History of Gasoline

Gasoline pouring out of nozzle
Jody Dole/ Stone/ Getty Images

Gasoline was not invented, it is a natural by-product of the petroleum industry, kerosene being the principal product. Gasoline is produced by distillation, the separating of the volatile, more valuable fractions of crude petroleum. However, what was invented were the numerous processes and agents needed to improve the quality of gasoline making it a better commodity.

The Automobile

When the history of the automobile was heading in the direction of becoming the number one method of transportation. There was created a need for new fuels. In the ​nineteenth century, coal, gas, camphene, and kerosene made from petroleum were being used as fuels and in lamps. However, automobile engines required fuels that needed petroleum as a raw material. Refineries could not convert crude oil into gasoline fast enough as automobiles were rolling off the ​assembly line.


There was a need for improvement in the refining process for fuels that would prevent engine knocking and increase engine efficiency. Especially for the new high compression automobile engines that were being designed.

The processes that were invented to improve the yield of gasoline from crude oil were known as cracking. In petroleum refining, cracking is a process by which heavy hydrocarbon molecules are broken up into lighter molecules by means of heat, pressure, and sometimes catalysts.

Thermal Cracking: William Meriam Burton

Cracking is the number one process for the commercial production of gasoline. In 1913, thermal cracking was invented by William Meriam Burton, a process that employed heat and high pressures.

Catalytic Cracking

Eventually, catalytic cracking replaced thermal cracking in gasoline production. Catalytic cracking is the application of catalysts that create chemical reactions, producing more gasoline. The catalytic cracking process was invented by Eugene Houdry in 1937.

Additional Processes

Other methods used to improve the quality of gasoline and increase its supply including:

  • Polymerization: converting gaseous olefins, such as propylene and butylene, into larger molecules in the gasoline range
  • Alkylation: a process combining an olefin and paraffin such as isobutane
  • Isomerization: the conversion of straight-chain hydrocarbons to branched-chain hydrocarbons
  • Reforming: using either heat or a catalyst to rearrange a molecular structure

Timeline of Gasoline and Fuel Improvements

  • 19th-century fuels for the automobile were coal tar distillates and the lighter fractions from the distillation of crude oil.
  • On September 5, 1885, the first gasoline pump was manufactured by Sylvanus Bowser of Fort Wayne, Indiana and delivered to Jake Gumper, also of Fort Wayne. The gasoline pump tank had marble valves and wooden plungers and had a capacity of one barrel.
  • On September 6, 1892, the first gasoline-powered tractor, manufactured by John Froelich of Iowa, was shipped to Langford, South Dakota, where it was employed in threshing for approximately 2 months. It had a vertical single-cylinder gasoline engine mounted on wooden beams and drove a J. I. Case threshing machine. Froelich formed the Waterloo Gasoline Tractor Engine Company, which was later acquired by the John Deere Plow Company.
  • On June 11, 1895, the first U.S. patent for a gasoline-powered automobile was issued to Charles Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts.
  • By the early 20th century, the oil companies were producing gasoline as a simple distillate from petroleum.
  • During the 1910s, laws prohibited the storage of gasoline on residential properties.
  • On January 7, 1913, William Meriam Burton received a patent for his cracking process to convert oil to gasoline.
  • On January 1, 1918, the first U.S. gasoline pipeline began transporting gasoline through a three-inch pipe over 40 miles from Salt Creek to Casper, Wyoming.
  • Charles Kettering modified an internal combustion engine to run on kerosene. However, kerosene-fueled engine knocked and would crack the cylinder head and pistons.
  • Thomas Midgley Jr. discovered that the cause of the knocking was from the kerosene droplets vaporizing on combustion. Anti-knock agents were researched by Midgley, culminating in tetraethyl lead being added to fuel.
  • On February 2, 1923, for the first time in U.S. history ethyl gasoline was marketed. This took place in Dayton, Ohio.
  • In 1923, Almer McDuffie McAfee developed the petroleum industry's first commercially viable catalytic cracking process, a method that could double or even triple the gasoline yielded from crude oil by then-standard distillation methods.
  • By the mid-1920s, gasoline was 40 to 60 Octane.
  • By the 1930s, the petroleum industry stopped using kerosene.
  • Eugene Houdry invented the catalytic cracking of low-grade fuel into high test gasoline in 1937.
  • During the 1950s, the increase of the compression ratio and higher octane fuels occurred. Lead levels increased and new refining processes (hydrocracking) began.
  • In 1960, Charles Plank and Edward Rosinski patented (U.S. #3,140,249) the first zeolite catalyst commercially useful in the petroleum industry for catalytic cracking of petroleum into lighter products such as gasoline.
  • In the 1970s, unleaded fuels were introduced.
  • From 1970 until 1990 lead was phased out.
  • In 1990, the Clean Air Act created major changes on gasoline, rightfully intended to eliminate pollution.
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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "History of Gasoline." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/history-of-gasoline-1991845. Bellis, Mary. (2021, September 8). History of Gasoline. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-gasoline-1991845 Bellis, Mary. "History of Gasoline." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-gasoline-1991845 (accessed March 21, 2023).