Copied article from the APEA Bulletin December 2020
Gasoline or Petrol?Petrol started in LondonBy Jamie Thompson, Chairman of Technical Committee
Which came first—the gas pump or the car pulling up to it?
Gasoline was around well before the invention of the internal combustion engine and for many years was considered a useless byproduct of the refining of crude oil to make kerosene/paraffin, a standard fuel for lamps through much of the 19th century. Oil refining of the day—and into the first years of the 20th century—relied on a relatively simple distillation process that separated crude oil into portions, called fractions, of different hydrocarbon compounds (molecules consisting of varying arrangements of carbon and hydrogen atoms) with different boiling points. Heavier kerosene/paraffin, with more carbon atoms per molecule and a higher boiling point, was easily separated from lighter gasoline, with fewer atoms and a lower boiling point, as well as from other hydro carbon compounds and impurities in the crude oil mix. Kerosene was the keeper; gasoline and other compounds as well as natural gas that was often found alongside oil deposits, were often just burned off.
In the UK in 1859 a chemist by the name of Eugene Carless leased some property in White Post Lane, a pleasant country lane which meandered through the small village of Hackney Wick. Mr. Carless had decided to set up a business as a refiner of oil, and having great expectations called the premises “Hope Works”.
In 1850 paraffin had been obtained from shale in Scotland, and in 1859 the first successful oil well had been drilled in America. In those days the main market was for burning oil (paraffin). In addition to producing special paraffin, Carless decided to separate and refine the more volatile fractions and eventually found a market for them. Among other products he produced aniline, the basis of a new dye, and benzene which could be used for dry cleaning. Two companies, Achille Serre and Lush and Cook set up as dry cleaners at the time close to Hope Works to take advantage of this product. Lighthouse Water White Petroleum Oil was another one of his products and led to the adoption of the lighthouse as the trade mark.
As petroleum imports from the US increased Hope Works became the leading distillery in the UK for these crude oils. Expansion brought financial problems to the company through lack of investment and in 1872 the control of the company passed to J HLeonard. Carless became the works chemist and the company traded as Carless, Capel and Leonard. The company expanded their products and included something called gasoline which was then sold to the gas companies for enriching their town gas. They made naptha for flare lamps, and solvent naptha for making rubber solution. Their pentane was accepted as the fuel to be used in the standard lamp for determination of luminosity. In 1890 Daimler engines were being fitted to launches and only Carless could supply the required fuel for these. This fuel was called “Launch Spirit” but was later called Petrol. Owing to a technical hitch the name “Petrol” was never registered as a tradename, but it was generally recognised for some years to be the name of Carless’s fuel only.
The Company itself was also to go on and forge close links with Frederick Henry Royce who with Charles Rolls formed the RollsRoyce Car Company in 1906 and Carless, Capel & Leonard became their preferred supplier of the time. This fuel came to be in great demand as the use of motor vehicles increased. The very first Brighton run which was held to celebrate the end of the “red flag era” was run entirely on Carless Petrol. In 1890 Hope Works was severely damaged by fire and in 1891 the London County Council, the petroleum licensing authority, refused to renew their licence. The difficulties were overcome following discussions and agreement to complete certain improvements within a time period to operate safely. The years from 1900 to 1930 saw a great increase in the use of petrol but the lack of finance caused the company to lag behind in the race which saw the emergence of the major oils at the time; Anglo American Oil Company selling “Pras fuel”, Anglo Iranian Oil Company, and Shell all involved leaving the company to concentrate on solvents and leaving the motor trade to others. There was a reprieve in 1930 when they produced a high octane spirit from coal tar which they called “Coalene”. The Royal Air Force became interested and by 1937 every fighter squadron in the country was using it. The company then decided to sell it to the public and the first resale pump was opened in a filling station operated by Brew Brothers in Kensington. A serious depression in the coal industry at the time gave this product a popular boost with slogans like “Petrol from coal – keep the miners at work”. The outbreak of war put paid to this product but the company adapted and made many tons of Toluene use for the manufacture of TNT.As a young petroleum inspector in training I was escorted to Hope Works as part of my training and found that Hope Works was no longer in a pleasant country lane but in the industrial area of Hackney. They no longer produced any petrol but produced industrial solvents which at the me were still licensed under the Petroleum Acts. I was shown what were the oldest licensed underground tanks in London at the me dating back to the 1890’s which were about to be made safe and removed. If you travel to many parts of the world you will of course hear the words Gasoline or Gas but those associated with the UK still use the word Petrol, which was named by Carless, Capel and Leonard, often referred to as the “Pioneers of Petrol.