks to oilfield paraffin from distant petroleum refineries delivered to Crayola’s Easton factory in railroad tank cars.
In January 2007, Binney & Smith became Crayola LLC in recognition of the company’s number one brand. The company is now known as Crayola. Crayola has grown to become a $500 million dollar a year business — a successful union of the petroleum industry to the colorful world of children’s imaginations.
“This organizational and name change showcases the company’s Crayola brand, sold by Binney & Smith since 1903,” explained the company, which also opened a museum in Easton. Crayola is sold in more than 80 countries, “and represents innovation, fun, kids and quality.”
As paraffin continued to find its way into more products (see The Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes), in 1912, Binney & Smith’s carbon black was used for the first time to make black tires.
Carbon Black Hits the Road
Until carbon black was added to improve durability, auto tires were white. Then in 1839, bankrupt Philadelphia hardware merchant and erstwhile inventor Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped rubber and sulfur on a hot stove top. The rubber charred like leather yet remained elastic, a discovery that led to “vulcanization.”
With the new process, natural rubber could be transformed into an industrial product with innumerable uses. Goodyear’s famous lawyer, Daniel Webster, praised his client’s invention. “It introduces quite a new material into the manufacture of the arts, that material being nothing less than elastic metal,” Webster proclaimed.
Automobile tires were the ideal application for this new product. Between 1895 and 1905, more than 77,000 new automobiles were registered in the United Stated (See Cantankerous Combustion — First U.S. Auto Show).
The tires of this 1904 Oldsmobile Model N Touring Runabout were not chosen for their color. Until B.F. Goodrich introduced “carbon black” into the vulcanizing process in 1910, auto tires were white.
The nation’s maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph, and automobile tires were white. Natural rubber pigments and zinc oxide used in the manufacturing process gave tires their color.
In 1910, the B.F. Goodrich Company found that adding carbon black to the vulcanizing process dramatically improved strength and durability. The material came from controlled combustion of both oil and natural gas. Its use in tires created an immense market – initially consuming one pound of carbon black for each two pounds of rubber.
As the automobile industry grew, so did demand for tires and for carbon black. By 1931, Texas was producing more than 200 million pounds of carbon black annually from just 31 plants – 75 percent of America’s total.
Today, most of America’s carbon black is still produced in Texas and Louisiana. Demand remains closely associated with automobile tires. Cabot Corporation, founded in Pennsylvania in 1882, is the largest U.S. producer of intensely black material. In 2017, the company reported having 44 manufacturing plants in 21 countries and revenues of more than $2.7 billion.
Paraffin crayons and carbon black are among many petroleum products.
Recommended Reading: – Crayola Creators: Edward Binney and C. Harold Smith, Toy Trailblazers (2016); Carbon Black, Its Manufacture, Properties, and Uses (2018); The B.F. Goodrich Story Of Creative Enterprise 1870-1952 (2010). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an annual AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2023 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “’Carbon Black & Oilfield Crayons.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/oilfield-paraffin. Last Updated: May 16, 2023. Original Published Date: September 1, 2007.