Ironically, prior to the invention of the automobile the primary product produced from petroleum was kerosene. Gasoline was a waste by-product of the refining process, something suitable for little more than fuel for the stove.
Both fuels were usually stored in barrels and sold through the local general store in gallon cans or containers supplied by the customer. For obvious reasons this was a very dangerous way of distributing these products. However, as early as 1885 alternatives, such as a product marketed as the “Filling Station” manufactured by the S.F. Bowser Pump Company were available.
This self-contained unit featured a storage barrel, a hand operated lever connected to a plunger and an upright faucet lever. The primary shortcoming of this indoor unit was that, as late as 1905, the majority of motorists still needed to carry funnels lined with chamois or cloths to strain fuel into their tanks from five gallon cans.
Sylvanius F. Bowser continued improving his products and in 1905 introduced the Bowser Self Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump. The unit consisted of a secure wooden cabinet, which enclosed a metal tank topped with a forced suction pump operated by a hand lever. The pump was quite revolutionary in that it featured predetermined quantity stops, a vent, and a hose that allowed for the dispensing of fuel directly into the automobiles gas tank.
However, Bowser was not the first to address the needs of the growing motorist market. John Tokheim had evaluated the original Bowser system and found ways to improve on it. His first endeavor was a self-measuring visible gasoline pump patented in 1901 that became the standard for storage as well as distribution of gasoline.
This would be the same year Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig formed the Automobile Gasoline Company in St. Louis, Missouri. With nothing more, than a gravity fed tank and garden hose they began offering pull up service for motorist and established what may be the first gasoline filling station.
John McLean, sales manager for the Seattle district SOCAL, is credited for the next stage in the evolution of the service station, which provided incentive for the development of gas pumps and related equipment. Securing a location on a busy intersection next to the Standard Oil Company bulk plant in 1907, he mounted an upright cylindrical thirty-gallon tank on a wooden post. A valve controlled the flow through the flexible hose. Other innovations included a no smoking sign next to the tank and shelving for the display of Standard’s oil products.
Within a decade, curbside “visible” pumps, improved versions of that devised by John Tokheim in 1901, were appearing in front of bicycle shops, feed stores, garages, automobile dealers, hardware stores, and livery stables. Any business proprietor could have a pump and storage tank installed and begin profitably selling gasoline.
The visible register pumps had numerous advantages. It allowed the consumer to have a more accurate measure of the fuel purchased and by the 1920’s with the addition of dyes to the underground tanks; the new formulated grades of gas or brands were identified on sight easily. As an example Gilmore Oil Company sold Blu-Green gasoline brands, other companies used red or blue to designate premium grades and amber for the cheaper grades.
The success of his initial endeavor encouraged Tokheim to organize the Tokheim Manufacturing Company in the same year. Between 1911 and 1916, under his direction, the company pushed the evolution of the gas pump forward with speed. Listed among the innovative products manufactured during this period would be the Triune Electric Gasoline Pump, one of the first curbside pumps and the first to feature metered discharge in combination with an electric street light post. Another was the Triune Electric Filtered Gasoline Pump, the first known electric pump that used a flow meter and wet hose discharge nozzle constructed in the form of a curbside electric gasoline signpost.
By the late 1920’s electric meter type pumps were rapidly replacing the older visible register models. Loosely known as “clock face” pumps these units first were developed by Erie Meter Systems. Improved versions of these pumps by Tokheim and other manufacturers followed but the overall concept was the same.
Dominated the face of the pumps were two counting dials, one on each side. A large red pointer similar to the minute hand on a clock measured gallons in fractions. After a complete revolution, a bell would signal one gallon. A shorter black hand on the dial measured the total gallons pumped. Variations included a numerical counter that allowed the station owner to keep track of gallons pumped for the day and a glass “tele-gauge” mounted on the side that mimicked the visible register pumps, which helped customers make the transition to the new pumps.
The next evolutionary step in the development of gas pumps paralleled the changing face of architecture in business, namely the Art Deco movement. Introduced in 1933 these were the first pumps with a numeric computer. With the exception of exterior case, this would remain the basic design of the gas pump until the introduction of modern computerized pumps with digital face.
To a large degree, the development of the gas pump paralleled that of the automobile. In the beginning, both were the product of innovation and were simplistic in design. By the 1920’s both had become more sophisticated and both were now being designed rather than simply built. By the 1950’s flash hid the fact that on the inside little had changed. Today electronics have come to both making them more simplistic but yet more fragile and more sterile in design.
If you enjoy Jim Hinckley\'s America, take a second to support jimhinckleysamerica on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!