• Dr. Mohan Dewan assisted by Dr. Rajinder Sapru

Gasoline pumps are also called ‘bowsers’ or petrol bowsers in Australia and New Zealand. In the UK, a water tanker is also called a water bowser. The Dictionary reveals that the word “bowser” is also a tanker containing fuel for aircraft, military vehicles and the like. No matter wherever the word is used, its origin is linked with the great inventor, Sylvanus Freelove Bowser of Fort Wayne, Indianawho was born on August 8, 1854. 

In the 1880s, kerosene was a popular fuel and gasoline was considered to be a useless by-product of kerosene. It may be noted that an automobile which could be driven for everyday use was invented in 1886 by the German inventor, Carl Benz after he patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen. The importance of gasoline was realized when automobiles became more refined over a period of time. The measurement of fuel, whether kerosene/gasoline, was a problem. It was usually stored in barrels and poured into a container a customer brought in, using measuring cans. The fuel was poured into a fuel tank through a funnel lined with a cloth using the container or measuring can. The process was not only cumbersome but fraught with risks.

Bowser invented a wooden plunger for drawing water from a well. He applied the principles of the wooden plunger to another device and created a kerosene pump in 1885. The pump was subsequently modified. The modification comprised placing a metal tank into a wooden container. The system had a hand stroke lever which allowed pumping of the fuel. The pumps had air vents for safety. It also had stops which could deliver a pre-determined quantity of fuel. The icing on the cake was that there was also a hose for delivering fuel directly into the fuel tank of a vehicle. It was called a Bowser self-measuring gasoline storage pump. The 50-gallon metal storage tank, housed in a wooden cabinet, could be set up at the curbside in front of a store. These pumps were sold to garages who in turn would facilitate fuel dispensation. The first outdoor gas pump or filling station was made by Bowser in 1905.  

From an inventor, Bowser grew to be an entrepreneur. He opened a company called S. F. Bowser & Company and its activity expanded to the measurement and handling of many commercial liquids. Many branches were opened around the world, and bowser became a generic term for fuel dispensers, fuel tankers (especially on airfields) and for any kind of self-propelled liquid tanker with the ability to dispense fuel directly to consumers.

A Fort Wayne resident, Karl Detzer, born in 1891, wrote in his memoirs that there were three businesses in his town a knitting mill, a new shirtwaist factory and a new company that made self-measuring pumps for the new automobile trade which clearly highlights the fact that these pumps were manufactured on a commercial scale and the town had gained prominence because of these pumps. The gasoline pump factory was set up in 1888 and the street was renamed as Bowser Avenue in 1914.

Bowser was a prolific inventor of his time and has many patents to his credit. The patents were not restricted only to pumps but were also related to many other products, some of which are mentioned hereunder. A patent on measuring pump, US480552, was granted on August 9, 1892, which was an improvement over his patent no. US 372250 granted on October 25, 1887. Patents were also granted to him for a heating device for storage tanks US784542 (1904), Massage apparatus US863143A (1904), pump operating means (1910), a soldering machine (1911), improvement in apparatus for measuring and delivering liquids GB191113572 (1912), adjustable pointer and stop for pumps, US 1137455 (1912) and improvements to massage device (1933).

Thus, the foundation of the modern fuel pumps with a digital display, pump and a hose for loading fuel into a fuel tank of an automobile was laid by Sylvanus F Bowser, for which we all remain indebted to him.


Keep yourself acquainted with the latest in IP news. Subscribe to our free newsletter to get regular updates.

Copyright © 2023 R. K. Dewan & Co.