September 05

gas pump Photo Credit: Kirstin Fearnley.

Today in Science

The Gas Pump

Sylvanus Bowser, inventor of the first U.S. gas pump, made his first sale to Jake Gumper, a merchant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on this day in 1885.

Building and testing in his barn, Bowser created the first self-regulating gas pump for U.S. consumption. The pump was made with marble valves and a wooden plunger that allowed the pump to move one barrel of gasoline (about 42 gallons).

This gas pump was not intended to fill car gas tanks -- at least not yet. Gas-powered automobiles were only just being invented. The average person at this time used gasoline and kerosene to power stoves and lamps, buying their fuel in stores where merchants ladled the flammable liquid into a can you took home. Bowser's invention allowed for the creation of filling stations, where gas could be pumped directly into a portable container, reducing accidental spillage. Bowser obtained a patent in 1887.

In 1893, Bowser began selling to the growing automobile service stations in his area and by 1905 had come up with an improved model of his pump -- one that included a forced-suction pump and a hose that went directly into the car's gas tank, rather than into a separate container that would then be used to filter the liquid into the tank. Gasoline pump technology grew rapidly from that point, keeping pace with the growth of the automobile industry and the demand for more and more gasoline. Service stations began with above ground storage tanks and eventually moved to underground tanks from which car gas tanks could be filled.

It typically took about eight minutes to fill a five-gallon car tank, so while the customer waited, service station attendants provided additional services, such as wiping windshields, checking oil and water, and other such assistance. Today's self-pump mechanisms have reduced the amount of time spent pumping and increased each station's capacity for providing this high-demand product.

A "bowser," the eponymous term for a vertical gas pump such as are used at gas stations, remains in use in Australia and New Zealand, although it has faded from the lexicon here in the United States. The term also refers to smaller fuel tankers that refill airplanes on the tarmac, as well as to a truck or trailer that delivers water directly to end users, particularly in military and emergency situations or on construction sites.

To learn more about gasoline and petroleum, check out the Science NetLinks collection, Energy in a High-Tech World.

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