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History of Gasoline

From Mary Bellis,
Your Guide to Inventors.
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The numerous processes and agents invented to improve the quality of gasoline.

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 a 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

Next > Timeline of Gasoline and Fuel Improvements

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