The History of Gasoline
July 12, 2022 7:53 PM   Subscribe

Oh this is fantastic
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:08 PM on July 12, 2022

Good heavens, Great Britain had leaded petrol until 2000?

Gut check for how people eye my country here too.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:19 PM on July 12, 2022 [2 favorites]

Algeria was the last country to have leaded gasoline available and they used up their remaining supply only twelve months ago. Although leaded fuel had been phased out in many parts of the world by the 1990s, it was still in regular use in 82 countries as late as 2002 when the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) launched a campaign to eliminate its use worldwide. So now, finally, a century after its introduction, leaded fuel is no longer sold anywhere.* UNEP estimates this prevents more than 1.2 million premature deaths and saves USD 2.45 trillion in healthcare expenses and other costs every year.

*Tetraethyl lead is still found in the most commonly used grades of aviation fuel for piston-engine aircraft.

I'd been putting together a post about the history of leaded gasoline, but I imagine this Jalopnik series covers much of the same ground so I’ll just include one of my favorite links here: The Secret History of Lead
posted by theory at 11:47 PM on July 12, 2022 [8 favorites]

Ohh I hate to be that person but, for the sake of others going through the links as I did, the Part 8 link is repeated from Part 7, and should be

Great FPP though! Seriously. I'm just trying to be helpful to others, maybe the mods can update it.
posted by revmitcz at 12:44 AM on July 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

Thank you for posting these links, there doesn't seem to be a good way to jump from part-to-part on Jalopnik
posted by benoliver999 at 3:05 AM on July 13, 2022

Great post, ShooBoo, thanks!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:11 AM on July 13, 2022

Theory, as you noted, AVGAS is still leaded. Irritatingly I've heard of people going to the airports to fill canisters with the stuff to run in their older cars.
posted by drstrangelove at 4:31 AM on July 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

I could never stand Kitman when he wrote for Automobile but I am going to set aside some time to read this series. My only question is whether or not he discussed how GM bought up the trolley car companies and destroyed them so cities would end up being forced to buy their buses.
posted by drstrangelove at 4:32 AM on July 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

going to set aside some time to read this series

2nd'd, what a juicy birthday present.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 4:43 AM on July 13, 2022

On July 23, 1899, only days after [John D Rockefeller] Junior began commuting downtown to work at Standard’s headquarters at 26 Broadway, his mother, Cettie, wrote him, neatly encapsulating (and fairly radiating) certain messianic tendencies of the Rockefeller clan (shared with many other wealthy families of the day,) as she declaimed on the nature of his responsibility. “You can never forget that you are a prince, the Son of the King of kings, and so you can never do what will dishonor your Father or be disloyal to the King.”

Ladies and gentlemen, The Aristocrats
posted by cubeb at 5:39 AM on July 13, 2022 [11 favorites]

Theory, as you noted, AVGAS is still leaded. Irritatingly I've heard of people going to the airports to fill canisters with the stuff to run in their older cars.

Probably not so much anymore, considering avgas is running around $8/gal in many parts of the country.

Unleaded is coming, though - it's called G100UL, and the paperwork is slowly churning through the FAA. They are unfortunately certifying it on a model-by-model basis, although a blanket supplemental type certificate (i.e. allowing the fuel in all aircraft) is in the works. One of my local airports (where I fuel up most frequently) is planning to completely switch over to unleaded next year.

There are two issues that are not showstoppers but folks will need to figure out - the power density of unleaded is slightly lower, and the physical density is slightly higher than the low-lead version. What that effectively means is that you'll need to carry more fuel to accomplish any given flight, and there will be impacts to weight-and-balance calculations. The lead is also being replaced with all sorts of fun and exotic other chemicals, so it'll be interesting to see the news in thirty years to show how those cause cancer or whatever.

As a point of comparison, though (not a defense of using lead!) - the entire aviation fleet in the United States uses around as much avgas in a year as the San Diego metropolitan area uses regular gasoline in a month.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:19 AM on July 13, 2022 [8 favorites]

As a point of comparison, though (not a defense of using lead!) - the entire aviation fleet in the United States uses around as much avgas in a year as the San Diego metropolitan area uses regular gasoline in a month.

That really doesn't matter to the people living, working or going to school next to an airport though.
posted by drstrangelove at 6:32 AM on July 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

(The link to part 8 is wrong; it should be
posted by Luddite at 8:09 AM on July 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

i imagine Jim Jones was pretty enthusiastic about his revolutionary liquid as well.
posted by eustatic at 8:40 AM on July 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

"An inveterate risk-taker, Durant was well-liked, in spite of himself, and after casting around he soon find salvation in a small firm he’d secured backing for his son-in-law to form in 1911 with Louis Chevrolet, a French-born racecar driver of some repute who made his name besting (in his Buick) America’s first most beloved wheelman, the famous Barney Oldfield."

Louis was born in Switzerland, not France and started as a bike racer with his brother. Louis joined the incomparable Buick Racing Team were Bob Burman was the real star.

A neat comparitive would be Durant's buying up patents, stating in 1886, and companies and moving them to Flint. The Mott axle venture as a good example.
posted by clavdivs at 8:55 AM on July 13, 2022

Daniel Yergin's 1990 book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power won a Pulitzer prize and is fantastic. Alas, I haven't read his later books on energy.
posted by neuron at 9:03 AM on July 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

Bonus: The Chevrolet brothers.
my favorite, Louis gets into a fender bender with Durant's carriage business partner, Dallas Dort.
posted by clavdivs at 9:06 AM on July 13, 2022

Jamie Kitman is also the manager for TMBG, FWIW. I got to see his car collection once.

Good stuff.
posted by hwyengr at 9:06 AM on July 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

My only question is whether or not he discussed how GM bought up the trolley car companies and destroyed them so cities would end up being forced to buy their buses.

Probably not, because it's mostly incorrect. Trolley systems in those days weren't profitable at 'streetcar suburb' densities, most ran at serious losses and a system that lasted longer than 20 years was a real outlier. Per wikipedia, 50% were in bankruptcy by 1918, which is pretty early in the auto takeover. So given that they were 'fake' [heavily subsidized -whatever you want to call it] luxury amenities basically designed to fail as soon as the final real estate was sold, it's not accurate that GM bought them to force people onto buses.

If GM hadn't bought them [most at firesale prices], they would have been scrapped either way. GM's accused to buying and shutting them down in the late 1930s and 1940s, a full 20 years after most were in bankruptcy, and after most of the smaller systems had already failed and gone out of business!

It's a real bummer than internal to the subdivision things like pools and clubhouses are the luxury amenities of today instead of mass transit, but that's because those things are far cheaper to maintain.

The more interesting story (and I don't think it's been written fully yet) is how much of downtown got bulldozed for car parking lots during the depression. Huge percentages of downtown USA, both office and residential, got bulldozed for paid car parking during The Great Depression. This decreased usage of the trolleys, increased individual auto use, and exacerbated growth of distant, cheaper exurbs and non-street car suburbs, which were cheaper than street-car suburbs. Did car companies lobby for that? Probably, but their sales were much lower at the time, so they were really being pulled along by upper class consumer preferences rather than leading. Buying bus systems (and building buses) was probably just them staving off financial problems of their own, as they were not able to pivot to luxury-only autos because debt management strategies were far less sophisticated than today. Part 6 above covers GM's financial management techniques during the period.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:49 AM on July 13, 2022 [7 favorites]

Perhaps we would have wise to treat the trollies as a public amenity worthy of subsidizing rather than a private enterprise needing to be profitable. After all, GM wouldn't have gotten anywhere if the public had subsidized streets and highways.
posted by drstrangelove at 10:22 AM on July 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

* had not subsidized
posted by drstrangelove at 12:54 PM on July 13, 2022

Is this series complete? It feels like there is more waiting to be written --- I would have thought that the story of making tetraethyl lead on an industrial scale would be something this author would want to take a crack at telling.

There have been other writings that go into this more. I have always had a terrified fascination with real-life environmental horror stories (who doesn't read National Priorities List Five Year Reviews for "fun"?) and found the following passage from Kovarek (1994) Charles F. Kettering and the 1921 discovery of tetraethyl lead to be chilling.

As context, Standard Oil and DuPont are comparing methods for producing TEL at scale. DuPont already knew that the product could be harmful (note "died with wild and violent hallucinations" below), but when they went to see how Standard made it, well...
When du Pont’s use of the new chloride process came up for consideration in the spring of 1924, a du Pont engineering committee insisted on approaching it with the idea of a closed system. Du Pont engineers wanted to keep the entire series of highly volatile chemical reactions closed off and isolated from workers from start to finish. Planning began in April, 1924 and construction began in September, 1924, but the du Pont ethyl chloride plant did not start operating until January, 1925. In contrast, Standard took less than three months to design, build and begin operating the Bayway, N.J. plant, beginning in June 1924.

As demand accelerated in the summer of 1924, du Pont stepped up the older bromide production line from around 200 gallons per day to 400 in June, then 500 in July, and then 700 by August. As a result, three more workers died with wild and violent hallucinations.

The internal controversy came to a head when a delegation of du Pont chemists led by W. F. Harrington visited Standard’s Bayway plant in September, 1924. The contrast between the du Pont approach and the Standard approach was evident from the moment Harrington and his team walked through the door.

They saw a large, open factory floor with three main work areas. In the first area, a large iron vessel shaped like two ice cream cones stuck top to top was rotating on its side. From within the vessel came the muffled sound of heavy explosions as sodium reacted violently with ethyl chloride and lead. As the double cone rotated, steel agitation balls churned through the boiling sodium to ensure proper mixing. When the reaction calmed down, a crane moved the double cone to the second work area, where workers unbolted the hatches over the narrow ends, releasing concentrated fumes from inside. They attached steam lines and condensers, and tetraethyl lead was distilled in much the same way that whiskey is distilled from a vat of beer.

When the distillation was over, workers opened the iron vessel once again and scraped the steaming, leftover lead mush through a grate in the floor with shovels, gloves and boots. As the mush went through the grate, workers recovered the steel balls that would be used to agitate the next batch.

The du Pont engineers were “greatly shocked at the manifest danger of the equipment and methods [and] at inadequate safety precautions,” but their warnings were “waved aside.” 84

When Kettering and Midgley asked du Pont to adopt Standard’s process in order to speed up production, Harrington refused. “I personally thought it was too dangerous a process for us to use,” he said, and got permission in the summer of 1924 to proceed with a far safer design. The du Pont design used a closed system with ventilation for the workers. There was also a stationary reactor with permanent agitators, a contained transfer system to a distillation unit in the floor below, and finally a contained recovery system for the leftover sludge.85

Irenee du Pont felt that, had the company been given more time, the more dangerous ethyl chloride process could have been made even safer. “In due course the more dangerous trip [technical development] could have been made safe, but it was an expensive trip to have tried it more or less prematurely in the hands of novices,” du Pont said.86 He believed that Standard (the “novices”) had made a serious error of judgement. “Notwithstanding … foreknowledge of the peril, the precautions taken in the small manufacturing operation at Bayway were grossly inadequate.”87
posted by tss at 2:36 PM on July 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

I don't mean to praise DuPont too much for their discerment here --- from earlier in the same article:
Despite the hurry [to ramp up production owing to competition from alternative additives], the du Pont plant’s 1923 opening was delayed because “a considerable number of men had been more or less seriously affected” by lead poisoning during the trial runs of the new system. By September, 1923 the 100 gallon per day operation was in full production, although at least one worker was in the hospital and others had begun to complain of strange hallucinations of flying insects. Workers began calling the plant the “House of Butterflies.”

On September 21, Frank W. Durr, a 37-year-old process operator who had worked for 25 years for du Pont, became the first of eight du Pont employees to die of lead poisoning. Du Pont took additional precautions and no other workers died of lead poisoning in Deepwater until the summer of 1924, when production was stepped up to meet new demands. Altogether, between 1923 and 1925, eight du Pont workers died.78
"House of Butterflies"
posted by tss at 2:52 PM on July 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

I imagine this Jalopnik series covers much of the same ground so I’ll just include one of my favorite links here: The Secret History of Lead

From the Prelude: A Century And A Half Of Lies
What would become an ongoing part of the rest of my life’s work became clear, as I sought to find out the real truth about lead in gasoline. The first result of my study, “The Secret History of Lead,” appeared in The Nation magazine in 2000.
posted by Rash at 9:25 AM on July 14, 2022

The Nation piece won the IRE medal for investigative magazine reporting in 2001, a great honor, but the story about the multi-billion dollar sham foisted upon the world -‌- in a realm that touches the life of every person on the planet, because the world is, thanks to a small group of well-known businessmen, covered in lead dust -‌- is still barely known (it also has yet to be reported by a single American daily newspaper of consequence.)
Which is why we're reading about it in Jalopnik, now. Thank you, Jamie Kitman!
posted by Rash at 9:30 AM on July 14, 2022

« Older Gay sports matters!   |   More than Pony Patrol Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments