In A Nutshell
When oil refineries began production in the mid-19th century, the primary goal was the extraction of kerosene to fuel the lamps whose popularity was only superseded by electric lighting decades later. In the meantime, kerosene production resulted in a highly flammable volatile by-product called gasoline. Until the advent of the automobile, gasoline was simply a waste product which was disposed without a second thought.
The Whole Bushel
For almost two centuries prior to the increased demands of the mid-1800s, whale oil was the lamp and lighting fuel of choice for Americans. The difficulty in procuring whale oil and its rising cost made the search for viable alternatives potentially lucrative. Numerous plant and vegetable oils were tried in America, but most suffered from poor light quality. Others, like olive oil, which shined brilliantly, would have required large quantities of imports.
Oil strikes in the United States offered a legitimate competitor to the whale oil industry. For the next several decades, crude oil was refined with the sole intention of producing kerosene. The refining process was as crude as the oil coming out of the ground. Gasoline was either burnt off or allowed to evaporate into the atmosphere, leaving behind its less flammable cousin, kerosene.
Kerosene rapidly became popular with the American public. It’s easy to see why: Kerosene burnt just as brightly as whale oil, but was cheaper. And compared with the alternatives, kerosene was less likely to explode thanks to its high boiling point. Safer and cheaper was a winning combination, and refineries struggled to keep pace with demand. America had caught “kerosene fever.”
In order to increase production, refineries turned to a process similar to distillation. Crude was heated, separated, and condensed into its separate parts. This was a notable improvement over the previous technique of “evaporation,” but the more kerosene they produced, the more highly flammable, unwanted gasoline they ended up with. The oil industry was faced with the difficult problem of disposing of countless barrels of worthless fire hazards. Around oil refineries, the ground became saturated with gasoline from runoff and willful negligence. Several oil companies turned to natural solutions, like simply dumping the gasoline into a nearby stream or river and hoping the toxic waste would . . . disappear. But folks living downstream had a funny way of complaining about their now-flammable water.
Oil companies tried marketing the gasoline to the “paint and varnish trade,” and considered themselves lucky to receive $1 per barrel of gasoline. Even then, there was hardly enough demand for gasoline to make a dent in the endless supply refineries were producing. John D. Rockefeller was one of the first to recognize the oil industry’s waste could be reused as the fuel for its own refining process. It was also Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, among others, which promoted gasoline to the nascent automobile industry at the turn of the century. Cheap, a seemingly never-ending supply, and light, gasoline was far better suited to early autos than kerosene, electricity, or steam.
The oil industry managed to turn its easiest-to-produce, hardest-to-get-rid-of, most worthless by-product into the most highly sought fuel of the following century.
Show Me The Proof
Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820–1890, Paul Lucier
Discovery, Innovation, and Risk: Case Studies in Science and Technology, by Newton Copp, Andrew Zanella
The Oil Trade Journal, Volume 11
Petroleum Refining in Nontechnical Language, by William L. Leffler