The Invention of Gasoline

Learn about the history of gasoline, including who invented it and how it became such a ubiquitous kind of fuel.

The Invention of Gasoline

Gasoline is a pretty ubiquitous fuel these days, but this wasn't always the case. In the early days of powered transportation, steam power was the most common type of power used in vehicles, with most steam engines burning coal as a power source. It's only been within the last 120 years that gasoline has been so widely used.

Today, we're talking all about the history of gasoline, including who invented it, what the first car to use it was, and how it was exactly that gasoline ended up becoming such a popular type of fuel.

Who Invented Gasoline?

It can be hard to pin down who exactly invented gasoline since no one ever set out to make gasoline to begin with. Gasoline is refined from crude oil, as you probably know, but originally, crude oil was refined primarily to make fuels like kerosene. Gasoline is actually a byproduct produced by making kerosene from crude oil.

When kerosene was first invented and patented in 1854, the internal combustion engine was still a few years away from its creation; kerosene was used primarily as lantern fuel. Even when the first internal combustion engine was invented in 1860, it used coal gas instead of gasoline to produce power.

One of the men instrumental in the invention of gasoline was Abraham Gesner, a Canadian geologist and chemist who was actually the inventor of kerosene. However, his method used solid coal as a basis for refining kerosene, and as a result, this method did not actually produce gasoline.

Samuel Martin Kier was another man whose contributions to the petroleum industry helped create gasoline. Kier founded the first oil refinery and was the first man to actually refine crude oil into kerosene. At the time, the mass production of crude oil didn't exist yet, so he was only able to produce kerosene on a relatively small scale.

It wasn't until people started refining crude oil on a large scale that gasoline started being produced in significant quantities. This began with the drilling in 1859 of the Drake Well in Pennsylvania by Edwin Drake. The Drake Well is notable for being one of the first wells to be drilled solely for producing oil, and it did a lot to promote the use of oil-based products as fuel.

Since people were originally refining crude oil solely to make kerosene, the gasoline that was produced during the refining process was deemed to have no use. As a result, early gasoline was usually converted into other types of fuel or just discarded outright.

The way that gasoline is refined has changed considerably over the years. Currently, the process used to refine gasoline from crude oil is called catalytic cracking; this method of refinement was invented by French engineer Eugène Houdry in 1937.

How Did Gasoline Become the Default Fuel for Cars?

Gasoline became the default type of fuel used in cars and other vehicles for a few different reasons. Initially, many of the first gasoline engines were massive, stationary units that were primarily used for power generation. It took a while for internal combustion engines to get small enough to the point where they could actually be used in cars.

At first, the big switch to oil-based fuel happened with ships, not cars. Most of the powered ships of the time ran on coal instead of gasoline, but loading coal onto ships was dirty, slow, and left the ships extremely vulnerable to being attacked while at port. It was therefore very advantageous for the world's navies to convert their ships to run on fuel oil.

When the automobile first started entering mainstream society, there were a few different types of power that were in competition with each other. Steam power had already existed for a while, and at the beginning of the 20th century there were multiple manufacturers like Doble and Stanley that produced steam-powered cars.

Electric cars were also relatively common at the time; in fact, at the turn of the century, there were almost twice as many electric vehicles on the roads as there were gasoline vehicles. So why did gasoline triumph while electric and steam power fell by the wayside?

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first was that compared to steam engines, gasoline engines were far less complex to use and generally more convenient. If it was a particularly cold morning, you might have to spend 45 minutes or more to get a steam engine running, whereas gasoline engines could always be started in just a few minutes.

The second reason was that compared to electric cars, gasoline cars had way more range. This is still true even today, and is one of the main reasons who electric cars have yet to overtake gasoline cars as the dominant type of car on the market.

What Was the First Car to Use Gasoline?

Many people believe that the Benz Patent Motorwagen was the first car to use a gasoline engine, but this isn't quite true. While it is a fact that the Motorwagen was the first production car to use a gasoline engine, there was at least one other gas-powered car that came before it.

The first car to use a gasoline engine was built by Austrian inventor Siegfried Marcus in 1875, a full decade before Karl Benz built the first Motorwagen. At the time, Marcus was widely acknowledged to be the actual inventor of the automobile, but unfortunately he is not credited with this accomplishment for a couple of reasons.

The first was that he never bothered to actually patent his design, so other manufacturers were free to create similar vehicles if they wanted. The other reason, as it turns out, was the Nazis.

Marcus died in 1898, but remained known as the inventor of the automobile until the Nazis annexed Austria into Germany in 1938. The Nazis wanted to downplay the accomplishments of Jews throughout history, and as it so happened, Marcus had Jewish ancestry.

As a result, the Nazi propaganda machine expunged all records of Marcus from historical encyclopedias, and instead pushed the claim that Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were the true inventors of the automobile. The Nazis destroyed so much evidence of Marcus' work that historians aren't even sure what year his car first ran.