Whole worlds rise and fall on small things. On March 27, 1854, for example, Abraham Gesner, a physician and geologist, patented Kerosene.
Born in 1797 Nova Scotia to an influential family, he first took up the career at sea that lured many in the maritime north. Shipwrecked twice before his twenty-first birthday, he turned to medicine and traveled to London to study with top British physicians at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. A chance encounter with geologist Charles Lyell sparked an interest in that science.
Returning to practice in Halifax, Gesner spent his spare time conducting geologic surveys. In 1836 he published his study of Nova Scotian mineralogy and identified coal and iron deposits that opened new economic opportunities.
Impressed, neighboring New Brunswick hired him as Provincial Geologist. He did discover more resources, including a unique form of natural asphalt that he named Alberlite. Coal and alberlite had the potential for making the Provinces wealthy. But their location, far removed major markets, made transportation of the heavy, bulky minerals expensive.
Gesner threw himself into the work of somehow transforming the raw materials into something more portable. By 1846 Gesner had developed a process to distill a liquid fuel from coal, which he called Kerosene. The oil burned cleaner, produced a brighter light, and was cheaper than other common lamp oils, particularly whale oil.
Hunting the sperm whale for its oil was one of the chief industries of New England and of the Maritime Provinces. But half a century of intensive whaling was cutting deeply into the sperm whale population and driving up prices.
Gesner was quick to bring his new product to market. In 1848 he founded the Kerosene Gas Light Company and obtained a contract from the city of Halifax for street lighting which demonstrated the usefulness of the new fuel. By 1854 Gesner was opening operations in the United States with his new North American Kerosene Co. based on Long Island.
New Brunswick coal interests blocked Gesner’s use of coal for his new product, so he developed a process to distill coal oil from alberlite. The coal companies went back to court and argued that the natural asphalt was just a form of coal. With his supplies of raw material limited and demand for his product growing, Gesner was in a tight situation.
Despite his clear claim, Gesner did not get around to getting a patent on his process until 1854 when his Long Island plant was ready to go into production. By that time Scottish chemist James Young had developed another process for distilling Kerosene from liquid petroleum, which he called Paraffin oil and obtained his own patents in Britain and the United States. Although Young’s product was inferior to Gesner’s, the Canadian was forced to pay Young royalties, even though his process was different.
Gesner’s business really took off from that point. In a very few years kerosene had completely replaced the whale oil for illumination in North America—not a moment too soon for the shrinking sperm whale population, and an economic disaster for once thriving whaling ports like New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In 1859 Col. Edwin Drake opened the Pennsylvania oil fields making petroleum available in industrial quantities at a low price for the first time. American inventors like Samuel Martin Kier devised processes to distill kerosene and patented lamps to burn it.
Despite the new competition Gesner’s product, which he sold under the exclusive trade mark of Kerosene, dominated the market until he sold his businesses to the emerging Standard Oil Trust which then marketed both the fuel distilled from coal tar and from petroleum under that name.
Gesner returned a very wealthy man to Nova Scotia where he ended his days happily as Professor of Natural History at Dalhousie University. He died in 1864.
Kerosene’s days as the primary illuminator were numbered, however. By the 1870 big cities were converting to natural gas for lighting. Soon after, Edison introduced his electric lamp, the dynamo, and a distribution network. Kerosene, however, still lit rural homes in North America until wide spread rural electrification began in the 1930s. It continues to be a primary fuel for lighting and cooking in much of the remote Third World.
Today it is familiar to consumers as oil for camping lanterns and as fuel for portable cooking stoves and space heaters. Most people do not realize that jet fuel is essentially a form of kerosene.
Virtually unknown in the U.S., Gesner is honored as a hero in Canada. A monument was erected in 1933 by the Imperial Oil in Halifax’s Camp Hill Cemetery to honor Gesner’s roll as “The Father of the Petroleum Industry.” In 2000 the Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in his honor.