Wham-O and Petroleum Product Hoopla

Phillips Petroleum chemists invented a new plastic in 1951. Getting from lab to market proved difficult. Enter Wham-O.

 

In 1954, two research scientists at an Oklahoma-based oil and natural gas company invented a high-density polyethylene. The company’s marketing executives named the new petroleum product Marlex, but searched in vain for buyers of the plastic. Then the Wham-O toy company found the durable plastic ideal for making hoops and flying platters.

Prompted by a post World War II boom in demand for plastics, Phillips Petroleum Company invested $50 million to bring its own miracle product — Marlex — to market in 1954. With a high melting point and tensile strength, the synthetic polymer would stand out from the company’s thousands of patents.

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Asphalt Paves the Way

Petroleum product at bottom of refining process improved American mobility.

 

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 being paved with asphalt circa 1900.

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…)

Oleaginous History of Wax Lips

Petroleum paraffin soon found its way into candles, crayons, chewing gum…and a peculiar wax candy.

 

When Ralphie Parker and his 4th-grade classmates dejectedly handed over their Wax Fangs to Mrs. Shields in “A Christmas Story,” a generation might be reminded of what a penny used to buy at the local Woolworth’s store. But there is far more to these paraffin playthings than a penny’s worth of fun. 

It’s hard to recall a time when there were no Wax Lips, Wax Moustaches, or Wax Fangs for kids to smuggle into classrooms. Many grownups may remember the peculiar disintegrating flavor of Wax Lips from bygone Halloweens and birthday parties, but few know where these enduring icons of American culture actually started.

The answer can be found by way of the oil patch.

Beginning with the August 1859 first commercial U.S. oil well, Pennsylvania oilfields quickly brought an important new source for refining kerosene. “This flood of American petroleum poured in upon us by millions of gallons, and giving light at a fifth of the cost of the cheapest candle,” wrote British chandler James Wilson in 1879.

Wax lips petroleum product featured as fangs in 1984's classroom scene of "A Christmas Story."

Released on November 18, 1983,  “A Christmas Story” featured Ralphie, his 4th-grade classmates – and a popular petroleum product. Photos courtesy MGM Home Entertainment.

As kerosene lamps replaced candles for illumination, the much-reduced candle business turned from tallow to versatile paraffin.

A byproduct of kerosene distillation, paraffin found its way from refinery to marketplace in candles, sealing waxes and chewing gums. Ninety percent of all candles by 1900 used paraffin as the new century brought a host of novel uses. Thomas Edison’s popular new phonographs also needed paraffin for their wax cylinders.

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Crayons were introduced by the Binney & Smith Company in 1903 and were instantly successful. Alice Binney came up with the name by combining the French word for chalk, craie, with an English adjective meaning oily, oleaginous: Crayola (see Carbon Black and Oilfield Crayons).

Close-up of Wack-O-Wax lips and package, a petroleum product red candy lips.

Concord Confections, part of Tootsie-Roll Industries, continues to produce Wax Lips and other paraffin candies for new generations of schoolchildren.

In New York City, after collecting unrefined waxy samples from Pennsylvania oil wells, Robert Chesebrough invented a method for turning paraffin into a balm he called “petroleum jelly,” later “Vaseline.” His product also led to a modern cosmetic giant (learn more in The Crude History of Mabel’s Eyelashes).

Paraffin Lips, Fangs, and Horses Teeth

An inspired Buffalo, New York, confectioner soon used fully refined, food-grade paraffin and a sense of humor to find a niche in America’s imagination.

When John W. Glenn introduced children to paraffin “penny chewing gum novelties,” his business boomed. By 1923, his J.W. Glenn Company employed 100 people, including 18 traveling sales representatives.

Glenn Confections became the wax candy division of Franklin Gurley’s nearby W.&F. Manufacturing Company. There, the ancestors of Wax Lips chattered profitably down the production line. Among the most popular of these novelties at the time were Wax Horse Teeth (said to taste like wintergreen).

By 1939, Gurley was producing a popular series of holiday candles for the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company using paraffin from a nearby refinery at Olean, New York — once home to the world’s largest crude oil storage site. A field of metal tanks, some holding 20,000 gallons of paraffin, stood next to Gurley’s W.&F. Manufacturing Company in Buffalo.

Package of FANGS -- the wax chewing gum candy.

Glenn Confections, the candy division of W. & F. Manufacturing Company, produced Fun Gum Sugar Lips, Wax Fangs, and Nik-L-Nips.

Decorative and scented paraffin candles soon became the company’s principal products, accounting for 98 percent of W.&F. Manufacturing sales. Gurley’s “Tavern Candle” Santas, reindeer, elves and other colorful Christmas favorites today are prized by collectors on eBay, as are his elaborately molded Halloween candles.

As W.&F.’s wax candy division, Glenn Confections, has continued to manufacture Fun Gum Sugar Lips, Wax Fangs, and the small, wax bottles — Nik-L-Nips available from the Old Time Candy Company.

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In Emlenton, Pennsylvania, a few miles south of Oil City, the Emlenton Refining Company (and later the Quaker State Oil Refining Company) provided the fully refined, food-grade paraffin for these bizarre but beloved treats.

Retired Quaker State employee Barney Lewis remembers selling Emlenton paraffin to W.&F. Manufacturing.

During a 2005 interview, Lewis noted, “It was always fun going to the plant…they were very secret about how they did stuff, but you always got a sample to bring home,” adding, “Wax Lips, Nik-L-Nips…the little Coke bottle-shaped wax, filled with colored syrup.”

Concord Confections, a small part of Tootsie-Roll Industries, continues to produce Wax Lips and other paraffin candies for new generations of schoolchildren. The modern petroleum industry produces an astonishing range of products for consumers. But among the many products that find their history in the oilfield, few are as unique and peculiar as Wax Lips.

In December 2007, “A Christmas Story” was ranked the number one Christmas film of all time by AOL. Set in 1940, the movie has been shown in an annual marathon since 1997.

Among the waxy petroleum products featured is a polymer “major award” — the plastic leg-lamp with the black nylon stocking.

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Recommended Reading: Sweet!: The Delicious Story of Candy (2009); How Sweet It Is (and Was): The History of Candy (2003). 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 annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oleaginous History of Wax Lips.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/an-oleaginous-history-of-wax-lips. Last Updated: December 15, 2022. Original Published Date: December 1, 2006.

  

Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas

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.

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.

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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.

Ohio service station sells Ethyl gas for the first time.

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.

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“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.

Antique Ethyl Sign on gas pump.

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 WWII ad for tetraethyl lead aviation gasoline.

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.

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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.

1932 magazine ad Eythl gas 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 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.

Kerosene Rocket Fuel

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.

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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.

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.

The "Green Monster" jet-powered race car.

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 Rockets

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.

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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.

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

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.

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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 (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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 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.

 

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