Inventing the Electric Submersible Pump

Armais Arutunoff designed an efficient down-hole centrifugal pump and founded oilfield service company.

The modern petroleum industry owes a lot to Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff, son of an Armenian soap maker. With the help of a prominent Oklahoma oil company president, Arutunoff designed and built the first practical electric submersible pumps (ESPs). His revolutionary concept would enhanced oil production in wells worldwide.

A 1936 Tulsa World article described his downhole pump as “An electric motor with the proportions of a slim fence post which stands on its head at the bottom of a well and kicks oil to the surface with its feet.”

A 1951 "submergible" Reda Pump advertisement.

Armais Arutunoff will obtain 90 patents. Above, a 1934, patent for an improved well pump and electric cable. At right, a 1951 “submergible” Reda Pump advertisement.

By 1938, an estimated two percent of all the oil produced in the United States with artificial lift, was lifted by an Arutunoff pump.

According to an October 2014 article in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, the first patent for an oil-related electric pump was issued in 1894 to Harry Pickett. His invention used a downhole rotary electric motor with “a Yankee screwdriver device to drive a plunger pump.”

Armais Arutunoff, inventor of the modern electric submersible pump.

Armais Arutunoff, inventor of the modern electric submersible pump.

More than two decades later, Robert Newcomb received a 1918 patent for his “electro-magnetic engine” driving a reciprocating plunger pump.

“Heretofore, in very deep wells the rod that is connected to the piston, and generally known as the ‘sucker’ rod, very often breaks on account of its great length and strains imposed thereon in operating the piston,” noted Newcomb in his patent application.

Although several patents followed those of Picket and Newcomb, the Journal reports, “it was not until 1926 that the first patent for a commercial, operatable ESP was issued – to ESP pioneer Armais Arutunoff. The cable used to supply power to the bottomhole unit was also invented by Arutunoff.”

Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff (Reda)

Arutunoff built his first ESP in 1916 in Germany, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Suspended by steel cables, it was dropped down the well casing into oil or water and turned on, creating a suction that would lift the liquid to the surface formation through pipes,” reported OHS historian Dianna Everett.

After immigrating to the United States in 1923, in California Arutunoff could not find financial support for manufacturing his pump design. He moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1928 at the urging of a new friend – Frank Phillips, head of Phillips Petroleum Company.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

“With Phillips’s backing, he refined his pump for use in oil wells and first successfully demonstrated it in a well in Kansas,” noted Everett. The device was manufactured by a small company that soon became Reda Pump.

The name Reda – Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff – was the cable address of the company that Arutunoff originally started in Germany. The inventor would move his family into a Bartlesville home just across the street from Frank Phillips’ mansion.

REDA Pump founder Armais Arutunoff lived in this house in Bartlesville, Oka..

The founder of Reda Pump Company, once lived in this Bartlesville, Oklahoma, home across from Phillips Petroleum founder Frank Phillips, whose home today is a museum. Photo courtesy Kathryn Mann, Only in Bartlesville.

A holder of more than 90 patents in the United States, Arutunoff was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1974. “Try as I may, I cannot perform services of such value to repay this wonderful country for granting me sanctuary and the blessings of freedom and citizenship,” Arutunoff said at the time.

A modern ESP artificial lift diagram courtesy Schlumberger.

A modern ESP applies artificial lift by spinning the impellers on the pump shaft, putting pressure on the surrounding fluids and forcing them to the surface. It can lift more than 25,000 barrels of fluids per day. Courtesy Schlumberger.

Arutunoff died in February 1978 in Bartlesville. At the end of the twentieth century, Reda was the world’s largest manufacturer of ESP systems. It is now part of Schlumberger.

Son of a Soap Maker

Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff was born to Armenian parents in Tiflis, part of the Russian Empire, on June 21, 1893. His home town, in the Caucasus Mountains between the Caspian and Black Sea, dated back to the 5th Century.

According to an online electrical submersible pump history at ESP Pump, his father was a soap manufacturer and his grandfather a fur trader. In his youth, Arutunoff lived in Erivan (now Yerevan) the capital of Armenia.

The ESP Pump website, which includes a profile of his extensive scientific career, described how Arutunoff’s research convinced him that electrical transmission of power could be efficiently applied to oil drilling and improve the antiquated methods he saw in use in the early 1900s in Russia.

“To do this, a small, yet high horsepower electric motor was needed,” ESP Pump explained. “The limitation imposed by available casing sizes made it necessary that the motor be relatively small.”

However, a motor of small diameter would necessarily be too low in horsepower. “Such a motor would be inadequate for the job he had in mind so he studied the fundamental laws of electricity to find the basis for the answer to the question of how to build a higher horsepower motor exceedingly small in diameter,” according to ESP Power.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

By 1916, Arutunoff was designing a centrifugal pump to be coupled to the motor for de-watering mines and ships. To develop enough power it was necessary the motor run at very high speeds. He successfully designed a centrifugal pump, small in diameter and with stages to achieve high discharge pressure.

“In his design, the motor was ingeniously installed below the pump to cool the motor with flow moving up the oil well casing, and the entire unit was suspended in the well on the discharge pipe,” ESP Pump noted. “The motor, sealed from the well fluid, operated at high speed in an oil bath.”

An Upside Down Well Motor

Although Arutunoff built the first centrifugal pump while living in Germany, he built the first submersible pump and motor in the United States while living in Los Angeles.

“Before coming to the U.S. he had formed a small company of his own, called Reda, to manufacture his idea for electric submersible motors,” noted ESP Pump. “He later settled in Germany and then came with his wife and one-year-old daughter to the United States to settle in Michigan, then Los Angeles.”

However, after emigrating to America in 1923, Arutunoff could not find financial support for his down-hole production technology. Everyone he approached turned him down, saying the unit was “impossible under the laws of electronics.” No one would consider his inventions until friends at Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville encouraged him to form his own company there.

The Reda Company manufacturing plant in Bartlesville , Okla.

Arutunoff’s manufacturing plant in Bartlesville spread over nine acres, employing hundreds during the Great Depression.

In 1928 Arutunoff moved to Bartlesville, where formed Bart Manufacturing Company, which changed its same to the Reda Pump Company in 1930. He soon demonstrated a working model of an oilfield electric submersible pump.

One of his pump-and-motor devices was installed in an oil well in the El Dorado field near Burns, Kansas – the first equipment of its kinds to be used in a well. One reporter telegraphed his editor, “Please rush good pictures showing oil well motors that are upside down.”

By end of the 1930s Arutunoff’s company held dozens of patents for industrial equipment, leading to decades of success and even more patents. His “Electrodrill” aided scientists in penetrating the Antarctic ice cap for the first time in 1967.

“Arutunoff’s ESP oilfield technology quickly had a significant impact on the oil business,” concluded the ESP Pump article. “His pump was crucial to the successful production over the years of hundreds of thousands of oil wells.”

Also see All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology and Conoco & Phillips Petroleum Museums.


Recommended Reading: Artificial Lift-down Hole Pumping Systems (1984); Oil Man: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum (2016). 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 © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Inventing the Electric Submersible Pump.” Author: Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: June 17, 2022. Original Published Date: April 29, 2014.

Lane-Wells 100,000th Perforation

Established in 1932, the Lane-Wells oilfield service company created powerful perforating guns. 


Fifteen years after its first oil well perforation job, Lane-Wells Company returned to the same well near Montebello, California, to perform its 100,000th perforation. The publicity event of June 18, 1948, was a return to Union Oil Company’s La Merced No. 17 well.

 The gathering of executives at the historic well celebrated a significant leap in petroleum production technology. The combined inventiveness of the two oilfield service companies had accomplished much in a short time, “so it was a colorful ceremony,” reported a trade magazine.

Officials from both companies and invited guests gathered to witness the repeat performance of the company’s early perforating technology, noted Petroleum Engineer in its July 1948 issue. Among them were “several well-known oilmen who had also been present on the first occasion.”

Magazine article about historic Lane-Wells 100,000the oil well perforation.

As production technologies evolved after World War II, Lane-Wells developed a downhole gun with the explosive energy to cut through casing. Above, one of the articles preserved in a family scrapbook, courtesy Connie Jones Pillsbury, Atascadero, California.

Walter Wells, chairman of the board for Lane-Wells, was present for both events. The article reported he was more anxious at the first, which had been an experiment to test his company’s new perforating gun. In 1930, Wells and another enterprising oilfield tool salesman, Bill Lane, came up with a practical  way of using guns downhole. 

The two men envisioned a tool which would shoot steel bullets through casing and into the formation.

The two men created a multiple-shot perforator that fired bullets individually by electrical detonation of the powder charges. After many tests, success came at the Union Oil Company La Merced well. As explained further in Downhole Bazooka, by late 1935 Lane-Wells had established a small fleet of trucks as the company grew into a leading provider of well-perforation services.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

“Bill Lane and Walt Wells worked long hours at a time, establishing their perforating gun business,” explained Susan Wells in a 2007 book. The men designed tools that would better help the oil industry during the Great Depression, she noted. “It was a period of high drilling costs, and the demand for oil was on the rise. Making this scenario worse was the fact that the cost of oil was relatively low.”

What was needed was a high-powered gun for breaking through casing, cement and into formations. An oilfield worker, Sidney Mims, had patented a similar technical tool for this purpose, but could not get it to work as well as it could. Lane and Wells purchased the patent and refined the gun.

Book cover featuring 75th anniversary of Baker Atlas oil well service company.

Lane-Wells became Baker Atlas, which celebrated its 75 anniversary in 2007, and today is a division of Baker-Hughes

Established in Los Angeles in 1932, the oilfield service company developed a remotely controlled 128-shot gun perforator. “Lane and Wells publicly used the reengineered shotgun perforator they bought from Mims on Union Oil’s oil well La Merced No. 17,” Susan Wells noted in her 2007 book celebrating the 75th anniversary of Baker-Atlas.

“There wasn’t any production from this oil well until the shotgun perforator was used, but when used, the well produced more oil than ever before,” she explained.

The successful application attracted many other oil companies to Lane-Wells, which decided to conduct its 100,000th perforation almost 16 years later at the very same California oil well. The continued success led to new partnerships beginning in the 1950s.

A Lane-Wells merger with Dresser Industries was finalized in March 1956, and another corporate merger arrived in 1968 with Pan Geo Atlas Corporation, forming the service industry giant Dresser Atlas.

A 1987 joint venture with Litton Industries led to Western Atlas International, which became an independent company before becoming a division of Baker-Hughes in 1998 (Baker Atlas) providing well logging and perforating services. Dresser merged with Halliburton in 1998.

Preserving Petroleum History

Connie Jones Pillsbury of Atascadero, California, and the family of Walter T. Wells wanted to preserve rare Lane-Wells artifacts. She contacted the American Oil & Gas Historical Society for help finding a home for their original commemorative album, press-clippings and guest book from the June 18, 1948, “Lane-Wells 100,000th Gun Perforating Job” event of at Montebello, California, site of  a Union Oil Company La Merced No. 17 well.

Pillsbury and the children of Dale G. Jones, the grandson of Walter T. Wells, contacted petroleum museums, libraries and archives (also see Oil & Gas Families).

Pillsbury accomplished her quest to preserve the petroleum history album of Walter T. Wells. Later, she emailed AOGHS that the material became “safely archived at the USC Libraries Special Collections. Sue Luftschein is the Librarian. It’s on Online Archive of California (OAC).”

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

Details about the Lane-Wells collection — Gift of Connie Pillsbury, October 27, 2017 — can be accessed via the OAC website. 

Title: Lane-Wells Company records
Creators: Wells, Walter T. and Lane-Wells Company
Identifier/Call Number: 7055
Physical Description: 1.5 Linear Feet 1 box
Date (inclusive): 1939-1954

The archive abstract also notes: “This small collection consists of a commemorative album celebrating the 100,000th Gun Perforating Job by the Lane-Wells Company of Los Angeles on June 18, 1948 and additional printed ephemera, 1939-1954, created and collected by Walter T. Wells, co-founder and Chairman of the Board of the Lane-Wells Company.”

Pillsbury had sought a museum or archive home for her rare oil patch artifact, which came from an event attended by many from the Los Angeles oil industry.

“The professionally-prepared book has all of the attendees signatures, photographs and articles on the event from TIME, The Oil and Gas Journal, Fortnight, Oil Reporter, Drilling, The Petroleum Engineer, Oil, Petroleum World, California Oil World, Lane-Wells Magazine, the L.A. Examiner, L.A. Daily News and L.A. Times, etc.,” Pillsbury noted in 2017.

The book, now preserved at USC, “was given to my first husband, Dale G. Jones, Ph.D., grandson of Walter T. Wells, one of the founders of Lane-Wells,” she added. “His children asked me to help find a suitable home for this book. I found you (the AOGHS website) through googling ‘History of Lane-Wells Company.’”


Recommended Reading:  75 Years Young…BAKER-ATLAS The Future has Never Looked Brighter (2007); Wireline: A History of the Well Logging and Perforating Business in the Oil Fields (1990). 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 © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Lane-Wells 100,000th Perforation” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: June 10, 2022. Original Published Date: June 30, 2017.


Illuminating Gaslight

America’s first gas street lamps illuminated Baltimore in 1817 after a dazzling art museum demonstration.


America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817. The Gas Light Company of Baltimore thus became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to manufacture its gas. 

Gas light plaque at original 1821 Baltimore street lamp replica.

A replica of the first Baltimore gas street light. Photo courtesy BG&E.

A small, brass monument to the company and its street lamp stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street (once Market and Lemon streets). Dedicated by the city’s utility company in 1991 and fueled by natural gas, the elegant lamp is a 175th anniversary replica of the original 1817 design.

In 1816, well-known artist, inventor, and museum founder Rembrandt Peale made headlines by illuminating a large room in his Holliday Street art and natural history museum with artificial gas. This first demonstration dazzled civic leaders, leading businessmen, and socialites gathered there.

1921 painting of Rembrandt Peale as he lighted gas light in his museum.

A 1921 painting dramatized the moment when Rembrandt Peale demonstrated his Baltimore museum’s manufactured gas-fueled “gems of light.” Photo courtesy BG&E.

“Taking after a natural history museum that his father, Charles Wilson Peale, started in Philadelphia in 1786, Rembrandt Peale displayed collections of fossils and other specimens, as well as portraits of many of the country’s founding fathers that his family had painted,” noted a historian for Explore Baltimore Heritage.

Peale hoped his demonstration would attract investors like moths to a flame.

Ad for Peale Museum illumination by gas demonstration.

An 1816 advertisement for the Peale Museum illumination. Photo courtesy BG&E.

“During a candlelit period in American history the forward-thinking Peale aimed to form a business around his gas light innovations, the exhibition targeting potential investors,” added another historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric.

A Museum’s “Gems of Light”

Peale’s manufactured gas gamble worked. Onlookers were awed with the museum’s display of a “ring beset with gems of light.” Several of the city’s financiers approached Peale to form the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, BG&E’s precursor. Less than a year later, on February 7, 1817, America’s first public gas street lamp was lit in a ceremony one block south of City Hall, according to BG&E.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

The impressed city council speedily approved Peale’s plan to light more of the city’s streets. BG&E also credits Baltimore inventor Samuel Hill for establishing America’s first gas meter manufacturing company in 1832. Two years later the first meters were installed. The company petitioned the city to begin laying underground pipelines in 1851.

Exterior of the Peale museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings” opened in 1814 in a building designed by architect Robert Carey Long. Photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.

Over coming decades, two miles of gas main would be completed under Baltimore streets and the company showed its first profit. Metering replaced flat-rate billing, helping residents afford lighting their homes using pipelines from gasworks.

By 1855, a new gas manufacturing plant was constructed to distill gas from coal — a great improvement over the former “gasification” of tar or wood.  Manufacturing gas from coal had earlier proved successful in Philadelphia.

Following the illumination of Baltimore, public use of manufactured coal gas began brightening New York City streets in 1823, after the New York Gas Company received a charter from the state legislature to light to parts of Manhattan.

Consolidated Edison Inc. was established in November 1884 by the merging of six gaslight competitors: New York, Manhattan, Metropolitan, Municipal, Knickerbocker and Harlem gas companies; learn more in History of Con Edison

Coal Gas lights Philadelphia

Forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit on February 8, 1836, along Philadelphia’s Second Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. As Philadelphia became the nation’s center for finance and industry, the municipally owned gas distribution company began a series of  gas-manufacturing innovations.

By 1856, Philadelphia Gas completed construction of a gas tank at the company’s Point Breeze Plant in South Philadelphia. At the time it was the largest in the nation with a total holding capacity of 1.8 million cubic feet.

Tank and buildings of illuminating gas light manufacturing plant 1856

A manufactured gas storage facility at Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, circa 1856. Photograph courtesy Philadelphia Gas Works.

When the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 displayed the wonders of the age in agriculture, horticulture and machinery, gas cooking was showcased as a novelty. Sixty miles of pipe brought manufactured gas to the exhibition’s lamps.

 California’s San Francisco Gas Company was incorporated on August 31, 1850, by Irish immigrants Peter and James Donahue and engineer Joseph Eastland. After erecting a coal gasification plant, their company illuminated the first San Francisco “town gas” street lamps in 1852. After decades of mergers, the company became Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in 1905. 

In Illinois, the Chicago Gas Light & Coke Company delivered its first gasified coal on September 4, 1850. “The gas pipes were filled, and the humming noise made by the escaping gas at the tops of the lamp-posts indicated that everything was all right,” reported The Gem of the Prairie. “Shortly afterward the fire was applied and brilliant torches flamed on both sides of Lake Street as far as the eye could see and wherever the posts were set.”

U.K. Coal Gas Museum

Gas manufactured from coal helped illuminate the United Kingdom’s industrial revolution. A British museum today preserves perhaps the world’s largest collection of artifacts relating to the manufactured gas industry, and how coal gas light and heat changed society.

According to the National Gas Museum, which opened in 1977 in Leicester, England, many people discovered that heated coal produced a brightly burning gas, but it was Scottish engineer William Murdoch, “who first put this to practical use, lighting his house in Cornwall with it in 1792. Murdoch’s employers, the Birmingham steam engine manufacturers Boulton and Watt, started to build small gas works for large users like factories.”

The museum’s exhibits, housed in the former gatehouse of a gasworks plant, include washing machines, gas irons, and a gas-powered radio. Many rare items are from the London Gas Museum, which closed in 1998. Coal gas supplies and pipelines in the U.K converted to natural gas by the 1970s.

Manufactured gas energy history is also preserved in New Zealand’s Dunedin Gasworks Museum and the Warsaw Gas Museum in Poland.

U.S. Natural Gas 

According to most historians, the earliest commercial use of natural gas (not manufactured gas) took place in Fredonia, New York, decades before the 1859 first U.S. oil well in Pennsylvania. Natural gas was piped to downtown Fredonia stores, shops, and a mill from a natural gas well drilled in 1825 by William Hart.

Hart drilled several wells before producing commercial amounts of natural gas. “He left a broken drill in one shallow hole and abandoned a second site at a depth of forty feet because of the small volume of gas found,” noted historian Lois Barris in her history of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company.

“In his third attempt, Mr. Hart found a good flow of gas at seventy feet,” she explained. “He then constructed a crude gasometer, covering it with a rough shed and proceeded to pipe and market the first natural gas sold in this country.”

Hart’s early customers annually paid $1.50 for each light, and one natural gas light, “was claimed to yield the light of two good candles. The owner of a mill, on whose land the well was drilled, received two free gas lights for his office as royalty,” noted Barris, citing the 1949 book Empire Oil: The Story of Oil in New York State.

Located between Buffalo and Erie, New York’s Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works, incorporated as America’s first natural gas company, on April 14, 1857. Hart would later be called the father of the U.S. natural gas Industry.

Learn more about the early natural gas industry in Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh and Indiana Natural Gas Boom. 

A 1903 well drilled in Dexter, Kansas, led to scientists discovering natural gas could produce commercial amounts of the noble gas Helium (see the Kansas “Wind Gas” Well).


Recommended Reading:  In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860 (1993); The Extraction State, A History of Natural Gas in America (2021); Helium, Its Creation, History, Production, Properties and Uses (2022); Empire Oil: The Story of Oil in New York State (1949). 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 Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Illuminating Gaslight.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: August 30, 2022. Original Published Date: January 30, 2016.


Technology and the “Conroe Crater”

A 1933 Texas well disaster helped lead to advancements in directional drilling.


A Great Depression-era disaster in a giant oilfield near Conroe, Texas, brought together the inventor of a revolutionary portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling. George Failing and H. John Eastman employed new technologies that allowed “the bit burrowing into the ground at strange angles.”

Early Conroe oil wells revealed shallow but “gas charged” oil-producing sands in what would prove to be the third largest oilfield in the United States at the time. By the end of 1932, more than 65,000 of barrels of oil flowed daily from 60 wells in the region north of Houston.

Disaster came in January 1933 when one of the Conroe wells blew out and erupted into flames. The runaway well then cratered, completely swallowing nearby drilling rigs. (more…)

Coin-Operated Gas Pumps

“Drop the coin in the slot…Mr. Robot delivers the correct amount of gasoline.”


Almost as soon as the first gas stations appeared, inventors began experimenting with ways to make user-friendly pumps for consumers. The revenue possibilities of self-service gasoline pumps prompted a number of innovators to develop coin-operated systems in the early 20th Century.

Scientific American featured a “Gasoline Slot Machine” in its October 1913 issue. The article looked at the mechanics of the device, which took its cue “from the fortunes that have resulted from the harvest of pennies dropped into chewing gum slot machines.”

Garage Dealer and Motor Age magazine ad for Coin-Operated Gas Pumps

Trade magazines like Garage Dealer and Motor Age featured advertisements for coin-operated gas pump technologies of the 1920s.

But a coin-operated pump had risks, the publication noted. “On the other hand, it is evident that a vending machine liable to hold fifty or a hundred half-dollars would be a magnet for thieves.”

In Minnesota, the Anthony Liquid Vending Machine Company designed its “Anthony Automatic Salesman,” which the company extensively marketed to garage owners. The owners were promised a savings of $5 in overhead costs for every dollar invested in the automatic, coin-operated pumps.

The “Starky” Pump

William Henry Fruen received the first U.S. patent for a coin operated liquid dispensing apparatus (patent no. 309,219) in 1884, according to Canadian historian K.J. Zeoli.  The inventor from Minneapolis, Minnesota, patented a “Automatic Liquid-Drawing Device.”

Although coin-operated pumps at service stations remained rare, an October 18, 1913, article in Popular Mechanics featured “a gasoline slot machine.” The automatic pump did not require an attendant, because motorists could insert a half dollar coin into a slot and turn a crank, noted Zeoli at Vintage Gas Pump & Oil History

Detail from the coin-operated gasoline pump patented in 1926 by Lewis P Starkey of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Detail from the coin-operated gasoline pump patented in 1926 by Lewis P. Starkey of Fort Collins, Colorado.

One of the better known coin-operated pump manufacturers originated with the Starkey Oil and Gas Company of Fort Collins, Colorado. Lewis P. Starkey, who first filed an application in October1920, received his U.S. patent on November 29, 1927 (patent no. 1650882).

According to Zeoli, the L.P. Starkey Pump Company, which was later sold to Gas-O-Mat Inc. of Denver, produced two models of coin-operated pumps from 1925 to 1926.

“Starkey and his wife ran a service station in Fort Collins. Starkey was constantly being awakened during the night by tourists who wanted gasoline. His wife actually came up with the idea of Starkey making a gas pump that would dispense gas without Starkey having to get out of bed and service the tourist. This gave Starkey the idea for the coin operated pump.”

“Unfortunately, Starkey allowed his patent to expire on one of the key components in his pumps,” Zeoli reported. The component, a “silent mercury switch” that prevented electrical circuits sparks, “went on to be used by thousands in the construction business.”

Meanwhile, gasoline filling stations with attendants continued to expand nationwide following Gulf Oil’s example in Pittsburgh (see First Gas Pump and Service Station).

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

In addition to Starkey, several companies experimented with coin-operated gasoline dispensing, and some of their “gas pump slot machines” survive today in museums.

But what seemed like a good idea then lacked the technology to make it work. Commercial names like Beacon, Gas-O-Mat, and others disappeared in a flurry of patents that could not overcome the challenges of coin-operated pumps.

“You can sell gasoline 24-hours a day and 365-days a year, without effort on your part,” one company proclaimed, adding that paying was a simple process for consumers. “Drop the coin in the slot — a quarter, half-dollar, or a silver dollar, and Mr. Robot delivers the correct amount of gasoline.”

An article in National Petroleum News in 1915 reported a key drawback of unattended, coin-operated pumps. “One gasoline vending outfit tried out recently in a middle western city returned about $2 in real currency and $37 in lead slugs, buttons and counterfeit coins for its first 500 gallons of gasoline.”

Nonetheless, as a system for numbered highways was established, and U.S. 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles approved in 1926 (learn more in America On the Move), some coin-operated machines survived into the 1930s.


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 Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Coin Operated Gas Pumps.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: May 4, 2022. Original Published Date: July 11, 2018.


Yellow Dog – Oilfield Lantern

A patented, two-wick safety lamp to prevent “destructive conflagrations” on oil derricks.


Oil patch lore says the yellow dog lantern was so named because its two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Others believed the lamp projected a strange and eerie dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.

Rare is the community oil and natural gas museum that doesn’t have a “yellow dog” in its collection. The two-wicked lamp is an oilfield icon. Some say the unusual spout design originated with whaling ships – but neither the Nantucket nor New Bedford whaling museums could find any such evidence.


Pin It on Pinterest